Quick Review: The Devil in the White City

I’m not sure what took so long for me to read The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. I have had it on my shelf for years and it revolves around the 1893 Columbian exposition in Chicago, a topic that is greatly appealing to me. Here are some thoughts about this book that tells the story of both violence and urban history:

1. The setting of the Columbian Exposition is fascinating. The amount of planning and work that had to be carried out in order to transform Jackson Park, then a outlying and relatively unimproved area on the South Side of Chicago, was tremendous. There are certain moments in history that I wish I could have been a part of: attending this fair at its peak (late summer/early fall 1893) would have been fantastic.

2. I’m less certain that the mixing of these two stories, a murderer named Holmes plus the building and holding of this fair, was done well. Early on in the book, we know that Holmes is a murderer and the details trickle out throughout the rest of the text. This is a difficult task to accomplish: it is hard to be a murder story when we already know who did it. But Holmes’ particular story and end is still intriguing. I’m not sure exactly what the contrast between these two stories is supposed to be: the best of human accomplishment (the exposition) plus the darkest part of humanity (Holmes)? The murder illustrates the difficult settings in which the exposition had to be organized? Both events are meant to provide a portrayal of the City of Chicago, a rapidly changing and growing place at this time?

3. Daniel Burnham is a main character in this text as he moves from being a co-chairman of the exposition to the full director/czar. While we learn about his struggles in putting together the fair (and his triumph in having a successful fair), we don’t learn all that much about his architecture, planning, or what makes him tick. Burnham is a renowned figure in Chicago but I wish to have learned more about him.

4. There are a couple of interesting struggles in this book: between New York and Chicago and between the elites/professionals of Chicago and the working/lower classes. Regarding the cities, the book plays up the angle that this exposition was the opportunity for Chicago to show that it could compete with New York. In fact, New Yorkers did not think Chicago could pull it off. Chicago in this time was the upstart, the place with what seemed like unlimited potential. New York was seriously concerned about this and the growth of Chicago prompted New York a few years after this fair to annex more territory and develop its five boroughs system. What is lost in some of this is some of the big Chicago boosters in its early decades were Easterners themselves. In regard to social class, there is some mention here and there about labor struggles. But perhaps this could have been the other story instead of the murder plot line: as the elite of Chicago put together this marvelous fair to showcase their city, the city was roiling with an influx of laborers and labor unrest. The Haymarket event had taken place in 1886. And yet, this fair was intended to bring Chicago together in a way that had not occurred in previous decades. There is an interesting chapter toward the end about the aftermath of the exposition: the impression is that life went back to its bleak normalcy in the big city rather quickly.

5. Did this exposition really change America? I’m skeptical. The Ferris Wheel is an interesting invention, but ultimately a diversion. The buildings were impressive – but similar style and size can be found elsewhere. This exposition was certainly consequential for Chicago, cementing it is a world class city. The exposition also brought together an incredible variety of well-known people. But what is its lasting legacy?

On the whole, I enjoyed reading this book. The setting is interesting and the myriad of storylines is engaging. But it is hard to know what it all means. As a mix of history and story, this book is entertaining but lacks depth and significance.

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