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

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

 

 

Reading Group Guide

1) In the note “Evils Imminent,” Erik Larson writes “Beneath the gore and smoke and loam, this book is about the evanescence of life, and why some men choose to fill their brief allotment of time engaging the impossible, others in the manufacture of sorrow” [xi]. What does the book reveal about “the ineluctable conflict between good and evil”? What is the essential difference between men like Daniel Burnham and Henry H. Holmes? Are they alike in any way?

2) At the end of The Devil in the White City, in Notes and Sources, Larson writes “The thing that entranced me about Chicago in the Gilded Age was the citys willingness to take on the impossible in the name of civic honor, a concept so removed from the modern psyche that two wise readers of early drafts of this book wondered why Chicago was so avid to win the worlds fair in the first place” [p. 393]. What motives, in addition to “civic honor,” drove Chicago to build the Fair? In what ways might the desire to “out-Eiffel Eiffel” and to show New York that Chicago was more than a meat-packing backwater be seen as problematic?

3) The White City is repeatedly referred to as a dream. The young poet Edgar Lee Masters called the Court of Honor “an inexhaustible dream of beauty” [p. 252]; Dora Root wrote “I think I should never willingly cease drifting in that dreamland” [p. 253]; Theodore Dreiser said he had been swept “into a dream from which I did not recover for months” [p. 306]; and columnist Teresa Dean found it “cruel . . . to let us dream and drift through heaven for six months, and then to take it out of our lives” [p. 335]. What accounts for the dreamlike quality of the White City? What are the positive and negative aspects of this dream?

4) In what ways does the Chicago Worlds Fair of 1893 change America? What lasting inventions and ideas did it introduce into American culture? What important figures were critically influenced by the Fair?

5) At the end of the book, Larson suggests that “Exactly what motivated Holmes may never be known” [p. 395]. What possible motives are exposed in The Devil in the White City? Why is it important to try to understand the motives of a person like Holmes?

6) After the Fair ended, Ray Stannard Baker noted “What a human downfall after the magnificence and prodigality of the Worlds Fair which has so recently closed its doors! Heights of splendor, pride, exaltation in one month: depths of wretchedness, suffering, hunger, cold, in the next” [p. 334]. What is the relationship between the opulence and grandeur of the Fair and the poverty and degradation that surrounded it? In what ways does the Fair bring into focus the extreme contrasts of the Gilded Age? What narrative techniques does Larson use to create suspense in the book? How does he end sections and chapters of the book in a manner that makes the reader anxious to find out what happens next?

7) Larson writes, “The juxtaposition of pride and unfathomed evil struck me as offering powerful insights into the nature of men and their ambitions” [p. 393]. What such insights does the book offer? What more recent stories of pride, ambition, and evil parallel those described in The Devil in the White City?

8) What does The Devil in the White City add to our knowledge about Frederick Law Olmsted and Daniel Burnham? What are the most admirable traits of these two men? What are their most important aesthetic principles?

9) In his speech before his wheel took on its first passengers, George Ferris “happily assured the audience that the man condemned for having ‘wheels in his head had gotten them out of his head and into the heart of the Midway Plaisance” [p. 279]. In what way is the entire Fair an example of the power of human ingenuity, of the ability to realize the dreams of imagination?

10) How was Holmes able to exert such power over his victims? What weaknesses did he prey upon? Why wasnt he caught earlier? In what ways does his story “illustrate the end of the century” [p. 370] as the Chicago Times-Herald wrote?

11) What satisfaction can be derived from a nonfiction book like The Devil in the White City that cannot be found in novels? In what ways is the book like a novel?

12) In describing the collapse of the roof of Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building, Larson writes “In a great blur of snow and silvery glass the buildings roof—that marvel of late nineteenth-century hubris, enclosing the greatest volume of unobstructed space in history—collapsed to the floor below” [p. 196-97]. Was the entire Fair, in its extravagant size and cost, an exhibition of arrogance? Do such creative acts automatically engender a darker, destructive parallel? Can Holmes be seen as the natural darker side of the Fairs glory?

13) What is the total picture of late nineteenth-century America that emerges from The Devil in the White City? How is that time both like and unlike contemporary America? What are the most significant differences? In what ways does that time mirror the present?

What Our Readers Are Saying

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BjoLiz, February 25, 2014 (view all comments by BjoLiz)
Having read this book several years ago, I got so much more out of it this time around.  On the first reading, I was absorbed in The Devil and the horrors he inflicted with zero regard for anyone but himself, a true sociopath.  In my 2nd reading, The White City captured my imagination.  What those architects, landscape artists and construction workers accomplished in so short a time was nothing short of miraculous.  I doubt it could be repeated today even with all our modern machinery and technology.  

Now, a brief word about Holmes and his despicable acts.  Although tragic, his significance was of being the first US serial killer.  Not a cherished goal for most of society,  yet I think he eagerly sought that place in history.   His powers of deception were amazing.  His killings and subsequent disposals were simple as well as elaborate.  His heart and mind were certainly of the devil.

Overall, this was a fascinating read.  Just when the tedium of the building of the White City and all the setbacks became overpowering, Larson jolted my interest back with Holmes and his myriad of atrocities.  It is a thoroughly researched and well written book surrounding a brief monumental and significant time in our history.
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BakerB, January 14, 2013 (view all comments by BakerB)
Very interesting read. Full of fascinating history, details of the World's Fair, & Chicago in its heyday, & chilling murder & mystery. Great combo!
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(1 of 2 readers found this comment helpful)
Waney, December 29, 2012 (view all comments by Waney)
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.
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(2 of 3 readers found this comment helpful)
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780375725609
Author:
Larson, Erik
Publisher:
Vintage Books
Author:
Schechter, Harold
Location:
New York
Subject:
United States - 20th Century
Subject:
United States - 19th Century/Turn of the Century
Subject:
Serial murders
Subject:
Serial murderers
Subject:
United States - State & Local - Midwest
Subject:
Murder - Serial Killers
Subject:
World History-General
Subject:
Pathological Psychology
Subject:
history;chicago;non-fiction;true crime;architecture;murder;crime;serial killer;world s fair;mystery;fiction;19th century;chicago world s fair;american history;historical fiction;historical;biography;illinois;america;american;thriller;daniel burnham;1890s;
Subject:
history;chicago;non-fiction;true crime;architecture;murder;crime;serial killer;world s fair;mystery;fiction;19th century;chicago world s fair;american history;historical fiction;historical;biography;illinois;america;american;thriller;daniel burnham;1890s;
Copyright:
Edition Number:
1st paperback ed.
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Series:
Vintage
Series Volume:
34/2003
Publication Date:
February 10, 2004
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Illustrations:
1 MAP; 7 HALFTONES
Pages:
464
Dimensions:
9 x 6 in 1.26 lb

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History and Social Science » US History » 1800 to 1945
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The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America Used Trade Paper
0 stars - 0 reviews
$7.95 In Stock
Product details 464 pages Vintage Books USA - English 9780375725609 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

An amazing history that recounts the inconceivable events surrounding the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, Larson's tale captures a time and place that vividly come to life. The central characters in this tale are Daniel H. Burnham, the architect responsible for the construction of the fair, and H. H. Holmes, a serial killer who used the popularity of the fair for his own nefarious ends. Burnham's work at overcoming the insurmountable obstacles before completing this awe inspiring project is interwoven with chapters relating to the maniacal Holmes, whose person will keep you both captivated and haunted. Breathtakingly written, this almost unbelievable history reads like the work of a highly inventive novelist.

"Staff Pick" by ,

"I was mesmerized by this book. It was a deliciously creepy read, made more creepy for being true. Several times in the course of reading it, I had to keep reminding myself that the events really happened."

"Review A Day" by , "You've got to respect a book that makes you keep flipping to the back cover, double-checking that it is nonfiction. Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City seems like something from the mind of, say, Thomas Harris. But it is, in fact, true. A gruesome and gripping book....[T]he heart of the story is so good, you find yourself asking how you could not know this already." (read the entire Esquire review)
"Review" by , "Engrossing...exceedingly well documented...utterly fascinating."
"Review" by , "A wonderfully unexpected book....Larson is a historian...with a novelist's soul."
"Review" by , "Another successful exploration of American history....Larson skillfully balances the grisly details with the far-reaching implications of the World's Fair."
"Review" by , "Vivid history of the glittering Chicago World?s Fair and its dark side."
"Review" by , "[Larson] uses language well, but has little sense of pacing or focus, perhaps because of the huge amount of material available on the fair....There is much less material available on H. H. Holmes, and Larson tells that part of the story economically."
"Synopsis" by , The story of two men's obsessions with the Chicago World's Fair — one its architect, the other a murderer. The Devil in the White City draws the reader into a time of magic and majesty, made all the more appealing by a supporting cast of real-life characters, including Buffalo Bill, Theodore Dreiser, Susan B. Anthony, Thomas Edison, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, and others.
"Synopsis" by , The story of two men's obsessions with the White City Fair, one its architect, the other a murderer.
"Synopsis" by , A riveting account of a gruesome triple-homicide at Beekman Place in Depression Era New York, with an intriguing cast of characters including the brilliant but mentally-disturbed sculptor, Robert Irwin.
"Synopsis" by , Beekman Place, once one of the most exclusive addresses in Manhattan, had a curious way of making it into the tabloids in the 1930s: and#8220;SKYSCRAPER SLAYER,and#8221; and#8220;BEAUTY SLAIN IN BATHTUBand#8221; read the headlines. On Easter Sunday in 1937, the discovery of a grisly triple homicide at Beekman Place would rock the neighborhood yet againand#8212;and enthrall the nation. The young man who committed the murders would come to be known in the annals of American crime as the Mad Sculptor.

and#160;

Caught up in the Easter Sunday slayings was a bizarre and sensationalistic cast of characters, seemingly cooked up in a tabloid editorand#8217;s overheated imagination. The charismatic perpetrator, Robert Irwin, was a brilliant young sculptor who had studied with some of the masters of the era. But with his genius also came a deeply disturbed psyche; Irwin was obsessed with sexual self-mutilation and was frequently overcome by outbursts of violent rage.

and#160;

Irwinand#8217;s primary victim, Veronica Gedeon, was a figure from the world of pulp fantasyand#8212;a stunning photographer's model whose scandalous seminude pinups would titillate the public for weeks after her death. Irwinand#8217;s defense attorney, Samuel Leibowitz, was a courtroom celebrity with an unmatched record of acquittals and clients ranging from Al Capone to the Scottsboro Boys. And Dr. Fredric Wertham, psychiatrist and forensic scientist, befriended Irwin years before the murders and had predicted them in a public lecture months before the crime.

and#160;

Based on extensive research and archival records, The Mad Sculptor recounts the chilling story of the Easter Sunday murdersand#8212;a case that sparked a nationwide manhunt and endures as one of the most engrossing American crime dramas of the twentieth century. Harold Schechterand#8217;s masterful prose evokes the faded glory of post-depression New York and the singular madness of a brilliant mind turned against itself. It will keep you riveted until the very last page.

"Synopsis" by , Erik Larson—author of #1 bestseller IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS—intertwines the true tale of the 1893 World's Fair and the cunning serial killer who used the fair to lure his victims to their death. Combining meticulous research with nail-biting storytelling, Erik Larson has crafted a narrative with all the wonder of newly discovered history and the thrills of the best fiction.
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