The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

Posted on 09/04/2013 in Book Review / 2 Comments

The Devil in the White City by Erik LarsonThe Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
Published by Books On Tape on 9/12/2003
Genres: Non-Fiction
Format: Audiobook
Source: Purchased

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, Nikola Tesla 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.


While working the Christmas season at Borders (before they went out of business “sniffle”) I kept seeing The Devil in the White City fly off the shelf. Now I am not one for non-fiction books (actually I have only read one other non-fiction book in my life, they just bore me. I want to be entertained when I read, not lectured, too) but this book seemed to call to me. When I read the flap in the book and learned that it was about the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893, that also had America’s first recorded Serial Killer H.H. Holmes, I was sold!! I had to read this book!!! Well I didn’t get to actually read the book but I did listen to the book from Audible. Oh my gawd, what an amazing book!!! From now on if I ever want to read a non-fiction book, Audible is the way to go!!

Erik Larson sure did his homework when writing this book!! Abso-Freakin-Awesome this book is!! No wonder it won 8 awards!! Erik describes the events of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and H.H. Holmes through research, newspaper clippings/articles and personal diary/correspondence of everyone involved. What I liked most was how he told it. I imagine with the amount of detail that is in this book, if reading the book, most would find The Devil in the White City longwinded. But I understand why it is a long one. Erik starts the book at the point where Congress is deciding which city in the United States to host the World’s Columbian Exposition. He describes in detail how the city of Chicago was in 1890, so when he brings in the key players of the World’s Fair and H. H. Holmes, you are immersed in a world vividly painted for you. The detail is necessary to fully grasp the enormous pressures the architect’s and the city of Chicago experienced with the planning, building and events during the exposition. All the while, one of the most gruesome serial killers in the United States was taking advantage of this and killing somewhere up to 200 women and children. The two main characters of the book are chief architect Daniel Burnham and serial killer H. H. Holmes (aka= Herman Webster Mudgett). He tells all the struggles Burnham had in building and running the fair and how Holmes built this elaborate house of horrors. This horror house had odd shaped hallways, several small windowless apartments that had gas pipes hooked up to them, a labyrinth of tunnels in the walls that ended in a homemade crematorium; are just a few of the horrors tenants experienced. We are also introduced to famous people in our history: Financers: J. P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Marshall Fields, and Cyrus McCormick; Architects: Richard Hunt, Charles McKim, George Post, Solon Beman, Frederick Olmsted, Robert Peabody and Louis Sullivan. Historical Icon’s: Buffalo Bill, Anne Oakley, Katharine Bates, Thomas Edison, Helen Keller and George Ferris are just some of the people we hear about. It goes to tell you all the exciting things that were invented just for the fair, like Cream of Wheat, Juicy Fruit gum, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Quaker Oats, the zipper, fluorescent lamps, spray paint and braille.

The Narrator is Scott Brick. Scott has a way of reading the book, even during the boring parts, that still keeps you interested. I had no problem distinguishing the difference between Daniel Burnham and H. H. Holmes.

I could go into a lot of detail about how awesome this book is but I must be honest, this book is not for everyone. If you love history or have a passion for learning about Chicago or serial killers this book is most definitely for you!!! If that stuff does not interest you, Leonardo DiCaprio bought the rights to this book, and plans to bring it to Hollywood!! Wait for the movie to come out!! This book would make an excellent MOVIE!! Erik really has a way with writing about historical events from a person’s point of view that makes the reader feel they are reading a novel vs. reading a history lesson. I spent a lot of time on the internet looking up maps of Chicago, pictures of the World’s Fair and the Murder Castle. I have even gone out to Jackson Park, to visit the sight of the Fair and seen some of the parks that are still there from the fair (a picture below). This book is one I would recommend and give 5 stars.

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The earliest movie Kristina can remember watching is “The Neverending Story”. It was all downhill from there. She then watched any movie she could from old black-n-white, classic musicals to the current movies coming out. While other kids were outside playing, Kristina could be found watching movies over and over and over again, experiencing new things each time she watched them, memorizing lines and acting out the scenes. She loves everything about them from the directing, set & costume design, acting and foundtrack/film score. Her favorite genres are B-movies, British films and other foreign films.


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2 responses to “The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

  1. romancntdrkside

    I’m not a huge non-fiction reader but I have seen this in the bookstores and was tempted to check it out. Thanks for the review! 😉

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