A fascinating profile of a very specific time in history, paralleling the lives of two men: one, Daniel Burnham, the chief architect of the “White City” of Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair, and the other, Dr. H.H. Holmes (real name: Herman Mudgett), the infamous murdered supposedly inspired by his near contemporary, Jack the Ripper.
The World’s Fair should never have been possible, so many things were against it. But Burnham had a vision and refused to give up. He was determined to outshine the fair in Paris a few years earlier, in which the Eiffel Tower astonished the world, and he was determined to do it (more or less) in time for the 400’th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of the New World. Despite setback after setback, and a less than stellar opening few months, Burnham did it. They imported real cowboys and Indians for the Wild West show, and real Egyptians and belly dancers to populate the “Streets of Cairo” exhibit. Every building was illuminated with electric lights, the first most of the visitors had ever seen. And the structure that outshone the Eiffel Tower? That turned out to be the world’s first Ferris Wheel (constructed by its namesake.)
Meanwhile, Mudgett adopted the alias H.H. Holmes, inspired by the hero of Arthur Conan Doyle’s writing. He was handsome, charismatic, and apparently irresistible to the women he seduced and later murdered. He was a pharmacist, and had a hotel built near enough to the fair to attract visitors. But they did not know that the rooms had been outfitted as gas chambers, and the bottom of the hotel had been outfitted with a kiln perfectly suited to incinerate human remains. The World’s Fair was the perfect setting for him to prey on young women away from the protection of their families for the first time.
The book is very historical except for a few places (where we’re in the heads of the victims before they die), and I thought the part about Burnham was a little dry at the beginning. But once the fair was eminent, his story became just as interesting as was Holmes’s. Also, I hear they’re making this a movie! I’m super excited to see it. The World’s Fair would make an excellent setting for a fictional story… I’m filing that away in the back of my mind.
My rating: ****