31 Days of Great Nonfiction: Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White CityThe Devil in the White City: A Saga of Magic and Murder at the Fair that Changed AmericaThe Devil in the White City: A Saga of Magic and Murder at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson by Erik Larson

So there’s no questions about what I’m recommending here: this book is definitely not for everyone. It’s got some content that is super disturbing, and if you’re at all sensitive about reading true crime accounts? Stay away.

The book is also completely engrossing and made me wish I could have gone to the Chicago World’s Fair and seen the amazing White City that was created for it. I enjoyed the sections about the fair a lot more than the sections about the serial killer who took advantage of the fair to lure his victims to his hotel. I had to keep reminding myself that the events described really did happen, because it absolutely reads like a movie or crime fiction book – completely horrifying yet strangely fascinating as well. There really aren’t a lot of gruesome details provided, so don’t worry about that if you’re squeamish. It’s all just the idea of what this evil man was doing.

It’s been awhile since I read it, and what I read was a library copy, so I can’t check the text to see how easy it would be to skip the one storyline. My vague recollection is that they aren’t integrated, and you’d be able to fairly easily jump ahead to the next part if you did want to avoid the awful sections. (Awful for the content, not the writing. The writing is always strong.)

So. Recommended, with strong cautions.

Publisher’s Description:
Two men, each handsome and unusually adept at his chosen work, embodied an element of the great dynamic that characterized America’s rush toward the twentieth century. The architect was Daniel Hudson Burnham, the fair’s brilliant director of works and the builder of many of the country’s most important structures, including the Flatiron Building in New York and Union Station in Washington, D.C. The murderer was Henry H. Holmes, a young doctor who, in a malign parody of the White City, built his “World’s Fair Hotel” just west of the fairgrounds—a torture palace complete with dissection table, gas chamber, and 3,000-degree crematorium. Burnham overcame tremendous obstacles and tragedies as he organized the talents of Frederick Law Olmsted, Charles McKim, Louis Sullivan, and others to transform swampy Jackson Park into the White City, while Holmes used the attraction of the great fair and his own satanic charms to lure scores of young women to their deaths. What makes the story all the more chilling is that Holmes really lived, walking the grounds of that dream city by the lake.

The Devil in the White City draws the reader into a time of magic and majesty, made all the more appealing by a supporting cast of real-life characters, including Buffalo Bill, Theodore Dreiser, Susan B. Anthony, Thomas Edison, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, and others. In this book the smoke, romance, and mystery of the Gilded Age come alive as never before.

Erik Larson’s gifts as a storyteller are magnificently displayed in this rich narrative of the master builder, the killer, and the great fair that obsessed them both.

31 Days of Great NonfictionLarson is a prolific author, and his newest book In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s BerlinIn the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson is supposed to be fantastic. The only other book of Larson’s that I’ve read was Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in HistoryIsaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History by Erik Larson, which was interesting, but not as can’t-stop-reading-this compelling as The Devil in the White City. It also wasn’t as disturbing though, and would be a better choice if you want to avoid some of the content in that one.

To see all the books featured in 31 Days of Great Nonfiction, go to the series page.

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  1. This is another one that I’ve been mulling over… it sounds intriguing, and I love crime stories, but I’m not sure if I’d love TRUE crime. I’ve heard rave reviews of it from others, though!

    • It’s been so long since I read it, I wish I could remember more clearly just how bad some of the details are, or how skippable they are. My tolerance for that sort of thing is fairly high. If all the book had been was about that story line, I doubt I’d have finished it, but the other aspect was so incredibly fascinating. My history-nerd-self is showing a bit here I think. 😉

      All that is to say, I’m really not sure if I should encourage you to give it a try or not. It was popular enough that your library ought to have a copy if you want to give it a whirl though.

  2. I loved this book! I started reading it for the true crime aspect, but like you, I found myself FASCINATED by the details about the World’s Fair.
    The only other book by Larson that I’ve read is “In the Garden of Beasts”–it was fine, but I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as “Devil”.

    • Rats, I’ve got In the Garden of Beasts on my TBR list and I was excited to read it – another book by Larson, and about one of my favorite time periods.

      Did it make you wish you could have gone to that Fair as much as it did me?

      • You may enjoy Garden of Beasts more than I did if you’re really into that time period. I didn’t think it was bad–I just didn’t happen to like it as much as White City.
        I totally wanted to have gone to the Fair! This is all making me want to re-read this book!

  3. I am going to have to give this book another try. I started it years ago, and then put it down.

    • Eh, maybe it’s just not the book for you. As much as I loved this book, I absolutely recognize that it is not right for everyone.

      • I didn’t mind the gruesome stuff. I have a quirk about nonfiction books. I don’t like when authors make statements like, “George Washington thought…” It is a pet peeve of mine when authors make assumptions of what people think without indicating that it is the author’s opinion. At some, Larson writes that someone was thinking something, and I immediately shut the book. I was enjoying the book up until then. I need to get over this.

        • This makes me laugh. I typically tell myself that the author knows they thought that because of their stellar research – surely they found a letter or journal or something that let them know what they thought.

          Yes, it’d be naive to think that’s really the case all the time, but I tell my skeptical self to pipe down and let the rest of me enjoy the book.

          Your comment also reminds me of a book I read this fall, where the author’s note addressed this sort of thing – he specifically where he was adding his own thoughts , because the historical record didn’t address it. In his case, he was careful to only “invent” things when they were so obviously what would have been. Such as, they’re literally starving in the snow, so while no one left a journal saying “we felt cold and hungry,” he didn’t feel like he was reaching to talk about how they felt cold and hungry. I’m simplifying quite a bit, but I found his comment about his writing process and where he allowed himself to branch out from the historical record to be really fascinating. And there ends my history-nerd treatise.

          • I like this idea. I can use this and maybe get through some of the nonfiction books that I want to read. I think a lot of my frustration comes from being in grad school and needing to provide evidence for everything that I write. Whenever a nonfiction writer says something with no evidence to back it up and makes it sound like a fact, I want to yell “shenanigans!”

  4. I loved this book far more than his recent one about Hitler’s Berlin (In the Garden of Beasts). The story was just more riveting. The writing was equally good in both, but I, too, was fascinated by the details about the fair and the transformation of the city.

    • Oh no, you and bookmammal are both saying that In the Garden of Beasts isn’t as compelling as this one. I had such high hopes for it. I’ll still give it a try though (eventually), and maybe it’s a good thing – my hopes won’t be unrealistically inflated. 🙂

  5. LOVED this book! Great recommendation.

  6. This book has been sitting on my shelf for a long time. Maybe I should rearrange.


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