The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson – A Review

The Statue of the Republic overlooks the Chicago World's Fair of 1893.
The Statue of the Republic overlooks the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.

Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America chronicles the building of the “White City” of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1893, also called the Chicago World’s Fair. The Exposition was held to commemorate the arrival of Christopher Columbus in America. Over 27 million people attended the Exposition which covered 600 acres and included almost 200 new buildings, all in a neo-Classical style and painted white. Hence, the name, the “White City.” Parallel to the story of the Fair, Larsen details the life of H. H. Holmes a serial killer operating at the same time.

First and foremost, this is a history book. The bulk of the story revolves around the Exposition and takes you from the decision to hold the Fair at Chicago to its conclusion. The main character in this part of the story is Daniel Burnham, the architect who is responsible for overseeing its development. At stake is the reputation of Chicago as a city that can compete with New York City.

Daniel Burnham circa 1890
Daniel Burnham circa 1890

In the process, Burnham deals with some of the biggest names in architecture for the era including George B. Post, Charles McKim, and Richard M. Hunt, all from the east coast, which adds fuel to the fire of rivalry between New York and Chicago. Frederick Law Olmsted appears frequently. Often referred to as the “Father of Landscape Architecture,” Olmsted is known for his design of Central Park in New York City and the Biltmore House grounds in Asheville, NC.

The Midway Plaisance
The Midway Plaisance

But development of the fair isn’t all about architecture. You need engineers, construction crews, interior designers, and exhibits. The stories and people Larson tells us about add color and charm to the book. For example, Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show was rejected as an exhibit, but Cody got around this rejection and made far more money than he would have had he been included. Sol Bloom’s exhibit idea was also rejected. When he took another approach, he ended up being responsible for the design and management of the Midway Plaisance. It was so successful that we still call the exhibit area of fairs the “Midway.” Even more surprising is the fact that Bloom was only 23 at the time.

Other people you will encounter include George Ferris (as in Ferris Wheel), Sophia Hayden, Harriet Monroe, Annie Oakley, Susan B. Anthony, Theodore Dreiser, Clarence Darrow, George Westinghouse, and Thomas Edison. It was a time of dramatic change in the country and the fair exemplified it.

The parallel story told by Larson is that of H. H. Holmes, serial killer. Holmes takes advantage of the coming Exposition to establish a business and build a cheap hotel. He is also a con man who avoids creditors through the use of aliases and his ample charm. The way he avoids suspicion and deals with it when it occurs is fascinating. He also has special needs for his chosen modus operandi as well as accomplice help. Larsen details all of this. He does take some liberties in describing Holmes’s murders, but he documents his choices and sources nicely in the notes and Epilogue.

Herman Webster Mudgett alias H. H. Holmes
Herman Webster Mudgett alias H. H. Holmes

All of this takes place against a backdrop of turmoil in the country. The Panic of 1893, the worst until the Great Depression, makes the success of the Exposition questionable and financial choices critical. It also brings hundreds of unemployed people to the city looking for work during a time when labor concerns and disputes were prominent.

Larson weaves all of this together beautifully and wraps the book up with a look at how the Exposition made an impact on the country overall. If you’re looking for a true crime book, you might be disappointed. Although true crime is definitely an element, in spite of the title, I don’t think it is the main focus of the book. If instead you are looking for a history book about Gilded Age America with a lot of interesting people and color, I think you’ll enjoy it. I certainly did.

The original Ferris Wheel designed specifically for the Chicago World's Fair
The original Ferris Wheel designed specifically for the Chicago World’s Fair

The Edison Ore-Milling Company

Photograph of Thomas Edison c. 1880 by Victor Daireaux
Photograph of Thomas Edison c. 1880 by Victor Daireaux

Iron ore was scarce in the 1870s, especially in the eastern part of the country. The deposits were of poor quality and it was difficult and costly to separate it from rock debris. Edison discovered that beach sand contained deposits of iron ore and believed that extracting it would be a cheaper alternative to the traditional methods.

In his lab he developed a process to extract the iron using a large electromagnet. In 1881, he formed the Edison Ore-Milling Company. William Kennedy Dickson and mining expert John Birkinbine were in charge of refining the process further. Unfortunately, the market for his iron wasn’t sufficient to make a profit and the business was shut down after a few years.

But Edison wasn’t finished. He decided to adapt his process to crushed rocks from the mine. He opened a small plant as a trial in Bechtelsville, Pennsylvania near an existing iron mine. Apparently satisfied with the results, in 1889, he completed one of the world’s largest ore-crushing mills. Located in Ogdensberg, New Jersey, it contained three giant electromagnets and was expected to process 1200 tons of iron ore a day. This time he was thwarted by technical difficulties.

Some of the buildings at the Ogden mine c. 1895
Some of the buildings at the Ogden mine c. 1895

Focusing back on electricity, Edison formed the Edison General Electric Company in 1890, but this was just a short foray back into that world. In 1892, he merged his company with the Thomson-Houston Electric Company to form General Electric, and turned his attention back to mining ore. He was determined to make it work, or just fascinated with iron ore, but he said that he was determined to do something so big that “people will forget that my name ever was connected with anything electrical.”

So, in 1892, Edison sold some General Electric stock to raise capital, and closed the plant for upgrades. You may guess how things went since we all associate Edison’s name with electricity. The same technical problems existed as before, and it was difficult to get enough customers to make a profit. He persisted until finally in 1899, he admitted that the venture was a failure and closed the company.

But wait! All wasn’t lost. The milling business had created a large quantity of waste sand that was particularly well suited to making cement. In 1899, once again Edison formed a company, this time the Edison Portland Cement Company. Based in New Village, New Jersey, the company had staying power and in 1922 even supplied the cement for Yankee Stadium.

When asked about the financial losses in the milling business, he famously said, “it’s all gone, but we had a hell of a good time spending it.”

Yankee Stadium in the 1920s, not long after it was built
Yankee Stadium in the 1920s, not long after it was built

Godey’s Lady’s Book – A Gilded Age Fashion Guide and More

Godey's color plate, January 1859
Godey’s color plate, January 1859

Godey’s Lady’s Book, published from 1830 until 1898, was the most widely circulated American magazine before the Civil War. It was best known for its hand-tinted fashion plates, illustrations, and original writing. Even though the price was high for the time ($3 for a yearly subscription), by 1860 it had a circulation of 150,000.

Louis A. Godey began publication of the Lady’s Book in June 1830. It was patterned on other magazines of the time from both American and British publishers. Much of the content at first was taken from other periodicals. This was a common practice of the time and didn’t seem to hurt Godey’s circulation.

By 1836, Godey had a circulation which rivaled any other publication in the country, but he decided he wanted to make a change. He wanted to publish only original work. This would distinguish the magazine from most of the other periodicals of the time.

Louis A. Godey
Louis A. Godey

“The publisher of this work, with a view of securing original contributions for its columns, will give for such articles as he may approve and publish the highest rates of remuneration offered by any periodical in this country.” ~Louis A. Godey

Although most publications at the time were a compilation of articles from other periodicals with some original material thrown in, there was one magazine that was different. The American Ladies’ Magazine and Literary Gazette edited by Sarah Josepha Hale was made up of entirely original material.

When Reverend John Lauris Blake, a minister and headmaster of a school for girls, approached Sarah Hale about editing a new magazine devoted to women, she was a widow with five children to support. Although it meant leaving all but one of her children with relatives, she accepted the challenge and moved to Boston. Self-educated, Sarah saw the American Ladies’ magazine as an opportunity to educate and support women. She decided to include only original work by American authors. This did however, mean that Sarah had to write much of the material herself, at least at the beginning.

Sarah Josepha Hale
Sarah Josepha Hale, 1831, by James Reid Lambdin

Godey approached Hale early in 1836 about hiring her as editor of the Lady’s Book. Sarah wanted to continue her work with American Ladies’ and turned him down even though economic difficulties of the 1830s made keeping it going a challenge. Godey didn’t give up and later offered to buy her magazine and combine it with Godey’s Lady’s Book. This and the offer to let her edit from Boston convinced her and she went to work for Godey. (Hale eventually moved to Philadelphia.)

The new magazine was a combination of both Godey and Hale’s ideas. She wanted to discontinue the fashion plates; he insisted that they remain. She wanted to highlight women authors and issues; and at least three issues contained work only by women. They had a great combination and circulation soared. By 1860, the circulation was 150,000.

Even though Hale was concerned with women’s issues, she thought that women should confine themselves to the “women’s sphere” of influence. As with any individual, however, her views changed somewhat over the 40 years that she edited the Lady’s Book. In 1852, she began a section entitled “Employment for Women” and she was a great supporter of Elizabeth Blackwell in her career as a physician. Her position, as a widow needing to make her own income, would have moderated her views, but the magazine’s focus remained primarily on women in the home.

Hair styles and accessories for July of 1863
Hair styles and accessories for July of 1863

In addition to the fashion plates, a typical issue contained sheet music for the latest dances, poetry, short stories, essays, patterns not only for dresses, but for knitting, crochet and embroidery, and even occasional house plans. It informed, educated and provided entertainment.

Hale was a great admirer of Queen Victoria and considered her a model of femininity and decorum. She hired Mrs. Lydia H. Sigourney to report on royal activities from London. But of course, the magazine was American and reflected American values. In 1850 a woodcut of the royal family published in the Illustrated London News, was modified and published in Godey’s. In it Queen Victoria’s crown and Prince Albert’s mustache were removed to make it look like a typical American family Christmas.

Modified woodcut for December 1850
Modified woodcut for December 1850

Of course the magazine met with criticism. With Hale’s belief in the “women’s sphere” she did not support women’s suffrage and Godey made it a policy to avoid politics. Throughout the Civil War, it was not mentioned in the magazine. The Lady’s Book was promoted as being an “oasis” in the midst of the country’s turmoil.

In 1845, Godey made a decision which received much criticism, but that changed publishing from then on. He decided to copyright each issue. For editor’s who mined other publications for their own copy, this was a terrible set back. He did have defenders though. One of the most prominent was Edgar Allen Poe, who had been one of the magazines earliest contributors with at least five submissions between 1834 and 1844. Other contributors were Catherine Beecher, Emma Willard, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Washington Irving, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Godey and Hale were a great combination and when they left the magazine it seems to have faded. Godey sold it to John Hill Seyes Haulenbeek in 1877 the year before he died at the age of 74. When Godey sold, Hale quit her job as editor. Born in 1788, she was 89 years old at the time of the sale and was more than ready to retire. She died in 1879 at the age of 90.

Not much is known about Louis A. Godey apart from the magazine, but Sarah Hale was the author of many volumes of both fiction and non-fiction. Probably the most familiar thing she authored is the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines by Gail Collins
Godey’s Lady’s Book website, a project by Hope Greenburg at the University of Vermont

Sophia Hayden and the World Columbian Exposition

miss sophia hayden

Sophia Hayden (1868 – 1953) designed the Women’s Building for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1893. It was beautiful, admired, and won an award, and even though she had an architecture degree from MIT, Sophia didn’t pursue her career as an architect after the Fair.

Sophia was born in Santiago, Chile, to a Chilean mother and an American father. When she was six, she was sent to Boston to live with her grandparents and to receive her education. She became interested in architecture while she was in high school and was admitted to the architecture program at MIT after graduation. In 1890, she graduated with honors as the first woman to receive an architecture degree from the school.

Unable to find a job in her chosen field, Sophia began teaching drawing at a Boston high school. In 1891, she entered a competition to design the women’s building for the World’s Fair and won. She was paid $1000 for her design even though men were receiving $10,000 for similar work. Daniel Burnham, the architect responsible for the overall design of the fair, was pleased with her work. Execution of the construction was left with Burnham, but Sophia returned to finalize the interior and exterior designs.

Women's Building at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1893
Women’s Building at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1893

Although Sophia received an award for the “delicacy of style, artistic taste, and geniality and elegance of the interior hall” there were conflicts. Her design principles were compromised because of many changes demanded by the committees in charge. She was also criticized for the feminity of her design at the same time her technical skills were acknowledged. Her frustration was pointed to as “evidence” of women’s “unfitness for supervising construction.”

Bertha Palmer
Bertha Palmer

All of Sophia’s problems at the Fair can’t be attributed to the men, however. Bertha Honoré Palmer, a well-known socialite and philanthropist, was selected to be the President of the Board of Lady Managers. In her capacity as President, she solicited donations from wealthy women to adorn the exterior and the interior of the Women’s Building. Sophia felt that these items would be inconsistent with her vision for the building and rejected them. Bertha’s decision to accept them held sway. Regardless of Sophia’s expert design, Mrs. Potter Palmer had more influence than a 23 year old woman from the east.

Whether or not her experience at the fair was the reason, Sophia didn’t work as an architect again. She married William Blackstone Bennett, an artist, and lived a quiet life until her death in 1953.

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson