Book Review: The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America
Published By: Vintage Books
Publication Date: February 2004
Page Count: 447
Source: Purchased by Reviewer
Adult - Nonfiction

I'm not a reader who typically gravitates to books about true crime, but this one intrigued me. I found it appalling that a serial killer would do the things that H.H. Holmes did in the shadow of one of the greatest achievements in the late 1800's. His level of macabre feels like it couldn't possibly be real, but the historical record, while debated, is clear that he did kill numerous people and that he enjoyed the process. A friend recommended this novel years ago, but I kept letting it slide down my TBR list. How could I have known I was doing such a disservice to myself? This is a fabulous read full of history, details about famous architects, and one of the most stomach churning killers in American history.

The novel doesn't just focus on the murderous habits of H.H. Holmes. I learned a vast amount about the 1893 World's Fair while reading this book. I had no idea that the fair existed on such a large scale. The amount of work and money put into this event was not only a boost to Chicago's image, but also cast the United States into the role of innovator. So many things that I take for granted, such as the Ferris Wheel, came into existence because of this fair. I also learned far more about famous architects and architectural details than I could have ever possibly wanted to know. I did love getting to see another glimpse of Frederick Law Olmsted, the famous landscape architect, who I largely knew about due to his work at the Biltmore Estate. The gardens of the estate are beautiful and never cease to capture my imagination when I visit. I wish that I could have walked among the landscape in 1893 and the years before the fair fell into disrepair to see Olmsted's creation. Pictures of the fair are easy enough to find online, but there is something magical about being in the same place as the events.

In addition to technology, innovation, and architecture, I also learned a great deal about the structure of society in the late 1800's. Chicago was a booming industrial town that seemed more rough and tumble than sophisticated New York City or the devastated Atlanta of the era, but gender roles and the social hierarchy were still very much a dominant fixture in the lives of Chicago's citizens. H.H. Holmes spends a lot of his spare time (when he's not luring young women to their deaths) trying to swindle companies - mainly those in insurance - to add to his coffers. In the end, this desire to earn money by dishonest means will lead to his ultimate downfall. It's not until he is arrested for insurance  fraud that his true deviance comes to light.

1893 was a year of transition throughout the United States. Class issues abounded in every corner of the country; Chicago sought to be a place that offered a ray of hope. People flocked to the city on the lake hoping to find work and rise above their station. Those who didn't come to stay came for the fair. The fair offered more magic to fill the hearts and minds of people as the country faced some turbulent economic waters. Many who attended the event would remember it for the rest of their lives as one of the most magical moments in their lifetime.

There are so many historical gems in this novel that I couldn't possibly touch on them all or the review would be ridiculously lengthy. I loved every segment and felt a little pang of remorse when the last sentence was read. Like so many of the visitors to the fair in 1893, I didn't want to let the magic go. I found that I went into this novel with an odd desire to know more about H.H. Holmes, but ended up enjoying the fair segments far more than the segments about him. His depravity made me queasy and a little terrified. 

Erik Larson is an author I would certainly read again when I am craving a well researched, detail driven look at historical events and figures. This book would also be a great one for those who aren't sure that nonfiction is their cup of tea. Larson doesn't write with the dull slogging tone that tends to dominate historical nonfiction. There were moments when I forgot that I was reading nonfiction because the writing was so captivating that it reminded me of some of my favorite fiction.

One Last Gripe: I don't have one.

Favorite Thing About This Book: Learning about Chicago's illustrious (and sometimes infamous) history

First Sentence: In Chicago at the end of the nineteenth century amid the smoke of industry and the clatter of trains there lived two men, both handsome, both blue-eyed, and both unusually adept at their chosen skills.

Bringing Chicago circa 1893 to vivid life, Erik Larson's spell-binding bestseller intertwines the true tale of two men--the brilliant architect behind the legendary 1893 World's Fair, striving to secure America's place in the world; and the cunning serial killer who used the fair to lure his victims to their death. 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.


  1. My sister used to live in a house near Holmes' former Indiana home, so that's how I heard about this book initially -- she was reading it before the TV show about him came out. I wouldn't normally have read it because I don't usually like nonfiction, but will be checking it out after your review.

  2. Chicago, death, murder, non-fiction ~ intrigued here. I remember learning a bit about this when I lived in Chicago for a year.


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