Book Review: “The Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson

on April 30, 2012 in Book Reviews, Serial Killers by

In late 1800s Chicago, two men set the city on its ear: Daniel Burnham, architect and planner, and HH Holmes, the first American serial killer.

Burnham was responsible for orchestrating the Chicago World’s Fair; Holmes built what was billed as “The World’s Fair Hotel”.

Holmes’ hotel was anything but. Described by many as a torture castle, Holmes haphazardly constructed the hotel with one thing in mind: killing. He would lure women with the promise of marriage to come live in his “hotel”. Very few, if any, would be seen again.

The first floor of his ‘hotel’ housed a restaurant and pharmacy, the second living quarters and the third was outfitted with soundproof rooms fitted with gas lines making it easy for Holmes to asphyxiate his victims; there was also a soundproof bank vault in which Holmes would lock his victims until they died from suffocation. Once dead, he would strip the bodies of their flesh and have the skeletal remains sold to medical schools by a confidante.

At the same time, Daniel Burnham was watching his three years of hard work come to fruition. People came in droves to see the sites on the midway featuring the huge Ferris wheel which was the landmark structure of the fair. They also came to experience modern day electricity (earning the Court of Honor the nickname “White City”), to see people from other cultures and lands Americans might otherwise not have seen and to be introduced to such things as Pabst Blue Ribbon (*the* 21st century beer of hipsters everywhere).

The close of the World’s Fair was uneventful. Architects moved back to their respective hometowns and even HH Holmes decided it was time to move on. By 1895, Holmes would be caught, but not before killing at least three children and their father. Upon conviction, he received the death penalty. America’s first serial killer was no more.

I had high hopes for “Devil” as it was recommended by several people whose opinions I trust and value and has been touted as the definitive book on HH Holmes. I just don’t see the appeal. The book was about ninety percent Chicago World’s Fair history and ten percent HH Holmes. I’ve learned absolutely nothing about HH Holmes but I know more about Chicago late 1800s than I ever wanted (including menus from important dinners. I fail to see where this information is pertinent in the least). The writing is cumbersome as though it was written in the 1890s and not the twenty-first century.

If you want to learn the history behind the Chicago World’s Fair and how it came to America then this is definitely the book for you. But if you want to better understand the workings of the mind of America’s first serial killer, HH Holmes, you will need to look elsewhere.

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