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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

47 out of 55 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

32 out of 49 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 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 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 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 August 17, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Overall, a Good Read

    The juxtaposition of the two themes was absorbing. The book was well-written and compelling; however, I did find the wealth of (what sometimes seemed repetitious) minutiae about the various construction and landscaping details a bit mind numbing. These often seemed to interrupt the ebb and flow of the continuing stories.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 26, 2009

    The Historical Thriller

    This is a one of a kind book with the tales of two men intertwined in a non-fiction thriller that will keep you turning pages. One man is an architect by the name Daniel Burnham who is in charge of designing the World Fair in Chicago. The other man is a young, handsome and smart witted man who was a serial killer who went by the name H. H. Holmes. At first the way the chapters jumped back and forth between the two men's lives was confusing and kind of annoying. But soon the jumping back and forth grew on me and the suspense between chapters left me wanting to read more. This book also not only gave a thrilling story but also gave a very detailed history of one of America's greatest achievements. But the most entertaining part of the story was that of H. H. Holmes and how he deceived everyone and got away with dozens of murders.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 20, 2008

    Good Read

    This book was very enjoyable. The detailed history of Chicago's architecture was particularly fascinating and gives the reader a greater appreciation for the city's history. The book takes us through the World's Fair in Chicago, from the point that the city is awarded the honor by Congress through the close of the fair. The story is told in the third person, giving the reader an almost omnicient point of view over the events as they unfold. The vivid desciptions allow the reader to picture in his or her mind's eye the glory and magnitude of the event. The secondary story line about a prolific serial killer who operated in the city at the time of the fair is equally enjoyable and allows one to better understand the social implications of the events at a time of great change and upheaval in America.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 20, 2014

    An excellent read!

    A very interesting snapshot of history from the late 1800’s. People never really change!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 6, 2014

    Intesting read

    A surprise favorite of mine

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  • Posted June 22, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Too much White City, not enough Devil. Don't get me wrong, the s

    Too much White City, not enough Devil. Don't get me wrong, the story was interesting. But, I was expecting more about Holmes and less about Burnham. I wanted to read about America's first serial killer and less about the politics of designing the World's Fair. I probably should have checked out the kind of books the author writes instead of just reading the description. I was hoping for something more along the lines of Caleb Carr's The Alienist. Instead it was more like a history book of Chicago politics and architecture.

    Holmes is a very interesting character, and a very disturbing one. He is the embodiment of evil, someone who tortures and kills for pleasure. He is the poster child for why people need to know how to defend themselves. He is the personification of why the whole Social Justice Warrior cry of 'teach men not to rape' is so absurd; nearly EVERYONE understands that certain acts are abhorrent, yet a very small number will commit them anyway because they derive satisfaction from it. Defending yourself against such people requires more than just saying 'no'.

    The eBook was formatted well with no obvious spelling or grammatical errors.

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  • Posted December 28, 2013

    Amazing

    Such a great story. So many things at the Chicago World's Fair still affects us this day. Also great account of probably America's first documented serial killer. Have told many friends and family that this is a great read.

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  • Posted October 24, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Erik Larson has a way of telling a story (even about something s

    Erik Larson has a way of telling a story (even about something so mundane as planning and building a world's fair) that captivates!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 13, 2013

    Very good

    Very good story. Was hoping for more pictures at the end though.

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  • Posted May 1, 2013

    The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson, is an interesting b

    The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson, is an interesting book because it takes on two different stories happening at the same time and connects them together in the end. The book talks about the World Fair in 1893 and the struggles that went into building it. Daniel Burnham, the leading architect, found it difficult to plan and build the fair while trying to outdo the last World Fair which was held in Paris. The book also brings into a serial killer at the time, Henry H. Holmes. His original name was Mudgett and he was a professor before he got involved with insurance fraud. The author takes the reader on a journey through Mudgett’s life as he changes his name to H. H. Holmes, becomes a pharmacist, builds a hotel for the World Fair, and secretly murders several people without anyone finding out. What I liked about this book was learning about the struggles that Burnham went through to build the fair while learning about a serial killer that got away with everything that he did. What I did not enjoy about this book was at times the book was a little dry and hard to follow in the beginning. Someone should read this book because it talks about the history of Chicago’s World Fair and it is informational and I learned a lot from reading it. If you liked this book then you should try reading another one of Erik Larson’s books, In the Garden of the Beasts. If I were to rate this book I would give it four stars because it is an interesting book when talking about Holmes, but it gets boring when talking about Burnham and the fair.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 12, 2013

    Chicago, Serial Killer and Politics

    Not necessarily in that order. Slow reading but worth it to get to the end.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 29, 2013

    Good book - I never knew the World's Fair was in Chicago!

    The story of the architecture was facinating, as was all of the famous people who were involved in getting the Fair off the ground. The new products and services that were introduced during this time frame also surprised me.

    The story was a bit too slow during a couple of chapters, and the murder mystery didn't really seem to fit with the story of the fair, but I enjoyed it overall.

    After finishing the book, I had to look up photos of the fair online to see more and I also found some interesting photos of the remaining portions of the site.

    If you're at all interested in history or architecture, you really should read this book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 1, 2013

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  • Posted December 30, 2012

    Excellent audio-book. Lots of history of the World's Fair. Reall

    Excellent audio-book. Lots of history of the World's Fair. Really enjoyed the layering of true crime and history.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 21, 2012

    Great book

    But could have had lessdetails about the architecture and more on the actual story

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  • Posted November 30, 2012

    Highly recommended! Compelling and easy to read.

    Highly recommended! Compelling and easy to read.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 6, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    This is a devil of a book. I like that the book takes place in C

    This is a devil of a book. I like that the book takes place in Chicago because I was born in Chicago. The author provided a true feel of what it was like to put on a World's Fair. I loved that many famous people, (i.e.) The Disney's were influenced by this World's Fair. The book was suspenful because readers didn'r know if Holmes would be caught. I would highly recommended this book to history buffs and book clubs.

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