Non-Fiction Review: The Devil in the White City


A few years back I ran a brief Cthulhu by Gaslight campaign. It kicked off, as one might expect, in 1890's London. I was somewhat surprised when the game wound up relocating itself to New York City. Though I had some familiarity with late Victorian-era Britain, I discovered I did not know very much about the United States of that same period, typically referred to the Gilded Age. Having done a bit of homework as a result I found it to be an incredibly interesting era and one largely untapped in gaming. If an RPG takes place in the 1890's it is usually safe to assume it takes place in Britain (or is a globetrotting game with Britain as its base.) An excellent work of fiction detailing 1890's New York is Jack Finney's Time and Again, a novel I reviewed back in 2013.

Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City is a work of non-fiction about the construction and realization of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair - the Columbian Exposition, commemorating the 400th anniversary of Columbus discovering the Americas in 1492 (the dedication ceremonies were in 1892 but the fair itself took place in 1893). 

This work focuses on three threads. The first of these is the challenge Chicago faced in winning the rights to the fair and in building it in a short amount of time. Architect Daniel Burnham is the primary viewpoint character for this narrative. We follow his challenges as he rises up in the world of architecture, is made the lead architect for the Fair, works to secure expertise to build the fair, and struggles to build and maintain the fair in a way that is profitable for Chicago and outshines the recent Paris Fair. 

We also follow Patrick Pendergast, a very disturbed young man who develops fantasies that he is largely responsible for the mayor winning his recent election and believing any way now he will be rewarded for his assistance.

Finally we follow the story of an absolutely evil individual, a man most commonly known as H. H. Holmes, one of the world's first known serial killers. Holmes was incredibly charming, a talent he used as a weapon. He built a "murder castle" - a hotel with secret doors, a kiln for disposing of bodies, an airtight vault, etc. He was able to manage multiple wives, keep creditors at bay, and murder as many as 200 people.

Throughout the course of the book we get a feel for the world as a whole, the United States, and Chicago in particular. We see Chicago working to establish itself as a major world city, trying to get out of New York City's shadow. We see the crushing effects of a economic depression. We see technological marvels being developed.

If I were to have one complaint it is that Larson has a tendency to deliberately conceal certain facts in the narrative until a later point. Though done for dramatic purposes, it is sometimes grating. Nevertheless, The Devil in the White City paints an excellent picture of Chicago at the end of the 19th century, an era and location rarely detailed in fiction or in history. It makes for an interesting read and for gamers interested in that era makes for an invaluable resource. It also provides a glimpse as to the depravity humanity can descend to, without any Cthulhu or Nyaralthotep to drive one to insanity.

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