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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

48 out of 56 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

33 out of 50 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 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.

    14 out of 17 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 March 20, 2013

    Interesting but wordy

    The story of the Chicago World's Fair intertwined with that of a serial killer was intrinsicaly fascinating. The author did extensive research on the subject. Unfortunately he chose to include every detail of it, which bogged down the story. I found myself skimming over whole sections that were weighed down with minute details. I think the book would have benefitted from judicious editing. But, a reader will learn a lot about the time, place, political intrigue and customs of the era. Worth reading if one is patient.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 21, 2011

    A surprising piece of history!

    The Devil in the White City is about the historical fair called the World's Columbian Exposition, which took place in Chicago in 1893. The book accurately describes the story and hardships of the fair, yet at the same time is able to keep it interesting. The actual people become characters in the story, each with their own personality, their own flaws. Instead of reading about the entire fair in bulk, you read through it as if you were planning it yourself. However, that's not the whole story. You're also taken through the life of Holmes, a handsome man who is actually a violent murderer. As he uses the World's Columbian Exposition to his advantage, you'll be on the edge of your seat, wondering just how Chicago never noticed this insane man just blocks away from the greatest fair in the entire USA, and perhaps, the world.

    Several literary devices were used to twist this book more into a story than a miniature literature book. The usage probably saved the book's reputation from being a boring lump of papers, and actually made it into the National Bestseller. The author was especially fond of similes, imagery, and personification.

    ".she felt as if a course blanket had been lifted from her life." Pg. 63

    "Despite its incomplete exhibits, rutted paths, and stretches of unplanted ground, the exposition revealed it its early visitors a vision of what a city should and ought to be. The Black City to the north lay steeped in smoke and garbage, but here in The White City of the fair visitors found clean public bathrooms, pure water, an ambulance service, electric streetlights, and a sewage-processing system that yielded acres of manure for farmers." Pg. 247

    "The exposition by day might wear a chaste gown of white staff, but at night it danced barefoot and guzzled champagne." Pg. 315

    The best part about this book is that it delivered to me some of our country's history while being interesting at the same time. History isn't always the liveliest subject, and sure enough, I wouldn't have even considered reading The Devil in the White City had it not been on the library's recommended reading shelf. However, once you've gotten a decent way into the book, you will find that history can be amazing.and deadly.

    The worst part about this book is that, sadly, it does have some dull parts. Especially dull is the beginning, which introduces you to the background of the characters. Now, the beginning really does take on the tone of a history book. Readers who like a quick rush into the plot will inevitably grow bored, tossing it aside for another. However, the start of the book does prove useful as you read the rest, so while it's harmful interest-wise; it has its use later in the story.

    All in all, I probably wouldn't recommend this book to a friend. I got it on a whim, and ended up getting a nice chunk of history about our country. Most people do not wish to read about history, hence the swelling fiction section. Although it is a rather good book once you get far enough into the story, I doubt any of my friends would want to dig that deep.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 19, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    OK - interesting read

    The premise was interesting and I never realized the problems in dealing with a World's Fair. More could have been developed over the murders.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 13, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Interesting Reading

    I am not a big reader of non-fiction, but The Devil in the White City made for interesting reading. I enjoyed reading about all of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that faced Burnham and Olmstead in their quest to see their vision come alive. There were a great many engineering and architectural challenges and I especially enjoyed reading of the 'new' feats that were achieved which changed the future forever after the Fair. The interwoven story of Holmes and the murders he committed were not written in a sensational fashion and enables the reader to get into the mind of Holmes. I actually found myself admiring Holmes ability to adapt and turn each situation to his advantage. I would recommend this book to someone interested in this period in history, someone who enjoys the architecture of one of America's greatest cities and to someone who enjoys reading of historical feats of engineering.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 24, 2014

    Two seperate stories

    Took a bit of effort to finish this book. It's really two seperate stories occuring at once that I thought at some point would come together but never did.

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  • Posted June 24, 2014

    I enjoyed reading about H. H. Holmes himself, but there was too

    I enjoyed reading about H. H. Holmes himself, but there was too much architecture. And as a horror fanatic, I found myself skipping around a bit.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 24, 2014

    Two separate storied

    The stories would be better told separately.

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  • Posted January 19, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the F

    The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America is a nonfiction book written by author Erik Larson. The book intertwines the true stories of Daniel H. Burnham and Dr. H. H. Holmes. “Their fates were linked by the magical Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, nicknamed the “White City” for its majestic beauty. Architect Daniel Burnham built it; serial killer Dr. H. H. Holmes used it to lure victims to his World’s Fair Hotel, designed for murder. Both men left behind them a powerful legacy, one of brilliance and energy, the other of sorrow and darkness.” This historical true story was very interesting. It is written in a fiction novel style while still citing it’s sources and remaining factual. Mr. Larson recreates the pressure of deadlines, ethics, construction quality, financial considerations, and the political aspects of the planning, designing, and constructing of the Chicago World’s Fair, while describing the wonder and awe of the final product and the true accounts of the tragedy that was certain to occur. In the same book, Mr. Larson also effectively describes the disturbing premeditation, death, and horror associated with a serial killer and the nineteenth century legal aspects related to missing persons and criminal investigation. It is as if this title gives the reader two books in one. I enjoyed learning about these events, but I enjoyed learning about these men even more. The research that must have went into this book is incredible. A film adaptation is slated for 2014. Leonardo DiCaprio will play Dr. H. H. Holmes.

    My favorite quote:
    “But one thing was quite clear....being broke didn't disturb me in the least. I had started with nothing, and if I now found myself with nothing, I was at least even. Actually, I was much better than even: I had had a wonderful time.”

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 23, 2013

    Interesting

    The book is mainly about the chicago fair and H H Holmes is a sidebar. Don't read it for the serial killer part

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 29, 2013

    Non-Fiction Book Review for: The Devil in the White City The bo

    Non-Fiction Book Review for: The Devil in the White City
    The book The Devil in the White City was about two men and how their lives interfere with each others. Daniel Burnham was an architect for the city of Chicago in 1890 through 1893. Burnham had a partner by the name of John Root, and throughout the journey of building something that was meant to be even greater than the Eiffel tower; the two had many problems occur, but however came out to be successful in the end.
    The second main character in this book was known as H.H. Holms. However this was not always his name, he has changed it to Holms to protect his identity. Holms’ was in search for work as a doctor, and he came to the city of Chicago. Holms opened up a pharmacy shop in Chicago to get his business running. The building was not only a pharmacy though; it also had a room where Holms would practice his illegal activities. Holms noticed Burnham’s building of the fair and decided to open up a hotel near it to lure in guests.
    This book was a good book to read once the story started moving and revealed more about Holms and Burnham and the struggles Chicago faced. The beginning was very slow to read and keep up on, which made the book very boring. However, after pushing through the long introduction the book became more interesting to read and follow. I would rate this book at a three.
    A major theme in this book could be to be determined no matter how tough the work gets. Burnham went through many struggles with the building of the fair in Chicago, many problems that were not his fault. Burnham never gave up through his problems and built a fair which was the overall goal. Other books that you may enjoy if you enjoyed this one would be Manhunt: The 12-day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 21, 2013

    Heartily Decent

    Thought provoking and an intriguing mix of history / biography narratives. I started out fervently interested in the story, but quickly lost steam in uninteresting biographical details of some of the individuals. I'm not asking for a Dan Brown to take a stab at it, but it could move a little faster. I'm not sure readers need all of the details Larson shares.

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  • Posted December 19, 2012

    I enjoyed this book but it took me awhile to finish. I thorough

    I enjoyed this book but it took me awhile to finish. I thoroughly enjoyed in the Garden of Beasts, TDWC though was a bit distracting with all the minutiae about columns and aesthetics, although interesting I wanted to find out about the mad man behind the crimes and the writer kept switching back to architecture. The history was fascinating but I felt as though I was being made to deal with a lot of detail when I wanted to get back to the other story. It didn't seem well balanced between the story lines.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 28, 2012

    It kept me interested, but....

    The novel is great for someone really interested in architecture and history because it offers a lot of details about the planning and building of the Chicago Worlds Fair that one would find fascinating. However, I'm more of a true crime interest reader, and the parts relating to Dr. Holmes' crimes were not given the same amount of attention to detail or space in the novel. It was an interesting book, I will say, and I found myself continuing to read it, dispite my frustration at times that I wanted more about the murder story than the fair story. I guess, it was not what I expected, but it was a good read for my vacation travel and leisure time reading.

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  • Posted August 8, 2012

    Overall an excellent read. It is an excellent and fascinating st

    Overall an excellent read. It is an excellent and fascinating story, made all the more interesting because it is true. The only flaws I found in it, perhaps, were its contrasts with how I felt it was presented before I read it. I picked it up expecting a book primarily about a serial killer that was written with excellent prose and read like fiction. What I found, rather, was an odd combination of story telling and fact recounting, focused mostly on the construction of the fair itself. The author, at points, seems undecided if he wants to be writing a story or simply recounting facts, making the read not quite as smooth as it could be. Other than that, however, it is a book full of interesting events sandwiched between less interesting accounts of architecture and business negotiations.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 25, 2012

    Good back and forth

    I found the history of the fair more interesting than the story of the killer, but it read well.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 28, 2012

    Interesting reading

    Interesting parallel stories revolving around the Chicago worlds fair in 1893. The grand scale of the fair and the stress of trying to match or better the previous fair held in Paris, along with the cunning murderous deeds of a single Chicago transplant makes for pretty good reading. How true to facts this story actually is, is hard to say, but it certainly makes for a good story.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 19, 2012

    Not sure what to make of this book...

    It's a great story, but it seems like two books that got smashed into one. The two stories run roughly in parallel and never cross and neither story presents a clear moral or theme, unless it is meant to be a long and meandering musing on the origin and cost of our modern age... You may be satisfied if you read it simply for the histroy.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 29, 2011

    If you like more history than crime...

    While weaving an excellent story about the Chicago World,s fair, "the devil" only gets every third or fourth chaper.

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