The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, by Erik Larson

Several people I told about this book already had heard of Dr. H. H. Holmes, a supposed doctor who built a murder hotel in Chicago near the World’s Fairgrounds. He preyed on young women with few other family members. Estimates of the number of people he killed range from about 22 to almost 200, including young women, children, and at least one man. He had an operating room in the basement to partially dissect the bodies so they would not be recognizable. Then he would sell them to an “articulator” who removed the rest of the flesh and articulated the skeletal remains for medical schools, doctors, and others who needed a skeleton.

I found it surprising that no one got the police involved earlier when family members went to Chicago and disappeared. We have a book by one of the investigators which presents many interviews from people involved in the final cases.

One of the fascinating things about the book is how the author writes one chapter on how the Chicago World’s Fair was designed and built by the best architects and the best landscape architect in the United States. The next chapter will be on Holmes and the stories are parallel, but intertwined to a certain extent.

The story of the evolution of the Fair is almost as amazing as the stories about Holmes. It is interesting how vested Chicago’s population was in having a world-class Fair in Chicago after a successful fair in Paris. An engineer succeeded in building the first Ferris Wheel which was huge in record time. Over 2000 people would be circulating in cars at a time. Amazingly, it succeeded. All the measuring and modeling was done by hand and pencil and paper, before computers. It was more accurate than much of the work when we recently rebuilt part of the San Francisco Bay Bridge!

I was surprised at how addictive this book became to me. I stayed up much too late at night reading it! There are extensive author notes and citations provided.


About KLevenson

I am Teacher Librarian at Piedmont High School in the San Francisco East Bay. I am a part time reference Librarian I for the San Francisco Public Library. I have a Masters in Library and Information Sciences from San Jose State and a Teacher Librarian credential in addition to my teaching credential in Science. My first MA was from Harvard in Archaeology. My students teach me something new every time I am with them!
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