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

Overview

Erik Larson—author of #1 bestseller IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS—intertwines the true tale of the 1893 World's Fair and the cunning serial killer who used the fair to lure his victims to their death. Combining meticulous research with nail-biting storytelling, Erik Larson has crafted a narrative with all the wonder of newly discovered history and the thrills of the best fiction.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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

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Overview

Erik Larson—author of #1 bestseller IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS—intertwines the true tale of the 1893 World's Fair and the cunning serial killer who used the fair to lure his victims to their death. Combining meticulous research with nail-biting storytelling, Erik Larson has crafted a narrative with all the wonder of newly discovered history and the thrills of the best fiction.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Finalist for the 2003 National Book Award, Nonfiction

Winner of the 2004 Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

The Devil in the White City offers a double narrative, the interlacing stories of two fin de siècle master-builders, one of whom was a real life monster. The first is architect and city planner Daniel Hudson Burnham, the polymath who directed the near-miraculous creation of the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. The other is Dr. Henry H. Holmes, a Gilded Age serial killer who constructed a castle of death skillfully disguised as "the World's Fair Hotel." A bestseller in hardcover; now in trade paperback and NOOK Book.

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.
KLIATT
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.

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

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400076314
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/10/2004
  • Series: Vintage
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Sales rank: 3,301
  • File size: 3 MB

Meet the Author

Erik Larson, author of the international bestseller Isaac’s Storm, has written for Harper’s, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and Time, where he is a contributing writer. He is a former staff writer for The Wall Street Journal. He lives in Seattle with his wife, three daughters, and assorted pets, including a golden retriever named Molly.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Biography

Often times, truth is indeed stranger than fiction. Take the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, Illinois. The fair was the groundbreaking birthplace of such things as neon lights and the Ferris Wheel; a wonderland of futuristic technology and architecture. It was also the playground of a demented murderer who set up his very own chamber of torture within striking distance of the fair. This bizarre dichotomy of creation and destruction is what enticed Erik Larson to tell the twisted tale of the 1893 World's Fair in his fascinating fourth book Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America.

Journalist Larson's work displays a fascination with the ways various forms of violence affect every day life. His second book Lethal Passage: The Story of a Gun is an exploration of gun culture throughout American history, using a horrendous incident involving a machine-gun toting 16-year old as its uniting thread. His next book, the griping, critically acclaimed Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, detailed one of the worst natural disasters in American history, a hurricane that hit Galveston Texas in 1900 leaving between 6,000 and 10,000 people dead. However, when Larson first encountered the story of Dr. Henry H. Holmes, he was reluctant to use it as the basis for one of his books. "I started doing some research, and I came across the serial killer in this book, Dr. H. H. Holmes," he told Powell's.com. "I immediately dismissed him because he was so over-the-top bad, so luridly outrageous. I didn't want to do it. I didn't want to do a slasher book. It crossed the line into murder-porn. So I kept looking, and I became interested in a different murder that actually had a hurricane connection, where I of course got distracted by the hurricane and wrote Isaac's Storm."

When Larson completed Isaac's Storm and began researching ideas for his next book, he began reading about the 1853 World's Fair. Hooked by the numerous colorful characters and amazing occurrences surrounding the fair, Larson decided he would use it as the subject for his fourth book. Still, he had little interest in telling a straight chronological play-by-play of the fair's creation. So, he resolved to revisit the subject that had so repulsed him prior to writing Isaac's Storm.

Dr. Henry H. Holmes was a heinous modern monster. Just west of the fair, he built the mockingly named "World's Fair Hotel" where he would torture his victims by any number of means. The grotesque hotel was equipped with its very own gas chamber, dissection table, and crematorium. As abhorrent as Holmes was, Larson could not resist the jarring juxtaposition of this remorseless killer and the fair.

The resulting book Devil in the White City is both a richly detailed history and a chilling yarn as unbelievable and spellbinding as any work of fiction. The book was both a finalist for the National Book Award and a Number 1 New York Times bestseller. It was garnered nearly universal raves from The New York Times, Publisher's Weekly, Esquire, The Chicago Sun Times, and The San Francisco Chronicle, among many, many others.

Perhaps the most awe-inspiring aspect of Devil in the White City is the fact that the book is an accurate history that also manages to be a riveting page-turner. As Larson says, "I write to be read. I'm quite direct about that. I'm not writing to thrill colleagues or to impress the professors at the University of Iowa; that's not my goal." Larson's goal was to render a fascinating story, and he succeeded admirably with Devil in the White City.

Good To Know

As entertaining as Larson's historical works are, he currently has little interest in expanding into fiction. "The research [involved in nonfiction] appeals to me," he told Powell's.com. "I love looking for pieces of things in far-flung archives -- but the beauty is that the complexity of the characters is there. You don't have to make it up."

As thoroughly detailed and well-researched as Larson's books are, it is hard to believe that he does not employ an assistant. Every detail in his books was gleaned by the author, himself.

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    1. Hometown:
      Seattle, Washington
    1. Date of Birth:
      January 1, 1954
    2. Place of Birth:
      Brooklyn, New York
    1. Education:
      B.A., University of Pennsylvania, 1976; M.S., Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, 1978

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 a flare 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.

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First Chapter

The Devil in the White City


By Erik Larson, read by Tony Goldwyn

Random House

Erik Larson, read by Tony Goldwyn
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0739323598


Chapter One

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 a flare 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.



Excerpted from The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, read by Tony Goldwyn Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Introduction

#1 NATIONAL BESTSELLER
National Book Award Finalist

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

The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are designed to enliven your group’s discussion of Erik Larson’s gripping account of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

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Foreword

1) In the note “Evils Imminent,” Erik Larson writes “Beneath the gore and smoke and loam, this book is about the evanescence of life, and why some men choose to fill their brief allotment of time engaging the impossible, others in the manufacture of sorrow” [xi]. What does the book reveal about “the ineluctable conflict between good and evil”? What is the essential difference between men like Daniel Burnham and Henry H. Holmes? Are they alike in any way?

2) At the end of The Devil in the White City, in Notes and Sources, Larson writes “The thing that entranced me about Chicago in the Gilded Age was the city’s willingness to take on the impossible in the name of civic honor, a concept so removed from the modern psyche that two wise readers of early drafts of this book wondered why Chicago was so avid to win the world’s fair in the first place” [p. 393]. What motives, in addition to “civic honor,” drove Chicago to build the Fair? In what ways might the desire to “out-Eiffel Eiffel” and to show New York that Chicago was more than a meat-packing backwater be seen as problematic?

3) The White City is repeatedly referred to as a dream. The young poet Edgar Lee Masters called the Court of Honor “an inexhaustible dream of beauty” [p. 252]; Dora Root wrote “I think I should never willingly cease drifting in that dreamland” [p. 253]; Theodore Dreiser said he had been swept “into a dream from which I did not recover for months” [p. 306]; and columnist Teresa Dean found it “cruel . . . to let us dream and drift through heaven for six months, andthen to take it out of our lives” [p. 335]. What accounts for the dreamlike quality of the White City? What are the positive and negative aspects of this dream?

4) In what ways does the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 change America? What lasting inventions and ideas did it introduce into American culture? What important figures were critically influenced by the Fair?

5) At the end of the book, Larson suggests that “Exactly what motivated Holmes may never be known” [p. 395]. What possible motives are exposed in The Devil in the White City? Why is it important to try to understand the motives of a person like Holmes?

6) After the Fair ended, Ray Stannard Baker noted “What a human downfall after the magnificence and prodigality of the World’s Fair which has so recently closed its doors! Heights of splendor, pride, exaltation in one month: depths of wretchedness, suffering, hunger, cold, in the next” [p. 334]. What is the relationship between the opulence and grandeur of the Fair and the poverty and degradation that surrounded it? In what ways does the Fair bring into focus the extreme contrasts of the Gilded Age? What narrative techniques does Larson use to create suspense in the book? How does he end sections and chapters of the book in a manner that makes’ the reader anxious to find out what happens next?

7) Larson writes, “The juxtaposition of pride and unfathomed evil struck me as offering powerful insights into the nature of men and their ambitions” [p. 393]. What such insights does the book offer? What more recent stories of pride, ambition, and evil parallel those described in The Devil in the White City?

8) What does The Devil in the White City add to our knowledge about Frederick Law Olmsted and Daniel Burnham? What are the most admirable traits of these two men? What are their most important aesthetic principles?

9) In his speech before his wheel took on its first passengers, George Ferris “happily assured the audience that the man condemned for having ‘wheels in his head’ had gotten them out of his head and into the heart of the Midway Plaisance” [p. 279]. In what way is the entire Fair an example of the power of human ingenuity, of the ability to realize the dreams of imagination?

10) How was Holmes able to exert such power over his victims? What weaknesses did he prey upon? Why wasn’t he caught earlier? In what ways does his story “illustrate the end of the century” [p. 370] as the Chicago Times-Herald wrote?

11) What satisfaction can be derived from a nonfiction book like The Devil in the White City that cannot be found in novels? In what ways is the book like a novel?

12) In describing the collapse of the roof of Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building, Larson writes “In a great blur of snow and silvery glass the building’s roof—that marvel of late nineteenth-century hubris, enclosing the greatest volume of unobstructed space in history—collapsed to the floor below” [p. 196–97]. Was the entire Fair, in its extravagant size and cost, an exhibition of arrogance? Do such creative acts automatically engender a darker, destructive parallel? Can Holmes be seen as the natural darker side of the Fair’s glory?

13) What is the total picture of late nineteenth-century America that emerges from The Devil in the White City? How is that time both like and unlike contemporary America? What are the most significant differences? In what ways does that time mirror the present?

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Reading Group Guide

1) In the note “Evils Imminent,” Erik Larson writes “Beneath the gore and smoke and loam, this book is about the evanescence of life, and why some men choose to fill their brief allotment of time engaging the impossible, others in the manufacture of sorrow” [xi]. What does the book reveal about “the ineluctable conflict between good and evil”? What is the essential difference between men like Daniel Burnham and Henry H. Holmes? Are they alike in any way?

2) At the end of The Devil in the White City, in Notes and Sources, Larson writes “The thing that entranced me about Chicago in the Gilded Age was the city’s willingness to take on the impossible in the name of civic honor, a concept so removed from the modern psyche that two wise readers of early drafts of this book wondered why Chicago was so avid to win the world’s fair in the first place” [p. 393]. What motives, in addition to “civic honor,” drove Chicago to build the Fair? In what ways might the desire to “out-Eiffel Eiffel” and to show New York that Chicago was more than a meat-packing backwater be seen as problematic?

3) The White City is repeatedly referred to as a dream. The young poet Edgar Lee Masters called the Court of Honor “an inexhaustible dream of beauty” [p. 252]; Dora Root wrote “I think I should never willingly cease drifting in that dreamland” [p. 253]; Theodore Dreiser said he had been swept “into a dream from which I did not recover for months” [p. 306]; and columnist Teresa Dean found it “cruel . . . to let us dream and drift through heaven for six months, and then to take it out of our lives” [p. 335]. What accounts for the dreamlike quality of the White City? What are the positive and negative aspects of this dream?

4) In what ways does the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 change America? What lasting inventions and ideas did it introduce into American culture? What important figures were critically influenced by the Fair?

5) At the end of the book, Larson suggests that “Exactly what motivated Holmes may never be known” [p. 395]. What possible motives are exposed in The Devil in the White City? Why is it important to try to understand the motives of a person like Holmes?

6) After the Fair ended, Ray Stannard Baker noted “What a human downfall after the magnificence and prodigality of the World’s Fair which has so recently closed its doors! Heights of splendor, pride, exaltation in one month: depths of wretchedness, suffering, hunger, cold, in the next” [p. 334]. What is the relationship between the opulence and grandeur of the Fair and the poverty and degradation that surrounded it? In what ways does the Fair bring into focus the extreme contrasts of the Gilded Age? What narrative techniques does Larson use to create suspense in the book? How does he end sections and chapters of the book in a manner that makes’ the reader anxious to find out what happens next?

7) Larson writes, “The juxtaposition of pride and unfathomed evil struck me as offering powerful insights into the nature of men and their ambitions” [p. 393]. What such insights does the book offer? What more recent stories of pride, ambition, and evil parallel those described in The Devil in the White City?

8) What does The Devil in the White City add to our knowledge about Frederick Law Olmsted and Daniel Burnham? What are the most admirable traits of these two men? What are their most important aesthetic principles?

9) In his speech before his wheel took on its first passengers, George Ferris “happily assured the audience that the man condemned for having ‘wheels in his head’ had gotten them out of his head and into the heart of the Midway Plaisance” [p. 279]. In what way is the entire Fair an example of the power of human ingenuity, of the ability to realize the dreams of imagination?

10) How was Holmes able to exert such power over his victims? What weaknesses did he prey upon? Why wasn’t he caught earlier? In what ways does his story “illustrate the end of the century” [p. 370] as the Chicago Times-Herald wrote?

11) What satisfaction can be derived from a nonfiction book like The Devil in the White City that cannot be found in novels? In what ways is the book like a novel?

12) In describing the collapse of the roof of Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building, Larson writes “In a great blur of snow and silvery glass the building’s roof—that marvel of late nineteenth-century hubris, enclosing the greatest volume of unobstructed space in history—collapsed to the floor below” [p. 196–97]. Was the entire Fair, in its extravagant size and cost, an exhibition of arrogance? Do such creative acts automatically engender a darker, destructive parallel? Can Holmes be seen as the natural darker side of the Fair’s glory?

13) What is the total picture of late nineteenth-century America that emerges from The Devil in the White City? How is that time both like and unlike contemporary America? What are the most significant differences? In what ways does that time mirror the present?

Read More Show Less

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 1358 Customer Reviews
  • 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.

    47 out of 55 people found this review helpful.

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  • 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.

    32 out of 49 people found this review helpful.

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  • 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.' "

    15 out of 16 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.

    14 out of 17 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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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 21, 2012

    Not worth it

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

    6 out of 13 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 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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