Email me at

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

"The fair had a powerful and lasting impact on the nation's psyche, in ways both large and small." (Page 373)

About the Book (from Publishers Weekly): Not long after Jack the Ripper haunted the ill-lit streets of 1888 London, H.H. Holmes (born Herman Webster Mudgett) dispatched somewhere between 27 and 200 people, mostly single young women, in the churning new metropolis of Chicago; many of the murders occurred during (and exploited) the city's finest moment, the World's Fair of 1893. Larson's breathtaking new history is a novelistic yet wholly factual account of the fair and the mass murderer who lurked within it.

"Despite its incomplete exhibits, rutted paths, and stretches of unplanted ground, the exposition revealed to its early visitors a vision of what a city could be and ought to be." (Page 247)

My Thoughts: The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson (Vintage Books, 2003) is a historical crime novel that outlines the creation of the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. The reader is offered two separate storylines that never fully converge: The monumental obstacles faced in constructing the buildings and landscape for the Fair and the violent acts of a serial killer who preyed upon those seeking adventure and fortune in this growing city.
     The writing is extremely detailed, at times reading like a history book with the effort to bring to life the obstacles that were faced in order to create the Fair. Architecture is the leading character of this novel with nature a close second. From the city's efforts to secure the commission to host the event, to soil composition, winds, climate, and fire, the architects were continually challenged to design their visions. In the end, they succeeded. With all of the buildings painted white, the White City enamored visitors and established that Chicago had created a fair capable of competing with Europe. In an effort to build something more grand than Paris had with the Eiffel Tower, the Ferris Wheel was created, becoming an instant success and still beloved today.
     While the city was preoccupied with the building of the fair, a serial killer is setting up a hotel to house visitors and lure victims into his realm. Later referenced as the "Castle of Horrors," the building contained an elaborate gas chamber that was used in several of the killings. Likened to Jack the Ripper, Herman Mudgett or his alias Dr. H.H. Holmes, charmed his victims into believing that he was a successful doctor and businessman whom they could easily trust. Holmes would sell the skeletons of his victims to universities and hospitals for scientific research. The exact number of murders committed by Holmes remained unknown but at least nine were confirmed and many more suspected. After the World's Fair, Holmes was finally arrested in Boston, initially over a case of insurance fraud. Following the gruesome discoveries uncovered during the investigations, he was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging.
     The story flows back and forth between the construction of the White City, centering around Chief Architect and Overseer Daniel Hudson Burnham, and the darkness of Holmes' acts of violence against women, men, and children. The novel addresses many themes that were arising as the country advanced into the twentieth century: increasing violence in cities; the widening gap between the wealthy and the poor; an unstable economy; and labor tensions. The novel defines a stark distinction between the city that Chicago's visionaries hoped to create and the city that existed for many.

Happy Reading!


  1. "...a stark distinction between the city that Chicago's visionaries hoped to create and the city that existed for many." That is such a great way to sum up this book Rebecca! Love it :)

    I'm glad you enjoyed this one. Can you believe that guy?? And how isn't he more famous. Not that murderers should be know what I mean.

    If you haven't read Larson's In the Garden of Beasts that's another good one. :)

    1. Thanks for visiting Jennifer! I feel like I have been out of the reading and blogging loop. I was reading this one for over a month. I would have liked to have read more about the serial killer after reading some of Larson's notes at the end of the book. I think I am finally coming out of my reading burnout after finishing this meticulously researched book.
      Happy Reading,

  2. I read this one a few years ago! I kept going back and forth about which storyline I found more fascinating. Larson is a great writer.

  3. I read this and really liked it ... I think, however, that I liked In the Garden of Beasts a bit more ... the latter deals more with the human aspect.

  4. Rebecca, thanks for stopping by and adding to the new month's library. Cheers

  5. I really liked this book. THANKS for the reminder.

    Stopping by from Carole's Books You Loved July Edition. I am in the list as #75.

    Silver's Reviews
    My Book Entry

  6. I have been meaning to read this one for AGES and your review has bumped it up my TBR list! :) Thanks!



Blog Widget by LinkWithin