The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

Book Review


The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed AmericaBook Genre: Non-Fiction, History, True Crime

Book Series: N/A

Released: 2/11/03 by Random House

Pages: 447 Price: $25.95 Audiobook

Links:  Goodreads, Author’s Site

Source: I borrowed this audiobook from my library.  



Book Synopsis:

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.

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.

My Review:

Next week my husband and I will be spending some time in Chicago and Hyde Park is on my list of places to explore.  I decided that I wanted to read something either set in Chicago or Non-Fiction about Chicago and this book has an excellent reputation.  I was fortunate that it became available a week before our trip and I could listen to it before our trip.  I was a little hesitant being that the book is pretty far out of my typical reading taste but decided to give it a chance knowing I could always DNF if I didn’t like it.  Much to my surprise I ended up loving the book and spent every spare moment I could find listening to the history of Chicago during the 1893 World’s Fair.

Like another reviewer stated, this is actually two books in one.  One storyline follows the creation and running of the World Fair and the other follows what is considered America’s first serial killer H.H. Holmes.  One of these stories interested me far more than the other.   Not being a fan of hearing about a psychopath lure and con unsuspecting individuals to their death I wish there had been a way to skip those parts.  I read this book purely for the story of how the Columbia Exposition came to be.  That part was fascinating to me while the other plot was quite disturbing.  Larson does an okay job of piecing these two plots together but in the end, I have to agree with another review I read and the two subjects have little to do with each other besides geographical location and that some of the murders took place around the same time as the fair.  If you are into such dark history then this part of the book might be perfect for you.

For the plotline that I was interested in, it was fascinating to hear what all it took to create such a grand fair.  I needed to remind myself that this was 125 years ago and society was vastly different from it is today.  While I found the blatant racism and sexism upsetting it is authentic to the era that was being depicted.  While some individuals in this country want to “Make America Great Again” we have to stop to consider if America was truly “great” back then.  Do we want to return to a time when women architects were paid 1/10 of their male counterparts if they were allowed to compete at all?  Or to a time when work conditions were so shitty that many lost their life or limb on the job?  Or we consider whole groups of our country as second-class citizens?

Politics aside it is a fascinating part of our history, one we can learn from.  I wish that the group putting the fair together had managed to get their act together quicker, however.  Perhaps then most of the structures would not have been built out of temporary materials and more of the fair could have lasted to the modern era.  I still plan to visit Jackson Park next week though, and thanks to Larson I will be able to imagine what it must have looked like in 1893 when America built a White City to impress the world.

My Rating: 4 Stars