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

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

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.Two men, each handsome and unusually adept at his chosen work, embodied an element of the great dynamic that characterized America's rush toward the twentieth century. The architect was Daniel Hudson Burnham,...

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Title:The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America
Author:Erik Larson
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Edition Language:English

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

  • Seth T.

    Humour me and please allow the channeling an eighth grader for just a moment. OMG Squeee!!1 Teh best!! (Would an eighth grader say "teh best"?) And now we return you to our regularly scheduled review.

    I'm not a huge fan of non-fiction. Scratch that. I'm a huge fan of non-fiction, but not so huge a fan of

    non-fiction. While I appreciate learning and broadening my understanding of the world around and as it once was, I find myself pretty quickly distracted from whatever non-fictional work I

    Humour me and please allow the channeling an eighth grader for just a moment. OMG Squeee!!1 Teh best!! (Would an eighth grader say "teh best"?) And now we return you to our regularly scheduled review.

    I'm not a huge fan of non-fiction. Scratch that. I'm a huge fan of non-fiction, but not so huge a fan of

    non-fiction. While I appreciate learning and broadening my understanding of the world around and as it once was, I find myself pretty quickly distracted from whatever non-fictional work I pick up. The fact is: most writers of non-fiction are more experts in their field of study than they are expert authors. They deliver the goods well, but aren't quite as adept at prettying them up for consumption.

    Erik Larson, however, is a genius. Or something. I could not put this book down. (In the figurative sense—it actually took me about two weeks to read.) The entire length of my time in this book was marked with moments of in which I would stop reading, interrupt my wife from the depths of her studies, and remark

    how good this book was.

    (I'm sure that she would have been happier had Larson just been your average purveyor of non-fictionalizations.)

    In

    , Larson chronicles chiefly a tale of two city-dwellers. Architect, Daniel Burnham and pharmacist, Henry Holmes. One would helm the creation of a wonderland of awe-striking beauty and refinement. The other would become one of America's earliest and most diabolical serial killers. All this against the backdrop of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition (a.k.a. the Chicago World's Fair).

    Daniel Burnham, the self-made architect, who designed

    in Chicago would design

    in New York, assembled a team of the best American architects of the day for the task of crafting a World's Fair in Chicago that would be even more exquisite than the one held in Paris years earlier. The Paris Exposition had also unveiled Gustave Eiffel's incredible tower, so Burnham put a call out to American engineering: something grander would have to be proposed and built. National reputation was at stake as well as civic pride. Larson explores in exciting detail the glories and the tragedies of this great endeavor.

    In contrast to this paean to human ingenuity and spirit, Larson focuses the other half of his narrative on a man as diligent in his chosen task as Burnham was in his. H.H. Holmes, the self-style pharmacist, who killed upwards of twenty-seven (mostly young women, fresh to the city), built for himself a hideous parody of the grand buildings that the world would soon celebrate. Bit by bit, he crafted what would later be known as his murder castle, a hotel whose ground floor hosted several businesses and whose other floors would boast far more sinister use. The second and third floors contained numerous rooms and hallways and secret compartments and switches. Airtight rooms with gas outlets. Walk-in vaults purpose not for keeping out but for keeping in. And a slicked chute to the basement where a kiln, acid, and limepits awaited. Holmes was handsome and charming in a way that made him irresistible to women. He was also a psychopath who would turn the American attention far too late.

    Larson, as a chronicler, is top notch. He entertains even as he educates. And he leaves just enough narrative tension to compel the reader along his path. Larson knows how to keep enough information back to avoid rendering the latter half of his book naught but excruciating anti-climax.

    is certainly an accomplishment and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to anyone.

    If forced to, I will admit* two quibbles with the book: 1) I was thirsty for

    and wanted desperately to see these buildings that Burnham and company were so busied upon; and 2) on the whole Larson keeps his voice clean of any emotive spots not merited by the characters themselves, but there were two moments when I was sure I was hearing Larson's voice beam through (it could have been worse—at least those two moments were funny).

    *note: see what I did there? You didn't actually have to force me.

  • Henry Avila

    The White City rises above the lake, like a fantasy from another time that never existed, but the eyes do not deceive, this image is real, bright lights glow at night, millions of respectful , quiet , mesmerized people look and walk by, the moon shines and reflects on the gigantic white buildings and glittering waters, magic drapes all...The Chicago World's Fair of 1893, arguably the greatest one in history, the citizens of this metropolis, the second city of the nation need to show everyone tha

    The White City rises above the lake, like a fantasy from another time that never existed, but the eyes do not deceive, this image is real, bright lights glow at night, millions of respectful , quiet , mesmerized people look and walk by, the moon shines and reflects on the gigantic white buildings and glittering waters, magic drapes all...The Chicago World's Fair of 1893, arguably the greatest one in history, the citizens of this metropolis, the second city of the nation need to show everyone that they are more than hog killers, with speeding trains and prosperous businessmen , this is a sophisticated town, particularly to arch rival New York . In a short while after winning the contest to hold this extravaganza, beating St. Louis, Washington and the big enemy New York City for the honor, from Congress, the next step , yes committees , Americans love them, they multiply like rabbits but get in the way of progress. At long last, emerging from countless delays, officially named the "World's Columbian Exposition", to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus's discovery of America, in 1492, but its six months run will start a year later in 1893. A leading Chicago architect Mr. Daniel Burnham and his partner John Root, are chosen for the enormous job to build it, but also residing in the overcrowded, fast growing, violent, dirty city, Dr. Herman Webster Mudgett , alias (one of many ) H.H.(Henry) Holmes, America's first well known serial killer. The two will never meet but their stories will make headlines around the globe. Mr. Burnham task seems impossible, made worse when his closest friend in business and in private life dies, John Root, the committees don't and can't make decisions, days pass still nothing is being accomplished, at last the authority is granted him to be the boss, Burnham, (" Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood") slowly things begin to appear, on a grand- scale, the white, ( all the same color) huge, electrified buildings soaring into the sky, the scary, new Ferris Wheel will take you there, if it is ever built, lagoons are made, islands formed , canals dug, the waters come from sparkling Lake Michigan, boats follow, the ugly, empty Jackson Park begins to fill, something special even at this early stage is felt...Dr.Holmes likes pretty, young women , just off farms and small towns, the feelings are mutual, he pays attention to their every word, looks into their eyes, touches them gently, the handsome, soft, well spoken con man, has plenty of charm, few are not enamored, wealthy too, owner of the strange, rather gloomy, with mysterious odors, the World's Fair Hotel, nicknamed "The Castle ", he keeps marrying the women, a real lady killer...but will murder men too. This nonfiction book is very entertaining, and always informative, you can imagine yourself back to the spectacular, enormously successful , thrilling, magical fair, the numerous attractions , in hundreds of buildings, from the very popular, exotic , belly dancers, to the unsuitable Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show , he made a fortune, just outside, the exposition grounds , they don't make this kind anymore..

  • Jim Fonseca

    A fascinating book and an easy read. Chapter by chapter, in simple chronological order, the author juxtaposes preparations for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair with the doings of one of the country’s first serial murders.

    From the Fair’s chapters we learned how Chicago’s boosterism won it the fair from other competitors including Washington and New York. Construction was last-minute and in panic mode, but it got done. There’s a lot about Frederick Law Olmstead who was in charge of park design but h

    A fascinating book and an easy read. Chapter by chapter, in simple chronological order, the author juxtaposes preparations for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair with the doings of one of the country’s first serial murders.

    From the Fair’s chapters we learned how Chicago’s boosterism won it the fair from other competitors including Washington and New York. Construction was last-minute and in panic mode, but it got done. There’s a lot about Frederick Law Olmstead who was in charge of park design but he was elderly, in poor health, and struggling to stay on top of the project. A lot of the focus is on the lead architect and fair planner, Daniel Burnham, and construction of the “White City,” as the classical buildings came to be known.

    The serial killer was H. H. Holmes, a pharmacist who capitalized on the World’s Fair by building a hotel. It had special rooms in the basement to kill his victims and dispose of their bodies in a gas oven. Mostly his victims were young women but he was an equal opportunity killer, murdering some men and children as well – at least 20 victims but maybe many more. The author spares us most of the gory details. Once you get into it, it’s hard to believe this story is NON-fiction as the author insists on telling us, but all the events really are from diaries, letters, newspapers and police reports. Fascinating, with a lot of local color of the Windy City in that era.

  • David - proud Gleeman in Branwen's adventuring party

    For me, reviewing this book is similar to trying to review any Nicolas Cage movie from the past 20 years, in that if I was asked if Cage's over-the-top performance was the best thing or the worst thing about the movie, I could only answer...

    (

    )

    If you were to ask me my favorite thing about this book, I would immediately answer, "Erik Larson's writing style!"

    This book is mostly talked about for the portions pert

    For me, reviewing this book is similar to trying to review any Nicolas Cage movie from the past 20 years, in that if I was asked if Cage's over-the-top performance was the best thing or the worst thing about the movie, I could only answer...

    (

    )

    If you were to ask me my favorite thing about this book, I would immediately answer, "Erik Larson's writing style!"

    This book is mostly talked about for the portions pertaining to one of America's first serial killers, Dr. H. H. Holmes. In fact, when the greenlit movie adaptation by Martin Scorsese was recently announced, it focused primarily on the casting of Holmes. Yet, more time is spent in the book detailing the history of the 1893 World's Fair, particularly architect Daniel Burnham's struggles in trying to get everything finished in time for the Fair's opening. I'm actually not much of a history buff, so I feared the

    segments of the book wouldn't hold my interest, but I'm happy to announce that I was wrong. Larson's wit made even some of the dryer parts of the novel entertaining, and he even manages to build suspense when he's raising questions we may already know the answer to, like what engineering marvel would the Fair's organizer's decide on to hopefully rival the Eiffel Tower unveiled at France's world fair?

    As for the segments detailing Dr. H. H. Holmes and his grotesque crimes, this is where Larson's writing really shines. Instead of treating this strictly as a historical account

    , Larson actually writes these moments in the style of a thriller. He gets into Holmes head with the same prowess that Thomas Harris used to make Hannibal Lecter continue to chill our bones long after we had put the book down. There were times I almost forgot I was even reading a nonfiction book, as in these moments Larson's novel read more like something we'd expect to find in the horror section.

    Which is why if you were to ask me what my least-favorite thing about this book was, I would immediately answer, "Erik Larson's writing style!"

    While Larson's writing during the Holmes segments was undeniably gripping, I felt he went a little overboard with his speculative approach. He describes what was going through the victims' heads moments before Holmes murdered them, things Larson has no way of knowing were actually true. This did take me out of the book quite a few times, as when I'm reading nonfiction and the author keeps adding details that can't actually be confirmed, it make me begin to wonder how true this true crime novel really is!

    I did enjoy reading "Devil in the White City", although I would say it's more a book for history enthusiasts than true crime fans, as the 1893 World's Fair is clearly the novel's main event, while Dr. Holmes is more of a sideshow freak. Whether you're here for the Fair or the murder castle, Erik Larson's skills as a writer makes this an interesting read, as long as you don't mind getting some

    speculative fiction in your true crime.

  • Jason

    This book is two, two,

    !

    Sorry, that was annoying. But it’s almost as if Erik Larson wrote two really short books—one about the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and another about the murder spree of Dr. H. H. Holmes—and then shoved them together to create a single story. The result isn’t

    , and I think Larson is successful at maintaining clean seams between the two narratives, but it’s hard to argue these two occurrences are anything but abstractedly related. Yes, Holmes lived

    This book is two, two,

    !

    Sorry, that was annoying. But it’s almost as if Erik Larson wrote two really short books—one about the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and another about the murder spree of Dr. H. H. Holmes—and then shoved them together to create a single story. The result isn’t

    , and I think Larson is successful at maintaining clean seams between the two narratives, but it’s hard to argue these two occurrences are anything but abstractedly related. Yes, Holmes lived in Chicago at the time of the fair and lured a bunch of people to his murder castle (he be snatchin’ yo’ people

    !), but the events didn’t weigh heavily on the fair itself or on the atmosphere surrounding it. No alarm bells went off anywhere in Chicago as a result of his, um, unsavory indiscretions.

    Still, there is a lot of interesting stuff here, information specific to the world’s fair, and it is fun to learn new things. For example, the Chicago Columbian Exposition exudes a long list of firsts: it saw the invention of the world’s first ferris wheel, it led the nation in its first public observance of the Pledge of Allegiance, and it helped to establish alternating current as the industry standard for electricity distribution. Even that awful

    has its origins in the Chicago World’s Fair.

    While writing this review, I’ve come to learn that Leonardo DiCaprio, that beautiful man with the screaming cherry tomato head on a toothpick body, is producing the film adaptation, and will also play the role of serial killer H. H. Holmes. For this I am pleased.

  • Madeline

    Poor Erik Larson.

    He wanted to write an extensive, in-depth look at the 1893 World's Fair, which was a collaboration of some of the greatest creative minds in the country (including the guy who designed the Flatiron building in New York and Walt Disney's dad) and gave us, among other things, the Ferris Wheel, the zipper, shredded wheat, and Columbus Day. The entire venture was almost a disaster, with delays, petty fighting, bad weather, and more delays, but it was ultimately a massive success and

    Poor Erik Larson.

    He wanted to write an extensive, in-depth look at the 1893 World's Fair, which was a collaboration of some of the greatest creative minds in the country (including the guy who designed the Flatiron building in New York and Walt Disney's dad) and gave us, among other things, the Ferris Wheel, the zipper, shredded wheat, and Columbus Day. The entire venture was almost a disaster, with delays, petty fighting, bad weather, and more delays, but it was ultimately a massive success and helped make the city of Chicago what it is today.

    Here's what it must have looked like when Larson pitched his idea for the book:

    Larson: "And the fair didn't go flawlessly - towards the end of the fair, the mayor of Chicago was assassinated by a crazy guy, and there were tons of disappearances over the course of the fair, and a lot of them were probably the work of this serial killer who had opened a hotel near the fairgrounds -

    Editor: "Wait, serial killer? And it's connected to the fair? Cool, let's try to include that in the book. Also the crazy assassin sounds good, too."

    Larson: "No, the killer - H.H. Holmes - really wasn't connected to the fair at all. I mean, he used the fair as a way to collect victims, but he would have killed tons of people even without it. In fact, after the fair he moved on and kept murdering people, so the fair really didn't have any effect on his methods..."

    Editor: "Doesn't matter! How about you alternate between chapters about the fair and chapters about Holmes killing people?"

    Larson: "But I don't really know much about that. Nobody does - Holmes never admitted to killing all those people, even after the police found human remains in his basement. I don't really know any actual details about the killings."

    Editor: "That's okay, you can just make it up. I'll give you some trashy crime novels to read, that'll give you some ideas. Now tell me more about the assassination."

    Larson: "He was just some mentally unbalanced person who thought he deserved a position in the mayor's office and shot the guy when he realized it wasn't going to happen. But the death cast a pall over the entire closing ceremony of the fair, and it - "

    Editor: "Good, let's sprinkle in some bits about the crazy guy throughout the book, too. Now, back to Holmes: did he maybe kill somebody at the fair, or did they find a body on the grounds or something?"

    Larson: "No, the Chicago police didn't even notice anything was happening. It wasn't until he left Chicago that a detective from another state tracked him down."

    Editor: "Okay, so we'll make the end of the book about the manhunt for Holmes and his capture."

    Larson: "What does any of this have to do with the World's Fair?"

    Editor: "Hell if I know. You're the writer, not me - you figure it out. Here's a check. Now go make me a bestseller!"

    Four stars for the World's Fair stuff, two stars for the pulpy unrelated bullshit.

  • Danielle

    So, no offense to those that liked this book, but I'm throwing in the towel after 75 pages. It's just not holding my interest. Part of the reason for this is that Larson's writing style is way too speculative for my taste in non-fiction. I just finished reading

    by David McCullough, and he does such an amazing job of making complicated, historical events interesting, without fabricating scenes that "could have" happened. Even that wouldn't have bothered me that much if Lars

    So, no offense to those that liked this book, but I'm throwing in the towel after 75 pages. It's just not holding my interest. Part of the reason for this is that Larson's writing style is way too speculative for my taste in non-fiction. I just finished reading

    by David McCullough, and he does such an amazing job of making complicated, historical events interesting, without fabricating scenes that "could have" happened. Even that wouldn't have bothered me that much if Larson had said something more like, "It's likely he did this, since we know this about his personality" or whatever, rather than "He reached out and touched her hand as he spoke to her." There was no clear distinction between what definitely happened, and what maybe could have happened. That got bothersome.

    I could have just ignored the non-fiction aspect and enjoyed the story, if not for Larson's habit of getting bogged down in inconsequential details. He seemed to throw facts (or conjectured facts) in whenever the fancy struck him, rather than keeping the story moving.

    And finally, I got annoyed with the jumping back and forth between Holmes's story and the architecture/Worlds Fair story. Just when I'd get into one, we'd switch to the other. He could have done a better job of interweaving those.

    So, since my curiosity is piqued, but not enough to continue reading this book, I'm just going to do some Wikipedia reading and call it good.

  • Miranda Reads

    1893 was a year to remember - the World's Fair came to Chicago and H. H. Holmes (one of America's most famous serial killers) took full advantage. He stalked the streets and murdered whomever he pleased.

    I really liked the idea of this one - to take one of America's greatest triumphs and splicing his story along with one of the greatest horrors. However. There's too high of a disconnect between these two sides

    This reads like

    thrown together at inop

    1893 was a year to remember - the World's Fair came to Chicago and H. H. Holmes (one of America's most famous serial killers) took full advantage. He stalked the streets and murdered whomever he pleased.

    I really liked the idea of this one - to take one of America's greatest triumphs and splicing his story along with one of the greatest horrors. However. There's too high of a disconnect between these two sides

    This reads like

    thrown together at inopportune moments - as soon one half got the least bit exciting, we'd swap. It was

    to read.

    The World Fair section was interesting in its own right, but it

    to the serial killer that it became something to

    .

    For the

    - we see the entirety of its creation and eventual destruction. Ample page space was given to dissecting every. single. mind-numbing. detail.

    Roughly half the book was wasted on

    about the building paint, boats in the harbor and the landscaping. (

    .)

    Then, once I nodded off between 2-3 times, we'd jump to the insane murderer. But, there was a huge disconnect regarding page space.

    The longer the book went on, the shorter those H. H. Holmes sections would be - towards the end, we'd only get

    for every couple chapters of building plans. Fabulous.

    The two main stories weren't entirely separate - they did tangentially intersect - notably H. H. Holmes managed to lure so many people into his hotel

    of the fair and he

    take one of his victims to the fair but those connections did not seem strong enough for a joint book.

    While I appreciate the time and effort it took to research such a complete account of 1893, I had a hard time enjoying the novel. It felt like more of a mess than anything.

  • Lobstergirl

    Larson could be the worst nonfiction writer working in America today. When he notes that "[Frederick Law] Olmsted was no literary stylist. Sentences wandered through the report like morning glory through the pickets of a fence" he might as well be describing himself. It's painful to make your way through his books. The melodrama is over the top. He'll go on for several pages about some unnamed person, attempting to heighten the "mystery," and anyone who graduated second grade will quickly realiz

    Larson could be the worst nonfiction writer working in America today. When he notes that "[Frederick Law] Olmsted was no literary stylist. Sentences wandered through the report like morning glory through the pickets of a fence" he might as well be describing himself. It's painful to make your way through his books. The melodrama is over the top. He'll go on for several pages about some unnamed person, attempting to heighten the "mystery," and anyone who graduated second grade will quickly realize he's talking about the inventor of the Ferris Wheel. But only several chapters later - in the manner of Nancy Drew abruptly tumbling to the bottom of a dark well - he'll have the mystery man dramatically sign his name to a letter: George Washington Gale Ferris. George Washington Gale

    !!!!!!!!

    His narrative is peppered with the most insignificant, totally unrelated factoids, I suppose because they amused him and he couldn't stand the thought of leaving them out. He loves nothing more than to set a scene - so and so in a Pullman car or a fine dining club, this and that person on an ocean liner, attempting to send a cable to someone on the

    - merely in order to convey some piece of information totally unrelated to the wholly gratuitous scene. As to historical accuracy, doubtless there's a fair bit; he does have lots of end notes, and he consulted many historical sources. But he also embellishes novelistically in a way that no real historian would ever allow himself to do. It's shameful, and shameless. He asserts in the text that such and such happened, but if you check the endnotes, it didn't really happen - but

    , he says. It was likely, he felt. After reading

    , which was also heavily embellished and the endnotes similarly acknowledging such, I don't trust anything this man writes. I wash my hands of him.

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