The Devil In The White City: Murder, Magic, And Madness At The Fair That Changed America

Paperback | February 10, 2004

byErik Larson

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Erik Larson—author of #1 bestseller IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS—intertwines the true tale of the 1893 World's Fair and the cunning serial killer who used the fair to lure his victims to their death. Combining meticulous research with nail-biting storytelling, Erik Larson has crafted a narrative with all the wonder of newly discovered history and the thrills of the best fiction.

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Combining meticulous research with nail-biting storytelling, Erik Larson has crafted a narrative with all the wonder of newly discovered history and the thrills of the best fiction.

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From Our Editors

Combining meticulous research with nail-biting storytelling, Erik Larson has crafted a narrative with all the wonder of newly discovered history and the thrills of the best fiction.

From the Publisher

Erik Larson—author of #1 bestseller IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS—intertwines the true tale of the 1893 World's Fair and the cunning serial killer who used the fair to lure his victims to their death. Combining meticulous research with nail-biting storytelling, Erik Larson has crafted a narrative with all the wonder of newly discovered histo...

From the Jacket

Bringing Chicago circa 1893 to vivid life, Erik Larson's spellbinding bestseller intertwines the true tale of two men--the brilliant architect behind the legendary 1893 World's Fair, striving to secure America's place in the world; and the cunning serial killer who used the fair to lure his victims to their death. Combining meticulous ...

ERIK LARSON is the author of four national bestsellers: In the Garden of Beasts, Thunderstruck, The Devil in the White City, and Isaac's Storm, which have collectively sold more than 5.5 million copies. His magazine stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's and other publications and his books have been pu...

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:464 pages, 7.98 × 5.16 × 0.94 inPublished:February 10, 2004Publisher:Knopf Doubleday Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0375725601

ISBN - 13:9780375725609

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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Awesome read I spent a summer in Chicago and this was an excellent book to read while exploring the city. It gives a historical account of significant city-shaping events as well as the culture of Chicago at the time. It was well written, entertaining, and informative.
Date published: 2016-02-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The devil in the white city Very well written and researched. Even pace of informaton and wonderful style of story telling. This is why i enjoy reading.
Date published: 2014-12-07
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Fascinating and terrifying Fascinating look at how opulence and technological advancements blind us to our most horrific capabilities.
Date published: 2014-12-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Captivating read I have read Larson's book twice. Each time I am amazed at how he grabs me in the first chapter and I cannot put the book down until I am done. It is a fascinating epic history.
Date published: 2013-09-01
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Not as exciting as the cover made it sound The Devil in the White City has the right formula to be a book I’d love. Erik Larson paints a historical account of the construction of the 1893 Chicago World Fair, as the backdrop for the story of the first documented American serial killer. As a huge history nerd – especially American history – this book jumped off the shelf at me. The book is centred around two characters: Daniel Burnham, who designed the Chicago World Fair as well as famous buildings such as Washington’s Union Station and the Flatiron building in New York City; and H.H. Holmes who confessed to 27 murders, but is thought to have killed closer to 200. Larson obviously did his research on both the 1893 fair and Holmes’ murders as he spares no detail covering both events. This bestseller is non-fiction but it reads like a novel, which is good because it keeps you intrigued. But it does hit a lot of slow patches that tend to drag on. Larson goes into a lot of specifics about how Chicago won the rights to have the fair and the 2.5 years of construction that followed. It was very interesting at parts, but there were times where he would spend pages describing arguments between the architects and the committee in place to get the fair up and running…yawn. He goes into great detail about the great deal of stress and little time available to get the fair done ‘right’ and ready by opening day, but his exhaustive account bordered on overkill. Speaking of overkill, the story of serial killer H.H. Holmes was more entertaining than the lengthy scene-setting. Noticeably, Larson continuously repeats that Holmes’ demeanour and bright blue eyes put people at ease. I understand that the author is trying to cement the point that Holmes had a way of winning people over, but it was unnecessary to even mention this within the last few chapters of the book when it had already been well-established. Holmes’ deceit and ability to keep people unsuspicious of him is interesting. There was also a minor subplot involving one Patrick Eugene Prendergast who is famous for assassinating the Chicago mayor Carter Harrison at the fair’s end, and being the first murder case of lawyer Clarence Darrow. These small insights into Prendergast were out of place in the story as it seemed like Larson remembered every now and then and so he would insert a small chapter on him. On the whole, the stories were interesting but were not nearly as entwined as the book cover made them out to be. The events coincided with each other only in the sense that they ran concurrently. Holmes wasn’t killing people because of the fair but because he was a deranged man who enjoyed killing – and mostly women. I enjoyed some parts of the book, but overall I found it difficult to gather enthusiasm to keep picking it up for fear of more slow-moving chapters.
Date published: 2013-08-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A great way to read history. Well written. Enjoyable read. Horrific character. But history, about what man is capable of.
Date published: 2013-06-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Nonfiction page turner While the wonders of the 1893 Columbia Exposition were amazing the crowds, two other extraordinary characters were bringing impending doom to the White City. Both were murderers, one on a far more colossal scale, and both were, in the parlance of the day, mad. Just how mad was not to be discovered until into the 20th century when madness could be explained. And even the visionary of the fair, David Burnham couldn't stop calamity from entering his perfect picture of America at the critical moment when he wanted acclaim and closure to what his last success. Engaging to the last, this chronicle of another time is as wonderfully detailed as you would expect if you could go back in time.
Date published: 2013-06-09
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great book Hooks the reader from the first chapter. Descriptions of the fair make one feel as if they have been there. An excellent non-fiction book. More about the capture of Holmes and his attempts to build a new castle in ft worth would have been nice but Larson made me go to wiki for more info about Holmes. All and all an excellent read.
Date published: 2013-05-23
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Reads Like a Novel! Another gem by Erik Larson that merits adaptation to a miniseries or movie. Loved the fluidity of the chapters and how they interlaced the lives of a noble architect and a serial killer within the backdrop of the 1893 World's Fair. Amazing how the Fair transformed American cities, consumer products etc...Not to be missed.
Date published: 2013-04-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from The Devil in the White City A brutal picture of the world of Chicago at the beginning of the 20th century.
Date published: 2013-03-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Amazing Detail! Mystery meets History. This story is packed with historical gems about Chicago in 1893 and the construction of the World's Fair . As the city prepares to take the world by storm, a killer is also making his mark. Very good read.
Date published: 2012-08-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Must Read I had no knowledge of the 1893 fair and all the innovations that it gave the world... and to think that there was this serial killer using it as a farming ground for victims... WOW. Holmes/Mudget blows Jack the Ripper out of the water, and I'd never heard of him until now. This is a must read!
Date published: 2009-07-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Mesmerizing! For three days I found myself engrossed in Erik Larson’s “The Devil in the White City” – a real life tale about architecture and murder in 1890’s Chicago. The great thing about this non-fiction book is that Larson perused his research materials and documentations by interweaving facts into a story so compelling that you find it almost impossible to put down (it reminds me so much of Capote’s “In Cold Blood”). The book’s main characters are Daniel Burnham, the chief architect of the White City (Chicago’s World Fair), and H.H. Holmes, the sociopath killer who preyed on women coming to see the fair. Although the two men never met, their stories work so well together and their contrast – beauty and evil - makes this book very well written. The fact that it is also informative is an added bonus, and lets not forget the cast of characters – Buffalo Bill, Thomas Edison, Susan B. Anthony, Mrs. Astor, just to name a few. I have to admit however that if it wasn't for the murder story, the book wouldn't be as intriguing and enjoyable.
Date published: 2009-01-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent! This book was wonderfully written about such an amazing event in history. I heard about this book before my recent vacation to Chicago and made sure I picked up a copy while I was there. I could not put it down! I loved reading how interconnected all the events and people were. I could visualize everything like a movie. It was also especially thrilling for me since I was just in Chicago!
Date published: 2008-07-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from You won't believe it's a true story! This is really two stories in one: it is partially about the building of the "White City" for the World's Fair which is a fascinating story involving fires (the White City was mostly made of wood), architectural feats of impossibility, and fights across. different levels of bureaucracy. At the same time, a serial killer is using the convergence of people on Chicago for the World's Fair to find multiple victims whom he lures and then murders in shockingly horrific ways. All of this sounds like the book is fiction, however it is actually based on real events. And, while it sounds like I've given away the whole book, trust me this is a fantastic book. If you enjoy history, mysteries, suspense or Americana you will enjoy The Devil in the White City
Date published: 2008-01-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Nail-Bitingly Good Storytelling Combining meticulous research with nail-biting storytelling, Erik Larson has crafted a narrative with all the wonder of newly discovered history and the thrills of the best fiction.
Date published: 2007-09-21
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Fantastic! Erik Larson has done an incredible amount of research to depict the history of the Chicago World Fair and what an impact it had on architecture, society and commerce at-large. Larson carefully characterizes the good intentions and dedication of the team of architects who diligently worked in creating the memorable monument. He then contrasts the inspiring team with a portrait of a doctor – a serial killer – who, unlike the architects, saw the Fair as a means to attract his victims. "The Devil in the White City" builds slowly but becomes hard to put down as both the Fair, and the doctor’s crimes progress rapidly. Larson weaves the black and white, dark and light, in a tight narrative with special attention to historical facts that must have, at one point, left him in the same awe and disbelief he expresses to his reader. Truly, a great book.
Date published: 2006-06-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Phenomenal! With its sprawling story and cast of famous historical figures, "The Devil In The White City" is reminiscent of E.L. Doctorow's turn-of-the-century novel "Ragtime" -- but "Devil" is in many ways better than Doctorow's masterpiece because the events it describes are true! A spellbinding account of how high -- and low -- the human species can go.
Date published: 2006-04-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Lizzy Absolutely fascinating...Everyone I have recommended Devil in the White City to has throughly enjoyed it.
Date published: 2005-02-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Amazing history This book is great for people who love to get a sense of an era. The focus seems to be primarily on the 1893 World's Fair with a side drama of serial murder. I loved how the author contrasted the fair and the murderer down the street. While these two elements were in contrast, the link between them is rock solid. I was surprised by the link to Toronto though. It is scary that this isn't far removed from today's headlines.
Date published: 2003-06-23

Extra Content

Read from the Book

The Black CityHow easy it was to disappear:A thousand trains a day entered or left Chicago. Many of these trains brought single young women who had never even seen a city but now hoped to make one of the biggest and toughest their home. Jane Addams, the urban reformer who founded Chicago's Hull House, wrote, "Never before in civilization have such numbers of young girls been suddenly released from the protection of the home and permitted to walk unattended upon the city streets and to work under alien roofs." The women sought work as typewriters, stenographers, seamstresses, and weavers. The men who hired them were for the most part moral citizens intent on efficiency and profit. But not always. On March 30, 1890, an officer of the First National Bank placed a warning in the help-wanted section of the Chicago Tribune, to inform female stenographers of "our growing conviction that no thoroughly honorable business-man who is this side of dotage ever advertises for a lady stenographer who is a blonde, is good-looking, is quite alone in the city, or will transmit her photograph. All such advertisements upon their face bear the marks of vulgarity, nor do we regard it safe for any lady to answer such unseemly utterances."The women walked to work on streets that angled past bars, gambling houses, and bordellos. Vice thrived, with official indulgence. "The parlors and bedrooms in which honest folk lived were (as now) rather dull places," wrote Ben Hecht, late in his life, trying to explain this persistent trait of old Chicago. "It was pleasant, in a way, to know that outside their windows, the devil was still capering in a flare of brimstone." In an analogy that would prove all too apt, Max Weber likened the city to "a human being with his skin removed."Anonymous death came early and often. Each of the thousand trains that entered and left the city did so at grade level. You could step from a curb and be killed by the Chicago Limited. Every day on average two people were destroyed at the city's rail crossings. Their injuries were grotesque. Pedestrians retrieved severed heads. There were other hazards. Streetcars fell from drawbridges. Horses bolted and dragged carriages into crowds. Fires took a dozen lives a day. In describing the fire dead, the term the newspapers most liked to use was "roasted." There was diphtheria, typhus, cholera, influenza. And there was murder. In the time of the fair the rate at which men and women killed each other rose sharply throughout the nation but especially in Chicago, where police found themselves without the manpower or expertise to manage the volume. In the first six months of 1892 the city experienced nearly eight hundred homicides. Four a day. Most were prosaic, arising from robbery, argument, or sexual jealousy. Men shot women, women shot men, and children shot each other by accident. But all this could be understood. Nothing like the Whitechapel killings had occurred. Jack the Ripper's five-murder spree in 1888 had defied explanation and captivated readers throughout America, who believed such a thing could not happen in their own hometowns.But things were changing. Everywhere one looked the boundary between the moral and the wicked seemed to be degrading. Elizabeth Cady Stanton argued in favor of divorce. Clarence Darrow advocated free love. A young woman named Borden killed her parents.And in Chicago a young handsome doctor stepped from a train, his surgical valise in hand. He entered a world of clamor, smoke, and steam, refulgent with the scents of murdered cattle and pigs. He found it to his liking.The letters came later, from the Cigrands, Williamses, Smythes, and untold others, addressed to that strange gloomy castle at Sixty-third and Wallace, pleading for the whereabouts of daughters and daughters' children.It was so easy to disappear, so easy to deny knowledge, so very easy in the smoke and din to mask that something dark had taken root.This was Chicago, on the eve of the greatest fair in history.

Bookclub Guide

US1) In the note “Evils Imminent,” Erik Larson writes “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” [xi]. What does the book reveal about “the ineluctable conflict between good and evil”? What is the essential difference between men like Daniel Burnham and Henry H. Holmes? Are they alike in any way?2) At the end of The Devil in the White City, in Notes and Sources, Larson writes “The thing that entranced me about Chicago in the Gilded Age was the city’s willingness to take on the impossible in the name of civic honor, a concept so removed from the modern psyche that two wise readers of early drafts of this book wondered why Chicago was so avid to win the world’s fair in the first place” [p. 393]. What motives, in addition to “civic honor,” drove Chicago to build the Fair? In what ways might the desire to “out-Eiffel Eiffel” and to show New York that Chicago was more than a meat-packing backwater be seen as problematic?3) The White City is repeatedly referred to as a dream. The young poet Edgar Lee Masters called the Court of Honor “an inexhaustible dream of beauty” [p. 252]; Dora Root wrote “I think I should never willingly cease drifting in that dreamland” [p. 253]; Theodore Dreiser said he had been swept “into a dream from which I did not recover for months” [p. 306]; and columnist Teresa Dean found it “cruel . . . to let us dream and drift through heaven for six months, and then to take it out of our lives” [p. 335]. What accounts for the dreamlike quality of the White City? What are the positive and negative aspects of this dream?4) In what ways does the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 change America? What lasting inventions and ideas did it introduce into American culture? What important figures were critically influenced by the Fair?5) At the end of the book, Larson suggests that “Exactly what motivated Holmes may never be known” [p. 395]. What possible motives are exposed in The Devil in the White City? Why is it important to try to understand the motives of a person like Holmes?6) After the Fair ended, Ray Stannard Baker noted “What a human downfall after the magnificence and prodigality of the World’s Fair which has so recently closed its doors! Heights of splendor, pride, exaltation in one month: depths of wretchedness, suffering, hunger, cold, in the next” [p. 334]. What is the relationship between the opulence and grandeur of the Fair and the poverty and degradation that surrounded it? In what ways does the Fair bring into focus the extreme contrasts of the Gilded Age? What narrative techniques does Larson use to create suspense in the book? How does he end sections and chapters of the book in a manner that makes’ the reader anxious to find out what happens next?7) Larson writes, “The juxtaposition of pride and unfathomed evil struck me as offering powerful insights into the nature of men and their ambitions” [p. 393]. What such insights does the book offer? What more recent stories of pride, ambition, and evil parallel those described in The Devil in the White City?8) What does The Devil in the White City add to our knowledge about Frederick Law Olmsted and Daniel Burnham? What are the most admirable traits of these two men? What are their most important aesthetic principles?9) In his speech before his wheel took on its first passengers, George Ferris “happily assured the audience that the man condemned for having ‘wheels in his head’ had gotten them out of his head and into the heart of the Midway Plaisance” [p. 279]. In what way is the entire Fair an example of the power of human ingenuity, of the ability to realize the dreams of imagination?10) How was Holmes able to exert such power over his victims? What weaknesses did he prey upon? Why wasn’t he caught earlier? In what ways does his story “illustrate the end of the century” [p. 370] as the Chicago Times-Herald wrote?11) What satisfaction can be derived from a nonfiction book like The Devil in the White City that cannot be found in novels? In what ways is the book like a novel?12) In describing the collapse of the roof of Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building, Larson writes “In a great blur of snow and silvery glass the building’s roof—that marvel of late nineteenth-century hubris, enclosing the greatest volume of unobstructed space in history—collapsed to the floor below” [p. 196–97]. Was the entire Fair, in its extravagant size and cost, an exhibition of arrogance? Do such creative acts automatically engender a darker, destructive parallel? Can Holmes be seen as the natural darker side of the Fair’s glory?13) What is the total picture of late nineteenth-century America that emerges from The Devil in the White City? How is that time both like and unlike contemporary America? What are the most significant differences? In what ways does that time mirror the present?

From Our Editors

Combining meticulous research with nail-biting storytelling, Erik Larson has crafted a narrative with all the wonder of newly discovered history and the thrills of the best fiction.

Editorial Reviews

“Engrossing . . . exceedingly well documented . . . utterly fascinating.” —Chicago Tribune “A dynamic, enveloping book. . . . Relentlessly fuses history and entertainment to give this nonfiction book the dramatic effect of a novel. . . . It doesn’t hurt that this truth is stranger than fiction.” --The New York Times "So good, you find yourself asking how you could not know this already." —Esquire “Another successful exploration of American history. . . . Larson skillfully balances the grisly details with the far-reaching implications of the World’s Fair.”—USA Today “As absorbing a piece of popular history as one will ever hope to find.”—San Francisco Chronicle “Paints a dazzling picture of the Gilded Age and prefigure the American century to come.”—Entertainment Weekly “A wonderfully unexpected book. . . Larson is a historian . . . with a novelist’s soul.”—Chicago Sun-Times