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The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America Paperback – February 10, 2004
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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • The true tale of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago and the cunning serial killer who used the magic and majesty of the fair to lure his victims to their death.
“Relentlessly fuses history and entertainment to give this nonfiction book the dramatic effect of a novel .... It doesn’t hurt that this truth is stranger than fiction.” —The New York Times
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.
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 the enchantment of the Guilded Age, 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. 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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“A dynamic, enveloping book. . . . Relentlessly fuses history and entertainment to give this nonfiction book the dramatic 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
From the Inside Flap
- Publisher : Vintage (February 10, 2004)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 447 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0375725601
- ISBN-13 : 978-0375725609
- Lexile measure : 1170L
- Item Weight : 15.2 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.21 x 0.84 x 8 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #700 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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I will be absolutely honest and admit that I purchased the book because I was interested in the weird story of H.H.Holmes, American con-man, psychopath and serial killer. In fact, I will add to my confession, and shame, by saying that my interest was sparked by watching the episode of Timeless - a series unlikely to be renewed - where our trio of intrepid time-travelers goes back to the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition and have a misadventure in the "murder castle." I've never read anything by Erik Larsen before, but I know that he has a good number of books on the history section shelves and I’ve seen this book in passing for years.
I listened to this as an audiobook, and my initial reaction was that there was an awful lot about the 1893 World’s Fair, especially the architecture of the World’s Fair, than I was expecting or interested in. Frankly, my initial reaction was that all the detail about the planning of the Fair was getting in the way of the interesting bits about H.H. Holmes.
However, about half-way through the book, I found my interest shifting as I was sucked into the world of the Fair and the strangeness of the world right on the cusp of becoming the world we know, with lights and Cracker Jacks and Ferris wheels, but still possessing the instincts and customs of a more genteel and trusting age. I found that people like Frederick Law Olmsted and Daniel Burnham were becoming my heroes.
Larsen structures his book as alternating narratives. One narrative follows the twisted path of Holmes; the other follows the life of the fair. There is no doubt that the Holmes’ narrative starts out in the lead because of the natural human interest in evil, and Holmes was evil. Larsen describes Holmes as America’s first serial killer in an age when the language did not have the term “serial killer” to describe Holmes. Holmes was born Herman Webster Mudgett in 1861, studied medicine, married and abandoned his first wife, and, then, took the test for a pharmacy license under the name of H.H. Holmes and made his way to Chicago. In Chicago, he bought a pharmacy from a widow, who he probably conned, married a second wife, deposited the wife and his child in a suburb of Chicago, and then came up with the idea of transforming land he had purchased into a hotel in time for the upcoming Fair.
Listening to the Holmes’ arc, two thoughts come to mind: first, he was psychopathic and, second, he didn’t seem to understand how ridiculous his ideas were. For example, after scamming a brother in law, his plan to avoid discovery was to push the brother in law off of a roof. Who today would think such a thing would not be immediately seen for what it was? Likewise, Holmes built a hotel with secret rooms and gas lines to those rooms so that he could gas patrons, kill them and rob them. Women were constantly disappearing from his hotel, leaving their things behind. When the widow he bought his first pharmacy from simply disappeared, Holmes explained that she was visiting California. He courted and wed multiple wives simultaneously. His method for making bodies disappear was to have the bodies rendered into skeletons and then he would sell the skeletons to medical colleges.
Today, who could be so naive as to expect that any of this would not be discovered or noticed?
And that is partly the point. The era was a moment of transition. In the small towns that most people had lived in prior to the 1890s, everyone was under everyone’s else’s supervision. In Chicago, however, the rules changed. People were anonymous and alone in a crowd. People were easy to lose in a world without phones or extensive police agencies. If someone went to California, it would take more than idle curiosity to locate them. It was a psychopath’s utopia.
Also, the casualness of death becomes apparent in Larsen’s book. For example, Burnham’s partner plunges into the October night and dies of pneumonia within a week. Larsen also describes how the sister of one of Holmes’ victims suddenly took sick and died within a week. She was probably poisoned, but in that age it was not hard to believe that a healthy woman in her twenties could die of a sickness so quickly. I was working on a train accident fatality lawsuit during the time I listened to this book, so this passage had some significance to me:
// 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.”//
In Fresno County where I live, which is a mostly rural county with a large urban population, there are only two unprotected crossings – without signals – in the entire county. The three people killed in this one accident was probably higher than the annual average for the last fifty years. Violent death was simply more common in the past.
On the other hand, Larsen presents the “White City” of the Fair as the world that was dawning. The Fair brought millions of visitors to a location with lights and cultural diversity and sanitation and police protection. The idea that the architects are the heroes of the book seems strange since architects rarely play the role of hero, but Larsen manages to invest tension throughout the story arc about the Fair. Thus, there is tension in whether the architects will get the Fair built in time, and then there is tension about whether the Fair will turn a profit in the face of the economic depression gripping the country. There is also the heroism of George Washington Gale Ferris and his eccentric idea of building a huge wheel that would carry “Pullman Car-sized” boxes for passengers, although the most heroic act of the book, I thought, was the willingness of Mrs. Ferris to ride the thing on its maiden voyage as a rain of extra bolts cascaded down from the structure.
I came to know and develop a liking for Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed New York’s Central Park. Burnham is forgotten today but contributed to many American cities.
My first term paper in history was one I wrote as a Junior in High School about Eugene V. Debbs and the Pullman Strike of 1894, so it was something of a home-coming for me to read about the events that were occurring just before that strike, and to think that Debs and Darrow probably visited the Fair, maybe they ran across Holmes and Burnham. It occurs to me now that the Pullman Strike of 1894 was in 1894 because the closing of the Fair in 1893 exacerbated the economic crisis. Larsen writes:
// Ten thousand construction workers also left the fair’s employ and returned to a world without jobs, already crowded with unemployed men. Once the fair closed, many thousands more would join them on Chicago’s streets. The threat of violence was as palpable as the deepening cold of autumn. Mayor Harrison was sympathetic and did what he could. He hired thousands of men to clean streets and ordered police stations opened at night for men seeking a place to sleep. Chicago’s Commercial and Financial Chronicle reported, “Never before has there been such a sudden and striking cessation of industrial activity.” Pig iron production fell by half, and new rail construction shrank almost to nothing. Demand for railcars to carry visitors to the exposition had spared the Pullman Works, but by the end of the fair George Pullman too began cutting wages and workers. He did not, however, reduce the rents in his company town. The White City had drawn men and protected them; the Black City now welcomed them back, on the eve of winter, with filth, starvation, and violence.//
Holmes’ story closes out with Holmes’ finally getting tripped up in an insurance swindle and an intrepid Pinkerton detective following the clues to prove that Holmes was a child-killer among his other sins. In that way, Holmes’ story arc concludes as a true crime story about a true crime story.
Although I enjoyed and learned from this book, I would have to pick a nit with the “fictionalization” of some of the narrative. Larsen tells us that everything in his book is supported by documentary evidence, but he also acknowledges that he has made reasonable inferences about what happened at times. I think his inferences are reasonable, and I credit him for acknowledging what he has done, but I think that there are times when he offers his insights into what various people were thinking or feeling that he has gone too far and stepped outside of history proper into fiction. Obviously, this book is intended for the mass market and must keep reader interest. Also, we are a long way into non-fiction novels at this point, but there are moments when I as a history reader was woken up by Larsen describing what a character felt (when I would probably never have objected to the same information being couched as something the person “might have thought,” so if you interpolate those words, the book is in the genre of history.)
In sum, don’t be confused; this is not a true crime story. It is a sociological history/novel about a particular time in American history. Your interest in this book will vary depending on whether you are buying it as “true crime” or as history.
Very little was about HH Holmes. This book could've been cut in half and still would've been too long. It has a lot of good information and it peaked my curiosity on the world's fair. But it was just too long and not much on HH Holmes. Towards the end of the book there was more on him. However by then I had already checked out and just wanted to get it over with and complete the book.
If you are reading this because you want to hear about H.H. Holmes, you may want to read a different book. However, if you are open to learning about the World's Fair, architecture, or Chicago history, this is worth the read.
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The writing itself is needlessly pompous and includes boring examples of the architects dinner menus and what they drank from the bar.
The book relies on description to convey everything and as such is as repetitive as it is dreary. While the spartan chapters on Holmes may thrill you, the lengthy and numerous chapters on the World's Fair will bore you through repetition and, at times, fractured prose. I was disappointed with this book.
It literally dedicates space to writing about the conditions of the soil that the fair was to be built on, and what other sites they looked at to find a site for the fair. Honestly, who cares. Even if you are hugely curious about the fair, most of it will send you to sleep.
The stuff about H.H Holmes is interesting, but you're mostly reading about the architects and what they had for dinner. I have no idea how this book has positive reviews.
In Larson's hands, the story of the building of the White City is fascinating. The odds against success were huge - time was running short, the weather threw everything it had at the site, frequently destroying half-built buildings, a financial crash began while the City was half-built, and unions and management were regularly at loggerheads. Although many men (and a few women) were involved in bringing the thing together, the whole effort was largely co-ordinated by one man, architect Daniel H Burnham, who as Director of Works was responsible for getting together the best architects, planners, engineers and landscapers, and inspiring them to believe in his vision of a beautiful city rising from a derelict piece of lakeside land. Larson uses all kinds of sources to bring Burnham and the other major players to life - newspaper articles, journals, official records and personal letters. He tells the story almost as if it were a novel, never revealing ahead and regularly leaving a chapter with a cliffhanger ending, as a storm approaches or a bank crashes or illness strikes.
The story of HH Holmes is told in separate chapters interspersed throughout the main narrative. To be honest, though it was interesting and also very well-researched, I mainly found it broke the flow of the much more absorbing story of the Fair. Apart from the fact that both events took place in Chicago over the same time period, there was very little to connect them. I wondered if the Holmes strand had only been included because the author felt that more people would be interested in a serial killer than in the building of the Fair - and I can't argue with that, since it was the thought of the intriguing contrast that attracted me to the book. But when it came to reading it, I found I was rushing through the Holmes chapters to get back to find out how things were going on the building site.
Once the Fair finally opens, Larson gives a vividly credible account of what it might have been like to visit, including telling of some of the many attractions the fair had to offer - from orchestral music wafting ethereally over a moonlit lake to rather more earthy sideshows, such as the belly-dancers from Algeria. He tells us about Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show, cannily sited just outside the Fair grounds and constantly competing with it for customers. And the crowning marvel of the Fair - the world's first Ferris wheel, built as a result of a challenge by Burnham to America's engineers to come up with something that would top the recently built Eiffel Tower in Paris. At the same time, Larson takes us behind the scenes to see the men responsible for the maintenance of the site, publicity, finance and the sheer logistical nightmare of feeding and cleaning up after the many thousands of visitors who passed through the gates each day. The Fair was so huge, Larson tells us, that it was considered that it took a fortnight to see everything it had to offer.
In a few chapters at the end, Larson tells us what happened to the men we've got to know so well in their later careers and shows how the Fair influenced architecture and fairs and even city-planning far into the future. And at the same time he concludes the story of the serial killer, but I won't spoil it by saying whether he was ever caught or convicted in case you're inspired to read the book and don't know the outcome.
A fascinating story very well told, I found this a totally absorbing read. The only real disappointment is that there are very few illustrations, so I had to turn to the Internet to fill that lack. But Larson has put the Chicago World Fair close to the top of the list of Things I Want to See When I Get a Time-Machine - till that day comes, the book makes a most satisfactory alternative. Highly recommended.