Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson

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

Erik Larson

Category: Nonfiction: History; Biography

Synopsis: Larson paints a picture of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair as well as a mass murderer in the Fair’s neighborhood.

Date finished: 3 October 2014

Rating: *****

With The Devil in the White City, you’re getting two books in one. One is a true crime tale of mass murder and madness. The other is a history of the building of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair whose official name was World’s Columbian Exposition, honoring the 400th anniversary of Columbus's discovery of America.

Let’s discuss the Chicago World’s Fair first. Twenty-seven million visits were recorded at the fair. This is at a point in time when the country’s population was only 65 million, and Chicago’s population was just over one million. Politicians came, celebrities came, royalty came. Everybody came to the world’s fair. Daniel Burnham coordinated the building project. Many buildings were constructed by a team of the country’s best architects—which means there was a lot of talent and a lot of ego in one room. Frederick Law Olmsted, landscape creator of Central Park, among other high-profile grounds, did the landscape architecture. George Washington Gale Ferris created the Ferris Wheel in an effort to out-Eiffel the Eiffel Tower, which was created for a prior world’s fair. Things that were introduced at the world’s fair: the zipper (!), the electric kitchen, Cracker Jack, Aunt Jemima’s pancake mix, Juicy Fruit, Shredded Wheat, the vertical file (created by Melvin Dewey of the Dewey Decimal System), and the fair’s top beer would hereafter be known as Pabst Blue Ribbon. The fair alone consumed three times as much electricity as the whole city of Chicago.

In short, this was a big deal. And what goes up must come down. That’s right, this was all meant to be temporary.

Story two is the chilling serial murderer H. H. Holmes who lures folks to his mansions with his proximity to the fair. He generally prefers young female victims, but he also murders men and children. He admitted, at one time, to killing 27 people, but some of those were proven alive. Estimates of his victim count top out at 200. Only nine homicides were proven. Thanks to a savvy detective who followed Holmes’ trail and his own hunches, he was convicted and put to death.

I kept waiting for the two stories to intersect, and they never did. They were concurrent in time, but Holmes never brought his brutality to the fair (though he did attend). I could have done without the murder part of the story altogether given the fact that it never tied into what I saw as the larger story—the Chicago fair.

But really, I can’t be too disappointed. The writing was superb, engaging, riveting at times. Larson is a master of leaving a cliffhanger at the end of every section to keep you reading “one more page.” I love my history trivia, and I was certainly not disappointed here. I’d recommend this book to anyone looking for a good story that’s part history, part mystery—as long as you can stomach a few grisly murders, too.

Would you recommend this to a friend?


  1. I'm so glad you reviewed this book! It has been recommended to me every October for the last three years, but I've been a little scared to read it. I'm glad to hear that the world's fair itself is actually the bigger story.

    1. I think Larson deals with both stories equally, but I'm not a true crime fan. I loved the World's Fair portions, but didn't really care for the murder portions. He tried more to get into the mind of the murderer than focus on the grisly crimes, but it's still kind of intense. The writing itself, though, is a good reason to read it!