Book Review Thursday: The Devil in the White City: A Saga of Magic and Murder at the Fair that Changed America


I appreciate the fact that author Erik Larson doesn’t employ others to research his book topics, nor does he rely heavily on Internet research.  In his words, “I need physical contact with my sources, and there’s only one way to get it.  To me every trip to a library or archive is like a small detective story.”

I’m never disappointed when I pick up an Erik Larson book because I know not only will I learn about the book’s subject but details and little tidbits of history which perhaps no one else would include.  Larson’s detailed research is always reflected in his books.

This one is the story of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair – how Chicago, more famously known as the hog butchering capital of the world, had the honor of hosting this prestigious event and pulled off one of the most amazing feats of architectural design and construction after getting a belated start.  Chicago had something to prove after besting New York City for the honor.  Indeed, the objective of the fair, called The World’s Columbian Exposition in honor of the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of the New World, was to outdo the previous World’s Fair held in Paris in 1889.

Paris had the Eiffel Tower and Chicago would have to come up with something to “out-Eiffel Eiffel”.  The task of designing the fair’s buildings and landscape proved to be a daunting task, often met with delays, catastrophic weather events and more.  Some of the city’s and country’s best architects contributed their expertise in building “The White City”, so called because every building was painted white.

Were this just a book about how Chicagoans pulled off what many critics thought impossible, it would still be an interesting story, but Larson intertwines a rather macabre tale about a cold-blooded serial killer who charmed everyone he met, gained their confidence, killed them and disposed of their bodies with little or no trace evidence.  Thus, the title for the book: “Devil in the White City”.

Larson’s meticulous research is evident as he tells the story of Dr. H.H. Holmes (as he called himself).  He was born Herman Webster Mudgett, but more often than not used the pseudonym (actually one of many throughout his crime spree) Dr. Henry Howard Holmes.  No one knows for sure why he killed nor how many he killed.

Holmes would record these chilling words in his memoir, before he was hanged for murdering one of his assistants (the only murder he was ever convicted of):

I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing — I was born with the ‘Evil One’ standing as my sponsor beside the bed where I was ushered into the world, and he has been with me since.

The Holmes story reads like a crime novel, yet it’s all too true.  I found this part of the book the most fascinating (although at least one reviewer said it gave them nightmares!), but also enjoyed reading about the fair and the stunning architectural achievements, although that part may not be everyone’s cup of tea.  Still I give it my highest rating because I found it to be one of those “can’t put it down” stories that always makes Erik Larson books “must read” for me.

Rating:  ★★★★★

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2015.



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