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The Devil in the White City

Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America

By Erik Larson

The Devil in the White City
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  • Hardcover: Feb 2003,
    447 pages.
    Paperback: Feb 2004,
    464 pages.

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There are currently 15 reader reviews for The Devil in the White City
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Dorothy T. (08/06/12)

History as engaging as good fiction
The subtitle gives an excellent summary of this book, but reading it takes you on a journey you won't soon forget. As in all good books, I learned a lot of things I didn't know before, like the invention of one of the carnival attractions we all take for granted, the economic depression (recession?) of the 1890s, and the Columbia Exposition of 1893 and the men who designed and built it. I also was reminded about the evil and cruelty that one man can inflict on others. Erik has a gift for story-telling that makes this an engaging read.
MD (03/08/12)

The devil is the book itself
The book NEVER engaged my interest. It struck me as having been written with the coldest of scalpels in the coldest of operating rooms. If stark coldness was Larson's intent, then he was hugely successful. I found it tedious to the extreme. I never felt that Larson capably tied together the two sub-stories. Obviously well researched and, from the standpoint of language, well written. Some of his descriptive turns of phrase are delightful. If this were a piece of technical writing, I'd assign it a grade of A; since it's not of that genre, I give it an F.
Tay (08/17/11)

WORST BOOK EVER
I had to read this book for a summer assignment and it was awful. I personally don't care to read about architecture so that turned me off immediately but later it was the writing style that really made the book hard to get through. There wasn't really anything to connect with...the murders were slightly more interesting but not enough to suffer through the rest of the book to get to.
Sergio Villa (12/13/10)

senior sem.
I thought the book was excellently written. It was both suspenseful with the story of the serial killer, Dr. H.H. Holmes, and informative with the story behind the magnificent Chicago World's Fair. Even though I wasn't alive during that time, the book made it seem like i was right there.

I never knew how massive of an event the 1993 World's Fair was historically, and the implications that made it seem impossible to build. I was panicking just like Daniel Burnham and Frederick Olmsted were when they realized how short of a time they had to build the massive fair. I learned that many common things that we use today were born in the fair, like the shredded wheat.

I have never heard of Dr. H.H. Holmes until i read this book, and was surprised that he was probably Americas first serial killer and he belonged to Chicago. My stomach turned each time I read of the creepy ways he killed women and children, and the building he created specially for killing.

It was sad to know everything that happened after the World's Fair. It was almost as there was no point in living in Chicago anymore.
Elizabeth (06/27/10)

Historically fun to see all the names you learned in your history class
The book was great historically...seeing all these names of people who invented things was great...the mystery surrounding Mr. Holmes was gruesome, but fit nicely into the story's plot. You will enjoy the book, but can skip some of the pages telling about the constructing of the the World's Fair Buildings.

Chicago, Chicago, my kind of town.....Chicago won the spot for the World's fair beating out New York City and Washington, D.C.

A challenge between Chauncey Depew and the Whitechapel Club arose after Chicago won the spot. The challenge was to see if Chicago can make the World's Fair the best and biggest of the time....better than the one that just ended in Paris. Quoting from Page 14: "It was the big talk, not the persistent southwesterly breeze, that had prompted New York editor Charles Anderson Dana to nickname Chicago 'the Windy City.'"

Meanwhile Chicago was growing and architects were becoming wealthy and successful, but the city was so large it was starting to become dangerous and dirty. And all during this, in comes H. H. Holmes also known as Herman Webster Mudgett claiming to be a doctor and pharmacist. He actually did train as a doctor, but had a very shady past. His shady past began surfacing as he built a strange building across the street from a pharmacy he bought from a widow that mysteriously disappeared. His charm and charisma got him out of a lot of trouble and even out of paying his debts. Not one person could even suspect him of any wrongdoing in any aspect. His thoughts, though, were of young, single women and Jack the Ripper.

While he was building this strange building, Chicago had its architects looking for a place to build their "fabulous" World's Fair. Everyone was still waiting for them to fail since Paris in everyone's mind couldn't be surpassed. Finally on December 15, 1890, the committee decided on a location for the World's Columbian Exposition. It was going to be right next to H. H. Holmes' building...this made him very pleased and thrilled. The cost and organization was going to be astronomical. The architects hired were the best in the nation, but none were from Chicago.

H. H. Holmes was thinking more and more about completing his building and also turning it into a hotel and building a furnace in the basement that was able to go up to 3,000 degrees...the mason was a little leary about the shape and size he wanted. The mason said it looked like an oven they used to cremate dead bodies. Lots of signs had been appearing indicating that he was not normal, but no one paid any notice since he was a pretty smooth operator...he still didn't pay any of his bills either unless it became absolutely necessary.

The fair took all the time out of each architect's day...it was slow, and they were afraid they wouldn't get done in time. Obstacle after obstacle kept appearing...if it wasn't the land, it was that the blueprints were late, or that they were worried about sanitation and crime. During all of this, good old Mr. Holmes was still up to his tricks with money and women. He would steal down to the basement and light the furnace and loved to feel the incredible heat.

The building of the fair continued to be a disaster...hurricanes and storms knocked down buildings that were built, men died, architects didn't get along, and Mr. Holmes continued to swoon women and ask them to marry him - he already had two wives and two children. Something always happened to the women he targeted after he won them over and asked them to marry him....he knew which women were weak and which women would be able to help him with their financial assets or family connections.

Opening day was one day away, and the rain kept pouring down causing puddles everywhere. The trash from workers' lunches were still scattered on the ground and they had to do makeshift planting to cover up some of the holes caused by all the rain. They had found the one thing they needed and hoped would be the symbol that identified the World's Fair as being successful and one that would top the Eiffel Tower that had been the attraction in Paris for their World's Fair. Even though the Ferris Wheel was not ready for opening day, they hoped the Ferris Wheel would be their saving grace. It was designed by Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, bridge builder George Washington Gale Ferris.

The fair was a success, it was over, the fair was missed, and Mr. Holmes was missing.
Lynn (11/11/09)

Good vs. Evil
Erik Larson did a great job of weaving two completely different stories together for a fascinating look at the building of the Chicago World's Fair and the first documented American serial killer in the same city at the same time. The history was fascinating and I was constantly on the internet searching for more information and photographs (my only complaint that this book should have had more photographs of the people and events covered). I loved both parts of the story equally which is a great credit to the abilities of this author. I highly recommend this book.
me (06/17/08)

the devil in the white city
I thought this book was very well written, though I thought too much time was spent developing the setting. I would have rather followed H. H. Holmes' plotline for a greater portion of the book.
lilac (05/15/08)

Title well chosen
As a true crime fan, I picked this up initially as H.H. Holmes is billed as the first serial killer in the US. How could I resist this tease? But as I read, the killings became less important (not to belittle the awful lost of life) and the building of the fair took on a life of it's own. The fair became a character, more than a backdrop for this well told story. I was enthralled by the images and history Erik Larsen shared. This book was a jumping off point for interlibrary loan of many other books dealing with the fair itself. I loved the weaving of Holmes story and the fair. H. H.Holmes certainly was an evil man, handsome, smart, and charismatic like many serial killers. If I met him, I'm positive I would have liked him and that's what is truly scary.

If you can get your hands on the DVD H.H. Holmes: America's first serial killer / Waterfront Productions presents a John Borowski film ; producer, John Borowski ; writer, John Borowski ; director, John Borowski, it's worth a watch.

I had read Isaac's Storm (Larsen) before this for a book discussion in our library. We all agreed we liked the author's writing but didn't care about the people as much as we thought we should in Isaac's Storm. Thunderstruck is on my bookshelf waiting for my the right reading moment. Mr. Larsen is top-notch on my list.
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