"In Chicago at the end of the nineteenth century amid the smoke of
industry and the clatter of trains there lived two men, both handsome, both
blue-eyed, and both unusually adept at their chosen skills." So begins
The Devil in the White City. And there ends all similarity between
those two men. Daniel Burnham, architect of some of America's most famous
structures the Flatiron Building in New York City and Union Station
in Washington, D.C., to name two would, as director of works for
the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, organize a six-month fair on the
shore of Lake Michigan that attracted 27.5 million visitors during one of
the worst depressions in American history. Dr. H. H. Holmes, born Herman
Webster Mudgett, a physician and hotelier, was meanwhile living and working
in Englewood, only a short "L" ride from the fairgrounds at Jackson
Park. Although no one would know it until long after Burnham's fair closed
its gates, during the great event Holmes was nearby developing his enterprise
as America's first urban serial killer. "You've got to respect a book
that makes you keep flipping to the back cover, double-checking that it
is nonfiction," Adrienne Miller admitted in Esquire. "[T]he
heart of the story is so good, you find yourself asking how you could not
know this already." Dave, Powells.com
Synopses & Reviews
2015 Edgar Award Nominee
Beekman Place, once one of the most exclusive addresses in Manhattan, had a curious way of making it into the tabloids in the 1930s: andldquo;SKYSCRAPER SLAYER,andrdquo; andldquo;BEAUTY SLAIN IN BATHTUBandrdquo; read the headlines. On Easter Sunday in 1937, the discovery of a grisly triple homicide at Beekman Place would rock the neighborhood yet againandmdash;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.
Caught up in the Easter Sunday slayings was a bizarre and sensationalistic cast of characters, seemingly cooked up in a tabloid editorandrsquo;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.
Irwinandrsquo;s primary victim, Veronica Gedeon, was a figure from the world of pulp fantasyandmdash;a stunning photographerand#39;s model whose scandalous seminude pinups would titillate the public for weeks after her death. Irwinandrsquo;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.
Based on extensive research and archival records, The Mad Sculptor recounts the chilling story of the Easter Sunday murdersandmdash;a case that sparked a nationwide manhunt and endures as one of the most engrossing American crime dramas of the twentieth century. Harold Schechterandrsquo;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.
"Engrossing...exceedingly well documented...utterly fascinating." Chicago Tribune
"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
"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
In a thrilling narrative showcasing his gifts as storyteller and researcher, Erik Larson recounts the spellbinding tale of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.
The White City as it became known was a magical creation constructed upon Chicago's swampy Jackson Park by Daniel H. Burnham, the famed architect who coordinated the talents of Frederick Olmsted, Louis Sullivan, and others to build it. Dr. Henry H. Holmes combined the fair's appeal with his own fatal charms to lure scores of women to their deaths. Whereas the fair marked the birth of a new epoch in American history, Holmes marked the emergence of a new American archetype, the serial killer, who thrived on the very forces then transforming the country.
In deft prose, Larson conveys Burnham's herculean challenge to build the White City in less than 18 months. At the same time, he describes how, in a malign parody of the achievements of the fair's builders, Holmes built his own World's Fair Hotel a torture palace complete with a gas chamber and crematorium. Throughout the book, tension mounts on two fronts: Will Burnham complete the White City before the millions of visitors arrive at its gates? Will anyone stop Holmes as he ensnares his victims?
A nonfiction blend of Ragtime and Silence of the Lambs, The Devil in the White City is Erik Larson at his best.
Two men, each handsome and unusually adept at his chosen work, embodied an element of the great dynamic that characterized Americas rush toward the twentieth century. The architect was Daniel Hudson Burnham, the fairs brilliant director of works and the builder of many of the countrys 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 “Worlds 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 Larsons 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.
To find out more about this book, go to http://www.DevilInTheWhiteCity.com.
Includes bibliographical references (p. -429) and index.
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.
About the Author
Erik Larson lives in Seattle with his wife, three daughters, a Chinese fighting fish, a dwarf hamster, and a golden retriever named Molly.
Table of Contents
and#160;and#160;and#160; Cast of Characters
and#160;and#160;and#160; Prologue: 268 East 52nd Street, New York Cityand#160;and#160;and#160;xiii
Part I: Beekman Place
and#160;and#160;and#160; Dead Endand#160;and#160;and#160;3
and#160;and#160;and#160; Vera and Fritzand#160;and#160;and#160;7
and#160;and#160;and#160; and#8220;Beauty Slain in Bathtuband#8221;and#160;and#160;and#160;29
and#160;and#160;and#160; Sex Fiendsand#160;and#160;and#160;47 Part II: Fenelon
and#160;and#160;and#160; The Firebrandand#160;and#160;and#160;53
and#160;and#160;and#160; The Brothersand#160;and#160;and#160;62
and#160;and#160;and#160; Romanelli and Radyand#160;and#160;and#160;81
Part III: The Shadow of Madness
and#160;and#160;and#160; The Gedeonsand#160;and#160;and#160;110
and#160;and#160;and#160; Bug in a Bottleand#160;and#160;and#160;124
and#160;and#160;and#160; The Snake Womanand#160;and#160;and#160;130
Part IV: The Mad Sculptor
and#160;and#160;and#160; Bloody Sundayand#160;and#160;and#160;157
and#160;and#160;and#160; The Party Girland#160;and#160;and#160;169
and#160;and#160;and#160; Murder Sellsand#160;and#160;and#160;182
and#160;and#160;and#160; Prime Suspectand#160;and#160;and#160;203
Part V: The Defender
and#160;and#160;and#160; Murder in Times Squareand#160;and#160;and#160;223
and#160;and#160;and#160; The Front Pageand#160;and#160;and#160;237
and#160;and#160;and#160; Epilogue: The Lonergan Caseand#160;and#160;and#160;303
Reading Group Guide
#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.
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?