Note: The post below is a spoiler-free version of my afterword to Witch in the White City, a historical fantasy/mystery set in the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition (which I refer to below as a world's fair).
Fans of Erik Larson will have guessed that I’ve read (and revere) his incredible The Devil in the White City. An exemplary work of narrative nonfiction, the book recounts how Daniel Burnham, an architect and urban planner, oversaw the building of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago while Henry H. Holmes, one of America’s first recognized serial killers, stalked the exhibits and preyed upon young women. But my interest in the Fair predates my experience of Larson’s masterpiece.
During the summer of 2006, when I should have been progressing my never-to-be-completed dissertation on the Long Civil Rights Movement, I served as an intern at the Chicago Field Museum, which was founded with artifacts from the Fair’s Anthropology Building. My job was to photograph a selection of those artifacts and research their provenance. (This rarely felt like work!) Near the end of my time at the museum, someone recommended The Devil in the White City. I tried it, loved it … and started mulling a stranger, more-fantastical version of Holmes and the investigator who eventually caught him.
Should I admit that I first tested the story by running a Dungeons & Dragons session set in the Fair? Probably not—that’s embarrassing. Let’s call it hearsay. But Neva’s tale has been rattling around my head for a while now, in large part because the Fair just fascinates me. And it clearly captivated people at the time: I’ve seen historians describe its contemporary attraction as a Super Bowl crossed with an Olympics, except that the resulting mega-event lasted six months and was filled with inventions and aesthetics whose influence is felt to this day.
Of course, when it seemed necessary to do so, I massaged some of the historical details. I’m sure I unwittingly altered others. But the Fair’s grandeur and scale were as I described them in Witch in the White City, if not more so—you can find acres of pictures via a quick internet search for “World’s Columbian Exposition.”
Other sources I consulted included the following:
Spectacle in the White City: The Chicago 1893 World’s Fair, by Stanley Appelbaum.
The World’s Columbian Exposition: The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, by Norman Bolotin and Christine Lang.
Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief: The Great Chicago Fire, the Haymarket Bomb, and The Model Town of Pullman, by Carl Smith.
The Pullman Case: The Clash of Labor and Capital in Industrial America, by David Ray Papke.
All the World’s A Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876-1916, by Robert Rydell.
Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class, by Larry Tye.
“All the World is Here!”: The Black Presence at White City, by Christopher Robert Reed.
The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition, by Ida B. Wells, Frederick Douglass, I. Garland Penn, and F. L. Barnett.
If you're curious to see how this all blended together, you can pre-order Witch in the White City here. (Until April 16, it's only $0.99!)