The Devil in the White City- Murder, Madness and Magic at the Fair that Changed America, by Erik Larson

by Randy Shaw on July 22, 2004

This best-selling book has been widely heralded for its account of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. But critics have routinely ignored the book’s disturbing message. The Fair was the most flagrant example of private elites usurping traditional government powers, and its “success” set the stage for increasing corporate control of America. The Fair changed America, but for the worse.

The 1893 Chicago’s World Fair was a product of the Midwest elites desperate efforts to prove themselves the equal of New York City high society. After Paris wowed the world with its 1889 Fair that featured the Eiffel Tower, Chicago was under the gun to do even better.

Larson’s book well captures the social insecurities that led Chicago’s wealthy to go to such lengths to prove the worthiness of their city and themselves. But Larson becomes so entranced by contemporary accounts of the Fair’s splendor that he only peripherally addresses the negative social and political impacts of the Fair on Chicago and America.

The Chicago Fair cost over $600 million in today’s dollars. None of this money went to create anything permanent—the entire Fair was destroyed after its eight month run.

In the years leading up to and following the Fair, America suffered through the Panic of 1893. America’s worst economic downturn until the Great Depression sent thousands to unemployment, starvation and early death.

As banks closed and fear spread through the nation, the wealthy were patting themselves on the back for their creation of a “White City” on the banks of a former swamp.

As Larson shows, the public loved the Fair and attendance smashed the Paris record. The Ferris Wheel made its first appearance at the Fair, as did many other now customary products, including Cracker-Jack. There is no questioning Larson’s argument that the Fair provided many with the greatest entertainment experience of their lives.

But the “deal” made for the Fair gave nearly all decision-making power to the wealthy businessmen who agreed to pay much of the freight. Larson repeatedly covers disputes that arose between the businessmen and government oversight bodies, and in almost every case portrays the public officials as obstacles to the Fair’s creativity.

The fact that public land had been seized for the Fair, that no permanent benefits accrued to the public, and that the public’s money was also invested, does not alter Larson’s framing of public officials as unnecessary meddlers. As the book proceeds, one sees a parallel with libertarian Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, which leads readers to join the author in lambasting those interfering with the creative vision of architect Howard Roark.

Considering that most of Larson’s book describes the Herculean effort to get the Fair up and running, and that it also includes a boring subplot about a mass-murderer who lived near the Fair, critics may understandably have ignored the book’s collateral message about the power of the wealthy elite.

But while the Fair was transient and the murderer was soon caught, the Fair’s legacy of private control of public resources lives on. Here in San Francisco, Warren Hellman and his wealthy friends effectively seized control of a key portion of Golden Gate Park by agreeing to raise private funds for a parking garage.

In Seattle, billionaire Paul Allen wanted the public to build him a football stadium, so he funded the election that resulted in voter passage of the funding measure.

In Oakland, the entire Jack London marina area has been handed over to private developers to do with it what they will.

The examples are too numerous to mention and include virtually every major city in America. But the pattern clearly found its greatest modern expression with the 1893 World’s Fair. Larson deserves appreciation for reviving this historic, if sociologically destructive, event for modern readers.

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