Pick of the Week – January 19-25, 2015

Most of the books I read bounce between sci-fi novels and non-fiction books in the areas of science or filmmaking. A few years ago, though, I saw a few mentions online of a book called The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, which is my pick for this week.  The book follows the story of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago and the story of H.H. Holmes, who was one of the country’s first known serial killers. I thought I was going to be more interested in the Holmes story, since I’d never heard of him. Holmes, who was by all accounts an exceptionally charming man, constructed a building in Chicago specially designed to allow him to kill people and dispose of the bodies. And the fact that he was able to kill as many people as he did without anyone suspecting him is just insane.

I found, however, that by the end of the book I was far more interested in the Columbian Exposition, nicknamed “The White City” by some. In less than three years, the group behind the expo were able to basically build an entire city, which included the world’s first Ferris wheel. It was never meant to last, and it’s all gone now except for one building, the Palace of Fine Arts, which is now the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. Some of the pictures are amazing, though:

http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/cas/fnart/fa267/1893/1893_02.jpg

http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/cas/fnart/fa267/1893/1893_lagoon.jpg

http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/cas/fnart/fa267/1893/1893_from_ne.jpg

I can’t say exactly what it is about the exposition that has me so fascinated, but I find myself really wishing that I could have seen this thing. I don’t seem to be alone in that, though. I’ve run across similar sentiments on various websites, and the Urban Simulation Team at UCLA is in the process of creating a 3-D model of the entire exposition grounds.  They have not updated the site in a couple of years now, but the pictures and videos they have are quite impressive.

In the end, I suppose it’s appropriate that the expo grabbed my attention. Holmes was a killer, and the world already has far too many of them. His methods and ability to deflect suspicion may have been somewhat unique, but when it comes down to it, all he did was destroy. The people behind the Columbian Exposition, however, were creators, and they created something extraordinary, even if it was all too temporary. Photos and computer models help to give me some idea of what it was like. At some point, though, I want to get to Jackson Park in Chicago and see the place for myself. I know very little is left, but it would be wonderful to walk in the same area that once held the White City.  And after you read The Devil in the White City, you might just want to join me.

- Alan Decker

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