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. Recommended By Michal D., Powells.com
Synopses & Reviews
Two men, each handsome and unusually adept at his chosen work, embodied an element of the great dynamic that characterized America's rush toward the twentieth century. The architect was Daniel Hudson Burnham, the fair's brilliant director of works and the builder of many of the country's most important structures, including the Flatiron Building in New York and Union Station in Washington, D.C. The murderer was Henry H. Holmes, a young doctor who, in a malign parody of the White City, built his "World's Fair Hotel" just west of the fairgrounds a torture palace complete with dissection table, gas chamber, and 3,000-degree crematorium. Burnham overcame tremendous obstacles and tragedies as he organized the talents of Frederick Law Olmsted, Charles McKim, Louis Sullivan, and others to transform swampy Jackson Park into the White City, while Holmes used the attraction of the great fair and his own satanic charms to lure scores of young women to their deaths. What makes the story all the more chilling is that Holmes really lived, walking the grounds of that dream city by the lake.
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. In this book the smoke, romance, and mystery of the Gilded Age come alive as never before.
Erik Larson's gifts as a storyteller are magnificently displayed in this rich narrative of the master builder, the killer, and the great fair that obsessed them both.
"Engrossing...exceedingly well documented...utterly fascinating." Chicago Tribune
"A wonderfully unexpected book....Larson is a historian...with a novelist's soul." Chicago Sun-Times
"Another successful exploration of American history....Larson skillfully balances the grisly details with the far-reaching implications of the World's Fair." USA Today
"Vivid history of the glittering Chicago Worlds Fair and its dark side." New York Magazine
"[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." David Traxel, The New York Times Book Review
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.
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.
The story of two men's obsessions with the White City Fair, one its architect, the other a murderer.
About the Author
Erik Larson, author of the international bestseller Isaac's Storm, has written for Harpers, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and Time, where he is a contributing writer. He is a former staff writer for The Wall Street Journal. He lives in Seattle with his wife, three daughters, and assorted pets, including a golden retriever named Molly.
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?
#1 NATIONAL BESTSELLER
National Book Award Finalist
“As absorbing a piece of popular history as one will ever hope to find.” —San Francisco Chronicle
The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are designed to enliven your groups discussion of Erik Larsons gripping account of the 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair.
Review A Day
"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."
Adrienne Miller, Esquire
(read the entire Esquire review