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"The Devil in the White City": Two Extremes of Human Nature

Set against Chicago's World's Fair in 1893, Erik Larson's bestselling book The Devil in the White City tells the true story of two men, each serving as an extreme example of what human beings are capable of. The first is Daniel Burnham, considered by many to be the greatest architect of his day.

Burnham was the driving force behind Chicago's World's Fair, transforming it into a phenomenon that forever changed his country. In less than two years, Burnham supervised the construction of over 200 buildings that covered a square mile along the coast of Lake Michigan. The largest exhibition, called the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building, "had enough interior volume to have housed the U.S. Capitol, the Great Pyramid, Winchester Cathedral, Madison Square Garden, and St. Paul's Cathedral, all at the same time."

In a span of six months, the fair attracted over 27.5 million visitors, this at a time when the nation's total population was 65 million. Commenting on the effect of the buildings upon the visitors, Larson writes: "Visitors wore their best clothes and most somber expressions, as if entering a great cathedral. Some wept at its beauty."

The second man featured in Larson's book is Dr. H. H. Holmes. He was not famous at the time of the fair, but achieved infamy after his deeds were discovered. In the year before the fair, Holmes constructed a block-long, 3-story building that served as the antithesis of Daniel Burnham's architectural genius. Included in this monstrosity were a sound-proof vault, several gas chambers, and a specially crafted furnace designed to eliminate odors. He called it "The World's Fair Hotel."

When it was all said and done, Holmes confessed to the murder of 27 men, women, and children. However, investigators believed the number to be much higher. In the end, more than 50 young women alone were traced to Holmes's hotel and never seen or heard from again.

The comparison between these two men is striking. Burnham was famously quoted as saying, "Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood." Holmes, in his confession, stated: "I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing." This duality is the reason Erik Larson chose to feature the two men in his book. He said: "Beneath the gore and smoke and loam, this book is about the evanescence of life, and why some men choose to fill their brief allotment of time engaging the impossible, others in the manufacture of sorrow."

The story of The Devil in the White City symbolizes the present condition of humanity. Even when we achieve our highest dreams and potential, there is evil afoot.

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