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The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America [Paperback]

Erik Larson
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (266 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Feb. 10 2004 Vintage

Erik Larson—author of #1 bestseller IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS—intertwines the true tale of the 1893 World's Fair and the cunning serial killer who used the fair to lure his victims to their death. 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.

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From Amazon

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. Combining the stories of an architect and a killer in one book, mostly in alternating chapters, seems like an odd choice but it works. The magical appeal and horrifying dark side of 19th-century Chicago are both revealed through Larson's skillful writing. --John Moe --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Not long after Jack the Ripper haunted the ill-lit streets of 1888 London, H.H. Holmes (born Herman Webster Mudgett) dispatched somewhere between 27 and 200 people, mostly single young women, in the churning new metropolis of Chicago; many of the murders occurred during (and exploited) the city's finest moment, the World's Fair of 1893. Larson's breathtaking new history is a novelistic yet wholly factual account of the fair and the mass murderer who lurked within it. Bestselling author Larson (Isaac's Storm) strikes a fine balance between the planning and execution of the vast fair and Holmes's relentless, ghastly activities. The passages about Holmes are compelling and aptly claustrophobic; readers will be glad for the frequent escapes to the relative sanity of Holmes's co-star, architect and fair overseer Daniel Hudson Burnham, who managed the thousands of workers and engineers who pulled the sprawling fair together 0n an astonishingly tight two-year schedule. A natural charlatan, Holmes exploited the inability of authorities to coordinate, creating a small commercial empire entirely on unpaid debts and constructing a personal cadaver-disposal system. This is, in effect, the nonfiction Alienist, or a sort of companion, which might be called Homicide, to Emile Durkheim's Suicide. However, rather than anomie, Larson is most interested in industriousness and the new opportunities for mayhem afforded by the advent of widespread public anonymity. 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. 6 b&w photos, 1 map.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Well researched, well written Nov. 14 2006
By David
What strikes me most about this book is the detailed research that went into the parallel story about the Chicago World's Fair and how it's woven around the story of the murders. Larson's book is a pure enjoyment--a historical journey into the history of Chicago, warts and all. The reader not only learns about Daniel Burnham's amazing feat pulling together the Columbia Exposition of 1893 and the ways it changed the nation, but he contrasts this event with America's first serial killer, ironically steps away from the fair. The reader is tugged from good to evil, from risk to murder, from heaven to hell. Enjoy the ride and thanks Mr. Larson for allowing us to take that ride!
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Book that Changed Nonfiction Sept. 8 2005
Who knew Chicago isn't called The Windy City because of its strong gusts? Who knew anything about the Chicago World's Fair, or the murderous doctor who plagued the fairgoers? And, finally, who knew reading about a painfully slow architectural process could be so riveting? Larson's nonfiction reads like a novel, leading the reader through the carcass-ridden streets of 19th century Chicago right up to its linen-lined parlours of prestige. A tale of psychopathic darkness, and a tale of heroic intellectual success; The Devil in the White City is an enriching experience.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
In 1890 Chicago had a justly earned reputation for filth, squalor, crime and violence; its biggest tourist attractions were its vast stock yards and slaughterhouses. But that year, having just edged out Philadelphia as the second most populous city in the U.S., Chicagoans had the audacity to dream of being something greater than hog-butchers as they won the bid to host the 1893 World Exposition.
This book is about the struggle to realize that dream, the building of the "White City" on a barren tract of lakefront swampland. Interwoven with the main story is the darker one of the charming serial killer, Henry Holmes, who built his World's Fair Hotel just down the street & to which he lured uncounted numbers of young women.

The book is a fascinating page-turner, all the more remarkable for being true - I raced through it in a day & a half. But even more remarkable is Erik Larson's writing style; there were many instances where I slowed down just to savor his turn of phrase. Here are some examples:

"Every day he saw (women) stepping from trains and... hansom cabs, inevitably frowning at some piece of paper that was supposed to tell them where they belonged. The city's madams understood this and were known to meet inbound trains with promises of warmth and friendship, saving the important news for later."

"Homes adored Chicago... in particular how the smoke and din could envelop a woman and leave no hint that she had ever existed."

In a Minneapolis shop Holmes has just met Myrta whom he would later bigamously marry: "When he left the store that first day, as motes of dust filled the space he had left behind, her own life seemed drab beyond endurance. A clock ticked. Something had to change.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Not short, but worthwhile April 17 2005
I downloaded DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY and listened as I did some work in my studio. What strikes me most about this book is the detailed research that went into the parallel story about the Chicago World's Fair and how it's woven around the story of the murders. Pleasant surprises are abound as little by little you get a sense of history based on the historical figures present and they are revealed very thoughtfully. I would like to write more although I don't want to spoil the tale. But I can say that a chilling picture is painted with this book, made even more so as it goes on in the background of the preparation and construction of the World's Fair. It's like looking into a crowded room and reading the mind of the one insane individual mingling with the rest of society--and put into great and interesting historical context. Must also recommend another fantastic book that I recently came across, purely by accident, titled BARK OF THE DOGWOOD. Great fun, horrific scenes, a plot that moves, and an ending that will keep you up at night trying to figure out just how the author did the whole thing.
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5.0 out of 5 stars This book was awesome! March 20 2005
So why did I like this book so much? First off, the writing style is gripping. The author flips between the life of the serial killer in one chapter, and then in the next, the author is busy talking about the Chicago fair. This back and forth action between the two divergent locales kept me turning the page to find out what was going to happen next.
Another thing I really liked about this story is the fact that the author did a nice of building the suspense. For example as the fair is being built, there is a big debate as to what the main attraction will be. After many debates, someone steps forward with an idea, which is unanimously accepted by all of the fair planners. But what Erik Larson does so well, is that he keeps you hooked. He doesn't reveal what the big attraction is until three or four chapters later.
The combination of the real life struggle enountered by the city fair planners, and juxtaposed against the killings that were taking place at the same time, and the gruesomeness of those killings, made this a book that was very hard for me to put down.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in real life crime and/or historial novels.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars a page turner
Erik Larson was able to weave both the story of the building of the White City and the evil that resided within it's reach. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Lynne Frappier
5.0 out of 5 stars Didn't want to put it down!
Although I was actually aware that the Chicago World's Fair had occurred, I had no idea, before this book, just what an undertaking it was. Mr. Read more
Published 7 months ago by Gaye Keep
1.0 out of 5 stars So boring
Could not get into this book, so so so boring. Had to read it for a class, otherwise I wouldn't have wasted my money
Published 9 months ago by Cecily Bengert
3.0 out of 5 stars Not as exciting as the cover made it sound
The Devil in the White City has the right formula to be a book I’d love. Erik Larson paints a historical account of the construction of the 1893 Chicago World Fair, as the... Read more
Published 12 months ago by Stephanie Taylor-Baptiste
5.0 out of 5 stars The Devil in teh White City by Erik Larson
I found this book so stressful with the two story lines - the building of the 1893 World's Trade Fair in Chicago and the serial killer on the loose. Read more
Published 12 months ago by Christine Tucker
5.0 out of 5 stars Absolutely phenomenal
What a great story. Well-written and compelling, Larson puts together a tale of accomplishment and horror. Read more
Published 16 months ago by Craig McNaughton
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent
Book arrived within two weeks, in time for Christmas and was brand new. The story is excellent and gripping as well.
Published 18 months ago by Sandra Street
5.0 out of 5 stars Well worth the time to read
Erik Larson is a writer of history, who delves deeply into the facts and makes the story come alive. Read more
Published 19 months ago by Susan Ricketts
5.0 out of 5 stars Educational and full of Suspense
Excellent historical murder....and the intrigue of competing interests trying to get wireless communication into service. Read more
Published 21 months ago by Rod
4.0 out of 5 stars CHICAGO...CHICAGO...IT'S A WONDERFUL TOWN...
This is an exceptionally well written, well-researched book about two events that were intertwined, the Chicago World's Fair and the crimes of a serial killer in late nineteenth... Read more
Published on April 18 2012 by Lawyeraau
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