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The Devil in the White City

Cover of The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City

Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America
Investigative reporter Erik Larson unearths the lost history of the 1893 World's Fair and of a madman who grimly parodied the fair's achievements. The "White City" was a magical creation constructed...
Investigative reporter Erik Larson unearths the lost history of the 1893 World's Fair and of a madman who grimly parodied the fair's achievements. The "White City" was a magical creation constructed...
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Description-
  • Investigative reporter Erik Larson unearths the lost history of the 1893 World's Fair and of a madman who grimly parodied the fair's achievements. The "White City" was a magical creation constructed upon Chicago's swampy Jackson Park by a roster of architectural stars, including Daniel H. Burnham, Frederick Olmstead, and Louis Sullivan. Drawing 27 million visitors in six months, the fair gathered the era's brightest intellectual lights and launched innovations like Juicy Fruit gum, Cracker Jacks, and the Ferris Wheel. Nearby, Dr. Henry Holmes built "the World's Fair Hotel," a torture palace to which he lured 27 victims, mostly young women. While the fair ushered in a new epoch in American history, Holmes marked the emergence of the serial killer, who thrived on the forces transforming the country.

 
Awards-
Excerpts-
  • From the book

    The Black City

    How easy it was to disappear:

    A thousand trains a day entered or left Chicago. Many of these trains brought single young women who had never even seen a city but now hoped to make one of the biggest and toughest their home. Jane Addams, the urban reformer who founded Chicago's Hull House, wrote, "Never before in civilization have such numbers of young girls been suddenly released from the protection of the home and permitted to walk unattended upon the city streets and to work under alien roofs." The women sought work as typewriters, stenographers, seamstresses, and weavers. The men who hired them were for the most part moral citizens intent on efficiency and profit. But not always. On March 30, 1890, an officer of the First National Bank placed a warning in the help-wanted section of the Chicago Tribune, to inform female stenographers of "our growing conviction that no thoroughly honorable business-man who is this side of dotage ever advertises for a lady stenographer who is a blonde, is good-looking, is quite alone in the city, or will transmit her photograph. All such advertisements upon their face bear the marks of vulgarity, nor do we regard it safe for any lady to answer such unseemly utterances."

    The women walked to work on streets that angled past bars, gambling houses, and bordellos. Vice thrived, with official indulgence. "The parlors and bedrooms in which honest folk lived were (as now) rather dull places," wrote Ben Hecht, late in his life, trying to explain this persistent trait of old Chicago. "It was pleasant, in a way, to know that outside their windows, the devil was still capering in a flare of brimstone." In an analogy that would prove all too apt, Max Weber likened the city to "a human being with his skin removed."

    Anonymous death came early and often. Each of the thousand trains that entered and left the city did so at grade level. You could step from a curb and be killed by the Chicago Limited. Every day on average two people were destroyed at the city's rail crossings. Their injuries were grotesque. Pedestrians retrieved severed heads. There were other hazards. Streetcars fell from drawbridges. Horses bolted and dragged carriages into crowds. Fires took a dozen lives a day. In describing the fire dead, the term the newspapers most liked to use was "roasted." There was diphtheria, typhus, cholera, influenza. And there was murder. In the time of the fair the rate at which men and women killed each other rose sharply throughout the nation but especially in Chicago, where police found themselves without the manpower or expertise to manage the volume. In the first six months of 1892 the city experienced nearly eight hundred homicides. Four a day. Most were prosaic, arising from robbery, argument, or sexual jealousy. Men shot women, women shot men, and children shot each other by accident. But all this could be understood. Nothing like the Whitechapel killings had occurred. Jack the Ripper's five-murder spree in 1888 had defied explanation and captivated readers throughout America, who believed such a thing could not happen in their own hometowns.

    But things were changing. Everywhere one looked the boundary between the moral and the wicked seemed to be degrading. Elizabeth Cady Stanton argued in favor of divorce. Clarence Darrow advocated free love. A young woman named Borden killed her parents.

    And in Chicago a young handsome doctor stepped from a train, his surgical valise in hand. He entered a world of clamor, smoke, and steam, refulgent with the scents of murdered cattle and pigs. He found it to his liking.

    The letters came later, from the Cigrands, Williamses, Smythes, and untold...
Reviews-
  • AudioFile Magazine A guilty pleasure is this true story of nineteenth-century serial killer Henry Holmes, as it relates (with some stretch of credulity) to the Colombian Exposition of 1893, erected on Chicago's Southside, not far from Holmes's lair. The author, who writes more like a carnival pitchman than an investigative reporter, fills his account with fascinating detail, and even when the detail isn't fascinating, he tries to make it so with florid description. Scott Brick attacks this material with relish, narrating with a sardonic edge and masterful attention to phrasing. Okay, he should have looked up the pronunciation of "phaeton," "calumet," and a few other terms, but if we pretend not to notice, we'll have a lot of perverse fun. Y.R. (c) AudioFile 2003, Portland, Maine
  • Chicago Tribune "Engrossing . . . exceedingly well documented . . . utterly fascinating."
  • The New York Times "A dynamic, enveloping book. . . . Relentlessly fuses history and entertainment to give this nonfiction book the dramtic effect of a novel. . . . It doesn't hurt that this truth is stranger than fiction."
  • Esquire "So good, you find yourself asking how you could not know this already."
  • USA Today "Another successful exploration of American history. . . . Larson skillfully balances the grisly details with the far-reaching implications of the World's Fair."
  • San Francisco Chronicle "As absorbing a piece of popular history as one will ever hope to find."
  • Entertainment Weekly "Paints a dazzling picture of the Gilded Age and prefigure the American century to come."
  • Chicago Sun-Times "A wonderfully unexpected book. . . Larson is a historian . . . with a novelist's soul."
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    All copies of this title, including those transferred to portable devices and other media, must be deleted/destroyed at the end of the lending period.

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Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America
Erik Larson
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Erik Larson
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