Serial killer Herman Webster Mudgett, a.k.a. H. H. Holmes was born in New Hampshire; educated in Vermont and Michigan; arrested, tried, and convicted in Philadelphia; and murdered people in multiple cities across North America.
But he is most closely associated with Chicago and the 1893 World's Fair because he lured so many of his victims to his Englewood hotel during the Fair before killing them and either disposing of their bodies or selling their skeletons to medical researchers.
Holmes's story is told in The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson. Holmes was a handsome charming sociopath. He was a liar and a polygamist who swindled almost everyone with whom he came in contact. His quick wit and charm allowed him to deflect attention away from his crimes and character flaws for years.
Alternating with Holmes's story in this book is one chronicling the race to complete and host the Fair itself - "the greatest fair in the history of the world", which was named The Columbian Exposition to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's journeys to The New World. The Expo suffered from financial problems, labor disputes, fatal fires and other disasters, construction problems, bank failures, a national recession, and even a political assassination. Architect Daniel Burnham is the star of this part of the story. The visionary architect succeeded in making the Exposition a memorable and profitable event. "The White City" refers to the expo buildings, which were all painted white and gleamed in the summer August sunshine.
L Frank Baum, Theodore Dreisel, Helen Keller, Anne Sullivan, and Dr. Alexander Graham Bell were among those influenced by their attendance at the Fair. Shredded wheat, zippers, the first Ferris wheel, Columbus Day, The Pledge of Allegiance, Juicy Fruit gum, Aunt Jemima, and Cracker Jacks are just some of the things introduced at this Exposition.
Burnham and Holmes never met and are only peripherally related by their connection to the Exposition - an event that Holmes attended only briefly. Still, Larson does a good job of weaving together their parallel stories. Each man was obsessed by the task before him - Burnham to create a memorable event that would put Chicago on the map as a world class city; and Holmes with his obsession to exercise absolute power over his victims.
The book is a work of non-fiction, but it reads like a mystery novel.
Although Larson brags that everything in quotes is directly from a written document, he does take liberties in setting scenes - even to the extent of telling the reader what is in the mind of his characters. He also acknowledges that much about Holmes's crimes remains unknown. For instance, Holmes confessed to killing 27 people, but only 9 have been confirmed and some estimates put the number as high as 200.
So, take with a grain of salt the historical accuracy of The Devil in the White City.
But as an entertaining story it succeeds very well.