The Devil in the White City

This history of the 1893 World's Fair tells the story of an architect and a serial killer. | A book review by

I got this book for Christmas, after discussing with my roommates how interested I was in the book, gruesome as it promised to be. I spent about two weeks around the holidays in a haze of sickness, so I spent a lot of time reading (and, let’s be honest, watching Phineas and Ferb on Netflix) and sped through this book in a couple of days.

If you’re not familiar with the premise, this book talks about the history of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, in particular the lives and actions of Daniel Hudson Burnham, the fair’s architect, and Henry H. Holmes, one of the first and most famous serial killers in the United States. Burnham spent his days solving problems in the still-developing city of Chicago, trying to overcome the swampy land selected for the fairgrounds, the threat of disease and economic turmoil, the snobbery of the east coast toward Chicago, and the bureaucratic entanglements of the fair’s leaders. Holmes, on the other hand, used his considerable charm and good looks to lure young women into his “hotel,” where he killed many of them in chillingly creative ways.

Larson does a good job of switching back and forth between the two men’s lives, giving us their backstory but always tying things back to the World’s Fair. I knew a fair amount about the Chicago World’s Fair, but I never knew the struggles that the builders and designers faced in reaching their deadlines and getting enough people to come to the fair to make it worthwhile. And it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I heard of H.H. Holmes, the serial killer who benefited so much from the World’s Fair landing right outside his door. His story was fascinating, albeit kind of terrifying. Holmes seemed to have an incredible ability to charm and con people, and he had a real (and disturbing) interest in murdering people once he was finished with them. He had his home, later branded the “World’s Fair Hotel,” built by many different builders so that none of them would know the true extent of the things he wanted installed, including a walk-in vault that could be turned into a gas chamber, a dissection table, and a crematorium. (Needless to say, although Larson never veers into gruesome detail, this book is not for the faint of heart!)

Although I sometimes got bored with the intricacies of how the fair was built, on the whole, I really enjoyed this book. It’s a close-up look at one of the biggest peacetime events in American history, and the look into the light and dark sides of the World’s Fair makes this book a really interesting read.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

About Monica

I am obsessed with all things books. I'm a music teacher by day and a freelance editor by night.

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