Nov 20, 2012

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 by Erik Larson

Description: 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.


I found this book to be really interesting while I was reading it, but just didn't get drawn into it like I often do with books. It took me over a month to finish it, mostly because I always found something else I could pass my time with, not because it was a difficult read or I was particularly busy.

The bulk of the book centered around The Chicago World's Fair - from it's beginning idea, through the trials and triumphs it had right up to it's end. There was a lot of talk about architecture. As someone who has absolutely no interest in architecture (other than being glad that it exists) I found these parts a little tedious. And I guess that was my whole problem with the book. Although I really enjoyed reading about the creation of the first ever Ferris Wheel and the other majestic elements of The White City, all the in between parts slowed things down for me.

I really enjoyed reading the parts about H. H. Holmes. What can I say, I like reading about serial killers. That probably says more about me than the book. I guess it's a slow down to gawk at car wrecks kind of thing.

On a scale from Totally Awesome to Horrifically Awful I'd give it a Pretty Good. I could have enjoyed it more, but I also could have enjoyed it less. 


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