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The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America Paperback – February 10, 2004
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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • The true tale of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago and the cunning serial killer who used the magic and majesty of the fair to lure his victims to their death.
“Relentlessly fuses history and entertainment to give this nonfiction book the dramatic effect of a novel .... It doesn’t hurt that this truth is stranger than fiction.” —The New York Times
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.
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 the enchantment of the Guilded Age, 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’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.
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From the Publisher
“A dynamic, enveloping book. . . . Relentlessly fuses history and entertainment to give this nonfiction book the dramatic effect of a novel. . . . It doesn’t hurt that this truth is stranger than fiction.” — The New York Times
"So good, you find yourself asking how you could not know this already." — Esquire
“Another successful exploration of American history. . . . Larson skillfully balances the grisly details with the far-reaching implications of the World’s Fair.” — USA Today
“As absorbing a piece of popular history as one will ever hope to find.” — San Francisco Chronicle
“Paints a dazzling picture of the Gilded Age and prefigure the American century to come.” — Entertainment Weekly
“A wonderfully unexpected book. . . Larson is a historian . . . with a novelist’s soul.” — Chicago Sun-Times
From the Inside Flap
- Publisher : Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (February 10, 2004)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 447 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0375725601
- ISBN-13 : 978-0375725609
- Lexile measure : 1170L
- Item Weight : 15.2 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.2 x 1 x 7.8 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #1,886 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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Reviewed in the United States on June 4, 2019
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“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood” –Daniel Burnham
Erik Larson opens his book with these two quotes that function as a preview—and microcosm—to the essence of the two minds at the heart of his Devil in the White City. More than that, both men operated within the same city that spurred their minds to blossom in all their respective depravity and grandeur: Chicago. And more specifically, the author examines the single event that acted as the crucible for revealing both the best and worst that these men could conjure—that event being The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893—an event that would serve as a symbol to the spectrum of the human spirit in all its glory and monstrosity upon the advent of the twentieth century.
Chicago of 1893 was a burgeoning American city determined to demonstrate itself against its metropolitan rivals to the East. And with the national decision to commemorate Columbus’ 400th anniversary—coupled by the renowned debut of Eiffel’s Tower at the recent Paris Exposition of 1889—America needed to utilize the upcoming Chicago World’s Fair as a monument and announcement to American’s unparalleled capacity for achievement and innovation.
Leading this endeavor would be Daniel Burnham—the architect responsible for overseeing its exhibits, maintaining production, and selecting the fellow men responsible for elevating the Fair into a phenomenon surpassing all expectations. After the death of Burnham’s professional partner, celebrated architect John Root, almost the entire burden of the assignment fell upon his shoulders. a task with the potential to cripple most men faced with the challenge, but one in which Burnham would work tirelessly to succeed—despite certain failures and shortcomings often out of his control—to exemplify the power of a determined mind coupled with an unceasing work ethic.
These obstacles of Burnham’s contention would often arrive in the form of inclement weather, bureaucratic battles, and internal squabbles with fellow department heads. Nonetheless, despite numerous delays and last-minute fixes, the Fair was a triumphant success. One that would leave behind such marvels as The Ferris Wheel, Tesla’s alternating electrical current, gum, shredded wheat, spray painting, the device that creates plates for printing Braille…the list goes on ad nauseam. But besides these tangible heirlooms still affecting present American society, the ambition and awe of by the Fair itself would prove to be perhaps its most profound legacy.
As one example, Larson relays an anecdote concerning one of the countless construction workers hired to help the Fair reach its nearly impossible deadline. This construction worker being an otherwise anonymous employee by the name of Elias Disney, who would recount stories of the overwhelming awe instilled by the spectacle of The White City upon the attendees to his young son Walt, which, Larson implies, would later be imitated in his designs of Disneyland.
Interspersed between these anecdotes of American achievement at its zenith, Larson weaves a parallel narrative focused upon the exploits of H.H. Holmes—America’s first true serial killer. Operating his nearby World’s Fair Hotel—which would later be infamously remembered as The Murder Castle—Holmes would seize upon the opportunity afforded by the Fair in the most monstrous manner imaginable: as a vehicle for his plans of murder and theft to be unleashed.
In stark juxtaposition to Burnham’s continued efforts to utilize his resources for the benefit of society, Holmes embodied the nightmare version of the American self-made man. Calculated, cold, and patient, Holmes worked with methodical ingenuity in his construction of the Murder Castle: a three-story hotel assembled from Holmes’ designs that would provide the perfect tenement to his abominable ambitions.
From assigning certain workers to only certain sections (limiting their knowledge to corroborate with one another), to his ability to charm creditors for money that would never be repaid, to his own manufactured public image of a well-to-do businessman that would attract his varied women of interest, Holmes exploited every conceivable aspect of the trusting American public in order to appease the commanding vices surging within him.
These vices would be numerous and varied. From insurance fraud, to theft, to murder, to kidnapping, Holmes existed as a personification of evil. At every turn—with Burnham working relentlessly mere miles away to produce a vision of America that would change and inspire the world—Holmes indulged in every act of depravity that he could conceive. As though possessed (a claim that Holmes would literally attest to after his arrest), H.H. truly lived up to his opening quote of being incapable of quelling his deviant impulses. Whether it was his numerous wives—all naïve women who sought out Chicago in hope of a new life within the burgeoning metropolis—or random hotel guests, or eventually the children of his accomplice…Holmes exhibited no mercy in satisfying the limitless depths of his immorality.
And, as Larson reminds the reader in the introduction, the book is not a work of fiction. Nonetheless, the author weaves this sprawling narrative with compelling and compulsive chapters—each one short and episodic so that the reader falls under the trance of believing that the work could be a fictional, historical thriller. More importantly and impressively, these chapters are written with such specificity and atmosphere as to completely transport the reader into the setting. Larson favors stark, smooth prose that paints a vivid picture of the subject and allows the reader to experience the range of emotions occurring within this revolutionary event: from the majesty of the Court of Honor to Annie Williams’ utter panic after Holmes locks her within a vault, turns on the valve for poisonous gas to be released, and listens to her final screams before death just outside the door.
The last third of the novel—with the Fair inexorably approaching its bleak end and the determined detective named Frank Geyer on Holmes’ elusive trail—Larson escalates the suspense to especially memorable and powerful effect. After Holmes’ many, many creditors finally coalesced to take him down, H.H. escaped from Chicago.
However, the hotelier did not flee alone; instead, he absconded with three children belonging to his former assistant: the drunken henchman Benjamin Pitezel. As Geyer tracks Holmes across the northern states, locates him in Toronto, and discovers the gruesome remains of the children murdered and mutilated by Holmes, the storytelling morphs into a riveting chase across America and Canada to finally deliver retribution upon the killer. Geyer’s descent into the cellar of the climactic Toronto home reads with as much suffocating suspense and dread as any horror novel, and the brutal aftermath—wherein the mother must identify her horribly mutilated child at the coroner’s office—delivers the unbearable emotions of devastation experienced by the victim that are often glossed over by similar works in the genre.
By the finale, wherein Larson interweaves the rapid destruction of the Fair following the assassination of Chicago’s mayor with Holmes’ arrest and execution, the author provides perspective on how the immense scope of these events affected the American public. Burnham with the World’s Fair—a prodigious monument to the power of accomplishment in American creativity, innovation, and inspiration; then with Holmes and the Murder Castle—a material edifice containing the darkest conceptions of a man’s mind and a literal house of horrors that contributed nothing but carnage and chaos.
In this striking juxtaposition, Larson underscores how these two men—existing under the same time, place, and tested by the same opportunity—opted to forge the material legacy of their lives. And in demonstrating these expanded boundaries of American accomplishment and depravity upon the advent of the twentieth century, Larson impresses a larger understanding of the scope of human nature; and more importantly, the significance of how each man chooses to actualize his own nature, despite his limited time, and how profoundly the consequences of these actions continue to echo beyond the ephemeral present.
Today, fifty pages of "Notes and Sources" later, it's difficult to imagine Mr. Larson's accomplishment, sifting trhough literally tons of evidence to write a readable account of the conversion of Jackson Park to the magnificence of "The White City." An annointed master of such personified history, Mr. Larson's prose is full and robust, enhanced with delightful metaphor, e.g., "his courtship of the finest wines and food;" "the heat rose with the intensity of a child's fever;" "sentences wandered through the report like morning glory through the picket of a fence."
But, wait, the World's Columbian Exposition with all its complexities, covers only half the story of "The Devil in the White City." A second tale, while in some sense less ambitious than the construction of the Exposition grounds, is in human terms almost as incalculable as the masterful achievement of world class architects and builders, perhaps no less astounding - the life and career of a master criminal, a serial killer who worked during the time of the building of the exposition and lived only a few blocks away.
Side by side with the exquisitely detailed account of mounting the Columbian Exposition is the story of a serial killer known by a variety of assumed names, perhaps the most prominent of which was Dr. Arthur H. Holmes. Holmes, the scam alias of a sometimes physician, sometiems pharmacist and landlord migrated to Chicago and settled in the outskirts of the vast property knows as Jackson Park, the tract that was to become "The White City."
There, this master of diabolical practice plied his trade upon the large numbers of young women who came to Chicago, some for the Exposition, others who came because Chicago offered jobs. No one was ever to know how many actually fell to this grim reaper's axe, perhaps two hundred of more. One reason that this macabre, twinned plot could happen is that lost people filled so many reports that the police were overwhelmed. It was literally impossible to record the sheer volume let along assure them safety. The conditions worked exceedingly well for the man who had established a variety of aliases and residences.
In addition to the anonymity provided by hordes of people moving to urban areas in greater numbers than ever before, Holmes was singularly adept at worming his way into the graces of young single women, and occasionally a wife for good measure -- the measure being disguise from his deadly exracurricular activities or an ample estate in land or gold. Thus it was that rather than a gusher, his evil deeds leaked out a drop at a time, the details of his criminal acts unquestiond by more than a single family or friend, all of whom were deflected by the charming practiced liar.
Larson's remarkable book seems to account for every nail driven in the Exposition construction (e.g., for one building alone, a count is given for 287,000 nails) to visiting every pane of glass and, further, seems able to locate every workman and crewman laboring in and on the dozens of buildings being created. In this author's hands, the reader feels as well as knows the desperation fof Burnham, the Chief Architect, and Fredrick Olmstead, the famed landscape architect, who worked feverishly against time to be ready for opening day.
One is almost overwhelmed by the magnitude of detail included in this work. All the while one is savoring the monumentality of the task, the reader cannot help but pause from time to time to wonder how on earth the author was able to cover so much in the pages of a single book. In addition to the spectacular buildings, structures larger than anyone had ever attempted, there were the "people" concerns from around the world. Belly dancers from Egypt, a band of pygmies from Africa, American Wild West Shows, and circus animals, all to be housed on the grounds.
While Burnham and his colleagues worked frantically to complete an "Eighth Wonder of the World," Holmes had been no less busy building a factory about his incredible "industry of death." He owned a square block which he filled with stores, apartments, and simple rooms for rent. In one of those rooms, he build a vault, fully insulated to muffle any shouts or pounding from his victims. It was also equipped with a special valve to inject gas into the chamber. At least one bedroom in his rental apartments was equipped with gas jets to render a sleeping tenant unconscious, a process he could finish off with a choloroformed cloth over the mouth or suffocating pillow. In the basement a large room contained a brick enclosure in the floor where gas heat could be raised to a thousand degrees to disintegrate human fflesh. His crematorium was also equipped with special vents and chemicals to carry away any telltales owdors.
Erick Larson has written a wonderful book, but perhaps it has gone too far. The conflicting stories of good and evil seem not to leave enough room for either. Leaning perhaps too heavily upon the history, it seems to me we've lost some of the necessary horror of Holmes's victims, even perhaps the slavering drool of the psychopath in the hunt and the kill. In that sense, too, I'd like to have seen more of the pleasure in the architects' triumphs and the expressions of amazement from the visitors to the white city. More emotionality might have been offered, for instance, about the colossal triumph of young George Ferris's' amazing wheel, taller than any skyscraper and surely far greater than the Eiffel Tower which it was meant to show up.
Top reviews from other countries
The writing itself is needlessly pompous and includes boring examples of the architects dinner menus and what they drank from the bar.
The book relies on description to convey everything and as such is as repetitive as it is dreary. While the spartan chapters on Holmes may thrill you, the lengthy and numerous chapters on the World's Fair will bore you through repetition and, at times, fractured prose. I was disappointed with this book.
It literally dedicates space to writing about the conditions of the soil that the fair was to be built on, and what other sites they looked at to find a site for the fair. Honestly, who cares. Even if you are hugely curious about the fair, most of it will send you to sleep.
The stuff about H.H Holmes is interesting, but you're mostly reading about the architects and what they had for dinner. I have no idea how this book has positive reviews.
In Larson's hands, the story of the building of the White City is fascinating. The odds against success were huge - time was running short, the weather threw everything it had at the site, frequently destroying half-built buildings, a financial crash began while the City was half-built, and unions and management were regularly at loggerheads. Although many men (and a few women) were involved in bringing the thing together, the whole effort was largely co-ordinated by one man, architect Daniel H Burnham, who as Director of Works was responsible for getting together the best architects, planners, engineers and landscapers, and inspiring them to believe in his vision of a beautiful city rising from a derelict piece of lakeside land. Larson uses all kinds of sources to bring Burnham and the other major players to life - newspaper articles, journals, official records and personal letters. He tells the story almost as if it were a novel, never revealing ahead and regularly leaving a chapter with a cliffhanger ending, as a storm approaches or a bank crashes or illness strikes.
The story of HH Holmes is told in separate chapters interspersed throughout the main narrative. To be honest, though it was interesting and also very well-researched, I mainly found it broke the flow of the much more absorbing story of the Fair. Apart from the fact that both events took place in Chicago over the same time period, there was very little to connect them. I wondered if the Holmes strand had only been included because the author felt that more people would be interested in a serial killer than in the building of the Fair - and I can't argue with that, since it was the thought of the intriguing contrast that attracted me to the book. But when it came to reading it, I found I was rushing through the Holmes chapters to get back to find out how things were going on the building site.
Once the Fair finally opens, Larson gives a vividly credible account of what it might have been like to visit, including telling of some of the many attractions the fair had to offer - from orchestral music wafting ethereally over a moonlit lake to rather more earthy sideshows, such as the belly-dancers from Algeria. He tells us about Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show, cannily sited just outside the Fair grounds and constantly competing with it for customers. And the crowning marvel of the Fair - the world's first Ferris wheel, built as a result of a challenge by Burnham to America's engineers to come up with something that would top the recently built Eiffel Tower in Paris. At the same time, Larson takes us behind the scenes to see the men responsible for the maintenance of the site, publicity, finance and the sheer logistical nightmare of feeding and cleaning up after the many thousands of visitors who passed through the gates each day. The Fair was so huge, Larson tells us, that it was considered that it took a fortnight to see everything it had to offer.
In a few chapters at the end, Larson tells us what happened to the men we've got to know so well in their later careers and shows how the Fair influenced architecture and fairs and even city-planning far into the future. And at the same time he concludes the story of the serial killer, but I won't spoil it by saying whether he was ever caught or convicted in case you're inspired to read the book and don't know the outcome.
A fascinating story very well told, I found this a totally absorbing read. The only real disappointment is that there are very few illustrations, so I had to turn to the Internet to fill that lack. But Larson has put the Chicago World Fair close to the top of the list of Things I Want to See When I Get a Time-Machine - till that day comes, the book makes a most satisfactory alternative. Highly recommended.