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The Devil In The White City

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Published: February 10, 2003


Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America

By Erik Larson

Illustrated. 447 pages. Crown Publishers. $25.95.

As part of his research for ''The Devil in the White City'' Erik Larson visited the part

of Graceland cemetery where members of Chicago's turn-of-the-century elite are enshrined.

As he puts it, ''On a crystalline fall day you can almost hear the tinkle of fine

crystal, the rustle of silk and wool, almost smell the expensive cigars.''

Mr. Larson likes to embroider the past that way. So he relentlessly fuses history and

entertainment to give this nonfiction book the dramatic effect of a novel, complete with

abundant cross-cutting and foreshadowing. Ordinarily these might be alarming tactics, but

in the case of this material they do the trick. Mr. Larson has written a dynamic,

enveloping book filled with haunting, closely annotated information. And it doesn't hurt

that this truth really is stranger than fiction.

''The Devil in the White City,'' a book as lively as its title, has the inspiration to

combine two distantly related late-19th-century stories into a narrative that is anything

but quaint. One describes planning and preparation for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, and

it holds an unexpected fascination. Mr. Larson is omnivorous enough to have collected

data not only on the distinguished architects who collaborated on this vision but also

notes that it featured a chocolate Venus de Milo and a 22,000-pound cheese.

The book's other path follows a prototypical American serial killer whose fictional

counterparts are by now ubiquitous. He built and operated a conveniently located World's

Fair Hotel, complete with walk-in vault, greased wooden chute and person-sized basement

kiln. As for where this would lead, ''only Poe could have dreamed the rest.''

As the book illustrates, this historical moment was ideal for the man calling himself H.

H. Holmes, in honor of Sherlock. (His real name was Herman Webster Mudgett.) It was a

time when young women were newly ready for travel, adventure and employment, with Chicago

a place to find all three. ''Holmes adored Chicago,'' the book explains eagerly, ''adored

in particular how the smoke and din could envelop a woman and leave no hint that she had

ever existed, save perhaps a blade-thin track of perfume amid the stench of dung,

anthracite and putrefaction.''

Holmes was a charmer, and a textbook psychopath when that medical designation was new. As

a child he had been terrified of skeletons; as an adult, he was mysteriously able to

supply them for anatomy classes. When one of his lady friends disappeared (as they were

wont to do), and no witnesses recalled having seen her after Christmas Eve 1891, Mr.

Larson writes that this was not precisely accurate. ''Others did see Julia



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