Posted by: istop4books | November 8, 2009

The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson

NOTE:  I wish I knew how to line up pictures on word press

I found this book fascinating, creepy, horrific, and historical – all in one.   It’s two stories actually, intertwined — both well researched and cited. One portion of the book centers on the creation of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and John Burnham, the chief architect. The book showcases the rise of modern architecture as we know it and outlines all the pitfalls, difficulties and ego-centric problems that an endeavor of this huge magnitude entails. The author writes this portion of the book in a way that is technically precise, but not boring – although I might be biased as I lived in the area for many years and just loved hearing about the city of Chicago and how it grew.  This fair brought about changes in how we view cities which are still with us today.  Burnham wanted to create some big and he certainly did; the landscapers and designers also collaborated to out-Eiffel, the Eiffel Tower and the World’s Fair that had recently been held in Paris, but you’ll have to read the book to see if they succeeded or not.  In any case, Burnham’s architectural style is to this day revered by the American School of Architecture and copied world wide.  Many of his buildings, such as the Union Station in Washington DC, the Burnham Hotel in Chicago and the Flat Iron Building in New York City – are still standing.  Any many of his ideas are used all over the United States.  Technology, commerce, education were proactively pursued for the first time.  The pledge of Allegiance was coined, hamburgers were invented, as well as Shredded Wheat, Cream of Wheat,  Pabst Beer, Aunt Jemima syrup, and Juicy Fruit gum.  DisneyWorld was highly influenced by the Fair, of Allegiance to hamburgers and Disney World.

As far as innovations brought about by the World’s Fair – the incandescent light bulb

burnham young

Daniel Burnham

world's fair 1

Chicago World's Fair 1893

world's fair 2

the Administration Building

chicago_worlds_fair 4


city of chicago 1871

The City of Chicago a few years earlier in 1871

above, The Lagoon
ferris wheel

The first Ferris Wheel ever built

The other portion of the book deals with a notorious serial killer who went by the name of H. H. Holmes. He operated his gruesome “hobby” at the same time that Burnham’s group was creating a masterpiece. The true crime section is riveting and kept me up way past my sleep time.  Holmes was an astute con man, handsome, gracious and charming; and he flew under the radar for many years.  He wooed his victims into believing he was a kind and generous man, but inside he was evil incarnate.  He devised absolutely horrific methods of disposing of the bodies and the evidence, and seemed to be completely at ease with his passion.  At a time when crime in Chicago was 4 times what it is today (and with a much smaller population) the Chicago police had their hands full just patrolling the area surrounding the World’s Fair.  The poor women who were lured into Holmes’ clutches never stood a chance.

To me a good book leads to great discussion and further reading — I totally enjoyed looking for images of the buildings created by the architects of the time, and furthering my reading on the creation of cities, as well as looking for additional information and images of H. H. Holmes, his “castle” and his victims.

h.h. holmes

H. H. holmes


murder castle

Holmes' Murder Castle - the building where he committed many of his crimes

alice and howard Pietzel

Two of his youngest victims, Alice and Howard Pietzel



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