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

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Most Helpful Favorable Review

45 out of 53 people found this review helpful.

Reviewed by K. Osborn Sullivan for TeensReadToo.com

In 1893, Chicago was gearing up for its shining moment on the international stage. The city had been selected to host the World's Fair, beating out New York and a number of other American contenders. A prominent local architect, Daniel Burnham, had taken the reins to or...
In 1893, Chicago was gearing up for its shining moment on the international stage. The city had been selected to host the World's Fair, beating out New York and a number of other American contenders. A prominent local architect, Daniel Burnham, had taken the reins to organize and construct the massive project. He assembled a dream team of architects, landscapers, engineers, and other professionals to help pull the fair together. Certainly Chicago could outdo the Paris Fair, which had been a worldwide success years earlier.

Unfortunately for Burnham and his team, everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. Due to a lack of organization and bickering among the committees responsible for the fair, construction began far later than it should have. Partially completed buildings blew over and burned down. Union workers threatened strikes. One sideshow act showed up a year early, while another (which was believed to be made up of cannibals) killed the man sent to retrieve them and never showed up at all. And there was a monster on the loose. A man who used the chaos of Chicago at this time in history to conceal the murders of dozens of people - many of them young, single women. A man who constructed a building with stolen money, then used the building as a slaughterhouse to lure, kill, and dispose of his victims.

THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY is a terrific book. It is nonfiction, but it reads like a novel. The real-life details of this story seem almost too bizarre to be true, yet this is one example of the old saying that "truth is stranger than fiction." The author, Erik Larson, even includes a lengthy section at the back where he documents his facts and explains his suppositions.

The book's chapters alternate between the World's Fair and the exploits of serial killer, Dr. H.H. Holmes. I found myself enjoying both stories, as they ran parallel throughout the book. The Herculean task of putting together the fair in record time was fascinating, and the sociopathic actions of Dr. Holmes were chilling. It made for a brilliant contrast - just when the frustrations of the Fair seemed overwhelming, the book switched to Dr. Holmes as he lured yet another young woman into his web. And just when Dr. Holmes' evil seemed too much to bear, the chapter would end and the reader would be back at the World's Fair dealing with political back stabbing, instead of Holmes' more literal variety.

I rarely read nonfiction, but this book came highly recommended to me, so I gave it a try. I'm so glad I did, too. It offers a wonderful historical perspective on Chicago and the world near the close of the 19th century. For a Chicago-area native like me, its frequent mentions of famous local names, like Burnham and Adler and Marshall Field, that still grace street signs and the sides of buildings, were an added treat. Just a brief word of warning, though: it does contain some of the dreaded "adult themes." Some of Dr. Holmes' crimes are described - although not too graphically - and they might be upsetting for "younger or more sensitive" readers.

I strongly recommend THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY to anyone who enjoys an engrossing, well-written story, whether they normally read fiction or nonfiction. In particular, if readers have a book report in school, this book should be considered. It makes history come alive.

posted by TeensReadToo on October 27, 2008

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Most Helpful Critical Review

31 out of 48 people found this review helpful.

Not enoough Killer, & too much architecture.

The title of the book is misleading. Basically the book is two entirely, unrelated stories that have nothing to do with each other. If you like architecture and the history thereof, you may very well enjoy this book. However, if you are a mystery/thriller buff, it wi...
The title of the book is misleading. Basically the book is two entirely, unrelated stories that have nothing to do with each other. If you like architecture and the history thereof, you may very well enjoy this book. However, if you are a mystery/thriller buff, it will be a big disappointment.

posted by VickiK on February 22, 2010

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  • Posted October 27, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    Reviewed by K. Osborn Sullivan for TeensReadToo.com

    In 1893, Chicago was gearing up for its shining moment on the international stage. The city had been selected to host the World's Fair, beating out New York and a number of other American contenders. A prominent local architect, Daniel Burnham, had taken the reins to organize and construct the massive project. He assembled a dream team of architects, landscapers, engineers, and other professionals to help pull the fair together. Certainly Chicago could outdo the Paris Fair, which had been a worldwide success years earlier. <BR/><BR/>Unfortunately for Burnham and his team, everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. Due to a lack of organization and bickering among the committees responsible for the fair, construction began far later than it should have. Partially completed buildings blew over and burned down. Union workers threatened strikes. One sideshow act showed up a year early, while another (which was believed to be made up of cannibals) killed the man sent to retrieve them and never showed up at all. And there was a monster on the loose. A man who used the chaos of Chicago at this time in history to conceal the murders of dozens of people - many of them young, single women. A man who constructed a building with stolen money, then used the building as a slaughterhouse to lure, kill, and dispose of his victims. <BR/><BR/>THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY is a terrific book. It is nonfiction, but it reads like a novel. The real-life details of this story seem almost too bizarre to be true, yet this is one example of the old saying that "truth is stranger than fiction." The author, Erik Larson, even includes a lengthy section at the back where he documents his facts and explains his suppositions. <BR/><BR/>The book's chapters alternate between the World's Fair and the exploits of serial killer, Dr. H.H. Holmes. I found myself enjoying both stories, as they ran parallel throughout the book. The Herculean task of putting together the fair in record time was fascinating, and the sociopathic actions of Dr. Holmes were chilling. It made for a brilliant contrast - just when the frustrations of the Fair seemed overwhelming, the book switched to Dr. Holmes as he lured yet another young woman into his web. And just when Dr. Holmes' evil seemed too much to bear, the chapter would end and the reader would be back at the World's Fair dealing with political back stabbing, instead of Holmes' more literal variety. <BR/><BR/>I rarely read nonfiction, but this book came highly recommended to me, so I gave it a try. I'm so glad I did, too. It offers a wonderful historical perspective on Chicago and the world near the close of the 19th century. For a Chicago-area native like me, its frequent mentions of famous local names, like Burnham and Adler and Marshall Field, that still grace street signs and the sides of buildings, were an added treat. Just a brief word of warning, though: it does contain some of the dreaded "adult themes." Some of Dr. Holmes' crimes are described - although not too graphically - and they might be upsetting for "younger or more sensitive" readers. <BR/><BR/>I strongly recommend THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY to anyone who enjoys an engrossing, well-written story, whether they normally read fiction or nonfiction. In particular, if readers have a book report in school, this book should be considered. It makes history come alive.

    45 out of 53 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted March 25, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    This book surprised me with Architectural history, Chicago's history, and World Fair history. Occurring at the same time is murder. This kept me wanting to find out more.

    Having some knowledge of Chicago I found this book very interesting. I initially thought I would like the book primarily because of the murder mystery. I ended up enjoying the Architectural part of the book even better. The author seemed to really do his research with the people who helped make Chicago the selection for the World Fair in 1893. The history and the way it was written made me feel for the people who worked, lived and died so long ago. They didn't have modern medicine and died young. The lack of modern convenience made life so, so hard. In 1874, I could sense the beginning of Big Finance and Big organizations. At twenty-eight years old a young architect tells a friend "My idea," he said, "is to work up a big business, to handle big things, deal with big business men, and to build up big organization, for you can't handle big things unless you have an organization" (Larson 21). From this Burnham and Root prospered by helping the city become the birthplace of skyscrapers. I had to remind myself this book was real history. It was so entertaining I felt as if I was reading a fiction novel. Some of the architecture stands today in Chicago and this makes this book even more exciting. What I enjoyed most about this book is that I felt I was reading two books at the same time. I had no dislikes in this book and I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves murder mysteries, history and architecture. Definitely one of the best books I've ever read.

    33 out of 37 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 22, 2010

    Not enoough Killer, & too much architecture.

    The title of the book is misleading. Basically the book is two entirely, unrelated stories that have nothing to do with each other. If you like architecture and the history thereof, you may very well enjoy this book. However, if you are a mystery/thriller buff, it will be a big disappointment.

    31 out of 48 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted October 5, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Truth is stranger than fiction

    This book warped my mind. To think that this story is actually true is just unimaginable. The Devil in the White City is a great piece or work! Erik Larson put together and unbelievable book that proves truth is stranger than fiction. The story is about two men and the World's Fair of 1893. One man, Daniel Burnham, is a brilliant architect who brings the idea of the World's Fair to life. He built what some thought was impossible. The other man, Dr. H. H. Holmes is a cunning serial killer who uses the World's Fair to lure his unsuspecting victims to their doom. This book is not for middle school readers of anyone of that sort, this book is meant for higher level readers. I loved how this book is composed of murder and mystery, but also architecture and history. The World's Fair had some of the most interesting, important innovations of the Gilded Age. It was home of the world's first Ferris Wheel, the world's first skyscraper (The Montauk), and some of the 19th century's most influential figures such as Thomas Edison, Susan B. Anthony, Jane Addams, Clarence Darrow, Archduke Francais Ferdinand, Buffalo Bill, and Helen Keller. I cannot begin the explain how much I enjoyed this book. It tells two stories at the same time of two men who never met, but yet worked within a few blocks of each other. I loved almost every part of this story! I enjoy gruesome facts and details that can make your hair stand on end. The only thing I didn't like is how much it was sometimes hard to follow what was going on at what time. I sometimes had to re-read a chapter or two to grasp what was happening. I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone who loves a good read! One of the most chilling parts of the book was in the epilogue when it gives details about a physician/serial killer that was arrested in 1997 at O'Hare Airport in Chicago. He had written down passages from certain books that inspired his acts of murder. He copied a passage from a book about Holmes called the Torture Doctor by David Franke and what he wrote sent a chill down my spine. " 'He could look at himself in a mirror and tell himself that he was one of the most powerful and dangerous men in the world,' " Swango's notebook read, " ' He could feel that he was a god in disguise.' "

    14 out of 15 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 10, 2012

    I couldn't finish it

    Since I was unable to finish the book, please take my review with a grain of salt.

    I found the history of this book fascinating. Erik Larson has obviously done an incredible amount of research. The reason I couldn't finish the book has nothing to do with his writing ability. I just found myself so disturbed by the premeditated plans of murder by one of the main characters that I couldn't stop thinking about it. I found the darkness settling into me, and I couldn't shake it. I was literally having nightmares. Part of me would love to finish the book, and for those people who aren't as easily disturbed by such things, I would recommend it. For the sake of my own emotional well-being, though, I had to step out of the White City.

    12 out of 15 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 28, 2009

    The white city and the Black city

    Chicago 1893: the city is immersed in tremendous change, progress, and innovation. Trains arrive in the crowded stations every few minutes, leading more wide eyed tourists into the heart of a new frontier. In the expansion of the city and the sweeping narrative of two powerful men's stories intertwined, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Mayhem at the Fair that Changed America (Vintage Books, 2003, 447 pgs) shows the undercurrent of danger in a city that can no longer control itself.
    The Devil in the White City is Erik Larson's historical crime drama centered around the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The electricity of Chicago is captured in every chapter, infecting the reader with a sense of great civic pride and tremendous competition that was so rampant in that time. The book opens to an anxious crowd clustered around a newspaper printer's front window, waiting not so patiently for the results of a Congressional vote. Chicago, seen as a city of pure industry and little refinement, had to beat the nation's capitol as well as the nation's cultural capitol, New York, for the bid to host the grandest party of the century. Counts against it were the city's tremendous Union Stock Yards, the smell of which dominated the city's air. Larson quotes Upton Sinclair from his famous book The Jungle, saying the smell was "an elemental odor.raw and crude, it was rich, almost rancid, sensual and strong."
    Among the chaos that is a theme in this book, a hero and villain are revealed. Daniel Hudson Burnham was the main architect in charge of constructing the White City as it came to be called, and assembled a team of the country's greatest architects and designers. The goal was simple: The Columbian Exposition had to outshine the Paris World's Fair of 1889 in every way, shape, and form, especially when it came to the wow-factor of Eiffel's newly built tower. The term "Out Eiffel-Eiffel" becomes the mantra of the story as countless designs are presented right up to the wire of the Dedication Ceremony, just under a year before the fair's official opening.
    The story will certainly appeal to those who have a sweet spot for history and nostalgia (The fair is responsible for the Ferris Wheel, the Pledge of Allegiance, and more minutely, the zipper), but some will have a difficult time getting through the sluggish meetings of the many architects. The narrative moves at a good pace until it gets confined into one of the many indecisive meetings where even the plans for the fairs structures are not finished a year into the venture. The frustration is tangible in these chapters, but impatient readers may just interpret it as the author's frustration with a need for back story.

    11 out of 15 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 13, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Excellent read

    If you like history, this book is brilliant. Just read it!!!

    9 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 14, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Very interesting read

    interesting story...H. H. Holmes is a most intriguing serial killer, elaborate and highly functional - he was blessed to grow up in a time period where people weren't so carefully watched, where killing a child was unheard of, and in the burgeoning city of Chicago, noxious with slaughter house factory fumes, poor sewage drainage and overcrowded tenements, people died and disappeared daily, with no one to ask after them once they were gone. That people began to arrive in the thousands for the Chicago fair, and that they all required housing, only seemed to add fuel to his fire - it deviously ingenius that he should construct a building fit with secret gas chambers and upright, underground kilns for burning bodies, a building that was meant to house apartments for various, untraceable women arriving in Chicago to seek their fortunes, and that he should have the good luck of then converting it into a hotel just in time for the Fair.
    The Fair itself, and the construction of the Fair, is quite enlightening - from it came The Ferris Wheel (our answer to France's Fair and their Eiffel Tower), Juicy Fruit Gum, Shredded Wheat, Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill's Wild West, and the beginning of Labor Unions, as well as a turn in American architecture towards the past (especially with the use of columns, which we still see today). The entire grounds were electrically lit at night (Tesla was there, to marvel at the huge "electrical house"). Even "The Windy City", a referral to Chicago, came about from the Fair. It alluded not to the actual windiness of the city, but rather to Chicago's need to "talk itself up"; Chicago apparently had an inferiority complex (what with it's smoke-filled skies and unsanitary conditions and rampant crime) and so felt the need to constantly reaffirm to the world what a wonderful, burgeoning place it was, like a nerd kid whining about how cool he really is (endearing). It fought pretty hard to get the Fair in the first place.
    All in all, an interesting read, especially once you realize how the Fair really changed and shaped things in the United States, and how HH Holmes existed within it and helped to change crime investigation, and also how he exposed just how dark a man's soul can really be.
    If you like historical fiction, it's a good read. If you don't like historical detail, it might take you a while.

    8 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 13, 2012

    Excitement in non-fiction

    We have a great history that reads with the excitement of a beach novel. The story of the Chicago Columbian exhibition is woven together with that of an eerie and clever killer. The atmosphere of the era is brought to life along with the issues that are timeless - politics, deadlines, business rivalries, aesthetics. Using a prominent figure's personal story enables events that are familiar, like the Titanic, to serve as reference anchors, both in timeframe and personalities. The characters, along with the emotions of the events, become very visible and real to the reader. I highly recommend this to anyone interested in Chicago or in the late 19th Century.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 21, 2012

    Not worth it

    While the historical significance and engineering marvels are interesting, story is boring and hard to finish

    5 out of 12 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 14, 2011

    Could Hardly Put It Down!

    I have had my first ever Nook Tablet for about 2 weeks now and this is the second book I have read on it. I scarcely could put it down! It was so well written, easily glancing between the building and planning of the Chicago World Fair to the life of H H Holmes, a man incapable of being human whose sole purpose in living in Chicago seems to be simply to rack up his next victim! The research Larson put into this book was amazing. Many items and tidbits regarding the World Fair and how it relates to us now and has shaped us as a country -most things that I simply was unaware of. Be sure to not stop reading simply because you read the last paragraph! He gives notes in his bibliography going by chapter at the end that help you to understand even more why he wrote certain things in his book and how he arrived at these details.

    I talked so much about this book that now my husband, 13 yr old son and 20 yr old daughter will be fighting me for the Nook in order to read this book.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 30, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    A Compelling read

    So many histories are dry and the people remain two-dimensional. Not so with this book; the time period comes alive and the people are quite interesting. I am not sure why it bothers some people that the stories of the two main characters never directly intersect. To me, it was fascinating that either story occurred at all, much less in such close proximity, and that the Chicago World's Fair served as the inspiration for both men.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 6, 2012

    Historical read

    Read for book club. If you are a history buff, this is your book.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 29, 2012

    Ok but not gripping enough

    The idea/plotline is absolutely riviting! However, i could sm up the first 120 pages in less then 5 pages!! The author drags on about unimportant details that make it extremely difficult to get through. After part 1 end though, te book really picks up! Defnitely read this book but make sure you drink many cups of coffee before attempting the first 120 pages!

    2 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 26, 2013

    The title "The Devil in The White City" implies that t

    The title &quot;The Devil in The White City&quot; implies that the killer has something to do with the World's Fair.  Although loosely connected, this book is more like two stories than one. Yes, the killer was active during the Fair, but besides that the long, drawn out descriptions of the planning for the world's fair did little to advance the plot.  I read the 3/4 of the book waiting for the two stories to sync up but they never did.  Pretty disappointing overall.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 14, 2013

    A great story of the Gilded Age in early Chicago. The architects

    A great story of the Gilded Age in early Chicago. The architects led by Daniel Burnham trying to make Chicago into one of the most 
    prominent cities in the world and everything it took to make that dream to come true.  The other story running is Dr. Holmes who uses the
    fair and his hotel as a chamber of horrors. Mr. Larson's  uses historical facts that reads like a great novel!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 14, 2013

    Great book!!!!

    Love the true crime books and this one was really good.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 10, 2013

    The amount of raw resources required to build the 1893 Chicago W

    The amount of raw resources required to build the 1893 Chicago World's Fair was staggering. It is such a pity that the buildings were considered temporary and were not maintained when so much went into building them. The serial killer was also an exceptional character of evil. 

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 21, 2013

    Good read

    I enjoyed reading about the Chicago World's Fair. I didn't know much about it before reading this book and had no idea what a big deal it was. I also enjoyed the juxtapositioning of the story of H.H. Holmes with the story of the fair. That being said, this book left me wishing for more details about both. It's a great introduction to both stories but if you're like me, you will be looking elsewhere for more information.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 31, 2013

    Wonderful and Horrific

    This book is by far the best non fiction novel I have ever read. It shows the greatest hieghts and lowest depths of the human spirit. The tales of the two radically different men is told in such great detail that they mystify and enchant you to the point that you feel like you lived in Chicago during the Worlds Fair.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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