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

4.1 1402
by Erik Larson

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Two men, each handsome and unusually adept at his chosen work, embodied an element of the great dynamic that characterized America’s rush toward the twentieth century. The architect was Daniel Hudson Burnham, the fair’s brilliant director of works and the builder of many of the country’s most important structures, including the Flatiron Building in… See more details below

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Two men, each handsome and unusually adept at his chosen work, embodied an element of the great dynamic that characterized America’s rush toward the twentieth century. The architect was Daniel Hudson Burnham, the fair’s brilliant director of works and the builder of many of the country’s most important structures, including the Flatiron Building in New York and Union Station in Washington, D.C. The murderer was Henry H. Holmes, a young doctor who, in a malign parody of the White City, built his “World’s Fair Hotel” just west of the fairgrounds—a torture palace complete with dissection table, gas chamber, and 3,000-degree crematorium. Burnham overcame tremendous obstacles and tragedies as he organized the talents of Frederick Law Olmsted, Charles McKim, Louis Sullivan, and others to transform swampy Jackson Park into the White City, while Holmes used the attraction of the great fair and his own satanic charms to lure scores of young women to their deaths. What makes the story all the more chilling is that Holmes really lived, walking the grounds of that dream city by the lake.

The Devil in the White City draws the reader into a time of magic and majesty, made all the more appealing by a supporting cast of real-life characters, including Buffalo Bill, Theodore Dreiser, Susan B. Anthony, Thomas Edison, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, and others. In this book the smoke, romance, and mystery of the Gilded Age come alive as never before.

Erik Larson’s gifts as a storyteller are magnificently displayed in this rich narrative of the master builder, the killer, and the great fair that obsessed them both.

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From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Engrossing . . . exceedingly well documented . . . utterly fascinating.” —Chicago Tribune

“A dynamic, enveloping book. . . . Relentlessly fuses history and entertainment to give this nonfiction book the dramtic effect of a novel. . . . It doesn’t hurt that this truth is stranger than fiction.” —The New York Times

"So good, you find yourself asking how you could not know this already." —Esquire

“Another successful exploration of American history. . . . Larson skillfully balances the grisly details with the far-reaching implications of the World’s Fair.”—USA Today

“As absorbing a piece of popular history as one will ever hope to find.”—San Francisco Chronicle

“Paints a dazzling picture of the Gilded Age and prefigure the American century to come.”—Entertainment Weekly

“A wonderfully unexpected book. . . Larson is a historian . . . with a novelist’s soul.”—Chicago Sun-Times

Publishers Weekly
This is a steady performance of a book that, while gripping in its content and crisply paced, isn't quite a gold mine for an audio performer. It relies on journalistic narration and includes almost no quotes, so there isn't much chance for interesting characterization. But it is excellent nonfiction, chronicling the hurly-burly planning and construction of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair (which did, as the title suggests, include building what amounted to an entire city) and a cruelly calculating sociopath who used the event's tumult and crowds to serve his homicidal compulsion. Goldwyn is an experienced narrator with a keen dramatic sense, and his resonant voice is well-suited to the project. Music is used only sparingly, but the few subdued, creepy bars Goldwyn reads over in the beginning do an excellent job of creating atmosphere for a tale that is subtle but often genuinely unsettling. Listeners will also be fascinated by descriptions of the sheer logistics of the fair itself, which serve as not only carefully crafted and informative history, but also as welcome breaks from the macabre and relentless contrivances of the killer. In all, it's a polished presentation of an intriguing book that outlines the heights of human imagination and perseverance against the depths of our depravity. Simultaneous release with the Crown hardcover (Forecasts, Dec. 16, 2002). (Feb.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
If you did not know this is a history book, you would think it a mystery novel, so skillfully does Larson weave together the story of the architect who directed the building of the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and the story of the psychopathic serial killer who murdered a number of those who were drawn to Chicago by the fair. This meticulously researched work with its 50 pages of notes, sources and index reads like a popular suspense novel complete with daring accomplishments, gruesome murders and a tireless police chase. What matter if the daring accomplishment is an architectural feat—complete with the world's first "Ferris" wheel and an island and lagoon designed by Frederick Law Olmstead? What matter if the American reader has never heard of architect Daniel Burnham or of the assassination of Chicago mayor Prendergast? What matter if the Philadelphia detective on the trail of a psychopath had never heard the term? The reader will not put this book down. Such a combination of writing skill and historical inquiry is rare indeed. Highly recommended. KLIATT Codes: SA*—Exceptional book, recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2003, Random House, Vintage, 464p. notes. bibliog. index., Ages 15 to adult.
—Pat Moore
Library Journal
Before the turn of the 20th century, a city emerged seemingly out of the ash of then dangerous Chicago, a dirty, grimy, teeming place ravaged by urban problems. Daniel Burnham, the main innovator of the White City of the 1892 World's Fair, made certain that it became the antithesis of its parent city, born to glow and gleam with all that the new century would soon offer. While the great city of the future was hastily being planned and built, the specially equipped apartment building of one Herman Webster Mudgett was also being constructed. Living in a nearby suburb and walking among the hundreds of thousands of visitors who would eventually attend the fair, Mudgett, a doctor by profession more commonly known as H.H. Holmes, was really an early serial killer who preyed on the young female fair goers pouring into Chicago. Using the fair as a means of attracting guests to a sparsely furnished "castle" where they ultimately met their end, Holmes committed murder, fraud, and numerous other crimes seemingly without detection until his arrest in 1894. Both intimate and engrossing, Larson's (Isaac's Storm) elegant historical account unfolds with the painstaking calm of a Holmes murder. Although both subjects have been treated before, paralleling them here is unique. Highly recommended.-Rachel Collins, "Library Journal" Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A vivid account of the tragedies and triumphs of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and the concurrent depravities of America’s first serial killer.

In roughly alternating chapters, former Wall Street Journal reporter Larson (Isaac’s Storm, 1999, etc.) tells the stories of Daniel H. Burnham, chief planner and architect of exposition, and Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, whose rambling World’s Fair Hotel, just a short streetcar ride away, housed windowless rooms, a gas chamber, secret chutes, and a basement crematory. The contrast in these accomplishments of determined human endeavor could not be more stark--or chilling. Burnham assembled what a contemporary called "the greatest meeting of artists since the 15th century" to turn the wasteland of Chicago’s swampy Jackson Park into the ephemeral White City, which enthralled nearly 28 million visitors in a single summer. Overcoming gargantuan obstacles--politically entangled delays, labor unrest, an economic panic, and a fierce Chicago winter--to say nothing of the architectural challenges, Burnham and his colleagues, including Frederick Law Olmsted, produced their marvel in just over two years. The fair was a city unto itself, the first to make wide-scale use of alternating current to illuminate its 200,000 incandescent bulbs. Spectacular engineering feats included Ferris’s gigantic wheel, intended to "out-Eiffel Eiffel," and, ominously, the latest example of Krupp’s artillery, "breathing of blood and carnage." Dr. Holmes, a frequent visitor to the fair, was a consummate swindler and lady-killer who secured his victims’ trust through "courteous, audacious rascality." Most were comely young women, and estimates of their total rangedfrom the nine whose bodies (or parts thereof) were recovered to nearly 200. Larson does a superb job outlining this "ineluctable conflict between good and evil, daylight and darkness, the White City and the Black."

Gripping drama, captured with a reporter’s nose for a good story and a novelist’s flair for telling it.

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

The Black City

How easy it was to disappear:

A thousand trains a day entered or left Chicago. Many of these trains brought single young women who had never even seen a city but now hoped to make one of the biggest and toughest their home. Jane Addams, the urban reformer who founded Chicago's Hull House, wrote, "Never before in civilization have such numbers of young girls been suddenly released from the protection of the home and permitted to walk unattended upon the city streets and to work under alien roofs." The women sought work as typewriters, stenographers, seamstresses, and weavers. The men who hired them were for the most part moral citizens intent on efficiency and profit. But not always. On March 30, 1890, an officer of the First National Bank placed a warning in the help-wanted section of the Chicago Tribune, to inform female stenographers of "our growing conviction that no thoroughly honorable business-man who is this side of dotage ever advertises for a lady stenographer who is a blonde, is good-looking, is quite alone in the city, or will transmit her photograph. All such advertisements upon their face bear the marks of vulgarity, nor do we regard it safe for any lady to answer such unseemly utterances."

The women walked to work on streets that angled past bars, gambling houses, and bordellos. Vice thrived, with official indulgence. "The parlors and bedrooms in which honest folk lived were (as now) rather dull places," wrote Ben Hecht, late in his life, trying to explain this persistent trait of old Chicago. "It was pleasant, in a way, to know that outside their windows, the devil was still capering in aflare of brimstone." In an analogy that would prove all too apt, Max Weber likened the city to "a human being with his skin removed."

Anonymous death came early and often. Each of the thousand trains that entered and left the city did so at grade level. You could step from a curb and be killed by the Chicago Limited. Every day on average two people were destroyed at the city's rail crossings. Their injuries were grotesque. Pedestrians retrieved severed heads. There were other hazards. Streetcars fell from drawbridges. Horses bolted and dragged carriages into crowds. Fires took a dozen lives a day. In describing the fire dead, the term the newspapers most liked to use was "roasted." There was diphtheria, typhus, cholera, influenza. And there was murder. In the time of the fair the rate at which men and women killed each other rose sharply throughout the nation but especially in Chicago, where police found themselves without the manpower or expertise to manage the volume. In the first six months of 1892 the city experienced nearly eight hundred homicides. Four a day. Most were prosaic, arising from robbery, argument, or sexual jealousy. Men shot women, women shot men, and children shot each other by accident. But all this could be understood. Nothing like the Whitechapel killings had occurred. Jack the Ripper's five-murder spree in 1888 had defied explanation and captivated readers throughout America, who believed such a thing could not happen in their own hometowns.

But things were changing. Everywhere one looked the boundary between the moral and the wicked seemed to be degrading. Elizabeth Cady Stanton argued in favor of divorce. Clarence Darrow advocated free love. A young woman named Borden killed her parents.

And in Chicago a young handsome doctor stepped from a train, his surgical valise in hand. He entered a world of clamor, smoke, and steam, refulgent with the scents of murdered cattle and pigs. He found it to his liking.

The letters came later, from the Cigrands, Williamses, Smythes, and untold others, addressed to that strange gloomy castle at Sixty-third and Wallace, pleading for the whereabouts of daughters and daughters' children.

It was so easy to disappear, so easy to deny knowledge, so very easy in the smoke and din to mask that something dark had taken root.

This was Chicago, on the eve of the greatest fair in history.

From the Hardcover edition.

Copyright© 2003 by Erik Larson

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