The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson


An enthralling tale of “murder and mayhem” at the Chicago World’s Fair. There are two storylines Larson traces in this book: that of the construction of the Chicago World Fair and that of a murderous villain who got away with killing multiple people in the heart of Chicago.


The motivation behind the Chicago World’s Fair was one of pride. After France’s wonderful demonstration at the prior fair, and the unveiling of the Eiffel tower, America felt humiliated.

John Root, one of the architects of the fair, was a modern-day polymath. “His conversational powers were extraordinary,” a friend said. No doubt caused by his incessant reading of art, philosophy, science, and just about everything else. “There seemed to be no subject which he had not investigated and in which he was not profoundly learned.”

You will always be compared to what came before

A man of fame, speaking to the *Tribune* about what Chicago had to live up to said, “The most marvelous exhibit of modern times or ancient times has now just closed successfully at Paris. Whatever you do is to be compared with that. If you equal it you have made a success. If you surpass it you have made a triumph. If you fall below it you will be held responsible by the whole American people for having assumed what you are not equal to.”

If you’re trying to copy something that came before, your only options are to go above and beyond or to make something completely different and new that the two things become incomparable.

Trying to ‘out Eiffel the Eiffel’ will not lead to a great product

Burnham, the fair’s chief architects, promised the Chicago fair would surpass that of Paris on every level, every level that is, “except one,” Larson writes. At 1,000 feet, the Eiffel tower was the tallest structure in the world. A phrase became popular: Chicago had to “out Eiffel the Eiffel.”

To try and do so, though, they opened up an opportunity to submit plans for something grand. Inventors and engineers from all over sent in designs. One proposal, sent in by someone with the initials R.T.E had the brilliant idea to attach a car to a two-thousand foot long piece of the “best rubber.” The car would be filled with people and pushed off a platform up in the air, It would descend into a free-fall and snap back with the rubber until it came to a complete stop. Larson writes that, “the engineer urged that as a precaution the ground ‘be covered with eight feet of feather bedding.’”

There’s a balance between “safe enough” and “too safe”

Working at such a fast pace, Burnham was scrutinized that he was forcing the workers to work too fast, causing unsafe buildings. One criticism was that the buildings weren’t strong enough to withstand the wind. But one engineer thought the buildings were perfectly fine. After admitting to failing to calculate increased wind loads, the chief engineer of the project, Abraham Gottlieb resigned because Burnham wanted to make the buildings “too strong.” Burnham wanted to look at the last ten years of wind and calculate how strong the buildings should be. Gottlieb disagreed and thought they were fine as is. “This may be going to the extremes,” said Burnham, “but to me it seems wise and prudent, in view of the great interests involved.” In 1891, Burnham reported that the criticism now was that the structures were too strong!

When creating a scene, every detail matters

Olmstead, the chief landscape architect of the fair, declared to not have steam boats on the fair’s waterways. “Put in the waters unbecoming boats and the effect would be utterly disgusting, destroying the value of what would otherwise be the most valuable original feature of this Exposition.”

Olmstead, though he had a natural concern, could become too fixated on an idea. The aesthetics were important, but would it really be all that bad to have steam boats? Especially if they shuttled passengers to and fro cheaply and quickly? Probably not.

Walt Disney’s dad worked at the fair

Larson writes that the ranks of employees included, “a carpenter and furniture-maker named Elias Disney, who in coming years would tell many stories about the construction of this magical real beside the lake. His son Walt would take note.”

I thought that was a neat paragraph.

Simple and done well is better than extravagant and rushed

A problem for the fair’s landscape was the rain and wind. Rain would come, creating mud, and all the beautiful plants and displays would be washed away or crowded out. But Olmstead had a plan. He wrote his “boots on the ground guy”: “Do not lay out to do anything in the way of decorative planting that you shall not be quite certain that you will have ample time and means to perfect of its kind. There can be little fault found with simple, neat turf. Do not be afraid of undecorated, smooth surfaces.”

Larson continued, “it was far better, Olmstead lectured, to underdecorate than to overdecorate.” Olmstead explained, “Let us be though over-much plain and simple, even bare, rather than gaudy, flashy, cheap, and meretricious. Let us manifest the taste of gentleman.”

Plan for the unplanned worst-case scenarios

Since the fair was to be a warm-weather affair, no one thought about designing the roofs to withhold the weight of the tons of snow that falls on Chicago every year. This became a problem when, during the winter before the fair opened with many buildings already built, hundreds of tons of snow laid upon the roofs of the buildings. Eventually, the roof of the Manufactures and Liberal Arts building, bearing the weight of all that snow, collapsed to the floor below.

A lot of still-in-business brands debuted at the fair

“A box purporting to contain everything a cook would need to make pancakes, under the brand name Aunt Jemima’s”; Juicy Fruit; Cracker Jack; and Pabst Blue Ribbon won the exposition’s top beer award–it’s brewer calling it Pabst Blue Ribbon.


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