on November 14, 2006
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!
on September 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.
on January 21, 2007
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."
(Myrta was luckier than his other wives; at least 2 of them Holmes seduced, murdered, dissected & sold their articulated skeletons to medical schools.)
The book seems to get off to a slow start, mired in biographical details of a host of characters whose importance we do not yet know but this mirrors the slow start to the building of the Fair itself as months are spent in frustrating waits for committee meetings, approvals, budgets & minutiae before construction can begin. Despite setbacks, strikes and storms, the pace & the suspense pick up speed; events unfold faster & faster; thousands of workmen, tons of dirt, trainloads of materials and exhibits, hordes of visitors pass before our eyes as the book and the Fair hurtle to conclusion. In parallel, as more women go missing inquiries are begun; Holmes becomes more brazen and more careless; bodies found beneath a house in downtown Toronto are traced to Holmes; he is arrested, tried and hanged.
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 century Chicago. The book is rife with period detail and highly descriptive passages that give the reader a taste of what living in Chicago was like at that time.
The book provides a fascinating look at the enormous work and planning that went into creating the Chicago World's Fair, making it into one that was truly remarkable for its time, given some of the problems that the architects had to overcome. It also provides a fascinating look into the lives of some of the key players involved in its creation.
Meanwhile, an enterprising and charismatic killer was also at work, his story being tied into that of the creation of the Chicago World's Fair itself. His story, however, is the weaker part of the book, as it lacks the detail that is evident in the other segment of the book. Still, it provides an interesting look into the life of a serial killer who seemed to go about his grisly business with impunity, as well as a look at crime, law enforcement, and the state of criminal justice in late nineteenth century Chicago.
The photographs that were included in the book are excellent and illustrative. The only problem is that there are not enough of them, as the few that are included simply make the reader desire more of them. Still, those with an appreciation of history will enjoy this work of non-fiction and look forward to reading more by this author.
on August 9, 2013
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 backdrop for the story of the first documented American serial killer. As a huge history nerd – especially American history – this book jumped off the shelf at me.
The book is centred around two characters: Daniel Burnham, who designed the Chicago World Fair as well as famous buildings such as Washington’s Union Station and the Flatiron building in New York City; and H.H. Holmes who confessed to 27 murders, but is thought to have killed closer to 200. Larson obviously did his research on both the 1893 fair and Holmes’ murders as he spares no detail covering both events.
This bestseller is non-fiction but it reads like a novel, which is good because it keeps you intrigued. But it does hit a lot of slow patches that tend to drag on. Larson goes into a lot of specifics about how Chicago won the rights to have the fair and the 2.5 years of construction that followed. It was very interesting at parts, but there were times where he would spend pages describing arguments between the architects and the committee in place to get the fair up and running…yawn. He goes into great detail about the great deal of stress and little time available to get the fair done ‘right’ and ready by opening day, but his exhaustive account bordered on overkill.
Speaking of overkill, the story of serial killer H.H. Holmes was more entertaining than the lengthy scene-setting. Noticeably, Larson continuously repeats that Holmes’ demeanour and bright blue eyes put people at ease. I understand that the author is trying to cement the point that Holmes had a way of winning people over, but it was unnecessary to even mention this within the last few chapters of the book when it had already been well-established. Holmes’ deceit and ability to keep people unsuspicious of him is interesting.
There was also a minor subplot involving one Patrick Eugene Prendergast who is famous for assassinating the Chicago mayor Carter Harrison at the fair’s end, and being the first murder case of lawyer Clarence Darrow. These small insights into Prendergast were out of place in the story as it seemed like Larson remembered every now and then and so he would insert a small chapter on him.
On the whole, the stories were interesting but were not nearly as entwined as the book cover made them out to be. The events coincided with each other only in the sense that they ran concurrently. Holmes wasn’t killing people because of the fair but because he was a deranged man who enjoyed killing – and mostly women. I enjoyed some parts of the book, but overall I found it difficult to gather enthusiasm to keep picking it up for fear of more slow-moving chapters.
on January 20, 2013
Erik Larson is a writer of history, who delves deeply into the facts and makes the story come alive. He has that ability to make the characters in his books come alive and live again as complex and memorable figures. The Devil & the White City is that rare historical novel which makes you feel like you are a part of the time and place in which it is set.
Chicago in the 1890’s was a filthy, smelly, rickety place which depended on the constant butchering at its gigantic, sprawling stockyards for employment and its own existence. It was also the second largest city in the United States. Yet, something amazing happened there which to this day, surprises many people. The city fathers managed to pull off a World Fair which stands among the greatest ever held.
The world had last seen an Expo in Paris, France where the iron girders of Mr. Eiffel’s tower amazed those who attended and even today is a tourist attraction par excellence. How could anyone top this? What would attract the many thousands needed to make another fair a success?
This book becomes the tale of two men who were handsome, strong, decisive and standouts in their fields of choice. One was the architect, Daniel H. Burnham who built the Flatiron Building in New York City and Union Station in all its glory in Washington D.C. and became the lead on designing the venue for the event. The other is about a man who called himself Dr. Henry Holmes and chose to murder people in the anonymity of a big city where they might disappear without trace.
Burnham’s struggles to convert swampland along the Lake Michigan shoreline into a heart-stopping beautiful park and city within a city took many years of planning and huge amounts of detailed design to pull off. The White City which he created is still talked about today. Some of the first uses of modern building techniques were designed and used by Burnham and his colleagues in the construction which was to remain a lasting monument to the city. The story of how it happened is interesting and well written.
Interwoven in this story is the saga of Dr. Holmes who was one of the worst sociopaths in the Americas at that time. He had no compunction whatever in luring women newly arrived from the farms and rural hamlets into his web, marrying and taking their property and money for himself and then murdering them in his own building. The building which he constructed and used as a rental hotel and business accommodation contained a sound-proof room outfitted with gas connections to quickly kill off his victims and a crematorium furnace to dispose of the evidence. There still remains a question of exactly how many people he dispatched to an early grave. The details of how he was finally caught and convicted are an exciting part of this true tale from the past.
The devil was H.H. Holmes, a serial killer, who designed a rooming house that provided gas outlets to kill guests in their rooms and an incinerator to dispose of their bodies. The White City was the 1893 Chicago World's Fair also known as the World's Columbian Exhibition. Daniel H. Barnham was the primary organizer of the exhibition who recruited the help of all the greatest architects of the time to create a dream of neoclassical architecture. In place of stone, the alabaster covered the buildings situated around lagoons and parks. It would eventually inspire Walt Disney, whose father was a builder at the park, to build his own, more permanent theme part in California. The previous World Fair had taken place in Paris where the iconic Eiffel Tower was built and people around the world came to marvel at its sight. Chicago wanted to equal or exceed that accomplishment. Mr. Larson described the life of Mr. Burnham in detail from his beginnings as a draftsman to his accomplishments as an architect and his successful partnership with John Root. The lives of other contributors to the fair such as George Ferris, Frederick Olmsted, the landscape architect to the fair, Carter Harrison, mayor of Chicago at the time, Patrick Prendergast, Harrison's murderer, are expounded in the book so we get a very detailed account of the White City from its beginnings to its eventual demise. Mr. Larson describes the devil in considerably less detail for good reason. I could see little connection between the devil and the White City which is why I picked up the book. Mr. Holmes' murderous behavior could have occurred in any large city in America and for that matter and it did. He was charged with the murders both in Toronto and Philadelphia where he was convicted and hanged. Despite this drawback, the book is enjoyable read and provides insight into an event that helped mark the U.S. as the emerging power of at the turn of the twentieth century.
Erik Larson's juxtaposition of the development of the Chicago "Columbian Exposition" and the capture of a prolfic serial murderer who benefitted from the fair makes for an exciting read. It's hard to believe how the fair was conceived and funded, and how it was so quickly put together, despite warring architects, the depression, and various misfortunes. Imagine these days being able to suddenly increase a workforce 4-fold, reducing it just as quickly. Imagine constructing a whole city in a few fevered months, facing bad weather and supply shortages. And yet, they managed. The story is a cliffhanger and gives appreciation of what used to be the American spirit of can-do. The aftereffects of the fair and the glories thereof are visible throughout the country. Unfortunately, that spirit seems to be smaller now - there isn't that feeling of collaborating on something bigger, grander, more wonderful than anything ever done before...
The story of the serial killer is less gripping. I wanted more details about his life - instead it was more of he met this person, poof, they were no more. Of course, this is a factual book, and the author would be limited by what was proven, but the story would make a wonderful novel based on the facts and I felt myself longing for that. His eventual come-uppance is well-described and believable. In a way, Larson shows the good and the bad that can come from obsession.
Overall, the book was surprisingly gripping, and I am eager to go to Chicago again and see it with new eyes. I didn't know about this part of US History and I am amazed by it. Highly recommended.
on August 28, 2007
In 1893, Chicago was gearing up for its shining moment on the international stage. The city had been selected to host the World's Fair, beating out New York and a number of other American contenders. A prominent local architect, Daniel Burnham, had taken the reins to organize and construct the massive project. He assembled a dream team of architects, landscapers, engineers, and other professionals to help pull the fair together. Certainly Chicago could outdo the Paris Fair, which had been a worldwide success years earlier.
Unfortunately for Burnham and his team, everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. Due to a lack of organization and bickering among the committees responsible for the fair, construction began far later than it should have. Partially completed buildings blew over and burned down. Union workers threatened strikes. One sideshow act showed up a year early, while another (which was believed to be made up of cannibals) killed the man sent to retrieve them and never showed up at all. And there was a monster on the loose. A man who used the chaos of Chicago at this time in history to conceal the murders of dozens of people - many of them young, single women. A man who constructed a building with stolen money, then used the building as a slaughterhouse to lure, kill, and dispose of his victims.
THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY is a terrific book. It is nonfiction, but it reads like a novel. The real-life details of this story seem almost too bizarre to be true, yet this is one example of the old saying that "truth is stranger than fiction." The author, Erik Larson, even includes a lengthy section at the back where he documents his facts and explains his suppositions.
The book's chapters alternate between the World's Fair and the exploits of serial killer, Dr. H.H. Holmes. I found myself enjoying both stories, as they ran parallel throughout the book. The Herculean task of putting together the fair in record time was fascinating, and the sociopathic actions of Dr. Holmes were chilling. It made for a brilliant contrast - just when the frustrations of the Fair seemed overwhelming, the book switched to Dr. Holmes as he lured yet another young woman into his web. And just when Dr. Holmes' evil seemed too much to bear, the chapter would end and the reader would be back at the World's Fair dealing with political back stabbing, instead of Holmes' more literal variety.
I rarely read nonfiction, but this book came highly recommended to me, so I gave it a try. I'm so glad I did, too. It offers a wonderful historical perspective on Chicago and the world near the close of the 19th century. For a Chicago-area native like me, its frequent mentions of famous local names, like Burnham and Adler and Marshall Field, that still grace street signs and the sides of buildings, were an added treat. Just a brief word of warning, though: it does contain some of the dreaded "adult themes." Some of Dr. Holmes' crimes are described - although not too graphically - and they might be upsetting for "younger or more sensitive" readers.
I strongly recommend THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY to anyone who enjoys an engrossing, well-written story, whether they normally read fiction or nonfiction. In particular, if readers have a book report in school, this book should be considered. It makes history come alive.
Reviewed by: K. Osborn Sullivan
on 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.