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How History and Horror Unite for a Fabulous Read: Devil in the White City

Updated: Mar 31, 2023

Erik Larson's 2002 book

illustration of Ferris Wheel at 1893 World's Fair

Stange satisfaction

Have you had a book on your To Be Read (TBR) list for twenty years?

I have. Let me tell you, it gave me strange satisfaction to finally take the time to absorb The Devil in the White City, a nonfiction book published on December 29, 2002 by Erik Larson.

I'm only sorry it took me so long because I found it to be a fascinating, enthralling account of an event that I had heard of but not really understood, The Columbian World's Fair of 1893 in Chicago.

Why would a World's Fair be called the "Columbian exposition"? Because it celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus discovering America. While I had heard about the Chicago Fair over the years, I never understood the enormity of the project, the confluence of great architecture it spawned, the innovations it produced, or the impact it had on the city itself.

Reading The Devil in the White City was as delightful as drinking an icy Lemon Shake-up on the Midway on a sultry summer day.

Backstories and Biographies

Erik Larson is a masterful researcher and storyteller, and in The Devil in the White City, he weaves together two fascinating, parallel stories. The first focuses on the massive undertaking of The World's Fair in 1893, each step skillfully detailed by Larson.

Awarding Chicago the ability to host the fair over New York, Washington, D.C., and St. Louis was a victory for the Midwest, especially since many believed that this "hick" town would never be able to pull off the feats of architectural engineering that would be required to produce a world-class event.

Reading the book more than a century after the Fair, we see the political struggles, the tenacious spirit of Chicago, and the planning, promotion, and public relations skills needed to make it happen. We begin to understand the difficulties of designing more than 600 hundred acres of thoroughfares, public buildings, restaurants, and parks on swampy ground. We get insight into the details of creating appealing landscapes and scenic vistas, as well as getting the greatest architects of the era to work together.

If you want a really good overview of the "who's who" in Chicago society during the 1890s, The Devil in the White City will do it for you. We meet the noted architects of the day, as well as the movers and shakers of the time period. Daniel Burnham, John Root, Frederick Olmstead - (the landscape architect responsible for New York's Central Park, Biltmore, The United States Capital grounds, and the Chicago World's Fair.) We encounter Theodore Dreiser, Bertha Palmer (Women's Right activist who guaranteed women's achievements were presented at the fair,) Buffalo Bill, and Thomas Edison along the way, along with countless other notable people at the turn of the century.

Architects and visionaries

The driving force of the World's Fair is Daniel Burnham, the "Director of Works" of the Fair and the partner of the thriving Chicago architectural firm, Burnham and Root. Burnham and Root had pioneered the building of skyscrapers and were busy designing glorious new buildings in the city.

Daniel Burnham was the man responsible for coordinating the design, building, and operation of the Fair, a task made much harder after the sudden and tragic loss of his friend and business partner, John Root, who died of pneumonia before he could even get all his plans for the fair designed.

The first story of The Devil in the White CIty follows Burnham throughout his lifetime with a poignant tie-in to the sinking of the Titanic.

One of my favorite parts about the book is that Larson ties up all the loose ends. He tells us what happens not just to Burnham, but to each of the men who had helped to create the Fair, noting how that single event had affected their life trajectories.

The parallel story

The Devil in the White City highlights the creation of the Chicago World's Fair, but it also intertwines a story of a simultaneous episode of serial killing. Hence, the "Devil" in the White City.

H.H. Holmes was the alias of a good-looking, charming man who met and used women, swindled money, committed insurance fraud, ran drugstores, Sold "cures," and duped people without remorse. Holmes used the World's Fair as a way to lure women into his establishments, including a hotel he built within walking distance of the fair.

The hotel Holmes built, however, was not an ordinary hotel. With frightening forethought, Holmes included a secret room with a built-in pipe for sending gas into the room and extra hot furnaces for burning bodies.

H. H. Holmes is known as America's first serial killer.

The story doesn't end with Holmes' heinous crimes. Larson delves into the quest to track down Holmes and bring him to justice, highlighting the consistent effort of Frank Geyer, the detective who went after Holmes.

The Ferris Wheel, fair food, and the wonder of electric lights

A hundred and thirty years after the Chicago World's Fair, we have lost the wonder of electric lights. In 1893, however, attendees to the Fair were absolutely stunned by the beauty of entire streets illuminated with glowing white lights, an unforgettable glimpse into how electricity could transform the world. (That's where the moniker "White City" came from.)

Lights weren't the only thing that amazed spectators.

In an effort to outdo the Eiffel Tower presented at the previous World's Fair in Paris, Burnham had sent out an appeal for American engineers to create something unique. A guy named Ferris answered the call, promoting a revolutionary structure of a giant wheel equipped to carry passengers.

The Ferris Wheel debuted at the Chicago World's Fair and became one of the hits that wowed people around the world.

What would a fair be without fair food?

One of the joys of Larson's retelling of the World's Fair story is the inclusion of details about fair food. The sale of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, the introduction of Juicy Fruit gum, and - my favorite - "Cracker Jack."

Don't miss this fabulous read

The book came out at the very end of 2002 and gained popular appeal in 2003, lauded by Kirkus Reviews who called it a

“Gripping drama, captured with a reporter’s nose for a good story and a novelist’s flair for telling it…Superb.” 

There are so many interesting angles to The Devil and the White City. Don't miss this fabulous read, especially if you are interested in...

  • American History

  • Chicago History

  • Architecture

  • Innovations

  • Landscaping

  • Cultural phenomena

  • World events

  • Serial killers

You won't be sorry. Read it BEFORE the screen adaptation of it comes out.

The upcoming screen adapation

In 2010, Leonardo DiCaprio bought the rights to The Devil in the White City.

In 2023, Hulu plans to produce a streaming version, starring Keanu Reeves as the driven Daniel Burnham. Reeves will also work as one of the producers of the series, along with Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio.

I look forward to being entertained and enthralled all over again by the true stories of The Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893 and the gruesome saga of H.H. Holmes.

Thank you, Erik Larson!



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