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Erik Larson – The Devil in the White City

July 15, 2008

88. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson (2003)

Length: 447 pages

Genre: Non-Fiction; History

Started: 10 July 2008
Finished: 15 July 2008

Summary: The Chicago Columbian Exposition (also known as the World’s Fair) of 1893 was one of the great marvels of the modern world, a triumph of art, architecture, engineering, planning, and the human spirit. It was meant to both to assert America’s prominence by out-doing the Paris Exposition of a few years previously, and to secure Chicago’s status as a great city of culture and refinement, instead of just a city-sized slaughteryard. However, the rapid influx of visitors to the fair, many of them young women away from home for the first time, made it possible for a different type of slaughter to occur. Dr. H. H. Holmes, a smooth-talking and charming young man, set up a grim base of operations not far from the fair – becoming one of America’s first serial killers. This book alternates between telling Holmes’s story and that of the fair and the men who helped create it, contrasting the brightest and the darkest sides of human nature in the south side of 1890s’ Chicago.

Review: As a native (former) Chicagoan, it’s somewhat surprising that it took me this long to get around to reading The Devil in the White City. Maybe not that surprising – non-fiction, particularly history, is not a favorite genre, and I will admit to skipping or at best cursorily browsing the wing housing the exhibit on the World’s Fair every time I’ve ever been to the Art Institute – but I had the book recommended to me more than once. And, I have to say, even for a non-history fan, it was a surprisingly enjoyable and compelling read. Larson tells his stories with a real flair and not a hint of dryness, and his technique of alternating chapters between the chapters about the fair and the chapters about Holmes kept me wanting to push forward to get the rest of the story. One thing that I thought it was lacking, however, was sufficient pictures. I know there are other books out there I could consult (or I could pay attention the next time I’m at the Art Institute!), but even though I know the area they’re discussing fairly well (I’ve played frisbee on the Midway and by Olmstead’s lagoons in Jackson Park), I still had a bit of a hard time getting my bearings and visualizing what and where Larson was discussing.

Larson’s writing, as I mentioned, was quite good; he treads the line between fact and fictionalization neatly, not prefacing every statement with a “perhaps” (a la “the light may have glinted off the cobbles”, which drives me bonkers after a few pages), but still making it clear which details were a mater of historical record and what was conjecture. But, while the writing was better than expected, it was not without its flaws. Larson’s a big fan of keeping the reader in suspense about details, names, and significance; for example, he mentions George W. G. Ferris, designer of the Ferris Wheel, at least four times before he finally calls him by name. This coyness about facts and portentous but vague statements about their importance are meant to build tension and suspense, a technique clearly borrowed from fiction, and to a degree it works. However, Larson presents a lot of information at a rapid pace, and many of the details of an event may get swamped out by the time he gets around to telling the reader what it actually was. Another surprise was that Holmes’s story doesn’t intersect with the fair as much as I’d expected, apart from occurring at the same time, and the social conditions surrounding the later facilitating the former. Still, the idea to tell the two stories together in one book was an inspired one; if nothing else, a macabre and morbid fascination with serial killers probably will pull most readers through a lot of history that, while interesting, just doesn’t have the same kind of narrative pull. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: A must-read for native Chicagoans (or visitors looking to do some localized reading), even those like me who actively avoid local history. For others, it’s a compelling and well-written piece of history about a fascinating event in a fascinating period of time.

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First Line: The date was April 14, 1912, a sinister day in maritime history, but of course the man in suite 63-65, shelter deck C, did not yet know it.


  • p. 32: “The weapons on the wall had been used in actual homicides and were provided by Chicago policemen; the skulls by an alienist at a nearby lunatic asylum; the blanket by a member who had acquired it while covering a battle between the army and the Sioux.” – a doctor specializing in the treatment of mental illness.
  • p. 37: “As for most people, his initial sensory contact with Chicago had been the fantastic stink that lingered always in the vicinity of the Union Stock Yards, a Chinook of putrefaction and incinerated hair, “an elemental odor,” wrote Upton Sinclair, “raw and crude; it was rich, almost rancid, sensual and strong.”” – a warm, dry wind that blows at intervals down the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.
  • p. 42: “It was an impossibly complex and gruesome plan, likely beyond the powers of anyone to execute, but his description is noteworthy for what it revealed, without his intention, about his astigmatic soul.” – of or relating to a defect in the eye or in a lens caused by a deviation from spherical curvature which prevents light rays from meeting at a common focus and so results in distorted images. (Clearly Larson is using it metaphorically, probably as “deviant” or possibly as “unfocused”)
  • p. 52: “That head: Bald for most of its surface, trimmed at the bottom with a tangled white beard, it resembled an ivory Christmas ball resting on a bed of excelsior.” – fine wood shavings, used for stuffing, packing, etc.
  • p. 78: “Strong gusts of wind buffeted the train, and ghostly virga of ice followed it through the night.” – streaks of water drops or ice particles falling out of a cloud and evaporating before reaching the ground
  • p. 105: “To him, Hunt was the janissary of a dead vernacular.” – a member of any group of loyal guards, soldiers, or supporters.
  • p. 113: “In the hearth at the north wall a large fire cracked and lisped, flushing the room with a dry sirocco that caused frozen skin to tingle.” – a hot, dry, dustladen wind blowing from northern Africa and affecting parts of southern Europe.
  • p. 148: “Fearful things: bonesaws, abdomen retractor, trocar and trepan.” – a sharp-pointed instrument enclosed in a cannula, used for withdrawing fluid from a cavity, as the abdominal cavity.
  • p. 151: “Holmes and Chappell placed the body in a trunk lined with duckcloth.” – a heavy, plain woven cotton fabric.
  • p. 199: “One firm, Merchant & Co., which had supplied the iron for his kiln and vault, had gone so far as to secure a writ of replevin to take the iron back.” – an action for the recovery of goods or chattels wrongfully taken or detained.
  • p. 217: “One bright and fragrant spring day – as if on a wild equinoctial whim – Holmes suggested that Minnie invite her sister to Chicago to see the world’s fair, at his expense.” – occurring at or about the time of an equinox.
  • p. 235: “As the procession rumbled south along Michigan Avenue toward Jackson Park, the streat behind became a following sea of 200,000 Chicagoans on foot and horseback, in phaetons, victorias, and stanhopes, and packed into omnibuses and streetcars.” – a light, open, horse-drawn carriage with one seat and two or four wheels.
  • p. 238: “From the president’s vantage point the scene was festive and crisp, but at ground level there was water and mud and the mucid sucking that accompanied any shift in position.” – moderately wet; damp; humid; not dry; as, a moist atmosphere or air.
  • p. 269: “As the wheel turned, the car pivoted on the trunnions that both connected it to the frame and kept it level.” – A pin or gudgeon, especially either of two small cylindrical projections on a cannon forming an axis on which it pivots.
  • p. 284: “The list included: 820 cases of diarrhea; 154, constipation, 21, hemorrhoids; 434, indigestion; 365, foreign bodies in the eyes; 364, severe headaches; 594 episodes of fainting, syncope, and exhaustion; 1 case of extreme flatulence; and 169 involving teeth that hurt like hell.” – brief loss of consciousness associated with transient cerebral anemia, as in heart block, sudden lowering of the blood pressure, etc.; fainting.
  • p. 332: “A catafalque carrying Harrison’s black casket led the cortege and was followed immediately by Harrison’s beloved Kentucky mare, stirrups crossed on its empty saddle.” – a raised structure on which the body of a deceased person lies or is carried in state.
16 Comments leave one →
  1. July 15, 2008 9:02 pm

    This sounds really, really good! I’m not from Chicago, but I’ve visited there many times. I grew up in Grand Rapids, so it wasn’t too bad of a drive to get to the big city. :) Thanks for the wonderful review!

    I don’t know if you have checked my blog out or not, but I nominated you for an Excellence in Blogging award. I love your site and I wanted to share it with others.

  2. July 15, 2008 9:16 pm

    Wow, thanks! I actually just got back from vacation (finished this book on the plane and wrote the review on a layover), so I’m woefully behind on my blog reading… my plan is to set aside a good chunk of tomorrow to read and comment on all of the entries I missed. And maybe to sort through some of the photos. :)

  3. July 21, 2008 3:20 pm

    I really enjoyed this book, although I definitely felt that it got bogged down in places. I wonder, though, if I would have enjoyed it quite so much if I had read it before I moved to Chicago.

  4. July 21, 2008 3:27 pm

    Dev – I really doubt that I’d have enjoyed it quite so much if I weren’t from Chicago and didn’t have the connection to the places he talked about. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have even picked it up (or had it forcibly suggested, as it were).

  5. Jacob permalink
    July 30, 2008 12:24 am

    Hey if anyone has read this book can you please send me an email. I want a couple of general questions answered about it. Thanks! My email address is

  6. July 30, 2008 8:31 am

    Jacob – you can go ahead and ask your questions here… I’ve certainly read it, as have several other commenters.

  7. Jacob permalink
    July 31, 2008 4:06 pm

    What challenges did those people like Daniel Burnham encounter???

  8. August 1, 2008 11:14 am

    I’d say the number one challenge was lack of time – they had to build a number of structures, make them look coherent, beautiful, and better than what the Paris Exposition had, in about the time that it would ordinarily take to design and build one regular building.

  9. Jacob permalink
    August 1, 2008 2:34 pm

    So Daniel Burnham was a construction worker? Who was he working for? Andrew Carnige?

  10. August 1, 2008 3:32 pm

    No, he was an architect and planner. You can check out his Wikipedia page, and this one for the fair itself for more info.

  11. Jacob permalink
    August 1, 2008 4:34 pm

    From your reading of the book, does Chicago sound like it would have been a good place to be during the 1890’s?

  12. August 1, 2008 6:53 pm

    It wouldn’t have been my cup of tea, but you should definitely check the book out and form your own opinion; it’s quite a good read.

  13. Jacob permalink
    August 3, 2008 2:36 pm

    How does the story of the serial killer H.H Holmess help us understnd anything about Chicago in the Guilded Age? What was unique abut the city of Chicago at the time (besides it running the Columbian Exposition in 1893)?


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