The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City

Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America

Book - 2004 | 1st Vintage Books ed
Average Rating:
Rate this:

This New York Times bestseller 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 narrative with all the wonder of newly discovered history and the thrills of the best fiction.

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. 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.

Publisher: New York : Vintage Books, 2004
Edition: 1st Vintage Books ed
ISBN: 9780375725609
Branch Call Number: ANF 364.152309 LAR
Characteristics: xi, 447 p. : ill., maps ; 21 cm


From the critics

Community Activity


Add a Comment
Nov 08, 2019

This work of non-fiction contains two real-life stories that both happened at about the same time in Chicago, Illinois, USA (in 1893) during that city's World's Fair celebration.

By far, the story covering the activities of Dr. Holmes is the most interesting of the two. Believe me, this guy was a real monster like you could never imagine. How many people this "devil" actually killed (which includes children) is estimated somewhere between 27 and 200 in all.

This is a very well-researched book that holds the reader's rapt attention for the most part.

Nov 08, 2019

“The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America” by Erik Larson is an odd social history as it juxtaposes a narrative of a serial killer with that of a grand building project to encompass all that Chicago was in the 1890s. It more or less works although jumping between the two disparate stories is...well...jarring. Worth reading even if you know next to nothing about Chicago. I loved learning about Frederick Law Olmsted.

Nov 02, 2019

Exceptional! Two stories woven together: Ruthless murderer and The feat of the Chicago World’s Fair. It’s dark, challenging at times and packed with history.

Sep 26, 2019

What a powerful story about the times that occurred before, during and after the Chicago Worlds Fair. A memorable work, this author took a challenging time and true story to the highest level.

Aug 15, 2019

Larson has a way of tying together loosely connected narratives. And such is the case with this book following two men in Chicago in the 1890s against the backdrop of the World Fair. One is the driving force behind the fair. The other is a serial killer preying on victims during it. The result is a compelling read that weaves back and forth between the two narratives.

May 17, 2019

5. Too detailed and technical.

Mar 25, 2019

This book went into amazing detail on the Chicago World's Fair. It was well written, but many times included enough details to make the book feel slow. It is a great book for a research project, but I would not recommend it otherwise. Some things though that I got out is the knowledge of how extreme murders often can be. It still makes me cringe to think about how Holmes murdered people, including children. Also, it never occurred to me all the planning and extreme labor that went into the fair years before it was finished. I would recommend this book if you want extensive knowledge on the World's Fair, but otherwise it is a bit slow.

IndyPL_MikeH Feb 16, 2019

Comment:Two stories take place here. 1) The magic is in the Herculean efforts in creating the "White City" of the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. 2) The murder and madness involve a killer. I'll skip that part next time.

Dec 17, 2018

I did not particularly care for this book. I was hoping that there would be more focus on H.H. Holmes, and less on the monotony of building the site of the World Fair.

The parts dedicated to Holmes were compelling and gritty, but the tone was far dryer than I enjoy. Extreme history buffs and lovers of architecture will adore this book, but True Crime fans will be left wanting.

Dec 01, 2018


View All Comments


Add a Quote
loerac Jan 23, 2019

Great read, non stop reading.

Aug 06, 2015

"With its gorgeous classical buildings packed with art, its clean water and electric lights, and its overstaffed police department, the exposition was Chicago's conscience, the city it wanted to become."

Age Suitability

Add Age Suitability
Brenda74 Nov 12, 2012

Brenda74 thinks this title is suitable for 16 years and over


Add a Summary
notTom Dec 16, 2010

Between majestic architecture and cold-blooded murder, the early 1890's were a defining period for the city of Chicago. The Colombian Exposition of 1893 (the World's Fair of 1893, so named to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus's landing in America) proved that Chicago could put its elbows on the table of the world's greatest cities. It hugely impacted the course of American history through its influence on technology, architecture, and the popular conscience. This book weaves together the stories of Daniel Burnham, a prominent architect in charge of planning the Exposition, and Herman Webster Mudgett, better known to history as H.H.Holmes, America's first serial killer. Opening a hotel just down the Midway from the fair, Holmes was ensured of a constant flow of trusting young women. What his ill-fated guests did not realize was the presence of air-tight rooms with gas-jets, a greased body chute and the basement containing vats of acid and a crematorium. In the style of Truman Capote, this is a non-fiction novel, a gripping account of deeds of great and evil men alike, made all the more interesting because these events really happened.


Add Notices

There are no notices for this title yet.

Explore Further

Browse by Call Number


Subject Headings


Find it at VIRL

To Top