Book review: The Devil in the White City

I believe I first learned about The Devil in the White City on a tour of Irvington. It was a fall night as a hundred or so of us trudged from site to site in Irvington, an eastern neighborhood of Indianapolis. The tour was a ghost tour special for the Halloween season. I learned much about historical tidbits of the area, including H.H. Holmes, the so-called devil in the book title.

One house we stopped outside of was presumably haunted. Current owners confirmed this. And by the way, the house was where H.H. Holmes killed a boy. Who? What? Holmes, a serial killer during the world’s fair in Chicago in 1893, passed through Irvington, albeit it temporarily.

With that information, I thought that I needed to read this book about Holmes and Chicago. Years later I finally have.

As I read it, I had to remind myself that it was non-fiction. The book reads like a novel. Two threads and main characters run through the book. Holmes and his murder spree. Burnham, the Chicago architect in charge of making the world’s fair a reality, and the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.

Sporadically as I was reading, I remembered that Holmes existed. He was real. His deeds happened. And then I’d need to put down the book. But in between those times of realization, the “novel” was easy to consume.

Larson weaves fascinating descriptions about the inner lives of people. Their hopes, dreams, and fears come alive. These people seem real and relatable.

The history of how the fair came to be, details about society and life of the times, the labor struggles, and economic woes of the times are also engrossing. I thought of the world’s fair in Chicago as just magically coming into being. But this book depicts its real struggle and how close it came to not happening. Again and again.

Chicago being picked to host the world’s fair reminded me of sites selected for modern-day Olympics. Everyone wants the honor but then the reality hits. Much money and energy is poured into the endeavor. The city boasts some honor for hosting the event, but then the costs turn out to be so high. And everything built for the event is left to rot after the crowds disperse.

The world’s fair in 1893 was no different. On the surface, the fair was a smashing success. A beautiful temporary site rose from the barrenness that was a city park in Chicago. Word spread about the White City and visitors were enthralled with its beauty.

What would happen when the fair ended six months later? There was no talk of repurposing buildings or the site. The structures were left to rot. Or more accurately to become a shanty town for the hordes of homeless and unemployed during the economic downturn that the fair straddled and deepened. When the fair closed, thousands more were spit out to join the ranks of the unemployed in an economically depressed country. They inhabited the abandoned White City.

Until fire destroyed much of the structures on the site.

It was a sad ending to a beautiful, inspiring event. Chicago was galvanized. It proved to others that it was cultured enough, educated enough to host a world’s fair that would not only make Chicago proud, but the rest of the country.

Nothing really remains of the fair today. One of the buildings was made into a more permanent structure—which houses the Field Museum today. The landscaped grounds designed by the famous Olmstead still sport the wooded island and lagoon. But the fair is all but gone.

Sadly, I did not realize the location of the fair, the historical significance of the location of the Field Museum, or the grounds having been designed by Olmsted—despite having visited the museum several times in my life. Though to be fair, based on the description of Olmsted in The Devil in the White City, I suspect that the landscape in the park no longer conforms to any of Olmsted’s designs and would have him spinning in his grave.

Larson names drops quite a bit in The Devil in the White City. The world’s fair attracted and influenced lots of people. Olmsted was just one among many. (Olmsted designed Central Park, along with dozens and dozens of other well-known places.) Frank Lloyd Wright appears in these pages as a former colleague of another exposition architect, Louis Sullivan, possibly drawing his prairie style inspiration from the Japanese buildings on the Wooded Island. Walt Disney’s father appears—the White City may have influenced his own designs. Eugene Debs pops up as the organizer behind late 1800s train strikes. Baum visited the fair and went on to write about the magical land of Oz. Buffalo Bill headed the wild west show next to the fair. The Ferris’s wheel made its debut at the fair. And on and on.

Larson does an excellent job weaving all of these histories together, giving us glimpses in some cases and more in-depth looks in others into people and events. The White City almost seems impossible to have been. The killings by Holmes seem impossible to have been. Yet both took place. The book shows the heights of joy and the depths of tragedy—from all of the killings, the abandonment and destruction of the fair site, and the pain suffered by both anonymous and named people. Life is transitory. This book drives home that point.

The book starts with Burnham on a trans-Atlantic voyage long after the fair and ends with the knowledge that a colleague from the fair died with the sinking of the Titanic. In between are tales and descriptions that have stuck with me. Larson has taken the real and weaved it into a story that almost seems to be a fabrication rather than a recounting of actual events. The beauty of the White City was too fleeting. As was Larson’s recollection of its existence.

Irvington ghost tour

I—along with about 100 other people—spent a recent Saturday night on a ghost tour.

This was the annual Irvington ghost tour, led by Allan Hunter, a self-proclaimed ghost hunter. He regaled us with ghost stories about different buildings in the neighborhood while leading us around the neighborhood after dark, drawing us into the history of Irvington, Indiana, and Chicago. Unsurprisingly, Hunter is a retired history teacher—and a fabulous spinner of tales.

Given the incredibly large number of people on the walking tour, I was tempted to walk away. How would we be able to hear the guide?

I am glad I didn’t walk away. I learned a fabulous amount and now am apt to return to Irvington in the daylight to wander the streets, enjoy the architecture, and recall the stories.

The Masonic Lodge in Irvington, which contains heavy wooden doors that swing open and shut of their own accord, just happens to be lodge number 666.

Diagonally across the street was the site of a robbery by John Dillinger. The building is now haunted by a friendly spirit—probably not Dillinger’s ghost—that routinely warns the current owners of impending mishaps (fires, robberies, etc.).

Around the neighborhood we tromped, stopping in a grassy area by a low brick wall—the site of evil ground where the ashes of a nearby murder victim were buried. Across the street was the site of the house where the serial killer of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, H.H. Holmes, lived briefly and committed another murder—the murder that resulted in the buried ashes in the evil ground.

(Holmes’ Chicago murders are chronicled in The Devil in the White City, which is slated to be a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Until recently, Holmes’ Irvington chapter was unknown to the author.)

The house was razed to the ground and another house built on top of the cellar. Allan waxed on about Holmes’ exploits and the modern-day hauntings in the house.

There were plenty of other grisly (and not so grisly) stories about places in Irvington. In one of the neighborhoods that we traipsed through, a house with white pillars—something that would have looked in place on the set of Gone with the Wind—stood out. This turned out to be the house of D.C. Stephenson, the Grand Wizard of the KKK who basically ran Indiana during the 1920s.

A few blocks away stood the house of the woman he kidnapped, raped, and brutally attacked so severely that she later died of her wounds. Fortunately, before dying, she dictated a deathbed disposition to a lawyer, a disposition that led to the arrest and conviction of Stephenson and ultimately to the downfall of the Klan in Indiana. (A silent but HUGE thank you to Madge Oberholtzer.) A white woman is now seen in her bedroom window during times of heat lightning.

Like the ghost in the same building that Dillinger robbed, not all spirits inhabiting Irvington are to be avoided. The spirit, supposedly of Bona Thompson, imparts a serene calmness and comfort to all who enter the Bona Thompson Memorial. Built by her parents after her untimely death from typhoid fever, the building is the sole remnant of the original Butler campus in Irvington.

Our last stop was where the train carrying Lincoln’s body to Springfield passed through Indianapolis. Over the years, various people have witnessed the Lincoln ghost train. The train briefly appears, draped in black crepe with soldiers guarding the body of Lincoln.

Whether these stories about the hauntings are true or not, the Irvington Ghost Tour was an evening of fascinating tales woven with history. Hunter is a master speaker. Hearing him speak is reason enough to attend.