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The Devil in the White City Read...Discuss...Repeat!
March 2006 Selection: Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America
By: Erik Larson
Copyright: 2003


About the Book:

In The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson takes readers into a richly complex moment in American history, a moment that would draw together the best and worst of the Gilded Age, the grandeur and triumph of the human imagination, and the poverty, violence, and depravity that surrounded it.

The book’s two most powerful figures, the great architect Daniel Burnham and the psychopathic killer, Henry H. Holmes, in many ways embody the opposing forces of the age. Burnham was responsible for building the White City, overcoming a series of crushing professional obstacles and personal tragedies to make the Fair the magical, awe-inspiring event that it was. He brought together some of the greatest architects of the day—Charles McKim, George Post, Richard Hunt, Frederick Law Olmsted, and others—convinced them of the importance of the Fair, and somehow got them to work together to achieve what many considered to be an impossible project in an astonishingly brief amount of time. Simultaneously, in the shadow of the White City, Henry H. Holmes set up his own World’s Fair Hotel to take advantage of naive young single women arriving in Chicago from surrounding small towns. Using his mesmerizing charm and an uncanny ability to fend off creditors and police, Holmes bent his victims to his will and committed a series of murders as cold-blooded as any in American history.

But The Devil in the White City is about more than just two men. It is about America on the threshold of the twentieth century—a time of widespread violence, fantastic wealth, growing labor unrest, and financial panic; a time when Buffalo Bill could take a bow to Susan B. Anthony; and a time when men and women as diverse as Jane Addams, Theodore Dreiser, Thomas Edison, Samuel Gompers, and Frank Lloyd Wright—could all gaze in wonder at the magnificence of the White City.

Related Web sites:

Official Web site for the book

Discussion Guide at

Chicago, City of the Century [from PBS]

Interactive Guide to the World's Columbian Exposition

Biographical Background on Daniel Burnham

If You Like Devil in the White City, Try:

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
By: John Berendt. 1994.

World's Fair
By: E.L. Doctorow. 1985.

Sister Carrie
By: Theodore Dreiser.

Depraved: The Definitive True Story of H.H. Holmes
By: Harold Schechter. 1994.

The Gilded Age
By: Mark Twain. 1910.

Murder Multiplied
A "serial killer" fiction booklist here on the BookGuide site.

Devil in the White City Reader Comments:

I was almost more compelled by the World's Fair part of the story. Some of the plans were over the top, such as capturing a tribe of pygmies to put on exhibit. it's also amazing to me that none of the 'white' buildings exist anymore. There were all torn down when the fair was over. The juxtapositon with the serial killer story was truly mind boggling. To imagine such horrendous crimes being committed during the upbeat social atmosphere of the fair really makes you believe truth is stranger than fiction.

-- Rayma S.
Bennett Martin Public Library.
Average Customer Review Score - 8

I found this book to be quite fascinating. I enjoyed the contrast between the grandeur of the World's Fair and the horrid crimes of H.H. Holmes. I was also intrigued by some of the excesses of the World's Fair. All in all, an interesting and compelling read.

-- Corey G.
Bennett Martin Public Library.
Average Customer Review Score - 8

This is a great book that is two books in one. One book is the true story of America's first recorded serial killer. The other is the story of Chicago and the architects who literally laid its foundations at the turn of the century. To top it off both of these stories come crashing together at the Chicago World Exposition. It is beautifully told in a novelistic style, even though the events are real.

-- Layne P.
Bennett Martin Public Library.
Average Customer Review Score - 10

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