Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City is a classic of true crime, covering the remarkable transformations of Chicago and the world with the 1893 World’s Fair … and also the appearance and capture of America’s first modern serial killer.
The fair witnessed wide deployment of the floating-slab foundation that allowed skyscrapers to exist, a critical demonstration of the benefits of lighting with AC power, the invention of the Ferris Wheel, the novelty of the zipper, the prize-winning Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, development of a police force dedicated to prevention of crime… and also identity theft, fraud, and murder made easy by the increasing anonymity of the huge city. Without the close supervision of family and village, psychopaths could manipulate merchants and vendors, borrow without credit checks, buy without paying, and of course practice seduction, bigamy, and murder on an immense scale.
So, the book really covers both the wonders and horrors of the close of the 19th century. It’s incredibly engaging and clearly has an immense following for a reason.
With Boston’s Olympic bid in the spotlight, it is also interesting to note how the city of Chicago was almost unanimous in its desire for the fair, and how much of the argument was over which part of the city would be allowed to host more of it. In Boston, we’re fighting to keep it out, or at least keep parts of it away from our neighborhoods. A big event like this was a point of pride for Chicagoans in the 1890s. 2015 Boston seems to have a totally different attitude in mind.