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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » The Devil In The White City: Murder, Magic, Madness, And The Fair That Changed America » User review

Power and beauty vs a mask of evil

  • Jan 2, 2004
  • by
In 1889 there is intense competition for a world's fair celebrating Columbus Day, especially after the stunning success of the recent World Exposition in Paris, the Eiffel Tower its centerpiece. The American version is scheduled to debut in 1893; the bidding is fierce, especially the competition between Chicago and New York City and the stakes are tremendous. In a tense vote, Congress awards the opportunity of a lifetime to Chicago.

The selected architects are faced with an almost insurmountable task, the foundations, the grounds, the venues and, most important, an attraction that will equal the Eiffel Tower in innovation and splendor. Daniel Burnham positions himself at the helm of this great enterprise, eventually wresting fiscal control and decision-making away from those with conflicting interests. Under the leadership of the firm of Burnham and Root, the most prominent Chicago architects gather to plan this massive undertaking.These men see Chicago as the most impressive and powerful city in America and Burnham is determined to see his vision for Chicago brought to life. To this end, Burnham engages the aid of his wealthy and accomplished cohorts, many of them captains of industry in this emerging city.

The designing architects paint the buildings white, in a stroke of inspired genius, thus creating the mythological "White City", a jewel set into a harsh landscape, a place of wonder and imagination. Here a troubled population can forget their troubles. But, while the White City is under construction, heinous crimes occur with increasing frequency. In one of the first recorded cases of serial murder, consummate psychopath H.H. Holmes kills scores of unsuspecting young women. Holmes builds a residence-hotel, establishing himself as a businessman in Chicago, charmingly seducing his victims, many of them hired as assistants in his pharmacy or residents in his hotel. Holmes' crimes are finally uncovered after the closing of the World's Fair and people are sickened that such a monster could live in their midst, plucking victims from the naive tourists.

Devil in the White City brilliantly contrasts the chasm between rich and poor, good and evil, providing this thoroughly researched work with fascinating details, especially the unremitting drive toward progress in Chicago, a definitive example of the American businessman amassing great wealth through monopoly and industrialization. This new century offers unparalleled opportunity for those in a position to avail themselves of such favorable circumstances; at the same time, the poor, uneducated and unemployed are crushed beneath the blind march of progress. Had the citizens of Chicago been gifted with precognition, they would have observed a future of unprecedented leaps in industrialization and the amassing of private fortunes, all of which eventually lead to the separation of economic, educational and social classes. Luan Gaines/2004.

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review by . September 30, 2008
Creepy-cool history of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, intertwined with the history of the serial killer H. H. Holmes who was operating at and around the Fair and may have accounted for anywhere from 9 (confirmed) to 50 (suspected) to even 200 (conjectured) murders.     Reads like an atmospheric slasher novel, except it is history, and thoroughly footnoted from contemporary accounts as well as secondary sources. The couple of scenes where Larson assumes an omniscient authorial …
review by . May 19, 2010
Murder, Mayhem, and National Pride
Erik Larson must have spent a year just doing the research for The Devil in the White City. I probably learned more about our nation's history from reading this book than I did in an entire college course. In the book, Larson combines two stories: the story of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago and the story of H.H. Holmes, one of the U.S.'s first serial killers. This is an incredible story, and each page of the book is filled with little tidbits that make you think, "Hmm...why did …
review by . October 09, 2010
As Chicago entered the final decade of the 19th century, it was a black city with a black heart, a figurative and literal pig sty run by a civil administration rife with graft and dominated by the stink of the pig slaughtering industry that was run by the local equivalent of capitalist robber barons. In a shocking affront to New York City's insufferable sense of superiority, Chicago's city fathers somehow won the right to host the 1893 World Fair. Despite the astonishing crime rates, the …
Quick Tip by . October 09, 2010
An interesting, informative and exciting juxtaposition of two wildly different historical events that took place in Chicago - the creation of the 1893 Columbian Exposition and the terror of America's first documented serial killer, Dr H.H. Holmes.
review by . July 15, 2010
I'm not usually a fan of non-fiction but this book was amazing. I was spellbound as I read. The author did a great job of describing the time period, it made me almost sad to live now and not then. I was in awe at the descriptions of architecture and building even though I previously had no experience with either of these. That, combined with the descriptions of the "evil" guy's psychotic personality was a great combination that kept me turning the pages. I would recommend …
Quick Tip by . July 05, 2010
good stuff, learned a lot and got freaked out!
Quick Tip by . July 01, 2010
Loved this! Great look at a unique moment in history and a little known serial killer - nicely woven into one.
Quick Tip by . June 28, 2010
An excellent combining of history with imagination. Erik Larsen weaves plots together in this book with great skill!
Quick Tip by . June 24, 2010
Quick Tip by . June 23, 2010
Enjoyed the dark subject matter and historical recount of the world's fair.
About the reviewer
Luan Gaines ()
Ranked #109
An artist/writer, I have traveled the world, walked on the moon and learned the complicated language of humanity, the enormity of the universe... all through the written word. My first passport was a … more
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About this book


The 1893 Chicago World's Fair is the setting for this true account of two very different men: the celebrated architect Daniel H. Burnham, who designed and supervised the construction of the "White City" around which the fair was built; and H.H. Holmes (born Herman Webster Mudgett), a fiendishly clever serial killer posing as a doctor, who murdered scores of people, mostly young women, in his World's Fair Hotel, which contained a gas chamber and a handy crematorium for disposing of his victims. Telling their entwined stories in alternating points of view, Erik Larson illuminates the lives of these two men, but also provides insightful commentary on the changes that were taking place in American society that allowed both phenomena--a grandiose World's Fair and a string of unsolved murders--to take place. The book contains cameo appearances by such late-19th-century celebrities as Buffalo Bill Cody, Susan B. Anthony, and Thomas Edison.
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Books, Book, Cafe Libri, Usa, History, 19th Century, Chicago Worlds Fair


ISBN-10: 0375725601
ISBN-13: 978-0375725609
Author: Erik Larson
Genre: History
Publisher: Vintage
Date Published: May 03, 2005
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