The Devil in the White City

Let me just preface this by saying I loved this book, but largely because it gave me so much history about Chicago and the way Chicago shaped the world, so if you’re not super into Chicago like I am you may not find it quite as interesting. But who doesn’t want to know why we use AC current? Or how Central Park and the Columbian exposition were similar (hint: landscape architecture)? No one! Second preface that I’m going to use a lot of parentheses and ramble a little bit…

Most of this book is set about 2 miles from where I live and work, in a community area called Englewood. Before the Great Migration and white flight in the 20th century, it was a part of town inhabited by largely German and Irish workers who staffed the Union Stock Yard (the nice name for a large hog slaughterhouse) and was home to a young doctor named Herman Webster Mudgett who called himself H.H. Holmes, and turned out to be America’s first serial killer. He’s the “devil” in the book, and the “white city” is the Columbian World’s Fair that took place in nearby Jackson Park. (It is nicknamed the white city because everything was painted white.)

(There is a hospital in Jackson park now that lacks pediatric support in its emergency room and we get a lot of interesting transfers from them. There is another hospital, La Rabida, where U Chicago residents rotate that is actually on the fair grounds. It is an absolutely gorgeous hospital and the views of the lake from that particular spot are a clear indicator of why the designers of the fair chose that location.)

The book goes back and forth between Holmes’ rather creepy and horrifying process of seducing and sometimes killing young women and the autobiography of Daniel Burnham, the leading architect for the world’s fair, and his much more pleasant but kind of stressful process of trying to get the fair ready in time. He succeeds, but not without a lot of roadblocks in the way. This is the section of the book I found to be less of a page-turner and more of an “oh wow that is an interesting factoid I will probably randomly share with too many people at some point, better go look up the back story so I can bore them with extra detail!” so it took me a little longer to get through these sections.

(As another aside, I have always liked knowing random facts about stuff, but the random trivia items I know are usually too obscure to be any good for bar trivia. People who invite me to trivia nights find themselves quite disappointed that the girl who has a random fact for every situation is actually really bad at naming movies and 90s bands. Like I know a lot about Pink Floyd stuff from the late 70s but nothing about Dark Side of the Moon or The Wall, which is the exact opposite of what normal people know. Anyway. Back to the point of this post.)

Some random fun facts I learned from the book:

  1. Walt Disney’s dad was involved in the exposition design and this is thought to have contributed to Walt’s idea for the Magic Kingdom!
  2. A few of my co-residents live in a building where Al Capone carried out most of his business in Chicago and was later a brothel. Technically Al Capone was at the Lexington Hotel and the new condos are called the Lex, but still. This was also the site that the fair’s opening day parade started before making its way south to Jackson Park.
  3. Our train system was originally called “Alley L” because it traveled over alleys. Now it’s just “the L” which is short for “elevated.”
  4. The guy who designed the landscape architecture also did Central Park and Vanderbilt estate.
  5. Frank Lloyd Wright got fired during the design process of some of the exposition’s buildings.
  6. Westinghouse significantly underbid GE for the contract to light the fair and suggested AC current (what we use now) over DC current (the less efficient standard of the time) and incandescent bulbs.
  7. Shredded wheat cereal was introduced at the fair.
  8. October 12 became Columbus day because it was the dedication day of the fair, not because it had been such a thing for the 400 preceding years.
  9. Midways and Ferris wheels are now well-established staples of every fair and carnival because of this fair. The Midway Plaisance is a road I drive on regularly now as part of the U Chicago campus!
  10. I think a lot of people know this one, but it’s a good one. Chicago isn’t the Windy City because it’s actually windy, although it is. It was because when Chicago architects and socialites were lobbying for the fair to be held in Chicago and not in an east coast city like New York, their “big talk” was considered “windy” by NYC editors.

That seems like enough fun facts. Have you read this book? Anyone else morbidly fascinated by serial killer stories?!

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