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Larson’s ‘The Devil in the White City’ is a killer read

Jessica Hirth / Reporter

Erik Larson’s “The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America” intriguingly intertwines the lives of architect Daniel Burnham and serial killer Henry Holmes.

Burnham was the mastermind behind the plan that turned Chicago into “the White City” for the 1893 World’s Fair. Millions flocked to the city from around the globe; many of them women out on their own for the first time with a dream of independence and big city living.

Holmes was the mastermind behind the plan that prevented countless women from realizing their dream. Using the fair as a hunting ground for his prey, he lured young women into his mansion and into their deaths.

Holmes was convicted and executed for one murder, but the actual number of victims is speculated to be anywhere from several dozen to 200.

Holmes, with his awkwardly pointed ears, believed he was the devil and the circumstances surrounding his conviction do little to dispel his theory.

In a work that is meticulously researched and masterfully written, Larson weaves a nonfiction tale of two men whose life stories are stranger than fiction. Vintage photographs from the Chicago Historical Society printed in the beginning of each section give the reader a true look at Burnham, Holmes and “the fair that changed America.” Larson also gives the reader a tour of the fair and 1893 Chicago through maps of the city and the World’s Columbian Exposition.

A review by the Richmond Times-Dispatch said “Devil” “is a wholly factual work of history that reads like a mystery novel.”

In an interview with Robert Birnbaum for the literary site, Larson said, “Here was this monumental act of civic good will. This massive act of civic good will and literally in the same place, at the same time, was the opposite, this dark, dark character. And that’s what lured me. This idea that the two things were happening at once - dark and light, ying and yang, however you want to look at it.”

Larson went on to compare Holmes to Jack the Ripper.

“In some ways (Holmes) was even creepier. Skeletons and gas chambers and so forth.”

Although not as commonly recognized as Jack the Ripper is , Holmes and Burnham’s stories are brought back to life by Larson in a novel filled with suspense, history and even humorous anecdotes that transport readers back to America’s Gilded Age. The most unwilling reader will not be able to resist the twisted tale of “The Devil in the White City.”

Photos courtesy of

Erik Larson’s nonfiction book about serial killer Henry Holmes at the 1893 World’s Fair “reads like a mystery novel.”