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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

Ferris wheels, Cracker Jacks, Buffalo Bill and a serial killer!

  • Oct 9, 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 filth, the brothels, the sewage, the dirt, the overwhelming stench of the local pork packing factories and the noise and smoke of railways right in the center of the city, they were determined to prove to themselves, to a spiteful and jealous New York, to the USA and, indeed, to the world that they were a modern city, that they could put together an exposition of architectural beauty and technological marvels that could best the recent bravura performance in Paris that showcased the astonishing Eiffel Tower.

THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY is, in fact, two stories. The first is the story of the Herculean efforts and undoubted success of architect, Daniel H Burnham, in designing and creating the 1893 Columbian Exposition, a World's Fair that did indeed meet and exceed every expectation and lofty dream that even the most hopeful of Chicago's citizens might have envisioned. Unlike so many authors of non-fiction material, Erik Larson has put together a story that reads like a novel. We learn that the 1893 World's Fair hosted the unveiling of such myriad US innovations as Cracker Jacks, the Ferris wheel and shredded wheat. The engineers and architects responsible for building the fair were also instrumental in leading the USA to the choice of an electrical system based on AC current. We witness dignitaries and leaders from around the world have their breath taken away as they attend a fair that indeed showcases the US entry into the technology of the 20th century. Appearances from the likes of Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley make Larson's exciting story even more colourful.

The second story is one of black, sinister evil that, at least in a metaphorical sense, contrasts with the uniform blinding white exterior of the magnificent structures that graced the grounds of the fair. Dr H.H. Holmes, born Herman Webster Mudgett, arguably the first documented American serial killer, opened a hotel very close to the fair. "Hotel" is a very charitable description of the building. In fact, it was a killing ground, a house of horrors equipped with a crematorium, gas chambers, surgical dissection tables, air tight vaults to torture and suffocate his victims. While the official count says that the charismatic and multiply bigamous Holmes was responsible for 27 murders, some estimates run as high as 200.

From the point of view of creating an amazing story, Larson's decision to juxtapose two such different topics was brilliant - black and white, the magic and beauty of the fair contrasted with the evil and horror of a killer, light versus dark and hope versus despair. The story of Holmes' astonishing ability to get away with so much for so long is even an interesting contrast against the ultimate dogged pursuit of the evidence that would ultimately convict him.

One of the editorial reviews of this books says:

"Author Erik Larson imbues the incredible events surrounding the 1893 Chicago World's Fair with such drama that readers may find themselves checking the book's categorization to be sure that The Devil in the White City is not, in fact, a highly imaginative novel."

I read another review which made it quite clear that the author of the review had indeed suffered from this misunderstanding. The point is, of course, that Erik Larson has done his work that well. Interesting, informative and exciting, THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY is a thoroughly enjoyable read. Highly recommended.

Paul Weiss

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October 09, 2010
You liked this more than I did, Paul. Glad you enjoyed it.
October 09, 2010
Thanks, Linda.
More The Devil In The White City: M... reviews
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 …
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.
Quick Tip by . June 16, 2010
Great story and a lot of Chicago history to boot.
About the reviewer
Paul Weiss ()
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   A modern day dilettante with widely varied eclectic interests. A dabbler in muchbut grandmaster of none - wilderness camping in all four seasons, hiking, canoeing, world travel,philately, … 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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