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634 of 670 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An Entertaining and Informative Read
Erik Larson does a bang-up job of conveying what life must have been like in the "Second City" as the 19th century drew to its fitful conclusion. Bristling at the constant reminder of New York City's superiority in so many areas, Chicago's city fathers rallied the troops and went all out in proving to New Yorkers, to the nation and to the world that Chicago was...
Published on April 27, 2004 by Bruce Kendall

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242 of 271 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Two stories, neither fully told
This book tells two stories that intertwine around the fabulous Chicago World's fair of 1893. One story concerns itself with the monumental challenge the actual construction of the fair presented to the various architects, engineers, and landscape artists involved in the event. The other story tells the tale of murderer H.H. Holmes, who constructed a large hotel near the...
Published on April 14, 2003 by M. Dog


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634 of 670 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An Entertaining and Informative Read, April 27, 2004
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This review is from: The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America (Paperback)
Erik Larson does a bang-up job of conveying what life must have been like in the "Second City" as the 19th century drew to its fitful conclusion. Bristling at the constant reminder of New York City's superiority in so many areas, Chicago's city fathers rallied the troops and went all out in proving to New Yorkers, to the nation and to the world that Chicago was equal to the great challenge of mounting a World Exposition of truly monumental stature. Larson's descriptions of the Herculean effort put forth by numerous architects, builders, politicians, etc. lead the reader to a true appreciation of these "can do," spirited individuals.
Yet beneath the teeming activity and a short distance away from the gleaming white Pleasure Palaces of the Fair, there stood a building of a different sort entirely, inhabited by one of the most vicious, truly evil creatures the young nation ever produced. Larson does an adequate, but not great job of telling the darker story surrounding H H Holmes, the mesmeric Svengali whose brilliant blue eyes and engaging charm seduced at least a score (one estimate was up to 200, which the author disputes) unfortunate women. Unlike Jack the Ripper, to whom he was later likened, he didn't limit himself to female victims. Business partners who had outworn their usefulness and several children were amongst his prey, as well. He just had a penchant for murder.
The sections on the construction of the Columbia Exposition are filled with fascinating anecdotes, ranging from the origins of the sobriquet "windy city (derisively coined by Charles Anderson Dana, Editor of The New York Sun)" to the dramatic entrance of Annie Oakley, barreling in on horseback and blazing away with her two six-shooters in Buffalo Bill Cody's Western Show adjacent to the Fair Grounds. Larson also provides an interesting side story surrounding Patrick Predergast, a delusional political aspirant who turns assassin. He paints a compelling portrait of Fredrick Law Olmstead, American History's premier landscape architect who took up the almost impossible task of designing and overseeing the Exposition's parks and lagoons. The hero of the book, however, is Daniel Hudson Burnham, who was ultimately responsible for the lion's share of the planning, construction and smooth running of the entire enterprise. He had a little over two years from the time Congress selected Chicago from a list of candidate cities that included Saint Louis and New York, to the day of the Expo's official opening. That he got the job done within the alloted time is one of the great marvels in an age of marvels, especially given the myriad difficulties which he and his crew had to overcome.
The Holmes narractive appears a bit lackluster in comparison to the story of the Fair's construction. Larson acknowledges the difficulty he faced in recreating Holmes' vicious crimes via imaginary vignettes. He states in an afterword that he went back and read Capote's IN COLD BLOOD for the technique in which Capote so brilliantly engaged in his imaginative reconstruction of events. The only problem with this approach is that Capote had access to and the confidence of the two killers that are at the center of IN COLD BLOOD. Larson had only newspaper accounts from the period as well as a very unreliable journal that Holmes wrote after he was tried and sentenced to death (he was hanged several months after the trial). It would appear that Larson goes a bit too far out of his way to avoid the lurid and sensationalitic aspects of Holmes' killing spree. One has only to visit some of the numerous web sites devoted to Holmes to see that Larson is particularly reticent to discuss Holmes' sexual deviance. This is understandable, as Larson wants to be taken seriously as an historian, yet the facts are out there (most of them well documented) so it wouldn't have hurt to have included a bit more of the darker details. The book could also have used more illustrations. The Chicago Tribune, at the time the story first broke in 1894, included a detailed floor plan of the "Chamber of Horrors" Holmes built on the corner of Sixty-Third and Wallace in the Englewood section of Chicago. That illustration would have given the reader a better sense of the bizarre layout of the structure. More pictures of the Exposition would have also been helpful. Here again, there are several sites on the web devoted to the Columbia Exposition that have many pages of great photographs.
The books virtues far outweigh its shortcomings and I have no problem in recommending THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY to anyone interested in US History, Chicago Architecture, or just a well told story.
BEK
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280 of 301 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unspeakable Wonders and Startling Evil, February 11, 2003
By 
Scott Coffman "Scott the Bookman" (Louisville, KY United States) - See all my reviews
Larson has created the first must-read nonfiction title of the year, an assured and satisfying work which vividly portrays the one of the last grand gasps of the nineteenth century, the World's Fair of 1893.
Daniel Hudson Burnham, architect and overseer of the fair, builds the White City itself, while Henry H. Holmes is the titular devil, a charismatic young doctor with blood-curdling obsessions. The British of the period may have dealt with Jack the Ripper, but our ever-expanding country weaned its own monster, whose house of horrors stood in the shadows of the great architectural triumphs of the Fair.
This compelling book moves with the relentlessness of the greatest novels of our time. The supporting cast includes such luminaries as Edison, Archduke Ferdinand, Buffalo Bill, and Susan B. Anthony; the ill-fated Titanic even makes an appearance in the books opening pages.
Larson's evocative prose fully engulfs the viewer in the period, and the dark and dreadful scenes with Henry H. Holmes are given welcome respite by the tales of Burnham's amazing accomplishment. The enjoyment of this stunning work is only heightened by the knowledge that the story is true.
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136 of 146 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fabulous Historical True Crime Saga, March 16, 2003
Author Erik Larson had set the bar pretty high for himself after his previous book, "Issac's Storm," was such a huge critical and commericial success. Surely, he couldn't top that, could he? Well, with "The Devil in the White City," Larson has produced a book at least the equal of, if not better than, his previous effort. As a work of history, this book has it all. It resurrects for the modern reader the memory of an all-too-forgotten historical event (the 1893 Chicago World's Fair) and combines it with the sensational and gruesome story of the firt American equivalent of Jack The Ripper.
The book is structured as a dual biography of Daniel Hudson Burnham, the steadfast architecht who was the prime mover in making the World's Fair an astounding succes; and of Dr. H.H. Holmes, the diabolical psychopath who operated his own killing chamber in a hotel he built not far from the fairgrounds. The two men never met, nor did they have any connection other than their contemporary existance, but weaving their stories together was a brilliant choice by Larson.
Larson provies plenty of colorful backdrop for his main story, vividly describing harsh life in 19th Century Chicago; the development of the first skyscrapers, the Charles Dickens-like ambiance of the streets and the colorful personalities that made it go. He also describes the amazing and lasting impact the Fair had upon America, the The Ferris Wheel, Cracker Jack and Shredded Wheat being but a few of the things that debuted there. And, of course, he graphically describes the Holmes murders and the investigation that finally brought him to justice. Larson is a diligent researcher in addition to being an excellent storyteller, and that's what makes this book so special.
Overall, an outstanding work of narrative history that is like to be high on most reviewer's lists of the Best Nonfiction Books of 2003.
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242 of 271 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Two stories, neither fully told, April 14, 2003
This book tells two stories that intertwine around the fabulous Chicago World's fair of 1893. One story concerns itself with the monumental challenge the actual construction of the fair presented to the various architects, engineers, and landscape artists involved in the event. The other story tells the tale of murderer H.H. Holmes, who constructed a large hotel near the fair to accommodate the young, female tourists needing a room for the event. Holmes, in fact, had constructed a murder factory, complete with gas chambers, crematorium, and chemical decomposition facilities. There is a third story which makes brief appearances as well: the story of Patrick Prendergast, the sad lunatic that stalked and killed Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison just as the fair was wrapping up.
This is an extremely ambitious book. Too ambitious. For me, the story of the architects and the trails in constructing the fair was fascinating and more than sufficient to carry the book. I had no idea the fair of 1893 was so towering an undertaking. They basically built a city within a city, complete with fire and police departments, municipal workers, and political offices - all built on earth that was, in essence, a quicksand-like foundation that had no real bedrock. The stresses and ultimate successes of this side of the story are captivating and incredible.
The anecdotal stories about the fair make wonderful reading, my favorite being the story of George Ferris and his incredible Ferris Wheel, which was built to outshine the Eiffel Tower, introduced at the Paris fair a few years earlier (which it did in spades).
The Book fell flat for me whenever the author undertook to tell the story of H.H. Holmes, the handsome, smooth con man who many call the first serial killer in American history. In the book, these episodes feel unfocused and hasty. Particularly rushed and episodic was the description of Holmes' pursuit and eventual conviction by Pinkerton Detective, Frank Geyer. When reading these portions of the book, I felt myself whishing the author had dedicated a book just to this aspect of his tale. Mr. Larson has sensed the great story that lies in wait for the telling, but hasn't given himself the space or time to tell it well.
Read it for the magnificent, melancholy story of the engineers, artists and architects, whose ultimate triumph came at such sad, personal costs. For all the men involved in this project, it seems to have sapped the very strength right out of their lives.
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42 of 43 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating trip through time, February 19, 2003
By A Customer
Not a perfect book, but extremely well done.
This well-researched book is so entrancing at times that you feel like you've gone back in time when you read it. The contrast of Chicago as it was before the fair...you can almost smell the dirty city. Once the exposition opens, you find yourself sensing what it must have been like for people of that era to experience some of the marvels of science (such as widespread use of electric lights) being displayed for the first time. You sense the wonder of people seeing the world's first ferris wheel. All in all, a fun book to read (especially if you know little about the Columbian Exposition).
The gore of the murders was kept to a thankful minimum; readers who are expected a chilling nonfiction murder mystery will be disappointed however.
More pictures would have been nice. Reading descriptions of the buildings and sites is one thing; seeing what they really looked like is quite another.
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62 of 66 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The White City and the Dark Side, March 21, 2004
This review is from: The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America (Paperback)
This is an easy and enticing read, full of gritty and gossipy details that are presented in a style that keeps the reader interested. I was intrigued by the astounding feat of effort that it took to prepare and present the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893 and Larson does a good job of introducing us to the men who made it happen -- all led by the talented and tireless architect Daniel Burnham. The cast of characters with whom Burnham worked reads like a Who's Who of culture and design in the 19th Century.
The reader also comes to learn a good deal about the city of Chicago at that time -- how it so desperately wanted to refine its image from that of a grimy city known primarily as a hog-slaughterer into a cultural oasis and how it self-consciously but determidly sought world-class status, competing with New York and Paris to make the Big Time.
The enormous success of the White City was due in large part to that gutsy determination and much hard work. And this book explains that very well. At the same time, it really piqued my interest to the extent that I have done some additional research into this World's Fair.
Larson parallels Burnham's story with that of Herman Mudgett, alias Dr. H.H. Holmes, the first notorious serial killer in the United States. Holmes, a charming, fast-talking and handsome con artist, was able to swindle, steal and lie his way into and out of many schemes that a less clever person could have never even imagined, much less succeeded at. He was also a cold-blooded killer who had no qualms about killing women and children as well as men. He ran a hotel and apartments in Chicago during the Fair and attracted tenants and victims there with the Fair's help. Holmes' story is chilling but also fascinating. Again, he is someone I'd like to know more about.
Having said all that, I realize that the things I enjoyed about the book were also weaknesses. There is so much going on that I'd have appreciated either more focus on one area or a great deal more focus on the whole picture. The book just left me wanting to know more, which is not necessarily a bad thing. I just wish the paralell stories would have had more of a connection. I wish there had been more illustrations. I wanted more detail about the legacy of the Fair on the City of Chicago.
All in all, though, this was a fascinating story and one I could not put down. Be forewarned though, if you enjoy the story, this book will not be enough for you. You'll want to read more. Fortunately, there is an excellent bibliography at the end, as well as extensive notes and a thorough index. (...)
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28 of 28 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Haunting Journey of Heights & Depths, October 14, 2003
By 
A. H. Lynde "ahlynde" (Ewa Beach, HI United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
A good, fast read - especially for Gilded Age buffs like me, but certainly not limited to us. Larson weaves the fascinating story of the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition with the dastardly doings of a psychopathic fiend. Odd combination, but effective. We are transported in time to the excessive age of enormous wealth and grinding poverty - the "White City" of the Exposition and the dark, demonic "Castle" of Dr. H.H. Holmes. Surprisingly, it turns out the odyssey of Exposition head architect Daniel Burnham and the fascinating characters surrounding him are often more compelling than the blue-eyed, charming devil himself.
There are on the one hand, the leading architects of the East, hesitant about committing their sturdy reputations to the city of meatpackers - Olmstead, McKim, Hunt, St. Gaudens. And later the mystery engineer whose feat rivals the Paris Exposition's great Eiffel Tower. On the other hand, the `Chicago' characters, sketched in sharp relief, even those appearing for brief moments at the Fair - sage architect Louis Sullivan and the budding Frank Lloyd Wright; immensely popular Mayor Harrison; white-clad, white-haired Buffalo Bill; the `dancer' Little Egypt; pygmies and giants from Africa; President Cleveland, "immense in black...[he] touched the gold key" that set the massive fair in motion; Archduke Francis Ferdinand, whose taste ran to Chicago's high-class brothels, not the exhibitions; the eccentric Spanish Infanta Eulalia, munching on German sausages; haughty Mrs. Potter Palmer, always diamond-drenched and offended; the insane assassin Prendergast; a (temporarily) deathly ill Mark Twain -- even professor Woodrow Wilson makes an appearance, and the surprises continue.
But the star of the Chicago Fair was Burnham and his heroic/dictatorial reign over the incredible creations of the White City (Larson's description of the dimensions and details of the Fair are an absolute must-read). Holmes' story is appropriately secondary to the Fair's larger-than-life drama. But it is indispensable to the vast human drama of America/Chicago in 1893. The all-consuming drive of the national energy, technology, and most of all, money, accounted for both the soaring dreams of a future America embodied in the (short-lived) neo-classical enlightenment of the White City, and the evil soul of humanity laid bare by the dreams' very creation. A haunting book, with some flaws (a little less speculation & more photos needed), but well worth the journey from the heights to the depths.
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42 of 46 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars the things you never learn in history class, February 19, 2003
By 
....are just the things that might have gotten more people interested in history! I was born and raised in the Chicago area, and while I went on all the usual public school field trips, and certainly knew a little about the 1893 fair, I realize after coming across this book and seeing the recent PBS documentary "Chicago:City of the Century" that I was taught only the least interesting bits. I'm not trying to say this is gospel as history goes, but it may be close enough, and it has certainly awakened my interest in learning more-the way to get anyone interested in a subject is to sucker them in without making them aware of it. It may well be that the lurid story of the innkeeper from hell is what initially attracts, but the reader will find themselves fascinated by many stories before the last page is turned. The only thing that keeps me from adding the last star is wishing there were more illustrations of the Exposition itself, and a more easily readable map of the Chicago of that time for reference, but those are small considerations when you find a learning experience wrapped in an enthralling story. So...have any of you Hollywood types optioned this yet-or are you all asleep????
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48 of 54 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mystery and History, April 12, 2003
By 
The Devil in the White City seems like a funny name for a book. The White City is the Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1892 to honor the 400th anniversary of Columbus's discovery of America. It was called White City because the major exhibition buildings were painted white. To contrast this Herman Mudgett who called himself H H Holmes after the famous fictional detective was the devil. He was a mass murderer with 9 documented killings and likely many more.
This book brings to life both events that have mostly been forgotten now but were very important at the time. The book is both interesting and entertaining and kept me reading late into the night. The murders were described with detail but not any of the gore that might turn a reader off. The building and execution of the fair was also detailed but was informative without a dry and textbook sound. Even though this book reads like fiction it has been well researched and contains many direct quotes from letters and articles of the times.
One of the best parts of this book was to come away with a real feel of how it was to live in a large city in the 1900's. That alone was worth the price of the book.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A real page-turner!, September 15, 2004
This review is from: The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America (Paperback)
In brief, I think this book is fantastic. The author beautifully weaves together historical context, psychological insight, and compelling characters into a book that I couldn't put down. As an admirer of both architecture and landscape architecture, I found the Olmstead and Burnham characters to be compelling. This book is perfect if you'd like to know a little about what Chicago was like, a bit about some of the main characters, the history of the fair and how it came about, and the Holmes murders, but wouldn't want to read a full-length book about each.

As someone who knows relatively little about that period in our history, I was delighted by all the surprises on each page, no matter how trivial. For instance, have you ever wondered how and why the Ferris wheel was invented? When and why the Pledge of Allegiance was written? The legacy of the 1890s Columbian Exposition is still with us today, in ways I hadn't even imagined, and the author does a masterful job of bringing this to light in the context of a rich, engaging story.
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The Devil in the White City:  Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America
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