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The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

Updated: Jul 7

“Anonymous death came early and often… Everywhere one looked the boundary between the moral and the wicked seemed to be degrading… This was Chicago, on the eve of the greatest fair in history.”

The Devil in the White City is a true tale of the 1893 World’s Fair and the serial killer who lived among the magic. Set in Chicago spanning 1890 to 1895, it follows Daniel Burnham, the lead architect behind the fair and H.H. Holmes, the serial killer masquerading as a doctor/pharmacist who lures victims to his “castle” hotel. There have been talks for several years of a Hulu series with Leonardo DiCaprio and Keanu Reeves attached, but I have no idea if the historical non-fiction is actually set to make the big screen. Regardless, this book is filled with meticulous research weaving a colorful narrative… the truth is stranger than fiction and kept me intrigued until the end.

Book Jacket in black and white with the picture of the world fair in the background and title and author prominently displayed

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, Daniel Hudson Burnham, was 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.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why do you think the author wove Burnham & Holmes’ stories together?

  2. How did the Chicago World’s Fair change the city?

  3. How did it change America’s perception of architecture?

  4. In what ways do you agree (or disagree) with Sullivan’s claim that the World’s Fair destroyed American architectural invention and creativity?

  5. How does the White City contrast to the gritty Chicago?

If you want another thriller that reads more like fiction than truth, check out Endurance!


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