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The Devil in the White City
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Historical Group Reads > March/April 2013 Group Read: The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America

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message 1: by Autumn (last edited Mar 10, 2013 07:11PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Autumn (autumnmemory80) | 374 comments Hi! I am Autumn and I will be leading the discussion for The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. I hope everyone loves the book! It has won numerous awards and Leonardo DiCaprio bought the film rights in 2010.

"An irresistible page-turner that reads like the most compelling, sleep-defying fiction.” —Time Out New York

Get ready for a wild ride, and keep telling yourself... this is not fiction! I look forward to everyone's comments.

Author Erik Larson imbues the incredible events surrounding the 1893 Chicago World's Fair with such drama that readers may find themselves checking the book's categorization to be sure that 'The Devil in the White City' is not, in fact, a highly imaginative novel. Larson tells the stories of two men: Daniel H. Burnham, the architect responsible for the fair's construction, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer masquerading as a charming doctor.

Burnham's challenge was immense. In a short period of time, he was forced to overcome the death of his partner and numerous other obstacles to construct the famous "White City" around which the fair was built. His efforts to complete the project, and the fair's incredible success, are skillfully related along with entertaining appearances by such notables as Buffalo Bill Cody, Susan B. Anthony, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison.

The activities of the sinister Dr. Holmes, who is believed to be responsible for scores of murders around the time of the fair, are equally remarkable. He devised and erected the World's Fair Hotel, complete with crematorium and gas chamber, near the fairgrounds and used the event as well as his own charismatic personality to lure victims.

Jamie Sheffield (jamiesheffield) | 10 comments Hi,

I'm Jamie, and I'm new to the group, and looking forward to reading and discussing this book.

I live in Northern New York, am a Special Education teacher, live in a small house in the woods with my wife and son and two rescue dogs, love outdoors activities and cooking, and just published my first novel.

I just bought the book today, so I will check back more often as I dig into it.



Autumn (autumnmemory80) | 374 comments Oh, Welcome, Jamie! We are so happy to have you! I am reading this book along with the group, so we will have lots to discuss. Everyone I know that has read this book has given it outstanding reviews. Derek, feel free to interject and you can make comments about the book, just be so kind as to mark them as spoilers with the html.

Autumn (autumnmemory80) | 374 comments I am curious, has anyone heard about this before the book? Did you know this interesting piece of history? I had heard the name H.H. Holmes, but did not know much beyond the surface.

Jamie Sheffield (jamiesheffield) | 10 comments I hadn't heard about this book before today, although I had heard of HH Holmes.


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Dottie Hall | 56 comments I'm looking forward to this one - should be starting it in the next day or so. I too was not familiar with this book or the story line before.

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Cuyler Overholt (cuyler_overholt) | 13 comments I started this a few years back and had to stop because it was so gruesome. I guess I just can't bear to be In the company of sadistic psychopaths, even on the page. The writing itself was very well done however.

Jamie Sheffield (jamiesheffield) | 10 comments I started the book last night, and am enjoying it so far. Thanks for introducing me to a new book and author!


message 9: by Autumn (last edited Mar 14, 2013 07:37AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Autumn (autumnmemory80) | 374 comments Jamie wrote: "I started the book last night, and am enjoying it so far. Thanks for introducing me to a new book and author!


I will be reading more of this author later. I bought

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by him as this week. I hear that is an amazing book as well!

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Ayo Joseph (ayojoseph) | 31 comments I´m new here and Í´ll like members to please ecommend any good book to me

Autumn (autumnmemory80) | 374 comments Welcome, Ayo! We are so happy to have you with us! This month we are reading The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America in this thread, so that is a good place to start! There are so many good thrillers, mysteries and crime books out there, and I am sure with this group you will learn of lots of new books and authors.

Autumn (autumnmemory80) | 374 comments I work with someone who tried to start this book. She said she could not make it through the first few pages because of all the description of the city. I personally love that. Getting to know the city, the types of people there, events taking place. I love history, so I find this very interesting. What about y'all?

Jan C (woeisme) | 35438 comments I read this some years ago. I loved the part about the city. Of course, it is my city so I am somewhat biased.

My mother recently received this book and was hesitant to read it because she didn't want to read any gory parts. We assured it that it wasn't that gory. But if she really wanted to avoid it and yet wanted to read about Chicago and the fair, she could just read every other chapter because Larson alternates chapters.

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Hi...just got the book. I have joined this group but the platform tells me I have not joined a gro

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Group. Sigh. Still sorting this ap out. Great discussions!

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Got it. I'm in. Look forward to this book. Sounds great.

Georgia | 536 comments Erik Larson certainly is a good writer. I read this
book in 2005 as one of my book clubs had selected it.
I felt at that time the same as Cuyler. Even tho' the
book was so well written and we learned alot about the
world's fair in Chicago, I was horrified by the killings, especially as it was not fiction. I love
mysteries and they are fun because they are just a
good story where mostly CRIME DOES NOT PAY and we
can watch how the guilty one gets caught. I guess
if HHHolmes had been more like Dexter(Showtime) I
would have been able to stomach it more, but these
were innocents. In the Garden of Beasts is excellent.

Jan C (woeisme) | 35438 comments That's the difference between mysteries (cozys or not) and true crime. The reader is safe in a mystery. The only crime committed is in the mind of the writer. But true crime can happen anywhere. Especially if it is unsolved. Here we are lucky, it happened a long time ago. We are safe. I do not take any comfort from the fact that Holmes had a residence in the next suburb over from mine. While Burnham resided in my town.

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Cuyler Overholt (cuyler_overholt) | 13 comments I did enjoy Larsen's "Thunderstruck", which had the same intertwining-story format and historical detail but a less horrifying, almost sympathetic villain.

Catherine (catjackson) I just started the book yesterday and was immediately drawn in. It's my first Larsen and I will definitely be reading more. I love the way he describes the city-the atmosphere, the people, the buildings-everything comes together to create this mood of suspense and sets the environment. I wish I didn't have to break off reading to grade papers. :/

Lance Charnes (lcharnes) | 411 comments I read this at the beginning of last year and still remember it well -- but not for the serial-killer story.

Larsen's telling of Daniel Burnam's struggle to build the 1893 Columbian Exposition is the real thriller here. He faced down an all-out assault by Murphy's Law to put together from scratch the most spectacular World's Fair ever staged. The vivid descriptions of the nascent White City, the major players in the project, and the political storm surrounding the Expo itself are all deftly written. The ambition of the project, the scale of the obstacles, and the ever-ticking clock make this part true nail-biting suspense.

On the other hand, the Holmes story is almost by-the-numbers. He begins as a fully-formed monster and doesn't change throughout the book. He does the same thing over and over and faces no real challenges or obstacles until the end. That the thing he does repeatedly is woo and murder gullible young women doesn't make it any more interesting.

I gave the book four stars almost entirely on the strength of the Burnham story. If you're interested, my review is here.

Carrie | 0 comments Lance I agree about the architects story being the real thriller. I work for a large corporation and am finding the political maneuvers so realistic they are stressing me out! I can't imagine how they will be able to pull this off.

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Susie Fiorito (tudordaughter) | 2 comments Hi I'm Susie and just joined this group. I'm so glad I found it. I love Mystery and Crime! I am currently reading this book and about 1/2 through. I in particular love Erik Larson. I read Issac's Storm a few years ago, I believe that was his first and became a fan. I started reading Devil in the White City because while visiting back east this year waiting in the airport reading Erik's In the Garden of Beasts a passenger asked if I ever read Devil in the White City. He said of all this was his favorite, so I came home and started reading it. I look forward to a lively discussion!

message 24: by Jamie (last edited Mar 20, 2013 08:15AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jamie Sheffield (jamiesheffield) | 10 comments I finished the book, and was a bit disappointed.

I liked both stories reasonably well, but felt that they were a bit artlessly jammed together with the effect of it being two novellas alternating chapters rather than a cohesive novel.

It did not, IMHO, live up to the reviews or hype.


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Susie Fiorito (tudordaughter) | 2 comments So far I prefer the story of the Fair rather than Holmes. He just such a sick-o!

message 26: by Charlotte (new)

Charlotte | 2 comments I might not want to read this book after all. I will ready more comments before I make up my mind on this one. Maybe I will check out ebooks and ready a sample, then I will know what to do. This book might not be for the faint of heart, like me on some books.

Autumn (autumnmemory80) | 374 comments Carrie wrote: "Lance I agree about the architects story being the real thriller. I work for a large corporation and am finding the political maneuvers so realistic they are stressing me out! I can't imagine how ..."

I totally understand how you feel. I like to procrastinate, but the way they are taking so long to make decisions is freaking me out. I told my friend John today, I just don't know how they are going to pull this off!

Kathryn | 4 comments Hi, I'm new to this group (and to Goodreads), but not to mysteries, crime stories and thrillers! I've wanted to read this book for a while and now I am looking forward to it!

Autumn (autumnmemory80) | 374 comments Hi, Kathryn! We are so happy to have you join us! I am about a fourth the way finished and I really love it! What does everyone think about the alternating chapters?

message 30: by Ctgt (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ctgt | 130 comments I read this book several years ago and loved it. I enjoyed both story lines and found (view spoiler)

Jamie, I agree that the two stories didn't really weave together all that much but I read the story as a look at light and dark, good and evil in one place at one point in time. (view spoiler)

Lance Charnes (lcharnes) | 411 comments Charlotte wrote: "This book might not be for the faint of heart, like me on some books."

There's nothing particularly gory or shocking in this book. Larsen is pretty restrained in his descriptions of Holmes' crimes. You get much worse on TV.

aPriL does feral sometimes  (cheshirescratch) | 1192 comments I liked the book and I thought it was fascinating. I was as interested in finding out how big architecture projects were pulled together as I was in how a serial killer escaped detection so long despite smells and dubious stories. It appears class and money swayed people's expectations and how they decided to handle strange or compromising behaviors. For the big Fair, it was class and prestige that held things together enough when it appeared to teeter on the edge of failure, but they held it together until they proved the Fair a success, certainly amazing most of the visitors in a good way. Mr. 'Holmes' also amazed, too, when discovered.

Both the Fair architects and Mr. 'Holmes' used assumed class and assumed money to pull off their successful ventures. When Mr. Holmes began to be exposed it was because people began to doubt his class and definitely when his money failed to materialize after awhile. It is surprising, though, how long he was able to carry on through his assumed class.

Carol | 152 comments I'm a few chapters in and I'm enjoying the description of Chicago in this era. I can almost smell it! These two stories are pulling me in, although I do like the story of Burnham and the other men who pulled off the Columbian Exposition against all odds.
I agree that the story of Holmes is so disturbing. Psychopaths whether they kill or steal from you are upsetting to those of us with a conscience. How do folks function while doing these things? It seems so evil and unnatural. I agree with Jan C in that true crime psychopaths are so much more disturbing because they are real and not a figment of an author's imagination.

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Katherine | 187 comments Loved it

Barbara (cinnabarb) | 8120 comments I thought the descriptions of how the Word's Fair infrastructure was planned and executed was fascinating. It gave me an idea of how massive an undertaking something like that is. I agree with Carol and others who find the psychopath super disturbing. Really gives me the creeps to know people like that exist.

Autumn (autumnmemory80) | 374 comments I agree with the wonderful way the city and the fair’s construction is described. I can almost see it, smell it, and feel as if I am really there. I am also getting anxious as they seem to struggle with time. Even though you know what happens in the end, getting there has been quite the ride.

Autumn (autumnmemory80) | 374 comments Today while reading I reached a beautiful part of the book, and I just let out this huge sigh of satisfaction. I am Loving the architecture side.

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Marc Sima (MarcSima) | 35 comments I agree with Carol.
Reality is stranger than fiction, and good fiction is necessarily grounded in reality. The unconscious of a mad man is a hard one to grasp, as he hardly understands himself.

Autumn (autumnmemory80) | 374 comments I am really getting into the middle of this book and I agree that truth is stranger than fiction. To know that this person was real and walk among us? It gives me chills. I always heard this and found this online, thought it was interesting.:

John Douglas, a former Chief of the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit and author of
“Mind Hunter” says, “A very conservative estimate is that there are between 35-50 active serial killers in the United States” at any given time. Often, Douglas told me, they will, “kill 2-3 victims and then have a “cooling-off” period between kills.”

But others who study serial killers (defined as someone who kills 3 or more people) think there are many more of these demented predators out there than the FBI admits to – maybe as many as a hundred of them actively operating right now.

Carol | 152 comments Wow, Autumn! Unsettling, frightening and disgusting. I'm appalled by the celebrity of the Japanese girl-eater!! Tastes like tuna? OMG!!!

Autumn (autumnmemory80) | 374 comments I am sorry to dwell on the Holmes part for a little longer, but what do you think makes someone do this? I was listening to the little girl I tutor yesterday talking about animals so sweetly and it made me think of a story I once heard. A serial killer's daughter said when she was little her dad took her kittens and used clothespins to hang them from the line. Why do children choose to first attack animals? Is it because they are loving, trusting, and vulnerable? Do you feel that this is a nature vs. nurture? I feel it is a little of both. For children who are raise in a home with violence, that is what they learn and know. But I also feel that people who are true sociopaths have it in there chemical makeup. What do y'all think?

Autumn (autumnmemory80) | 374 comments Also, right now where I am in the book, they have two months to complete the fair. I am beginning to stress over all the problems they are having! :)

Carol | 152 comments Autumn, I think psychopaths are born without the ability to care about others. They are able to rationalize actions because it is all about them, not others. They have no conscience. Think of Bernie Madoff, who was able to live and sleep well for decades while running a scam that cheated hundreds of people and knowledgeable fund managers out of their life savings. Every found him so charming.
I taught high school students for many years and I came into contact with only 2 students who had many markers of a psychopath. It was very obvious. The one student ended up in prison and the other I lost track of , but both started with small but disturbing incidents and escalated.

Carol | 152 comments I'm finished with the book and the totality of Holmes' actions is almost unbearable to read about. The fact that this is a true story makes it horrid!!

Autumn (autumnmemory80) | 374 comments Many of the discussion questions are coming from so I want to give them credit.

In the note "Evils Imminent," Erik Larson writes "Beneath the gore and smoke and loam, this book is about the evanescence of life, and why some men choose to fill their brief allotment of time engaging the impossible, others in the manufacture of sorrow" [xi]. What does the book reveal about "the ineluctable conflict between good and evil"? What is the essential difference between men like Daniel Burnham and Henry H. Holmes? Are they alike in any way?

aPriL does feral sometimes  (cheshirescratch) | 1192 comments Both men were able to convince others they were sure of their themselves and certain to succeed in their endeavors; that they knew themselves as intelligent and accomplished and trustworthy.

Where they differed were the goals they wished to accomplish. Holmes enjoyed watching people die, which by its nature is an ephemeral moment in time, so everything he had was about being able to bring about a few seconds or minutes of self-satisfaction and enjoyment - obviously similar to an orgasmic minute. He'd spend weeks and months and years organizing to get that minute of time. He made me think of the Titan Arum, or Corpse Flower, which takes ten years of cultivation to briefly bloom, then its done a day after. Burnham wanted something which would stand as a monument for eternity, timeless, forever. He did not want something which was over and done a minute later, but instead something for his efforts which was forever and lasting. Holmes didn't want exposure to his real purpose; Burnham wanted everyone to enjoy the results of his efforts.

Autumn (autumnmemory80) | 374 comments Excellent points! I cannot type more now, I am on my cell phone, but will when I get home.

Autumn (autumnmemory80) | 374 comments aPriL MEOWS often with scratching wrote: "Both men were able to convince others they were sure of their themselves and certain to succeed in their endeavors; that they knew themselves as intelligent and accomplished and trustworthy.


I absolutely agree. I feel both men were confident in themselves and their work. I also agree that Burnham wanted to leave a lasting impression that would earn him respect, wealth, and a legacy. Holmes wanted instant gratification and did not care how or who he hurt.

message 50: by Autumn (last edited Apr 04, 2013 09:47AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Autumn (autumnmemory80) | 374 comments Carol wrote: "Autumn, I think psychopaths are born without the ability to care about others. They are able to rationalize actions because it is all about them, not others. They have no conscience. Think of Berni..."

I think a true psychopath or sociopath is born with this in their makeup. I had a student when I taught school who I feel would one day grow up to be a sociopath. He only showed negative, angry, evil emotions and appeared like he was not even there. He was pale as a ghost because he never did anything outside, and would have random conversations with himself and wrote threatening notes and pictures. He did eventually spend some time in a mental health facility while he was in my class. He told me that he would one day kill me in a note, and even though he was in 5th grade at the time, I believed him. I still believe him. I still think he might one day track me down.

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