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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon February 19, 2017
Come for the serial killer, stay for the fair.

I will be absolutely honest and admit that I purchased the book because I was interested in the weird story of H.H.Holmes, American con-man, psychopath and serial killer. In fact, I will add to my confession, and shame, by saying that my interest was sparked by watching the episode of Timeless - a series unlikely to be renewed - where our trio of intrepid time-travelers goes back to the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition and have a misadventure in the "murder castle." I've never read anything by Erik Larsen before, but I know that he has a good number of books on the history section shelves and I’ve seen this book in passing for years.

I listened to this as an audiobook, and my initial reaction was that there was an awful lot about the 1893 World’s Fair, especially the architecture of the World’s Fair, than I was expecting or interested in. Frankly, my initial reaction was that all the detail about the planning of the Fair was getting in the way of the interesting bits about H.H. Holmes.

However, about half-way through the book, I found my interest shifting as I was sucked into the world of the Fair and the strangeness of the world right on the cusp of becoming the world we know, with lights and Cracker Jacks and Ferris wheels, but still possessing the instincts and customs of a more genteel and trusting age. I found that people like Frederick Law Olmsted and Daniel Burnham were becoming my heroes.

Larsen structures his book as alternating narratives. One narrative follows the twisted path of Holmes; the other follows the life of the fair. There is no doubt that the Holmes’ narrative starts out in the lead because of the natural human interest in evil, and Holmes was evil. Larsen describes Holmes as America’s first serial killer in an age when the language did not have the term “serial killer” to describe Holmes. Holmes was born Herman Webster Mudgett in 1861, studied medicine, married and abandoned his first wife, and, then, took the test for a pharmacy license under the name of H.H. Holmes and made his way to Chicago. In Chicago, he bought a pharmacy from a widow, who he probably conned, married a second wife, deposited the wife and his child in a suburb of Chicago, and then came up with the idea of transforming land he had purchased into a hotel in time for the upcoming Fair.

Listening to the Holmes’ arc, two thoughts come to mind: first, he was psychopathic and, second, he didn’t seem to understand how ridiculous his ideas were. For example, after scamming a brother in law, his plan to avoid discovery was to push the brother in law off of a roof. Who today would think such a thing would not be immediately seen for what it was? Likewise, Holmes built a hotel with secret rooms and gas lines to those rooms so that he could gas patrons, kill them and rob them. Women were constantly disappearing from his hotel, leaving their things behind. When the widow he bought his first pharmacy from simply disappeared, Holmes explained that she was visiting California. He courted and wed multiple wives simultaneously. His method for making bodies disappear was to have the bodies rendered into skeletons and then he would sell the skeletons to medical colleges.

Today, who could be so naive as to expect that any of this would not be discovered or noticed?

And that is partly the point. The era was a moment of transition. In the small towns that most people had lived in prior to the 1890s, everyone was under everyone’s else’s supervision. In Chicago, however, the rules changed. People were anonymous and alone in a crowd. People were easy to lose in a world without phones or extensive police agencies. If someone went to California, it would take more than idle curiosity to locate them. It was a psychopath’s utopia.

Also, the casualness of death becomes apparent in Larsen’s book. For example, Burnham’s partner plunges into the October night and dies of pneumonia within a week. Larsen also describes how the sister of one of Holmes’ victims suddenly took sick and died within a week. She was probably poisoned, but in that age it was not hard to believe that a healthy woman in her twenties could die of a sickness so quickly. I was working on a train accident fatality lawsuit during the time I listened to this book, so this passage had some significance to me:

// Anonymous death came early and often. Each of the thousand trains that entered and left the city did so at grade level. You could step from a curb and be killed by the Chicago Limited. Every day on average two people were destroyed at the city’s rail crossings. Their injuries were grotesque. Pedestrians retrieved severed heads. There were other hazards. Streetcars fell from drawbridges. Horses bolted and dragged carriages into crowds. Fires took a dozen lives a day. In describing the fire dead, the term the newspapers most liked to use was “roasted.”//

In Fresno County where I live, which is a mostly rural county with a large urban population, there are only two unprotected crossings – without signals – in the entire county. The three people killed in this one accident was probably higher than the annual average for the last fifty years. Violent death was simply more common in the past.

On the other hand, Larsen presents the “White City” of the Fair as the world that was dawning. The Fair brought millions of visitors to a location with lights and cultural diversity and sanitation and police protection. The idea that the architects are the heroes of the book seems strange since architects rarely play the role of hero, but Larsen manages to invest tension throughout the story arc about the Fair. Thus, there is tension in whether the architects will get the Fair built in time, and then there is tension about whether the Fair will turn a profit in the face of the economic depression gripping the country. There is also the heroism of George Washington Gale Ferris and his eccentric idea of building a huge wheel that would carry “Pullman Car-sized” boxes for passengers, although the most heroic act of the book, I thought, was the willingness of Mrs. Ferris to ride the thing on its maiden voyage as a rain of extra bolts cascaded down from the structure.

I came to know and develop a liking for Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed New York’s Central Park. Burnham is forgotten today but contributed to many American cities.

My first term paper in history was one I wrote as a Junior in High School about Eugene V. Debbs and the Pullman Strike of 1894, so it was something of a home-coming for me to read about the events that were occurring just before that strike, and to think that Debs and Darrow probably visited the Fair, maybe they ran across Holmes and Burnham. It occurs to me now that the Pullman Strike of 1894 was in 1894 because the closing of the Fair in 1893 exacerbated the economic crisis. Larsen writes:

// Ten thousand construction workers also left the fair’s employ and returned to a world without jobs, already crowded with unemployed men. Once the fair closed, many thousands more would join them on Chicago’s streets. The threat of violence was as palpable as the deepening cold of autumn. Mayor Harrison was sympathetic and did what he could. He hired thousands of men to clean streets and ordered police stations opened at night for men seeking a place to sleep. Chicago’s Commercial and Financial Chronicle reported, “Never before has there been such a sudden and striking cessation of industrial activity.” Pig iron production fell by half, and new rail construction shrank almost to nothing. Demand for railcars to carry visitors to the exposition had spared the Pullman Works, but by the end of the fair George Pullman too began cutting wages and workers. He did not, however, reduce the rents in his company town. The White City had drawn men and protected them; the Black City now welcomed them back, on the eve of winter, with filth, starvation, and violence.//

Holmes’ story closes out with Holmes’ finally getting tripped up in an insurance swindle and an intrepid Pinkerton detective following the clues to prove that Holmes was a child-killer among his other sins. In that way, Holmes’ story arc concludes as a true crime story about a true crime story.

Although I enjoyed and learned from this book, I would have to pick a nit with the “fictionalization” of some of the narrative. Larsen tells us that everything in his book is supported by documentary evidence, but he also acknowledges that he has made reasonable inferences about what happened at times. I think his inferences are reasonable, and I credit him for acknowledging what he has done, but I think that there are times when he offers his insights into what various people were thinking or feeling that he has gone too far and stepped outside of history proper into fiction. Obviously, this book is intended for the mass market and must keep reader interest. Also, we are a long way into non-fiction novels at this point, but there are moments when I as a history reader was woken up by Larsen describing what a character felt (when I would probably never have objected to the same information being couched as something the person “might have thought,” so if you interpolate those words, the book is in the genre of history.)

In sum, don’t be confused; this is not a true crime story. It is a sociological history/novel about a particular time in American history. Your interest in this book will vary depending on whether you are buying it as “true crime” or as history.
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on January 3, 2017
I probably should have read the description a little more closely. I thought this book would cover the World's Fair and H.H. Holmes in equal amounts. It does not. I will admit, the author thoroughly researched both topics, but it was clear to me his focus was on the architecture of the World's Fair. He is very detailed, but sometime it was almost too much detail. I am admittedly more interested in H.H. Holmes than architecture so that has something to do with my review.

If you are reading this because you want to hear about H.H. Holmes, you may want to read a different book. However, if you are open to learning about the World's Fair, architecture, or Chicago history, this is worth the read.
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on December 17, 2017
First of all, let's remember how Amazon describes this book:

"A compelling account of the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 brings together the divergent stories of two very different men who played a key role in shaping the history of the event--visionary architect Daniel H. Burnham, who coordinated its construction, and Dr. Henry H. Holmes, an insatiable and charming serial killer who lured women to their deaths."

So when I bought the book, I had one obvious, and a second non obvious expectation: The first expectation was that this book would tell a story of how this two people shaped the history of the event, and the second one, that in some way, this two narratives got intertwined in some interesting way, to justify their inclusion in the same book.

But after reading it, my impression is that other than these two events happening at about the same time, in geographical proximity of each other, there is no reason why these two stories benefitted from being explored in the same book. In fact, other than the way in which the story is told (in third person, in chronological order, with the same style), these two stories might as well be two different books.

And as such, I will review both of them:

I enjoyed the book about the White City, the story of the development of the fair. In a subtle way, it touches on a multitude of interesting themes: I learned tidbits about how technology influenced architecture and urbanism, about how the financial crisis of the time affected everyday life, about the motivations and behavior of the American elites, and about the logistical, financial, regulatory challenges that come with a project of this magnitude, among other themes.

Overall, I think this book was successful at portraying the gist of the time. America was an increasingly confident youth getting ready to become a peer of Europe's industrial and military powers.

I cannot say the same of the other book, the one about the Devil. I didn't find it very compelling. The story of the Devil, is just the story of the HH Holmes and his unfortunate victims. But other than at times being shocked and disgusted, I don't think I learned much of anything. In this particular instance, the telling of the story in (mostly) the third person and in chronological order turns into a true obstacle. Because in a story of a serial killer, the main point of interest should be his/her own mind. And yet, in this book, the author doesn't dwell much on it. As far as I can tell, if this portrayal is really accurate, the Devil would have been a rather dull person: less a predator and a monster, than a narcissistic and opportunistic con man who just happened to need killing lots of people in order to pull off his numerous scams.

Overall, I imagine that the writer's purpose was to use the White City and the Devil, as narrative counterpoints to tell the same story: the rise of America as an industrial power, from the viewpoint of the elites in the White City part of the book, and from the common people on the Devil's part of the book. In the same manner, the White City and the Devil, would be about light and darkness, with the White City being a story of the gifts of modern civilization, and the Devil a warning about its evils.

But ultimately, I think the author failed. The idea behind the book was much more promising than the final product. Overall, I give this book three stars, four for the story of the White City, and two for the Story of the Devil. Too bad.
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on August 30, 2017
Erik Larson has produced a prodigy of sentiment and documentation, an invaluable non-fiction testimony to the driving heart of the United States, against practically insurmountable odds of rivalry, envy, greed, talent and vision, the human qualities that in another context might defeat any project. What is a project but teamwork? But there must be a team and its components must be disposed to a common goal. The Columbia Fair of Chicago of 1893 was an intangible, it was a flight to the moon, and simply not possible, yet it was miraculously accomplished, despite crippling delays, backbiting, financial obstacles, and was a towering success. Twenty-six million people saw it, and had it gotten off the ground earlier and better could have doubled that number. I first read this book when it initially appeared in 2003, and while recently reading a biography of Nikola Tesla was reminded of its scope and magic and ordered it in Kindle to read again. So pleased that I did. I relived the miracle of Chicago architecture, was reminded that Chicago is my favorite American city, was newly dazzled by the magnificence of the buildings and layout and the scintillating impression of the recent miracle of electricity, applied on a vast scale. The parallel story of an outrageous criminal lends additional suspense and excitement to this journalistic masterwork.
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on September 25, 2017
I thought that as far as it goes this was a good book on the Chicago Worlds Fair and an ok book on H.H. Holmes. I had not idea that so much effort had gone into the worlds fair and I thought that the author did an excellent job capturing the spirit and excitement of the times as well as the hard work and reputations put on the line to make it success. I would say that for anyone interested in the history of Chicago or the fair this is a must read book. If, however, you are wanting to learn much on the crimes committed H.H. Holmes then you will probable be disappointed. I realize that much of this is due to the fact that there is not a plethora of source material out there on Holmes and the author does make a strong case that the attention given to the Fair and the amount of out of towners and other people coming into town made it easier for him to commit his crimes by giving him a steady source of victims but it seems like the whole Holmes angle was a kinda tacked on to give the book just a little more sensationalism in order to sell copies. It would be as if I wrote a book about the post industrial decline of the Milwaukee metro area in the early 90's and threw in some accounts of the Jeffrey Dhalmer murders to increase sales. What make it especially disappointing about this book is that it was totally unnecessary. The main story about the Fair and all of the scandal and intrigue that went into it was interesting enough without what felt like a kinda tacked on murder story. This book either need to be a little shorter (without the murder story) or a little longer ( with more of the murder story) by trying to split the difference it distracted from one story and did not do justice to the other.
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on January 9, 2017
This is one of the best books I read this year. It's wonderful and it's true. It takes place in Chicago during the planning of their world's fair back in 1890. At the same time, there is a serial killer working in the city. The people planning the fair and the killer never meet, but it's all happening at the same time. I didn't find it scary or macabre...informative, and of course, you wonder how he got away with what he did for as long as he did. The writing is GREAT. I want to read some of this author's other books; matter of fact we put another of his books on our Book Club list for this year. Everyone in Book Club liked this book. Fascinating, interesting, well written, historical, readable.
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on November 8, 2017
I bought this book after watching the 'American Ripper' series because I wanted to know more about H.H. Holmes and the Victorian Era.
This author does a nice job of intertwining the story of the creation of the Chicago World's Fair with Holme's life story. I was expecting to get bored with the part of story about the fair, but I found those chapters interesting...a history lesson on the growth of cities and architecture of the era. The chapters on Holmes gave me more depth on what I already knew about him.
Definitely recommend this book if you like true crime stories!! Holmes is by far the most gruesome murderer in American history.
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on August 28, 2017
Mostly, I read fiction, and this book, a model of historical narrative, generally reads like a good historical novel. if it were a historical novel, I might suggest that it's not easy to get through once I got into it. In places (such as the methods the "Devil" uses to murder his victims or the information dumps between some scenes), the author would do well to leave out some of his research in the interests of moving the story along.
Altogether, though, this book is a tour de force of historical reporting, and the use of diary entries and letters to recreate dialogue between characters offers a fascinating look at what the architects thought of each other, and their professional and often antagonistic professional relationships. I'm well acquainted with the work of the great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, and found the description of his struggle to achieve his vision for the landscape of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair fascinating.
To sum up, The Devil in the White City is a keeper, one I read on my Kindle and intend to purchase in hardback.
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on November 15, 2017
Found this book to be a very interesting read on the history of the Chicago's World's Fair as well as the "Devil" himself H.H. Holmes. I wasn't sure I would care for all the history on the planning and construction of the fair. Being an avid reader of true crime I was interested in the serial killer Holmes, but found myself completely wrapped up in the enormous feat of the realization of the Chicago's World's Fair named "The Columbian Exposition". I found myself constantly questioning how they could have ever accomplished this enormous undertaking in such a short time frame. The style of flipping back and forth from the fair to Holmes' story was a great way to combine the two subjects that occurred simultaneously and keep your interest sparked for both subjects.
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on April 3, 2017
This book is a detailed history of building of the Worlds Fair in Chicago in 1893 and the story of serial killer. The author explains how many of the great builders of American cities came together to build worlds fair in a large and growing city. It is a story of How many new inventions and ideas were introduced to the country before the turn of the century. The fair was a great undertaking that tested the will of the builders as they strove to exceed expectations. The story of the fair is told along with the knowledge that a serial killer is at work in Chicago. But the fair takes priority over everything in Chicago so the serial killer goes unnoticed. The story also explains how the builders had to contend with weather, labor issues and a failing national economy. All of these details are blended very well into this book.
If you like American history and like reading about cities growing before the turn of the century, you will like this book. This is the second book I have read written by this author. This book is just a good as "Dead Wake".
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