Phil Rambles

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    Fri, 03 Dec 2004

    Nonfiction: The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson
    This is another "microhistory" book by the author of "Isaac's Storm", which was about an enormously deadly and destructive hurricane that struck Galveston, Texas, in 1900. In "The Devil in the White City", Larson has chosen another macabre subject from around the same time, as one of the two true contemporaneous stories in the book, both of which take place in Chicago in 1893: the story of a man named Mudgett (a.k.a. "H.H. Holmes") who was one of the worst known serial killers in U.S. history, who owned his own hotel outfitted with gas valves so he could knock out his victims in their beds before dragging them to his soundproofed dissection chamber. The other story is of the conception, building, and execution of the World Columbian Exhibition --- basically a World's Fair --- whose attendees provided some of Mudgett's victims.

    Although Mudgett's story is certainly the more sensational, I found the story of the Columbian Exhibition more interesting. On a nearly barren patch of sandy lakeshore, the country's foremost architects and landscape architects built an entire city -- known as the White City for the uniformly white color of its romanesque buildings -- in just two years. The buildings were some of the largest built up to that time, and the city was so beautiful, and in such contrast to the "black", garbage-strewn, smelly, crowded, unsanitary cities of the day (including the host city of Chicago) that some visitors were literally moved to tears just by the sight.

    It's a good, interesting book, and I recommend it.

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