Book Review - The Devil in the White City

7 min read
Erik Larson book review Chicago

The Devil in the White City

Written by Erik Larson

The Devil in the White City intertwines the true stories of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair architect Daniel H. Burnham and the cunning serial killer H.H. Holmes who used the fair to lure his victims.


My rating

Positive points

  • Captivating dual narrative of architectural marvel and serial killer's crimes
  • Vivid portrayal of 1890s Chicago and the World's Fair's impact
  • Well-researched historical details bring the era to life

Negative points

  • Storylines of Burnham and Holmes feel disconnected at times
  • Some may find too much focus on the Fair and not enough on Holmes
  • Lack of deeper insights into Holmes' personality and motives

Overal rating

(4/5)

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America is a non-fiction book written by Erik Larson in 2003.

The story revolves around two main characters: Daniel Burnham, who oversaw the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, and H. H. Holmes, a con artist and one of the first serial killers in the United States.

Daniel Burnham is portrayed as a brilliant architect responsible for the vision and success of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Burnham and his team had to overcome many challenges, such as labor strikes, the death of his partner John Root, and the harsh Chicagoan winters. The resulting city, called the “White City” because of the color of the buildings, was a marvel to visit and had a lasting impact on urban planning and design.

In stark contrast, H. H. Holmes, whose real name was Herman Webster Mudgett, emerges as one of America’s most notorious serial killers, using the chaos of the time and the exposition to commit his crimes. Holmes was a con artist well before arriving in Chicago, with a criminal record that included insurance fraud, forgery, scams, and several bigamous marriages. His “Murder Castle,” where many of his murders took place, was designed with hidden passages, soundproof rooms, and trapdoors to facilitate his activities. His schemes were ultimately uncovered, leading to his arrest and execution in 1896 at the age of 34.

Throughout the book, Larson alternates between the grand project of the Chicago Fair and the sinister web of lies and manipulation created by Holmes. The book ends with detective Frank Geyer tracking Holmes, providing a chilling conclusion to the dual narrative.


Inspirations from the Book

I read about the book online and wasn’t sure what to expect when I started it. In the first chapters, I kept checking facts to see what was real and what was fiction. It took me a while to realize that the book was non-fiction, and I was reading the true story of both Burnham and Holmes!

The World Was Tough Back Then

Larson did a fantastic job of describing what Chicago and the United States were like in the 1890s. I was struck by the descriptions of the stench of the Union Stock Yard, the cold winters of Lake Michigan, and the remarkable architecture of the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building. The descriptions of the Fair and the sense of pride are well presented, and I found myself invested in the project, wanting everything to go well and for the Fair to be a success.

Moreover, the book does a fantastic job of detailing how tough life was back then. Life didn’t cost as much as it does today, and a woman’s disappearance was dismissed as a simple wedding where the bride chose not to invite (or inform) her family. People went missing all the time, detective work was extremely slow and relied on luck, and people worked long hours for wages that weren’t enough to survive. Life in the U.S. in the 1890s didn’t have much to offer.

The enthusiasm around the Fair, the pride of the Chicagoans when it was a success, the grandeur of the architecture, and the life-changing experience it offered to visitors made the book a breeze to read!

Fake It Until You Make It

The Chicago Fair was the one right after Paris, where they shocked the world with the Eiffel Tower. It was, and still is, a wonder to see in person. One of the goals of the Fair was to show the French how good American engineering is. Finding something that was as good as the Eiffel Tower was a challenge. Many engineers proposed solutions, some of which were funnily unrealistic.

One engineer imagined a 1200-meter tall tower where 200 visitors inside a cart would have the once-in-a-lifetime experience of a 600-meter drop. The car would then bounce back, held by the best rubber rope. Safety was not forgotten; a 2.5-meter feather bedding was there to soften the fall.

Another engineer suggested building a 2600-meter tall tower to allow users to toboggan back to their hometown from Chicago. In the inventor’s mind, it would be possible to safely travel back to New York, Boston, Baltimore, and other cities. No safety measures were discussed, which is probably why the idea was not considered in the end.

Finally, the Fair saw the birth of the Ferris wheel, which was a marvel of engineering for the time. Up to 2160 people were able to experience the Ferris wheel at the same time.

Looking at some of those proposals with my modern eye was quite funny. I cannot imagine people making such extravagant propositions today. Maybe The Line in Saudi Arabia is the closest we have.

Those proposals made me realize how easy it was at the time to pretend to be something we’re not. It seemed like anyone was able to become anything they wanted just by saying so. Holmes also used such trickery to move from city to city, pretending to be a doctor or a glass smith to cover his killings.

Times have changed in that regard, and looking back at how things were is both amusing and concerning.

Quotes from the Book

“It takes no end of time and worry to get a thing settled right, but only a second to have orders given out for a wrong thing to be done.”

Managing a project is a complex task. Managing a project of the scale of the 1893 Chicago Fair is an impossible endeavor. At times, more than 10,000 people were working on the construction site, not to mention all the people in town working on the project as well.

It’s easy to take something for granted or to assume something. Those assumptions, taken during the action, can have a lasting impact on any project when they aren’t right. This is something that I faced in my work and that caused issues to be escalated to a higher level.

The saying “trust does not exclude control” is quite suited; it’s important to trust each other in a project. However, controlling things when doubt is present can prevent issues and make everybody’s life easier.

“Lost children filled every chair at the headquarters of the Columbian Guard; nineteen spent the night and were claimed by their parents the next day. Five people were killed in or near the fair, including a worker obliterated while helping prepare the night’s fireworks and a visitor who stepped from one grip-car into the path of another. A woman lost her foot when a surging crowd knocked her from a train platform.”

The 1890s were different times. This phrase captures well how chaotic cities and the Fair must have been. Imagining an event where children are lost and only retrieved the next day is unimaginable.

Earlier in the book, we learn that “Only one child, poor Charlie Johnson, was ever thus abandoned.” His parents abandoned Charlie at the fair daycare, probably because of impoverishment. I understand that different times had different manners. However, I hope that such events aren’t as common now.

“There were Paderewski, Houdini, Tesla, Edison, Joplin, Darrow, a Princeton professor named Woodrow Wilson, and a sweet old lady in black summer silk flowered with forget-me-not-blue named Susan B. Burnham met Teddy Roosevelt for lunch.”

The Fair attracted notable personalities from the United States and around the world. Knowing that all these people lived at the same time and were at the Fair simultaneously is mind-boggling. The brightest minds of the era shared a piece of history and walked alongside regular visitors.

Larson writes that “For many visitors, these nightly illuminations were their first encounter with electricity,” which further reinforces the contrast between the public and the notable figures, as well as the difference between town and country.

My Concerns with the Book

Some critics of the book mention that the author spent too much time discussing the Fair and not enough on Holmes. My review also highlights this fact, since most of the things I present are related to the Fair.

However, I think that the author wanted to stick with the facts and avoid sensationalism. The Fair is well documented, and I liked the number of details we’ve been offered throughout the book.


That being said, I feel like the two storylines are a bit too disconnected. Sure, we know that Holmes used the Fair as a hunting ground and his hotel was the theater of sinister events. However, I was left wanting more—knowing more about Holmes’ hotel, his killings, or his personality.

This is, for me, the main issue I have with the book. I understand the author’s decision to stick with the known facts. But, I believe some were left out of the picture to avoid blurring the line between what is known to be true and what is part of the web of Holmes’ lies.


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Wrapping Up

I truly enjoyed reading The Devil in the White City. I get passionate about things easily, and the number of details surrounding the Chicago Fair sparked a new passion for grand architectural projects.

The book is articulated around Holmes (even if not obvious), following his track in Chicago during the first three parts. The last part is dedicated to the police chase that led to his arrest. I enjoyed this overarching theme that gave the book its rhythm.

The only thing that didn’t quite hit the spot was the number of details surrounding Holmes. I’m not someone particularly interested in true-crime stories. However, I still found that more details about Holmes’ depraved world would have been welcome.

I would rate The Devil in the White City as a 4/5.


The Devil in the White City

Written by Erik Larson

The Devil in the White City intertwines the true stories of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair architect Daniel H. Burnham and the cunning serial killer H.H. Holmes who used the fair to lure his victims.


My rating

Positive points

  • Captivating dual narrative of architectural marvel and serial killer's crimes
  • Vivid portrayal of 1890s Chicago and the World's Fair's impact
  • Well-researched historical details bring the era to life

Negative points

  • Storylines of Burnham and Holmes feel disconnected at times
  • Some may find too much focus on the Fair and not enough on Holmes
  • Lack of deeper insights into Holmes' personality and motives

Overal rating

(4/5)

Footnote

I’m realizing while writing this article that some points related to the humane condition of Chicago in the 1890s can still be applied today to some parts of the world or to less fortunate people.

I would rather not make this review sound like the struggles of the past aren’t present in our modern world. The book paints a vivid portrait of the splendid Chicago World’s Fair and the grim reality of urban life. The themes of poverty, exploitation, and the struggle for survival.

Flavien Bonvin · 2024 Share on 𝕏

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