The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America

by Erik Larson

Hardcover, 2003

Call number

364.15 L

Collection

Publication

Crown (2003), Edition: 1st, 447 pages

Description

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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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.

Listen:

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 kambrogi
Erik Larson, the brilliant author of Isaac’s Storm, has crafted another enthralling nonfiction book in his entertaining narrative style. Once again, he does it through extensive, tireless, hands-on research, deepened by complex personal insights into the characters at the heart of an historical event.

The Devil in the White City focuses on the pinnacles of two parallel careers that unfolded in Chicago just before the turn of the last century. One is that Daniel Burnham, the director of the Chicago World’s Fair, and the other is that of Henry Holmes, a serial killer operating close by. Since the stories are essentially opposites (focusing on a creator and a destroyer), it isn’t surprising that the contrast caught Larson’s interest, but ultimately the two stories don’t tie up very well.

I preferred the tale of the fair, its complicated evolution and realization, a story that will stay with me for a very long time. Although Larson does not dwell unduly on the more gruesome aspects of the serial killer’s adventures, there is enough there to disturb and distract the reader from the other, ultimately more worthy, story. I suspect there will be those who prefer the tale of crime to the tale of architecture, but one wonders if anyone will entirely understand why the two share space in the same book. No matter – one way or another, the reader is guaranteed to find a fascinating, even page-turning, read.
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LibraryThing member Y2Ash
My imagination got the best of me of what I thought this book was about. When I saw the words "murder" and "at the fair," I immediately thought of a serial killer that used the Fair as his hunting grounds and also buried people there. I was so wrong. So very wrong. It's insane on how wrong I was.

Larson's The Devil in the White City is really the telling of two different events in history: The building of World's Colombian Exhibition to commemorate the 400th year of when Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue and of Dr. H.H. Holmes, a very charismatic serial killer. The building of the World's Fair is the true focal point of the book as it introduces Daniel Burnham and John Root: the visionaries that allowed the sheer and amazing architecture to be built.

Larson was particularly descriptive at describing the volumes of blood, sweat, tears, and steel to make this Fair even possibly. It is amazing that it even came into fruition after the multitude of setbacks including lack of engineers, lack of time, lack of money, intense weather, freak accidents, and devastating deaths including Burnham's long time partner, John Root himself. However, despite all of those setbacks, everyone involved in the Fair was able to persevere and achieved greatness including the introduction of the Ferris Wheel.

During all this melee, H.H. Holmes was making false promises to very naive women, "fresh off the boat," sort to speak, gaining their trust and taking their possessions and money after killing them in his "castle:" a macabre, medicinally smelling hotel in progress. He was also using many aliases and defrauding creditors left and right. He was such a smooth talker, it really is any wonder he was caught at all.

Oddly enough, sprinkled through this was the story of Pendergast, an old off-kilter man who had grand delusions that the Mayor was going to grant him a special position for helping him get re-elected. Of course, when this doesn't happen, he fatally shoots the Mayor.

I thought Devil in the White City was a really good book. I can appreciate it although I think I would have liked it more if it had lived up to my imagination. My only disappointment was that the two narratives were not related at all. Holmes was an opportunist and when the Fair came into play, he used it to his advantage but he was doing this way before the Fair started going. The Fair was the extra pizzazz he needed to get a bevy of more naive young women his way. It was like using pepper to spice up the dish but the dish existed before the use of the pepper. However, it really is a good and interesting read especially if you're into true crime or architecture.
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LibraryThing member EdGoldberg
While the topics of the 1893 Columbian Exhibition and the murderer in its midst are both interesting topics, Larson just took too long to get there. Half way through I had to put the book down. He made it very clear there were numerous delays. He made it clear that H.H. Holmes was a murderer. But it read more like a text book than readable non-fioction.

Was going to read Dead Wake but if it's anything like this, I think I"ll pass.
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LibraryThing member SilversReviews
Chicago, Chicago, my kind of town.....Chicago won the spot for the World's fair beating out New York City and Washington, D.C.

A challenge between Chauncey Depew and the Whitechapel Club arose after Chicago won the spot. The challenge was to see if Chicago can make the World's Fair the best and biggest of the time....better than the one that just ended in Paris. Quoting from Page 14: It was the big talk, not the persistent southwesterly breeze, that had prompted New York editor Charles Anderson Dana to nickname Chicago "the Windy City."

Meanwhile Chicago was growing and architects were becoming wealthy and successful, but the city was so large it was starting to become dangerous and dirty. And all during this, in comes H. H. Holmes also known as Herman Webster Mudgett claiming to be a doctor and pharmacist. He actually did train as a doctor, but had a very shady past. His shady past began surfacing as he built a strange building across the street from a pharmacy he bought from a widow that mysteriously disappeared. His charm and charisma got him out of a lot of trouble and even out of paying his debts. Not one person could even suspect him of any wrongdoing in any aspect. His thoughts, though, were of young, single women and Jack the Ripper.

While he was building this strange building, Chicago had its architects looking for a place to build their "fabulous" World's Fair. Everyone was still waiting for them to fail since Paris in everyone's mind couldn't be surpassed. Finally on December 15, 1890, the committee decided on a location for the World's Columbian Exposition. It was going to be right next to H. H. Holmes' building...this made him very pleased and thrilled. The cost and organization was going to be astronomical. The architects hired were the best in the nation, but none were from Chicago.

H. H. Holmes was thinking more and more about completing his building and also turning it into a hotel and building a furnace in the basement that was able to go up to 3,000 degrees...the mason was a little leary about the shape and size he wanted. The mason said it looked like an oven they used to cremate dead bodies. Lots of signs had been appearing indicating that he was not normal, but no one paid any notice since he was a pretty smooth operator...he still didn't pay any of his bills either unless it became absolutely necessary.

The fair took all the time out of each architect's day...it was slow, and they were afraid they wouldn't get done in time. Obstacle after obstacle kept appearing...if it wasn't the land, it was that the blueprints were late, or that they were worried about sanitation and crime. During all of this, good old Mr. Holmes was still up to his tricks with money and women. He would steal down to the basement and light the furnace and loved to feel the incredible heat.

The building of the fair continued to be a disaster...hurricanes and storms knocked down buildings that were built, men died, architects didn't get along, and Mr. Holmes continued to swoon women and ask them to marry him - he already had two wives and two children. Something always happened to the women he targeted after he won them over and asked them to marry him....he knew which women were weak and which women would be able to help him with their financial assets or family connections.

Opening day was one day away, and the rain kept pouring down causing puddles everywhere. The trash from workers' lunches were still scattered on the ground and they had to do makeshift planting to cover up some of the holes caused by all the rain. They had found the one thing they needed and hoped would be the symbol that identified the World's Fair as being successful and one that would top the Eiffel Tower that had been the attraction in Paris for their World's Fair. Even though the Ferris Wheel was not ready for opening day, they hoped the Ferris Wheel would be their saving grace. It was designed by Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, bridge builder George Washington Gale Ferris.

The fair was a success, it was over, the fair was missed, and Mr. Holmes was missing.

The book was great historically...seeing all these names of people who invented things was great...the mystery surrounding Mr. Holmes was gruesome, but fit nicely into the story's plot. You will enjoy the book, but can skip some of the pages telling about the constructing of the the World's Fair Buildings.

4/5 would be my rating.
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LibraryThing member xuesheng
The Devil in the White City takes you back to two events that were happening around 1893 in the city of Chicago. The grandest was the building of the World's Fair. The other was about the depraved actions of a serial killer. As Erik Larson, the author writes "The juxtaposition of pride and unfathomed evil struck me as offering powerful insights into the nature of men and their ambitions."

The book was extremely interesting. Chicago was out to prove itself to the World that it was not just a dirty, industrial town and Daniel Burnham, the prime architect, brought together some of the US's premier architects to design the fair and its grounds. What was even more impressive was how quickly they were able to complete the project, although it wasn't done by the opening of the fair.

The dark side of the book was about H. H. Holmes, a man purporting to be a doctor who owned a bizarre hotel within a few miles of the fairgrounds. He was a man who would charm young, naive women and lure them to their deaths in his hotel of horrors.

There are also a few chapters about a hero and that is the Philadelphia detective Frank Geyer who traces the trail of Holmes in an attempt to locate 3 children of Holmes' former associate. Unfortunately, Holmes killed the children along the way, but Geyer was persistent in following the trail and finding the bodies of the children. Interesting book.
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LibraryThing member ConnieJo
I actually really, really did not like this book. It's the type of story I enjoy save for the fact it's nonfiction, and the fact I live in Chicago and went to art school here and was lectured on the World's Fair again and again and again over the years made me think I would get a lot out of this book.

My main problem was that it was written like a fiction book, for one. The author often speculates as to what the characters are thinking, which is problematic in the case of Holmes, who was a true psychopath. There is really no point in speculating as to what his victims thought of him, how their final moments were lived, or why he did what he did. Fact is more interesting than speculation in this case.

I also got fed up quickly with the ridiculous flourishes as far as foreshadowing and big reveals went. This technique was not all that necessary and poorly used.

My other problem was that the story alternated between the architects working on the World's Fair and Holmes's story. This is more a matter of personal taste, but I hate books that do this, because I will inevitably be more interested in one story over the other. In the case of Devil in the White City, the architecture sections became tedious very fast, especially since there was a lot of repetition and failure. I was actually expecting to like these parts a lot more since I've had a lot of background in Chicago architecture and architects.

The other thing I was very disappointed by is the fact that almost no time at all is spent with description of the fair itself. Only one or two chapters describe the fair, and what is there is quite good, but after reading for so long about the continued failure and all the problems building the fair, I was expecting more about the successes.

I did enjoy the final segments, which tracked Holmes across the country as he traveled with the children of one of his associates, simultaneously tracking their mother and hiding the children from her. I also liked the touch at the end about the assassination of the Mayor, but again, the parts foreshadowing his death throughout the entire book are kind of ridiculous.

It's a good story. Both the story of Holmes and the World's Fair are very interesting ones, and there are lots of details given on both. The book is very well-researched. I just hated the writing style, and it kind of ruined it for me.
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LibraryThing member Y2Ash
My imagination got the best of me of what I thought this book was about. When I saw the words "murder" and "at the fair," I immediately thought of a serial killer that used the Fair as his hunting grounds and also buried people there. I was so wrong. So very wrong. It's insane on how wrong I was.

Larson's The Devil in the White City is really the telling of two different events in history: The building of World's Colombian Exhibition to commemorate the 400th year of when Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue and of Dr. H.H. Holmes, a very charismatic serial killer. The building of the World's Fair is the true focal point of the book as it introduces Daniel Burnham and John Root: the visionaries that allowed the sheer and amazing architecture to be built.

Larson was particularly descriptive at describing the volumes of blood, sweat, tears, and steel to make this Fair even possibly. It is amazing that it even came into fruition after the multitude of setbacks including lack of engineers, lack of time, lack of money, intense weather, freak accidents, and devastating deaths including Burnham's long time partner, John Root himself. However, despite all of those setbacks, everyone involved in the Fair was able to persevere and achieved greatness including the introduction of the Ferris Wheel.

During all this melee, H.H. Holmes was making false promises to very naive women, "fresh off the boat," sort to speak, gaining their trust and taking their possessions and money after killing them in his "castle:" a macabre, medicinally smelling hotel in progress. He was also using many aliases and defrauding creditors left and right. He was such a smooth talker, it really is any wonder he was caught at all.

Oddly enough, sprinkled through this was the story of Pendergast, an old off-kilter man who had grand delusions that the Mayor was going to grant him a special position for helping him get re-elected. Of course, when this doesn't happen, he fatally shoots the Mayor.

I thought Devil in the White City was a really good book. I can appreciate it although I think I would have liked it more if it had lived up to my imagination. My only disappointment was that the two narratives were not related at all. Holmes was an opportunist and when the Fair came into play, he used it to his advantage but he was doing this way before the Fair started going. The Fair was the extra pizzazz he needed to get a bevy of more naive young women his way. It was like using pepper to spice up the dish but the dish existed before the use of the pepper. However, it really is a good and interesting read especially if you're into true crime or architecture.
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LibraryThing member maggie1944
I listened to an abridged version on CDs in the car, while driving. I think I would have enjoyed it more if I had read the whole book, and did the reading. I enjoyed hearing about the Chicago fair and all the political, landscape, architectural details. I like reading history and this part of the book was a good deal more interesting to me than the parts about the "devil".

The devil is a man who committed serial murders right next to the fair and was such a sensation as a serial murderer in the early 20th Centry as the idea was so new, so shocking. Not so much for us, today, and especially if one has read some of the fine true crime books available. It all started with Truman Capote's fine book In Cold Blood.
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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 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 jrtanworth
The portion of this book dealing with Daniel Burnham, Root, and Olstead and the challenges in building and operating the 1893 Columbian Exposition provide a fascinating story of the political, technical and financial factors involved. The story of the first Ferris wheel, a late addition to the fair's midway is also a highlight. On the other hand, the story of the psychopathic "Dr. H.H. Holmes" just detracts from the book. Many of the scenes involving Holmes are speculative because of a lack of real information. This may make for a better story, but it isn't good history. What would be most interesting regarding Holmes would be more information about the fire insurance fraud that led to his eventual conviction and downfall, but there is very little about this. Overall, I was somewhat disappointed by this book given acclaim in published reviews.… (more)

Pages

447

ISBN

1617932868 / 9781617932861
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