The Devil in the White City - Erik Larson

Title: The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America
Author: Eric Larson
Pages: 464
Published: 2004 (originally published 2002)
Challenges: 2012 Support Your Library, Chunkster
Edition: Paperback
Source: Library

Description: Author Erik Larson imbues the incredible events surrounding the 1893 Chicago World's Fair with such drama that readers may find themselves checking the book's categorization to be sure that 'The Devil in the White City' is not, in fact, a highly imaginative novel. Larson tells the stories of two men: Daniel H. Burnham, the architect responsible for the fair's construction, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer masquerading as a charming doctor. 

Burnham's challenge was immense. In a short period of time, he was forced to overcome the death of his partner and numerous other obstacles to construct the famous "White City" around which the fair was built. His efforts to complete the project, and the fair's incredible success, are skillfully related along with entertaining appearances by such notables as Buffalo Bill Cody, Susan B. Anthony, and Thomas Edison. 

The activities of the sinister Dr. Holmes, who is believed to be responsible for scores of murders around the time of the fair, are equally remarkable. He devised and erected the World's Fair Hotel, complete with crematorium and gas chamber, near the fairgrounds and used the event as well as his own charismatic personality to lure victims.  (via

Thoughts: I was more interested in the H.H. Holmes storyline rather than the stuff about the building of the "White City" for the Chicago's World Fair, even though there was some connection between the two.  The story about the building of "White City" seemed to be full of details that I honestly really didn't care about. The H.H. Holmes story line was the reason that I picked up the book, as I had heard about him through a podcast on Stuff You Missed in History Class and was intrigued.

I also liked the story of the development of the Ferris Wheel and never thought that it was that recent.  The cultural developments that came out of the fair were interesting as well, including the use of incandescent bulbs powered by alternating currents and the fact that one can find Shredded Wheat in the grocery store.  Also it influenced the American goverment to designate October 12 as an American holiday and also the fair may have influenced Frank Lloyd Wright and his "Prairie" residential design (the book also mentions that at the time of the fair he was fired from his job with famed architect Louis Sullivan).  And it's speculated that Walt Disney's Magic Kingdom was drawn from the White City, of which Walt's father, Elias, helped build, as well L. Frank Baum used the White City as inspiration for the creation of Oz.  And the fact that Burnham was on the Olympic, sister ship to the Titanic, on the night of the famed ship's disaster, trying to relay a message to a colleague who was on the Titanic.

Personally I felt that the book could have used a bit of editing, especially when it came to the descriptions of the architecture, which could have been toned down a bit.

Bottom line:  Its not a light read by any stretch of the imagination, but it is readable and very informative.  I would recommend the book to those that are interested in this particular period of American history.

Rating: 3/5

Pages for 2012: 11491


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