The Devil in the White City–Erik Larson

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More true crime! Sort of! I’m on a bit of  true crime kick.

This book–which is being made into a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio as we speak–is about America’s first serial killer (or at least, the guy that is often cited as the first, I have doubts about his status as such) and also about the Chicago’s World Fair.

It’s not that weird of a combo. They happened at the same time and the same place and the World’s Fair played a part in the killer’s crime spree. The book alternates chapters, one about the World’s Fair and one about the killer.

In fact, in true crime reading groups a lot of people don’t like this book because of the history aspect. You have to like both general history and true crime to really get into this book. But I do like both those things and so I loved this book.

Here’s the story. The World’s Fair in Paris had happened and people in America were like, WE CAN DO THAT. There was an impassioned fight over which city would host it and Chicago won by the skin of their teeth. And they built this gorgeous park with a man made lagoon and wooded island, silent electric boats (an achievement in the late 1890s) and magnificent beautiful neoclassical buildings, all painted white, which gave the exhibition the nickname “the White City.”

The story of them trying to build it is so interesting. They had something like 2 years from when the architects got the blueprints in for the main buildings to when it had to be ready and that’s not long enough, at all. The landscape guy was freaking out because he couldn’t start planting until the buildings were done and painted and obviously, plants take time. And Chicago’s weather was not super conducive to year round building.

Meanwhile, H. H. Holmes was doing his messed up thing. His real name was Herman Mudgett, so…we know why he chose Henry Holmes. Anyway. He’s a terrible human being. He married a woman and then abandoned her, went to medical school, and was involved in several shady disappearances before he took up residence in Chicago, a few years ahead of the World’s Fair. He befriended an old lady whose ill husband owned a pharmacy. The husband dies, and the woman sells him the pharmacy and then disappears.

He leverages the success of the pharmacy into the ability to buy an entire block across from his pharmacy and built a massive building, which had a pharmacy on the ground floor, as well as other businesses, and hotel rooms on the second and the third floors, which was convenient since he was close to the site of the World’s Fair.

He did this super creepy thing where he would hire people to build the hotel and then fire them without paying them which served the dual purpose of being cost-efficient and also no one group of people had any idea what weird crap he was building into that place.

I can hear you asking yourself, what weird crap? ALL THE WEIRD CRAP. He had a crematorium built to his own specifications in the basement, a corpse shute, a “hanging room” where there were no windows, at least one room that was airtight and had a gas fitting that was not attached to a lamp or anything, weird passageways, hidden rooms, alarms set so he knew whenever anyone left their room….all the weird crap.

How many people did he murder in that creepy hotel? No one knows, because 1) crematorium 2) he would sell the bodies to medical schools because PROFIT and 3) a LOT of people were vanishing without a trace in that area at that time and it’s a bit of a push to hold him accountable for all of them, although who knows, right?

He was eventually convicted of 3 murders, and they managed to prove 9 murders. He gave interviews to newspapers and admitted to 27 but some of the people who he admitted killing were still alive, so…? Some people estimate 200 which a lot of people think is high.

Regardless, there’s not a lot of gory details although there are some, so if you are super squeamish this is probably not for you, but if you have a reasonable tolerance for descriptions of dead bodies and an interest in history, this is a good choice for you.

 

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