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Informative,
Interesting,
Dramatic

26 reviews

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America
by Erik Larson

Published: 2004-02-10
Paperback : 447 pages
130 members reading this now
190 clubs reading this now
179 members have read this book
Recommended to book clubs by 22 of 26 members

Erik Larson—author of #1 bestseller In the Garden of Beasts—intertwines the true tale of the 1893 World's Fair 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 ...

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Introduction

In a thrilling narrative showcasing his gifts as storyteller and researcher, Larson recounts the spellbinding tale of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition and its devious creators. A blend of "Ragtime" and "Silence of the Lambs, The Devil in the White City" is Larson at his best. 6 photos. 1 map.

Editorial Review

Author Erik Larson imbues the incredible events surrounding the 1893 Chicago World's Fair with such drama that readers may find themselves checking the book's categorization to be sure that The Devil in the White City is not, in fact, a highly imaginative novel. Larson tells the stories of two men: Daniel H. Burnham, the architect responsible for the fair's construction, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer masquerading as a charming doctor. Burnham's challenge was immense. In a short period of time, he was forced to overcome the death of his partner and numerous other obstacles to construct the famous "White City" around which the fair was built. His efforts to complete the project, and the fair's incredible success, are skillfully related along with entertaining appearances by such notables as Buffalo Bill Cody, Susan B. Anthony, and Thomas Edison. The activities of the sinister Dr. Holmes, who is believed to be responsible for scores of murders around the time of the fair, are equally remarkable. He devised and erected the World's Fair Hotel, complete with crematorium and gas chamber, near the fairgrounds and used the event as well as his own charismatic personality to lure victims. Combining the stories of an architect and a killer in one book, mostly in alternating chapters, seems like an odd choice but it works. The magical appeal and horrifying dark side of 19th-century Chicago are both revealed through Larson's skillful writing. --John Moe

Excerpt

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Discussion Questions

Discussion questions from the publisher's reading guide:

1) In the note “Evils Imminent,” Erik Larson writes “Beneath the gore and smoke and loam, this book is about the evanescence of life, and why some men choose to fill their brief allotment of time engaging the impossible, others in the manufacture of sorrow” [xi]. What does the book reveal about “the ineluctable conflict between good and evil”? What is the essential difference between men like Daniel Burnham and Henry H. Holmes? Are they alike in any way?

2) At the end of The Devil in the White City, in Notes and Sources, Larson writes “The thing that entranced me about Chicago in the Gilded Age was the city’s willingness to take on the impossible in the name of civic honor, a concept so removed from the modern psyche that two wise readers of early drafts of this book wondered why Chicago was so avid to win the world’s fair in the first place” [p. 393]. What motives, in addition to “civic honor,” drove Chicago to build the Fair? In what ways might the desire to “out-Eiffel Eiffel” and to show New York that Chicago was more than a meat-packing backwater be seen as problematic?

3) The White City is repeatedly referred to as a dream. The young poet Edgar Lee Masters called the Court of Honor “an inexhaustible dream of beauty” [p. 252]; Dora Root wrote “I think I should never willingly cease drifting in that dreamland” [p. 253]; Theodore Dreiser said he had been swept “into a dream from which I did not recover for months” [p. 306]; and columnist Teresa Dean found it “cruel . . . to let us dream and drift through heaven for six months, and then to take it out of our lives” [p. 335]. What accounts for the dreamlike quality of the White City? What are the positive and negative aspects of this dream?

4) In what ways does the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 change America? What lasting inventions and ideas did it introduce into American culture? What important figures were critically influenced by the Fair?

5) At the end of the book, Larson suggests that “Exactly what motivated Holmes may never be known” [p. 395]. What possible motives are exposed in The Devil in the White City? Why is it important to try to understand the motives of a person like Holmes?

6) After the Fair ended, Ray Stannard Baker noted “What a human downfall after the magnificence and prodigality of the World’s Fair which has so recently closed its doors! Heights of splendor, pride, exaltation in one month: depths of wretchedness, suffering, hunger, cold, in the next” [p. 334]. What is the relationship between the opulence and grandeur of the Fair and the poverty and degradation that surrounded it? In what ways does the Fair bring into focus the extreme contrasts of the Gilded Age? What narrative techniques does Larson use to create suspense in the book? How does he end sections and chapters of the book in a manner that makes’ the reader anxious to find out what happens next?

7) Larson writes, “The juxtaposition of pride and unfathomed evil struck me as offering powerful insights into the nature of men and their ambitions” [p. 393]. What such insights does the book offer? What more recent stories of pride, ambition, and evil parallel those described in The Devil in the White City?

8) What does The Devil in the White City add to our knowledge about Frederick Law Olmsted and Daniel Burnham? What are the most admirable traits of these two men? What are their most important aesthetic principles?

9) In his speech before his wheel took on its first passengers, George Ferris “happily assured the audience that the man condemned for having ‘wheels in his head’ had gotten them out of his head and into the heart of the Midway Plaisance” [p. 279]. In what way is the entire Fair an example of the power of human ingenuity, of the ability to realize the dreams of imagination?

10) How was Holmes able to exert such power over his victims? What weaknesses did he prey upon? Why wasn’t he caught earlier? In what ways does his story “illustrate the end of the century” [p. 370] as the Chicago Times-Herald wrote?

11) What satisfaction can be derived from a nonfiction book like The Devil in the White City that cannot be found in novels? In what ways is the book like a novel?

12) In describing the collapse of the roof of Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building, Larson writes “In a great blur of snow and silvery glass the building’s roof—that marvel of late nineteenth-century hubris, enclosing the greatest volume of unobstructed space in history—collapsed to the floor below” [p. 196–97]. Was the entire Fair, in its extravagant size and cost, an exhibition of arrogance? Do such creative acts automatically engender a darker, destructive parallel? Can Holmes be seen as the natural darker side of the Fair’s glory?

13) What is the total picture of late nineteenth-century America that emerges from The Devil in the White City? How is that time both like and unlike contemporary America? What are the most significant differences? In what ways does that time mirror the present?

Suggested by Members

We use questions found online.
by pattea25 (see profile) 02/10/16

Why do you think Erik Larson chose to tell Burnham and Holmes' stories together? How did the juxtaposition affect the narrative? Do you think they worked well together or would you have preferred to read about just Holmes or just Burnham?
For the World's Fair, several villages including an Algerian and Egyptian village were imported, along with all of the inhabitants. What is your opinion of this? What does this say about the Gilded Age of America? Finally, could this happen today?
Burnham, Olmsted, Ferris and Holmes were all visionaries in their own ways. Discuss what drove each of these men, whether they were ever truly satisfied, and how their lives ultimately ended. Who was your favorite character?
by DGriffin (see profile) 04/14/13

How did your state participate in the World Fair? What inventions or firsts were presented to the world?
The book is non-fiction. What did think of the author getting into the head of the victims and describing their feelings, movements and thoughts as they died?Does this make it fiction?
by mcomai (see profile) 01/10/12

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

No notes at this time.

Book Club Recommendations

no suggestions
by pattea25 (see profile) 02/10/16

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
 
 
by fernandezjavier007@gmail.com (see profile) 02/10/17

Erik Larson is not an historian but a speculator. He writes as fact what no one alive witnessed. Also, the story of a 19th century psychopath is a subject matter that doesn't interest me. We have plenty... (read more)

 
  "so much I didn't know"by vvesper (see profile) 08/11/16

Normally, the most interesting part of this book for me would have been the killer. Well, that part was interesting, but I was simply blown away by the exposition itself. I really had no idea of the scale... (read more)

 
by peojudy (see profile) 02/11/16

 
  "The Devil in the White City"by pattea25 (see profile) 02/10/16

This book was non-fiction and very informative about the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. I learned all about the planning, designing and building of it and was awe struck by how much was accomplished in a... (read more)

 
by fastaxion (see profile) 12/22/15

 
  "Devil in the White City"by tavflan63 (see profile) 12/07/15

It is a piece of non-fiction though at the start thought it was historical fiction. The writing is very good, and that alone makes it a good book for me. I am almost strictly a reader of f... (read more)

 
by Sloanie (see profile) 12/06/15

 
  "Very slow going"by carolkaskin (see profile) 11/19/15

Several of the book club ladies found this book redundant and slowly paced. While we all learned some interesting facts, we also felt that the book could have been greatly condensed. Also, not having... (read more)

 
  "Devil in the White City"by ldown68 (see profile) 11/11/15

Somewhat dark, but an interesting insight into what the world (and particularly America) was like in the late 1800s. Unfortunately, there were a lot of unanswered questions (like how many people did HH... (read more)

 
by tteachman (see profile) 08/17/15

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