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

I’ve come to learn that my brother reads really interesting books. To be more precise, he listens to really interesting books on his daily commute. After 10 years of back and forth from the Chicago Loop to the suburbs, he’s listened to libraries worth of novels. Recently, he recommended The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. 

The Devil in the White City entwines two tales—the saga that was building the Chicago’s World Fair (the Columbian Exposition) in 1892-93, and the gruesome details of one of the city’s first serial killers. Larson does a good job of laying the groundwork for both stories. He gives the interesting history of the huge success of the Paris exhibition just a few years earlier, and how it was speculated that nothing could top the Eiffel Tower.

Anyone who loves Chicago will enjoy the history and the name dropping in this book. Larson brings the reader to the young bustling metropolis and describes the harsh life that many newcomers faced. The tough reality of the Chicago stockyards, and a city bursting at its seams with no where to grow but up is portrayed well. The challenges of Chicago’s architecture due to its lack of bedrock, as well as the common notion that the city was somehow inferior to New York and Washington, D.C. set the stage for what was to be either a stunning success or miserable failure. Daniel H. Burnham’s vision of the White City brought back a surge of classical architecture and put Chicago on the map. It was also a venture that went nearly bankrupt, killed many men on the job, and wasn’t viewed as a stunning success until the fair was in its final run.

Dr. Holmes, serial killer, is also described in great detail, and gives off a creepy vibe right from the beginning of the book. His boldness is chilling, the lack of the ability of people to catch on to what he was doing is startling. The lack of ways to communicate, coupled with charm really worked in his favor. His hotel of horrors sent chills down my spine, and turned my stomach.

I learned a lot of Chicago trivia, as well as Columbian Exposition trivia while reading this book. Previous to reading it, I knew that the Museum of Science and Industry was an original building from the Fair, but not much else. The Ferris wheel, along with shredded wheat and several other innovations were on display during the exposition, and have clearly stood the test of time.

If you’re looking for an interesting historical read, this is a good one.

3 thoughts on “The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America”

  1. One of my favorite Serial Killers, actually. There’s a good documentary on him on netflix that I watch when I’m sick. Guy was a bit of a criminal genius- we talk so much about Gacey and Warnos and so on, but Compared to Holmes they are dull and uncreative, if those words can be used for those with such vile acts. He not only built his hotel with trap doors and death rooms, but had a secret basement where he would deflesh his victims and prep their skeletons- which he would then sell as educational models. Supposedly he had a horrible experience with such a skeleton as a child, but… well, that’s based on the autobiography he wrote while awaiting trial. And that’s just the stuff he did in Chi- he had been conning and murdering all across the US. Indeed, it was for one particular con and murder line that he was arrested- not the murder hotel.

  2. Ummm, you forgot the most important part of this whole story, which is that HOMEBOY BUILT AN ENTIRE HOTEL TO MURDER PEOPLE WITHOUT ANYONE KNOWING. Like, trap doors in the bathrooms and closets and such that went straight into killrooms. It is INSANE. P.S. I know Leonardo DiCaprio bought the rights to the book a couple of years ago, though I’m not entirely sure if it’s still happening.

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