Serial Killers and Architects: The Devil in the White City

I have an urge to go on a psychopathic murderer reading binge.  I often find myself reading books of the same ilk in succession; some of these themes have included the Holocaust, African American nonfiction, and Joyce Carol Oates’ books.  Now, after reading Erik Larson’s nonfiction book The Devil in the White City (2002), I want to know more about serial killer Herman W. Mudgett, better known by his alias H. H. Holmes, and other sociopaths.

Mugshot of Herman W. Mudgett, a.k.a. Dr. Henry Howard Holmes
Mugshot of Herman W. Mudgett, a.k.a. Dr. Henry Howard Holmes

Larson’s treatment of H. H. Holmes is partly to blame for this.  He writes Holmes in such a vivid and intriguing way that I finished the book wishing there were more.  There is more.  Many others have written about Chicago’s serial killer of the 1890s, and I am tempted to check out every book from the library I can find about him.

But the book isn’t solely about Holmes and his murderous tendencies.  Holmes’s story and the intrigue surrounding the women who went missing are interspersed with information about Chicago’s Exposition, the World’s Fair of 1893.  We learn about its planning and construction, mostly through the experiences of the architects, people like Daniel Burnham, the fair’s chief architect, and Frederick Law Olmsted, the fair’s landscape architect and designer of New York City’s Central Park. The Chicago fair came to be known as the white city because all of the buildings were white in European classical styles of architecture.  After the fair, many blamed Burnham for setting the United States back in architecture and showcasing old styles instead of developing a new American style.  From this fallout emerged Frank Lloyd Wright.

thedevilinthewhitecity cover

I also learned that the first Ferris wheel was created for the fair by George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. The planners originally wanted to ask Gustave Eiffel to build another Eiffel tower in Chicago, but many were dismayed by this idea and wanted U. S. engineers and thinkers to be represented. Ferris created his famous wheel, which debuted in Chicago in 1893. It took almost an hour for it to go completely around, and many became engaged and married on it.  Interestingly, this idea for the wheel was quickly exported.  When I visited Vienna, we saw an old Ferris wheel from 1897 in Prater Park.  I stayed safely on the ground while my dad rode it.  I do not like Ferris wheels; they give me panic attacks, but I enjoy learning about their genesis.

Larson’s book ends with a wrapping up what happened to all of the historical figures in the book.  We learn that they didn’t always find success and eventually died, some in disgrace or penniless; new figures emerged to place their names on the landscape of American history.  Of Holmes, we learn that he finally got caught.  He disappeared with three young children after killing their father, making it look like an accident.  He was arrested, the children were found dead, and proof of the Father’s murder was found.  Police suspected he was responsible for the disappearance of many women during the fair.  Hundreds of them went missing during that time.  But as they began to gather evidence at his mansion, in the walls and in secret chambers (yes, so chilling), the house was set on fire and evidence was destroyed.  Larson pieced together the stories of the missing women and Holmes’s involvement with them from newspaper articles, historical texts, and court transcripts.  However, Holmes was only tried for the murder of the father.  He was found guilty and hanged.

But in a strange twist, he protected his body.  Holmes had a lawyer ensure that he was buried without a marker in a hard-to-find location and in cement.  Larson found his grave, which has been undisturbed these hundred or so years.  Holmes often gave the bodies of his victims to universities for science and dissection; I assume he feared that his own body would be used in such a way, as some institutions had expressed interest in his brain.

I loved this book because of its chilling detail and gripping story, but also for the historical information,  it is nonfiction at its best.  I read it because my friend Amanda, while we had lunch at school together, told me about her project for our feminist research methods class.  She was examining a coin from the Chicago fair, and I expressed to her my interesting in the fair because of how often it tended to come up in my own historical research.  In my research on the female inventor of the dishwasher, I learned that Josephine Garis Cochran was the only woman to demonstrate her machine at the 1983 fair.  Amanda, a graduate student in history, told me about this book and suggested reading it to learn more about the fair and to be entertained. It did both.

56 thoughts on “Serial Killers and Architects: The Devil in the White City

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  1. i read this book as well, and wow, what a study in personality he provides! thanks for the summary, as a lot of time has passed since i read it. i’m glad i won’t be walking the darkened streets of a city tonight – but wait, i might, as i am in quito for a short visit! z

  2. I have this on my shelf thanks to very high recommendations from a friend as well. I’m so glad you enjoyed it so much and that it’s prompted you to keep reading about it! A good sign, and I hope to have the chance to read it soon.

  3. I really enjoyed this book. I like how Larson often takes two things that are seemingly unrelated and manages to link them together. If you are on a binge, you might try his book about Marconi and the famous killer Crippen. It’s called Thunderstruck.

  4. I also enjoyed this book because of the historical info on the World Expo and because of H. H. Holmes. But I also wanted to know more about Holmes and wished that the book focused more on him. Despite that I still really enjoyed it.

    1. I think that explains my desire to read more. I was left wanting to know more about him. I think one problem is that his mansion burned and we don’t really know if he killed 9 or 200 people!

  5. I LOVED this book. I read it a number of years ago and was equally fascinated by the serial killer, as well as the wonderful look at the fair and its inner workings. I still find it impossible to believe that a Ferris wheel could accommodate so many people at one time. What I think is sad is that no vestige of the fair–nary a building or monument– remains, right? Sad. But what an intriguing book. My son loves this genre and is easy to buy for at Christmas and birthdays–killer/thriller books, it is!

    1. This would be a great gift idea! And yes, sad that nothing remains. I think they dismantled the Ferris wheel and moved it, and then I can’t remember what happened…

  6. I love how we have such a morbid interest in serial killers and other infamous people. 🙂 I want to read this now!

  7. I am a huge fan of Erik Larson’s works and have had this book on my shelf for a couple of years now. It’s high time I got around to reading it! I don’t like gory details, but the mind of a sociopath and why they do what they intrigues me. Thank you for the very compelling review.

  8. His other book is also fantastic! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this one. 🙂

  9. I am in a very binge-like run. I am also on a murder/mystery binge right now. I have several piled up to read. I think next I will have either a YA binge, romance binge or new adult binge for summer.

  10. Emily — you always pick such interesting books to write about. I too loved Devil in the White City. Larson makes the observation that the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz books might have been inspired by the white city of the Chicago Expo. Which is such a cool idea. Thx for another great post!!

    1. Oh yeah, I remember that part. That was a neat connection. It was interesting to see how much influence the exposition had on Americana.

  11. Great review. I’ve recommended this book over and over. I loved how the author interlaced the dynamics of the fair with the story of the serial killer. I teach engineering students and I often mention this book as a suggestion for outside reading.

    Now I’m tempted to buy another one of his books 🙂

    1. I like how you use it for engineering students. I teach tech comm, sometimes for engineers, and this would make a nice addition to the course. Thanks for that idea!

  12. Oh great! Another book to add to my ever increasing must read list. Just joking! I am very excited to read this book. I am never disappointed when I read a book you have recommended. Thanks for the wonderful review.

  13. Everyone enjoys reading about sadistic serial killers! I suppose it’s a combination of morbid curiosity and a fascination with what makes these guys tick. Great review, book sounds good

    1. Blonde is my favorite of hers, but it is very long. Some of her others from the seventies are good as well, like Wonderland and Them.

    1. Yep. Absolutely! I don’t have a reason why, but my guess is that because we all have both the good and dark sides of human nature, we are drawn to attempting to understand that dark side.

  14. Emily, I must confess this is an interesting and unexpected post. But, reading on, I see why the book interested you. I did have a chuckle about the Ferris Wheel taking so long to go around, that people got engaged and married. If this were invented to today with the same speed of revolution, some people could get engaged, married and then divorced to/ from the same person. Thanks for pushing our envelopes. BTG

  15. I loved this book as well! Larson’s writing style was amazing. I picked up another of his books based on this one alone. I have yet to read it, but I’m excited to start!

  16. I love true crime and books which look at the dark side of human nature, up to a point. I’ve gone back and forth about reading this one, but you make it sound like a great read so I’ll have to check it out. Add it to the ever-lengthening to-read list…

  17. I love these types of books. I remember when I was in high school we had to do a research paper based off the book Killing Mr. Griffin. I chose to cross reference one of the characters in the book with the late Jim Jones, the evangelist that convinced several people to drink kool aid laced with cyanide. I read a book based on his life and was intrigued.

  18. Good review Emily. I haven’t read The Devil In The White City, but have read a great deal about H.H. Holmes on Crime Library. One never tires of reading about serial killers.

  19. It was a fascinating book but i found myself more interested in the creation of the fairgrounds than in the serial killer! The worlds fair has such rich history and each one a incredible investment…feels like the Olympics villages/venues and the extraordinary amount of planning, prestige and investment required to pull one off today.

    1. Absolutely! That part was equally as engaging. I love how Larson wove the two stories together despite the seemingly stark differences.

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