Book review: The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson


Okay. Deep breath. Let me try again.

I’ve heard rave reviews for years about this book, but the actual experience was significantly stressful and not that enjoyable a read, nor a book I’d be quick to recommend to others.

One, I don’t enjoy spending time in the minds of serial killers (or in the minds of victims who are dying terrified and alone). Two, I definitely don’t enjoy spending non-work time hearing about how a project is bogged down by all the many facets of bureaucracy, how all an artist’s hopes and dreams fall prey to Time and Budget.

Nevertheless, the book was well written and apparently well researched, and I never mind learning more about something I hadn’t known much about before. And there were happy endings: Holmes is caught and executed, and Burnham did succeed with the Chicago World’s Fair, thank God, though a lot of people died along the way and he fell into disrepute in architect circles in later years.

Here’s a question I have for how Holmes was buried according to his very specific wishes, without giving any of his organs to science for study: why didn’t they take his wish list…and do the opposite? I think that’s okay, with serial killers! Especially those who preyed on children.

My favorite parts of the book were all the trivia and name-dropping around the fair: the origin of PBR, the Ferris wheel, and all the other things that are so familiar to us today, from the pledge of allegiance to shredded wheat.

Here are some especially good quotes, both relating to the development of the Ferris wheel. First, when Burham was taking proposals for an engineering feat to rival the Eiffel tower:

A third proposal demanded even more courage from visitors. This inventor, who gave his initials as R. T. E., envisioned a tower four thousand feet tall from which he proposed to hang a two-thousand-foot cable of “best rubber.” Attached at the bottom end of this cable would be a car seating two hundred people. The car and its passengers would be shoved off a platform and fall without restraint to the end of the cable, where the car would snap back upward and continue bouncing until it came to a stop. The engineer urged that as a precaution the ground “be covered with eight feet of feather bedding.”

After the Ferris wheel was built and began to run, carrying 2,000 people at once, there were a few incidents, such as a man who belatedly realized he was afraid of heights.

Wherritt staggered in panic from one end of the car to the other, driving passengers before him “like scared sheep,” according to one account. He began throwing himself at the walls of the car with such power that he managed to bend some of the protective iron. The conductor and several male passengers tried to subdue him, but he shook them off and raced for the door. In accord with the wheel’s operating procedures, the conductor had locked the door at the start of the ride. Wherritt shook it and broke its glass but could not get it open.

As the car entered its descent, Wherritt became calmer and laughed and sobbed with relief — until he realized the wheel was not going to stop. It always made two full revolutions.

Wherritt again went wild, and again the conductor and his allies subdued him, but they were growing tired. They feared what might happen if Wherritt escaped them. Structurally the car was sound, but its walls, windows, and doors had been designed merely to discourage attempts at self-destruction, not to resist a human pile driver. Already Wherritt had broken glass and bent iron.

A woman stepped up and unfastened her skirt. To the astonishment of all aboard, she slipped the skirt off and threw it over Wherritt’s head, then held it in place while murmuring gentle assurances. The effect was immediate. Wherritt became “as quiet as an ostrich.”

A woman disrobing in public, a man with a skirt over his head — the marvels of the fair seemed endless.

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