Devil in the White City

Devil in the White City

Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America

Book - 2003
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Investigative reporter Erik Larson unearths the lost history of the 1893 World's Fair and of a madman who grimly parodied the fair's achievements. The "White City" was a magical creation constructed upon Chicago's swampy Jackson Park by a roster of architectural stars, including Daniel H. Burnham, Frederick Olmstead, and Louis Sullivan. Drawing 27 million visitors in six months, the fair gathered the era's brightest intellectual lights and launched innovations like Juicy Fruit gum, Cracker Jacks, and the Ferris wheel. Nearby, Dr. Henry Holmes built "the World's Fair Hotel," a torture palace to which he lured 27 victims, mostly young women. While the fair ushered in a new epoch in American history, Holmes marked the emergence of the serial killer, who thrived on the forces transforming the country
Publisher: New York : Crown Publishers, c2003
Edition: 1st ed
ISBN: 9780609608449
Branch Call Number: 364.1523 Lars
Characteristics: xi, 447 p. : ill., map


From Library Staff

From reader Mary L. and then seconded by reader Caroline D. who recommends "ANYTHING by Erik Larsen."

Interested in some non-fiction that reads like a thriller? Larson combines academic-worthy research with a gripping, fiction-like narrative style to create great storytelling.

From the critics

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Dec 01, 2020

I read only half - and then the end. There was too much detail about the building (and buildings) of the fair - it should have been shorter.

Oct 10, 2020

As a cultural historian in my past life, I came to this book with a predisposition to like it. Although Larson has clearly done his library and archival work, there are just too many things going on here to work effectively as a coherent whole. Yes, there are connections between the three narrative threads that weave throughout this book, but connections do note in themselves mean they need or should be dealt with in a single book.

Aug 24, 2020

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.

Jun 29, 2020

Oh my god. This was all real? Yes it was. Certainly captured here is the Naked City aspect of Chicago. This serial killer was a trip. But the people and things inhabiting this time are also a bit of the legend variety. It's enough to make one believe in fairies & demons. There is a kind of beauty to the moment and without a doubt evil. You might look for princes & princesses in donut shops under the veneer after reading this because they must be there.

Jun 14, 2020

Erik Larson is a talented author who blesses us with non-fiction history that reads like a novel. 'Devil in the White City' is rich in detail, dripping in history and blood. Extra special for me as my great-grandfather emigrated from Denmark during the World's Fair and lived and worked in Chicago during the Colombian Exposition. I could only imagine what he, a 17-year-old teenager, thought of America, his new country, with the splendor of the fair and the crimes of a serial killer. Anyone who loves history should read the works of Erik Larson.

May 13, 2020

If you are looking for a fast-paced psychological thriller, this is not the book for you. If you are looking for an in-depth history lesson that focuses on the significance of the Chicago World Fair, with small glimpses into the life of H.H.Holmes - you've come to the right place. This book while interesting is very... dense. It is not something I could sit and read for hours on end. It could have been my own misunderstanding, but I expected more Holmes and less descriptive politics and self-loathing architects. I skimmed more than I would like to admit, but I would venture to say the book storyline is 80% World Fair problems and 20% H.H.Holmes murder mystery.

May 13, 2020

#3 Larson read of the pandemic

Apr 29, 2020

Not a fan. I felt misled by some of the reviews that this was a "nail-biting" riveting page-turner. It moved quite slowly - I skimmed over some parts (seriously, do I care about the menu from a dinner party?). I did learn a lot about the architects and the construction aspects of the Columbian Exhibition; but (yawn) it was definitely not the suspenseful murder mystery I was expecting. Oh and let's not forget the multiple pages devoted to the effects of the weather on the fair and the various maladies afflicting Mr. Olmstead -- if that sounds exciting to you, read and enjoy! I'm sorry to sound negative -- I do appreciate the author's great attention to research.

Apr 19, 2020

Am I the only person who did not care for this book? I found it boring and dragging on and on in never ending detail. I might as well have lived it for how long it took to read. And, who cares about all those people in the beginning who have NOTHING to do with the tale itself. What a waste of time this was. I kept thinking it would get better, but it did not...just dragged on and on and on....

Mar 07, 2020

Jenn recommended

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Feb 05, 2020

"We can't have little vines and weeds enough,'" - Fredrick Law Olmstead to John Olmstead May 19, 1892, landscape planner for Chicago World's Fair page 172

loerac Jan 23, 2019

Great read, non stop reading.

Aug 06, 2015

"With its gorgeous classical buildings packed with art, its clean water and electric lights, and its overstaffed police department, the exposition was Chicago's conscience, the city it wanted to become."


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Brenda74 Nov 12, 2012

Brenda74 thinks this title is suitable for 16 years and over


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notTom Dec 16, 2010

Between majestic architecture and cold-blooded murder, the early 1890's were a defining period for the city of Chicago. The Colombian Exposition of 1893 (the World's Fair of 1893, so named to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus's landing in America) proved that Chicago could put its elbows on the table of the world's greatest cities. It hugely impacted the course of American history through its influence on technology, architecture, and the popular conscience. This book weaves together the stories of Daniel Burnham, a prominent architect in charge of planning the Exposition, and Herman Webster Mudgett, better known to history as H.H.Holmes, America's first serial killer. Opening a hotel just down the Midway from the fair, Holmes was ensured of a constant flow of trusting young women. What his ill-fated guests did not realize was the presence of air-tight rooms with gas-jets, a greased body chute and the basement containing vats of acid and a crematorium. In the style of Truman Capote, this is a non-fiction novel, a gripping account of deeds of great and evil men alike, made all the more interesting because these events really happened.


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