Back To The Future

If we think of the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 at all, it is probably as fodder for some television quiz-show question: what do the Pledge of Allegiance, shredded wheat, the Ferris wheel and historian Frederick Jackson Turner's "closing of the frontier" speech have in common? (Answer: they all made their debuts there.) At the time of its creation, though, the fair was anything but trivial. France had wowed the world with its fair in 1889, at which Alexandre Gustave Eiffel unveiled his tower. The Chicago fair, timed to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus's voyage, would be America's chance to prove that, technologically and culturally, it could eat at the grown-ups' table. The fair's directors gambled everything. And they won, seducing the world with the architecture of Louis Sullivan and the technology of Edison. But as Erik Larson shows so entertainingly in "The Devil in the White City," it almost didn't happen.

Bad weather, a national depression and the deep-seated scorn of Easterners for the meat-packing Windy City nearly doomed the fair's chances. About all Chicago had going for it was the energy and seductive charm of its leading architect, Daniel Burnham. Burnham wooed the cream of American architects to help design the fair. He persuaded Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of Central Park, to design the grounds. And lest anyone felt like complaining about the results (almost no one did), there was engineer George Ferris's amazing new wheel revolving out there on the midway.

Against this story of visionary success, Larson counter-poses the dark tale of Dr. H. H. Holmes, a serial killer who preyed on young women drawn to Chicago by the fair. Once in custody, Holmes claimed to have murdered 27 people. While Burnham was constructing his White City by the lake, Holmes was building a hotel with a gas chamber and a cremating kiln in the basement. To Larson, Holmes was Burnham's dark twin, but the author doesn't over-work the conceit. He doesn't have to. "Each embodied an element," Larson says, "of the great dynamic that characterized the rush of America toward the 20th century." You know the rest.

Lamentably, Larson the entertainer almost sells out Larson the historian. Only in the notes at the back of the book does he admit that the chapters describing Holmes's murders are merely conjecture built on a handful of facts. In his eagerness to beguile us with a good story, he squanders our trust. But not even this grave misstep can't doom his book, because the story of the fair and its effect on American life is simply too enchanting.

The Columbian Exposition cemented Americans' love affair with technology. In the summer that the fair glittered dreamlike on the lake (arsonists burned most of the buildings shortly after it closed), millions saw, among other marvels, the comparative safety of electricity and the assurance of clean water--no small things to people who had seen their city razed by fire in 1871 and watched as 10 percent of the population died of cholera in 1885. The fair showed what a city could be, and whether we know it or not, we still live with its legacy.