Summary and book reviews of The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

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
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • Hardcover: Feb 2003,
    447 pages.
    Paperback: Feb 2004,
    464 pages.

    Publication Information

  • Rate this book


Buy This Book

About this Book

Book Summary

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.

The Black City

How easy it was to disappear:

A thousand trains a day entered or left Chicago. Many of these trains brought single young women who had never even seen a city but now hoped to make one of the biggest and toughest their home. Jane Addams, the urban reformer who founded Chicago's Hull House, wrote, "Never before in civilization have such numbers of young girls been suddenly released from the protection of the home and permitted to walk unattended upon the city streets and to work under alien roofs." The women sought work as typewriters, stenographers, seamstresses, and weavers. The men who hired them were for the most part moral citizens intent on efficiency and profit. But not always. On March 30, 1890, an officer of the First National Bank placed a warning in the help-wanted section of the Chicago Tribune, to inform female stenographers of "our growing conviction that no thoroughly honorable business-man who is this side of dotage ever advertises for a lady ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About This Book

In The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson takes readers into a richly complex moment in American history, a moment that would draw together the best and worst of the Gilded Age, the grandeur and triumph of the human imagination, and the poverty, violence, and depravity that surrounded it.

The book's two most powerful figures, the great architect Daniel Burnham and the psychopathic killer, Henry H. Holmes, in many ways embody the opposing forces of the age. Burnham was responsible for building the White City, overcoming a series of crushing professional obstacles and personal tragedies to make the Fair the magical, awe-inspiring event that it was. He brought together some of the greatest architects of the ...
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Reviews

Media Reviews
Library Journal - Rachel Collins

Both intimate and engrossing, Larson's (Isaac's Storm) elegant historical account unfolds with the painstaking calm of a Holmes murder. Although both subjects have been treated before, paralleling them here is unique. Highly recommended.

Publishers Weekly

This book is everything popular history should be, meticulously recreating a rich, pre-automobile America on the cusp of modernity, in which the sale of articulated corpses was a semi-respectable trade and serial killers could go well-nigh unnoticed.

Kirkus Reviews

Gripping drama, captured with a reporter's nose for a good story and a novelist's flair for telling it....Superb.

Booklist - Kristine Huntley

Starred Review. Larson's ambitious, engrossing tale of the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 focuses primarily on two men Daniel H. Burnham, the architect who was the driving force behind the fair, and Henry H. Holmes, a sadistic serial killer working under the cover of the busy fair....A magnificent book.

New York magazine

Vivid history of the glittering Chicago World's Fair and its dark side.

Esquire

So good, you find yourself asking how you could not know this already.

New York Times

A dynamic and enveloping book filled with haunting, closely annotated information … this truth really is stranger than fiction.

Chicago Tribune

A hugely engrossing chronicle of events public and private.

Reader Reviews
Dorothy T.

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 ...   Read More

MD

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 ...   Read More

Tay

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 ...   Read More

Sergio Villa

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 ...   Read More

Write your own review!

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Readalikes

Readalikes Full readalike results are for members only

If you liked The Devil in the White City, try these:

  • American Lightning jacket

    American Lightning

    by Howard Blum

    Published Feb 2013

    More about this book

    Read Reviews

    Simultaneously offering the absorbing reading experience of a can’t-put-it-down thriller and the perception-altering resonance of a story whose reverberations continue even today, American Lightning is a masterpiece of narrative nonfiction.

  • Bright and Distant Shores jacket

    Bright and Distant Shores

    by Dominic Smith

    Published Feb 2013

    More about this book

    Read Reviews

    From the award-winning author of The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre and The Beautiful Miscellaneous comes a sweeping historical novel set amid the skyscrapers of 1890s Chicago and the far-flung islands of the South Pacific.

Non-members are limited to two results. Become a member


Search Readalikes again
How we choose readalikes
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!
Member Benefits

Join Now!

Check the advantages!
Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year

    •  
    • FREE
    • MEMBER
    • Range of media reviews for each book
    • Excerpts of all featured books
    • Author bios, interviews and pronunciations
    • Browse by genre
    • Book club discussions
    • Book club advice and reading guides
    • BookBrowse reviews and "beyond the book" back-stories
    •  
    • Reviews of notable books ahead of publication
    •  
    • Free books to read and review (US Only)
    •  
    • Browse for the best books by time period, setting & theme
    •  
    • Read-alike suggestions for thousands of books and authors
    •  
    • 'My Reading List" to keep track of your books
    •  

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: Shotgun Lovesongs
    Shotgun Lovesongs
    by Nickolas Butler
    Nickolas Butler's debut novel, Shotgun Lovesongs, follows five life-long friends, now in their mid-...
  • Book Jacket: Gemini
    Gemini
    by Carol Cassella
    How good is Gemini, Carol Cassella's book about a Seattle intensive care physician who becomes ...
  • Book Jacket: The Goldfinch
    The Goldfinch
    by Donna Tartt
    Winner of the 2014 Pulitzer for Fiction.

    Her canvas is vast. To frame a story about art, love and ...

First Impressions

Members read and review books ahead
of publication. See what they think
in First Impressions!

Books that
expand your
horizons.

Visitors can view a lot of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only

Find out more.

Book Discussions
Book Jacket

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry
by Gabrielle Zevin

Published Apr. 2014

Join the discussion!

Who Said...

Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint.

Click Here to find out who said this, as well as discovering other famous literary quotes!

Word Play

Solve this clue:

P Your O C

and be entered to win..

Books thatinspire you.Handpicked.

Books you'll stay up all night reading; books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, books that will expand your mind and inspire you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.