The devil in the white city : murder, magic, and madness at the fair that changed America

by Erik Larson

Hardcover, 2003




New York : Crown Publishers, c2003.


Two men, each handsome and unusually adept at his chosen work, embodied an element of the great dynamic that characterized America₂s rush toward the twentieth century. The architect was Daniel Hudson Burnham, the fair's brilliant director of works and the builder of many of the country's most important structures, including the Flatiron Building in New York and Union Station in Washington, D.C. The murderer was Henry H. Holmes, a young doctor who, in a malign parody of the White City, built his "World's Fair Hotel" just west of the fairgrounds₇a torture palace complete with dissection table, gas chamber, and 3,000-degree crematorium. Burnham overcame tremendous obstacles and tragedies as he organized the talents of Frederick Law Olmsted, Charles McKim, Louis Sullivan, and others to transform swampy Jackson Park into the White City, while Holmes used the attraction of the great fair and his own satanic charms to lure scores of young women to their deaths. What makes the story all the more chilling is that Holmes really lived, walking the grounds of that dream city by the lake. The Devil in the White City draws the reader into a time of magic and majesty, made all the more appealing by a supporting cast of real-life characters, including Buffalo Bill, Theodore Dreiser, Susan B. Anthony, Thomas Edison, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, and others. In this book the smoke, romance, and mystery of the Gilded Age come alive as never before. Erik Larson's gifts as a storyteller are magnificently displayed in this rich narrative of the master builder, the killer, and the great fair that obsessed them both.… (more)

Media reviews

Mr. Larson has written a dynamic, enveloping book filled with haunting, closely annotated information. And it doesn't hurt that this truth really is stranger than fiction.

User reviews

LibraryThing member brenzi
What a masterpiece! This book is a fabulous look at the history of an important time centered on Chicago’s World Fair in 1893. I learned so much while at the same time being completely enchanted by the story Eric Larson had to tell. Just learning about all the new experiences presented at the fair for the first time was worth the price of admission:

“Within the fair’s buildings visitors encountered devices and concepts new to them and to the world. They heard live music played by an orchestra in New York and transmitted to the fair by long-distance telephone. They saw the first moving pictures on Edison’s Kinetoscope, and they watched, stunned, as lightening chattered from Nicola Tesla’s body. They saw even more ungodly things---the first zipper; the first ever all electric kitchen, which included an automatic dishwasher; and a box purporting to contain everything a cook would need to make pancakes, under the brand name Aunt Jemima’s. They sampled a new, oddly flavored gum called Juicy Fruit, and caramel-coated popcorn called Cracker Jack.” (Page 248)

Larson starts by introducing the architects responsible for the creation of the “White City,” as the fair was called. How do you throw together men of great talent and even greater egotism, and make it work? Head architect Daniel Burnham was able to succeed, but it’s the fascinating story of how it happened that Larson brings to life so well. They have a little more than two years to complete the project and the ever increasing stumbling blocks to its success are challenges that these men are able to overcome, surprisingly well.

At the same time, there is a mass murderer operating in the outskirts of the fair, in the “black city,” a term used to describe the “real” Chicago, such a dichotomy from the artificial “white city.” And then there was the madman, who appointed himself Chicago’s corporation counsel, and who barraged the city’s mayor with postcards in anticipation of his permanent appointment to the position. That it would end in tragedy is foreshadowed early on by the author.

Larson expertly weaves together these three threads to create a fascinating portrait of the “windy city” (even that label has an unexpected origin) in the 1890’s and beyond, as Larson explains in this passage:

“The fair’s greatest impact lay in how it changed the way Americans perceived their cities and their architects. It primed the whole of America---not just a few rich architectural patrons---to think of cities in a way they never had before. Elihu Root said the fair ‘led our people out of the wilderness of the commonplace to new ideas of architectural beauty and nobility’.…No such vision could otherwise have entered into the prosaic drudgery of their lives.” Very highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member Crazymamie
This book shows off Erik Larson's talent for making non-fiction read like a well crafted novel. This time Mr. Larson relates to us the story behind the success of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair while at the same time chronicling the devious ploys of a serial killer that used the Fair as a means to lure victims to his hotel. Larson alternates between stories so that we see the meticulous planning required both to stage and host a world fair and to stage and host multiple murders. Both endeavors require patience, skill, and forethought. Both require boldness and audacity. The tension builds as we see both stories reach their peak, knowing that at some point they will also have to unravel. The unraveling reminded me of those famous lines from the Robert Frost poem "Nothing Gold Can Stay":

So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

That expression "The devil is in the details" also came to mind as we follow the blueprint drawn by the devil in this story - Herman Webster Mudgett (aka Dr. H. H. Holmes). His hotel is crafted to his specifications as the ultimate murder weapon. If this were fiction, many critics would scoff at this incredulous story, saying that the murderer could not possibly have gotten away with building this strange hotel right under the noses of the Chicago police department. He could not possibly have been connected to so many disappearances without raising a tremendous amount of suspicion or attracting attention to himself. And yet he did.

This book is a marvel of information that reads like a thriller. It does not disappoint and never falls flat. From beginning to end it is gripping and full of suspense that has you wondering about each step even if you already know the story. Mr. Larson explains it best himself:

"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. In the end it is a story of the ineluctable conflict between good and evil, daylight and darkness, the White City and the Black."
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LibraryThing member ChelleBearss
I will start by saying that while I enjoyed this book, it really was not what I expected when I picked it up. Larson has taken the creation of the world's fair and all it's challenges, an assassination of a town leader and the activity of a serial killer and tried to meld them into one large story. I found each story interesting in it's own way, although some of the fair details became a bit boring over time. It felt like there was a large build up to the serial killers action that I thought would have been tied into the fair more, but only when the fair was finished did his actions become known and almost become like a second book after the original book was finished. I know the author was working with actual facts and couldn't change time lines, but it started to feel a bit chunky at the end.
I do recommend this book and I found some of the fair details to be very magical and it would have been amazing to be there for the creation of so many great inventions. Although it does read like fiction in parts I would only recommend to those who enjoy reading non-fiction as some of the historical details do bog it down a bit in spots.
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LibraryThing member bragan
In the last decade of the 19th century, Chicago put forth a concentrated effort to create an exposition of proportions never seen before, a city-within-a-city that would astonish and amaze the world. Meanwhile, down the street, one H. H. Holmes was doing some construction of his own. His building featured a a creepy basement; a soundproof, airtight vault; and a suspiciously shaped, cleverly odorless "kiln." While architects and city officials set about their plans to impress the populace, Holmes was hiring and/or seducing young and attractive women with a tendency to randomly disappear "back to the farm" with no notice, and persuading friends and acquaintances to take out large life insurance policies in his name.

They're both interesting stories. The creation of the World's Fair features a certain degree of real drama, but more than that, it provides a window into many different aspects of the times. And Holmes' killings hold a gruesome sort of fascination, which Larson presents in an understated sort of way that makes it all the more effectively creepy. If this were a movie, I'd strongly suspect Hollywood of inventing some of the more audacious (but apparently true) details in order to make a better and more shocking story.
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LibraryThing member amelish
After much hype, disappointment. Larson writes like a patronizing young adult author trying to make history exciting for the kids.

It's like the longest Hardy Boys story ever: every good guy is "handsome," with "piercing blue eyes." Or a Reader's Digest true crime report fleshed out to book length. The neighbors always had a bad feeling about that new guy with pasty white skin and an aura of Pure Evil...

What you get is a tome (a fucking TOME) too clumsy and full of half-hearted melodrama to succeed as either historical novel or creative non-fiction. I really think that either complete camp or the driest of dry record of facts would have been more effective than this sort of humorless crap:

"Much was made, in retrospect, of the fact that Root, in evening dress, charged into the rock-cold night without first putting on a coat."

Holy foreshadowing, Batman, I think that's the last straw!
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LibraryThing member writestuff
Erik Larson has written an evocative and compelling novel about the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and the first known serial killer to strike on American soil. Told in alternating chapters, Larson reveals the excitement and creativity of man's imagination in the building of the fair, juxtaposed with the horrific destruction of an evil man's fantasies. Larson's ability to create setting and suspense, make The Devil in the White City read more like fiction than non fiction.

I found myself sinking into the story of the fair - relishing the details like the inventors who proposed outrageous ideas to "out Eiffel the Eiffel" and descriptions of the devices and concepts which were new in 1893, but which we now take for granted (moving pictures, the first zipper, an electric kitchen, an automatic dishwasher, boxed pancake mix, and Cracker Jacks to name a few). Set against the backdrop of the labor unions and economic depression, the novel reveals the true spirit of man's endurance and determination. The 1893 World's Fair is with us today every time we watch The Wizard of Oz (who's Emerald City was inspired by the tremendous architecture of the fair), or when we celebrate Columbus Day, or when we stroll down a carnival midway or ride a Ferris Wheel. Larson's accessible prose puts it all together for the reader without weighing her down with facts.

Larson's parallel story about H. H. Holmes - the first American serial killer - is just as compelling and provides the dark side to the White City.

This is a novel I an highly recommend. Rated 4.5/5
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LibraryThing member spedteacher
I loved Larson's first book, Isaac's Storm, but this one just didn't do it for me. Larson has two parallel stories going on at the same time. Granted the world's fair and Holmes murder spree took place at the same time and Holmes did live close to the world's fairgrounds but so what. I never understood why Larsen felt these two occurances had so much in common, and that what they had in common was of any significance.
Larson's use of foreshadowing got pretty ridiculous, as did his waiting to disclose certain facts, like the engineer who was building the great wheel, oh by the way, just happened to be named Ferris.
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LibraryThing member DeltaQueen50
In The Devil In The White City, author Erik Larsen cleverly entwines the story of the Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair with that of a serial killer who was going about his grisly business in the Chicago area at the same time. Switching the stories from chapter to chapter, allowing the reader to experience both the mounting excitement as the fair slowly evolved alternately with the horror and dread that this killer was never going to be uncovered made for a masterful read.

While we read of the fair being conceived, the site being chosen, the day to day details of the construction, we are also reading of American history. Many, if not most, of the major personalities of the time are included in these pages. This book brings both a city and a country to vivid life at the closing end of the century in a time that became known as The Gilded Age. Contrasting the brilliant architect whose vision became known as the White City, with the slimily engaging, cunning murderer who lured his victims to their untimely death was a brilliant idea.

This book engages the reader from the first page to the last, unique in vision, informative and entertaining, I highly recommend The Devil in the White City.
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LibraryThing member clfisha
It’s a interesting premise: Take a shining light of the late 19th Century, Chicago’s world fair, and juxtapose it against one of the darkest, serial killer H.H. Holmes. It almost works. Larson is an engaging writer, he knows how to weave a story and brings the alive the fairs complex creation and its fleeting existence. The historical setting is fascinating, the politics and sweeping changes, the new technologies matched against the huge ambition and the sheer unbelievable scale of it. It is place that showcased modern electricity, Ferris's new wheel, German giant machines of war, a colourful multitude of cultures and managed to entice the largest crowd the world had yet seen. The tale was simply engrossing, that Larson brings the many strands together whilst imbuing the main players with so much character is simply wonderful.

But (and it is a large but) the juxtaposition fails. Serial killer H. H. Holmes story may sound fascinating: a man who built a murder hotel, a place with gas chambers and a too large a furnace in the basement, but so little is known about Holmes and so much of it hard to swallow that Larson's technique falls flat. Yes it’s meticulously researched and carefully reconstructed but it feels lacklustre and often resorts to repeatedly mentioning his suave charm and cold, devilish icy blue eyes. The end chase, away from Chicago and after the fair is the most interesting but sadly feels out of place.

I am not sure I would recommend this book, the fair seems to warrant more concentrated exploration but this is as good as place as any to get a glimpse. Also what is it with the lack of photos? Larson’s good but not fantastic at painting the scene, all I can say is thank goodness for google
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LibraryThing member Smiler69
The Devil in the White City is about the travails of the creators of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and a serial killer who took advantage of the hustle and bustle to outdo Jack the Ripper by building himself a dungeon/hotel/home/place of business taking up an entire city block close to the site of the fair where he probably killed well over two dozen people, mostly lovely young women just arrived in the city and enchanted by his blue eyes and promises of marriage. I don't usually like to read about true crime, but this one offers up an interesting mix and I can see why it won and Edgar award. Interesting too that while the book was more or less divided evenly between details about the fair (to which we owe the Ferris Wheel) and the killings, I was actually more riveted by the sections about Herman Webster Mudgett aka H. H. Holmes (one of many aliases, and yes, he chose that one because of the popularity of Arthur Conan Doyle's popular creation) who apparently killed for the feeling of empowerment it gave him. It's always been disturbing to me that we as a race seem to be endlessly fascinated by psychopaths. I don't like to delve on these predators too often it makes me rather paranoid, but I guess they hold our interest because their actions and impulses are so opposite from anything that is even remotely acceptable in a civilized society. I managed to listen while eating meals, walk my toy poodle Coco in the evening without looking over my shoulder ever minute (just every other minute) and carry on much as usual which leads me to believe cynicism and old age have taken their toll on me and I am no longer the sensitive, easily troubled gentle creature I once was in my tender youth.… (more)
LibraryThing member matociquala
A rather masterful orchestration of the history of the Chicago World's Fair and Dr. H. H. Holmes, this book is not just beautifully balanced and disquieting, it's also pellucidly written.


Meanwhile, banks and companies were failing across America, strikes threatened everywhere, and cholera had begun a slow white trek across Europe, raising fears that the first plague ships would soon arrive in New York Harbor.

The best history doesn't just explain the past, or relate it. It casts it through a prism, so the separate colors fall against the reader's perception and hang there, luminous.

On the other hand, it does take him a while to move the plot. And I'd like the speculation and fact to be more clearly demarcated.… (more)
LibraryThing member tiamatq
I picked this up because it's supposed to be a heavy influence on a video game series I like... I suppose that's a pretty odd reason... or maybe just an odd video game. I don't tend to read much nonfiction either, so I was happy to find the story of the World's Fair and the Holmes' murders to be intriguing. The content was interesting, and while the "true crime" aspect did get me peaking ahead at future Holmes chapters, I also enjoyed the focus on Burnham and his motley crew of fellow architects (I think I've just greatly offended many dead architects). Olmsted's dogged pursuit of designing the perfect landscape (and not having it f*cked up by other officials/departments) was inspiring and, in a way, tragic. It feels like you only get a glimpse of the many characters that made the fair such a huge success - Sol Bloom, George Ferris, and Buffalo Bill, to name a few.

What brought the book down for me was, in some part, Larson's writing style. It felt like he was forcing many analogies or striving to include just a little bit of everything. Think of it like talking to that person at the party who's in love with a topic and can't help but share, relating it to any and all subjects you might bring up... speaking of appetizers, did you know about the fascinating history of salt? Okay, that was my own awkward analogy. But I felt like the chapters on Prendergast were just sprinkled throughout because hey, the mayor who was re-elected during Fair time was shot by him after his big event at the fair... so that relates, right? While Larson may have gotten chills from seeing the force with which Prendergast wrote his crazy postcards (see how I threw that fact in? Now you must be intrigued too, righ?), I just wanted to get back to that fair that, by all accounts, should never have been built!

I also thought that Larson glossed over some important details, ones that he even stressed earlier in his book. For example, much was made of the fact that the Fair wasn't open on Sundays, owing to Lobbying by the Sabbatarian movement. But in the "Storm and Fire" chapter, the Fair is suddenly open on Sundays and subject to a wicked storm. Since the Fair was struggling for money and being closed on Sundays was a huge loss of revenue, why wasn't this covered? I was also annoyed that, while we received a great deal of biographical information on many of the Fair's architects, we received almost nothing on Sophia Hayden, the woman who designed The Woman's Building without any formal training and was driven to breakdown by the Fair's Board of Lady Managers. More than anything, though, I think I would've liked to have read more about the goings-on of the Fair after reading about all the preparation, construction, and politics.

One of the things I really did enjoy about this book was the long list of "notable firsts," including shredded wheat, Cracker Jacks, the Ferris Wheel, widespread use of alternating current electricity, and the effects of unionization. I suppose, having read this, I'll have lots more strange facts to insert, unnecessarily, into conversations.
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LibraryThing member cestovatela
I began this book skeptically. I was going to Chicago, so I wanted to read up on the history of the city, and the tale of America's first serial killer seemed like a great way to discover it. But, when I realized The Devil in the White City also chronicles the minutia of Chicago's architectural development, I questioned whether I could enjoy its nearly four hundred page breadth. Happily, I could. The author anchors his account on real historical figures brought to life by quotations from primary source documents, including their diaries and letters. I expected to skim through the passages about the Chicago World's Fair while waiting to hear more about the serial killer, but instead, I was on the edge of my seat worrying about how each architect could get the World's Fair Pavilion finished on time. As I read, I constantly quoted little bits of trivia out loud to my boyfriend. Did he know that the first Ferris Wheel was built for the Chicago World's Fair? Or that the Pledge of Allegiance was written for it? Or had he considered how shifting gender norms and limited labor restrictions made it easier for a serial killer like H.H. Holmes to prey on young women? He hadn't, and neither did I. Not only did I get the Chicago history education I wanted, I also saw a perfect slice of America in the day when it was a developing country. Most importantly, I left with an appreciation for how the Chicago World's Fair, an event nearly forgotten in our history, actually shaped our nation.… (more)
LibraryThing member alanna1122
This was an interesting combination of history and "story-telling".

I particularly enjoyed the descriptions and imagery of the Chicago World's Fair. It really whet my appetite and I know I will be looking around to see more images and learn more about that remarkable event. I wish though, that there were more photos included. It seems like they are probably available just based on the author's own remarks. At the very least I wish the few photos that were included had been printed larger. It would have been fun to see more of the detail that was lost in such miniature reproductions.

I found the "Holmes" story really dark and gruesome - there is no other way to describe it - it is what it is - but I would caution people who are upset by such things really to think twice before reading this book.

The author uses very heavy handed foreshadowing and constantly alludes to events that will be revealed or resolved later in the book. This device - no doubt - is supposed to make us prick up our ears and take notice - it would have been fine in moderation but by the halfway mark I was really tired of being teased.

The other small quibble I have with the author was just the over use of his description of Olmstead's ailments. I get it. His ears hurt (roared) and his teeth hurt. Repeating it every time he is mentioned was really tedious. I wanted to shout "I KNOW! - you told me that a chapter ago AND the chapter before that... etc etc!"

All that being said - an interesting topic (or two) and a pretty engaging and quick read.
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LibraryThing member tloeffler
There is a blurb on the back of my copy from Esquire magazine that says: "So good, you find yourself asking how you could not know this already." That sums up my opinion of the Erik Larson books I have read. He takes two marginally related subjects and combines them into a fascinating history. In this case, he covers the architect of the 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair, Daniel Burnham, and the history of Herman Webster Mudgett, aka H. H. Holmes, a Sweeney-Todd-esque (without the pies) serial killer in Chicago at the same time. Larson combines the two stories effortlessly. He doesn't spend so much time on one character that you've forgotten the other, and the reading flows smoothly. My only complaint about Larson is his propensity for foreshadowing. Forgiven, though, because the rest of it is so good.… (more)
LibraryThing member infoplayr
This book was a huge disappointment to me. I felt it was too heavy on the architectural details of the Fair and a bit light on the serial killer story. I suppose if I was from Chicago, or interested in architecture or Fairs in general, I would think this book was outstanding, but as a reader with not much interest in either topic, I had to force myself to finish it. I picked it up based on the title, and all the accolades it had received. For anybody trying to decide if they should read this book, read the final sentence right before the Notes section; if that's the kind of prose you enjoy, then by all means give it a try. If instead you roll your eyes and snicker, then definitely pass on this book.… (more)
LibraryThing member callmecayce
I had two reasons for wanting to read this book. The first was because I'd heard nothing but good things. The second was entirely shallow -- Leonardo DiCaprio is going to be in the film version and I felt I really should read the book first. I ended up listening to the audiobook version of it and it was fantastic. It made my commute so much more interesting and, well, enthralling. The story is almost too fantastic (and definitely not always in good ways) to be true. And, of course, I now want to visit Chicago. Highly recommended, even if you don't care for true crime or architecture. I just hope the movie can do the book justice.… (more)
LibraryThing member rosies
suspenseful twist to learning about the history of a great city and the people who helped make it great.
LibraryThing member d2ward
It's well researched. There, I've said something nice.
Otherwise, I was bored to sleep each time I read more than 10-15 pages of this work. I was hoping for a substantial connection between the "devil" and the Fair. No dice. Instead, the reader is treated to excrutiatingly detailed descriptions of what was on the menu at various meetings attended by architects, quantity and types of flowers to adorn the landscape (seriously, a list of plants went on for an entire paragraph), or engineers performing stress tests on soil samples. Ooooh, how compelling.
I also found myself distracted by the author's decision to describe what the "characters" were thinking or feeling. This is a work of non-fiction, correct? So, how can the author presume to tell what emotions long-dead person could have felt? It's doubtful that every person mentioned in the book left behind a detailed journal chronicling such thoughts. If you're gonna write non-fiction, gimme facts. If you're gonna talk about feelings, grab a seat on Oprah's couch.
I suppose if you're a architecture nut or get jazzed by minutiae then buy the book & get jolly. If you've run out of prescription sleep meds, buy this book. If you're looking for an exciting, Jack the Ripper/true crime thrill ride, well, look you'd better look somewhere else.
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LibraryThing member regularguy5mb
Absolutely fascinating! Larson combines the stories of the Chicago's World Fair, the first American serial killer, and a little man named Prendergast who wishes to be important and known (and gets his wish, but not in the way he expects).

The Fair became the greatest assortment of men and women of the age; architects, socialites, artists, landscapers, and legends of the Old West (brought to the Fair by Buffalo Bill Cody, who I am now related to through marriage). It was a near impossible task that nobody thought could be done, and it speaks to the spirit of a city unified under a common goal to prove the rest of the country, the rest of the world, wrong.

Holmes, a charismatic man with absolutely no qualms about killing another human being, as proved by sheer number once he confessed. He had a way of charming almost anyone, even when people could see that something was off about the man. He was a psychopath before there was a term for it.

And then there's Prendergast, a small man with big ideas, but no real concept of how to make it happen (I can relate). I was completely baffled by his place in the events of this novel until they happened, then it made perfect sense. Perfect, horrible sense.

Larson spins a web of connections through some of the greatest and most horrible historical moments surrounding the Chicago Colombian Exposition, a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of America. Even more amazing were the connections that came about much later, and only an historical eye could see their significance.

If you like history or stories about the indomitable nature of the human spirit, then definitely check this book out. Worth it.
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LibraryThing member June6Bug
Weaving three story lines in one, the author tells the story of the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. The principle narrative describes the architects responsible for the buildings at the fair itself; two minor story lines weave in an insane man's letter-writing campaign and the story of a psychopath who took advantage of the influx of visitors for his own dark, sick purposes. Much of the book reads like fiction, though judging by the list of reference works in the back, it's likely to be as historically accurate as any textbook (possibly more so). I found this book highly interesting as well as informative, and I'd recommend it to anyone interested in Chicago's history.… (more)
LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
This weaves together two parallel stories: "The White City" is the 1893 Chicago World's fair, and "The Devil" a serial killer who preyed on visitors. Larson tells both stories beautifully, encapsulating the dark and bright of the Gilded Age. I knew nothing of either story and soon was astonished I didn't--especially about that historic world's fair. The fair was designed by the leading American architects of the day, landscaped by the designer of New York City's Central Park, Frederick Law Olmstead, opened by President Grover Cleveland, and visited by Archduke Francis Ferdinand, Houdini, Tesla, Edison, Joplin, Clarence Darrow, Woodrow Wilson, Susan B. Anthony, Teddy Roosevelt, Diamond Jim Brady, Lillian Russell, Helen Keller, Theodore Dreiser among other luminaries. It debuted the Pledge of Allegiance, introduced such products as Shredded Wheat and Cracker Jack, helped establish AC over DC as the standard for electricity, influenced the design of the United States capitol Federal Mall and the institution of Columbus Day. Walt Disney's father worked on it and Larson credits the impression it made with inspiring Disney's Magic Kingdom as well as inspiring visiting L. Frank Baum's Oz. It also had another innovative feature built to "out Eiffel, Eiffel" whose tower led glamor to the 1884 Paris World's Fair. Larson builds so beautifully to the reveal on that one I'll let you discover that great attraction for yourself. Larson in this book gives a great panorama of Americana. Oh, and the serial killer, H.H. Holmes? He makes Jack the Ripper look like a slacker.

I can't complain about the pacing or the prose--both are first rate. If anything holds me back from a fifth star, it's that this is creative non-fiction, a genre that makes me wary. Truman Capote claimed to have invented that genre, what he called "the non-fiction novel," with In Cold Blood. In other words, creative fiction is a work that, though based on a true story, takes liberties with the facts and invents details, dialogue, and even entire events. Larson even cites In Cold Blood as an inspiration. There's just so much sensory detail and thoughts of historical figures in the book for me to find its facts reliable. One can suppose such details could be taken from contemporary newspaper articles, letters and diaries to some extent, but I don't find that plausible in many instances. On the other hand, I'll give Larson this, unlike Capote, he does supply notes--thirty pages of them. But I can't quite settle into this as a novel, and yet can't quite trust it as history as a result of his approach.
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LibraryThing member cbl_tn
The Devil in the White City interweaves the story of Chicago's 1893 World Columbian Exposition, from its planning through its aftermath, with the story of H. H. Holmes (an alias), a serial killer who preyed on naive young women and children. Some of the parts about the construction of the buildings and landscaping dragged for me in the audio version. I might have skimmed through those parts more quickly if I had been reading the print version. I lived through the planning and construction of Knoxville's 1982 World's Fair and, although the era and location were different, Knoxville experienced the same sorts of disagreements and controversies regarding the site, building design, expense, etc.

The storyline of H. H. Holmes, his victims, his crimes, and his trial completely captured my attention. I'd like to think that I would have sensed that there was something that wasn't quite right about him if I had met him, yet for years practically everyone he met was taken in by his persona.

A minor storyline about the assassination of Chicago's mayor was included because it affected the Exposition's closing ceremony. Having listened to Destiny of the Republic earlier this year, I was struck by the similarity between the motives for the mayor's assassination and President Garfield's assassination. The murder must have given many of Chicago's adults a feeling of déjà vu.
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LibraryThing member mbergman
A rare case of a best-selling book that I really appreciated, & it was especially appropriate after our visit to an architecturally significant place the week before. The book tells two parallel stories: one about the architects & landscape architects who worked together to creat the "White City" at Chicago's Columbian Exposition of 1893; the other about the serial killer who capitalized on that event to draw vulnerable young women under his influence. The latter story probably accounts for the book's popular success, but I could have done without it. The other, more prominent story was the more interesting one, filled with lots of "Gee, I didn't know that" moments, such as the many products introduced at the fair & that Walt Disney's father worked there as a carpenter & talked about it for the rest of his life. In addition, I had always thought of the fair as a spectacular, unbridled success, when, in fact, up until the last 6 weeks or so, it was in danger of being a spectacular flop. Finally, the hero, Daniel Burnham, was a genuine hero, highly respected by the prima donna architects he recreuited to work with him.… (more)
LibraryThing member Cynara
While this is a remarkable book in many ways - the degree of research and the quality of the writing are both good - it left me displeased. While I can imagine being engrossed in either the story of the Chicago World's Fair or the horrible murders of Mudgett, alias Holmes, I feel they work against each other here.

While the chapters on the workaday challenges of creating the fair (cost overruns, weather, ornery architects) did serve to sharpen the horror of Holmes' sickening seductions and murders, the contrast was too great for me. I felt that Larson's really involving work of architectural and social history was overshadowed and trivialised by the relentless reminders of the terrible cruelty happening down the block. The roofs are leaking over by the Midway, and the landscape architect is feeling depressed? Gosh, I'm crushed. Over here, we only have a woman being asphyxiated in a kiln by her husband. Yeah, the acid etched her bare footprint into the door. Conversely, a meticulously researched piece of true crime is made almost unbearable by the jarring transitions into and out of the crimes.

It may be to Larson's credit that I responded so much to his account of Holmes' murders. The last time I felt this fascinated and soiled by a piece of true crime was when I did some reading on the Crippin murder - another 19th century wife-killer.

Another incongruity is the kind of data Larson has to work with. Historians of the Chicago World's Fair have almost too many primary sources: memoranda, personal letters, memoirs, etc., and there are almost too few for a lengthy factual book on the murders. Few firsthand accounts of Holmes are on record, and since most of his crimes took place behind the closed doors of his building - dubbed the "murder castle" by the press - Larson has to rely on contemporary newspaper stories. He also makes significant assumptions (which he does, to his credit, reveal as assumptions) based on his study of modern psychopaths. The result is chilling, but not based entirely on facts.

Maybe I would feel more secure about Larson's guesses if he didn't betray such a weakness for the dramatic . He loves to build up an anecdote and then, with the air of a magician whisking a tablecloth from a levitating assistant, he gestures proudly at an essential name, stuck at the end in a single sentence:
Frank Lloyd Wright.
George Washington Gale Ferris.
Richard Lionheart.

That kind of thing.

Besides the coincidence of time and place, Larson does try to make a case that the two stories say something important about the 20th century -something about pride and cruelty, mobility and isolation. I'm not convinced. However, if the combination had worked for me on an emotional level, I could probably have forgiven the intellectual stretch.
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