The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This book started out slow but really picked up steam throughout. The ending was intense and seriously creepy. The author does a good job of letting you feel the tension mounting and unraveling the story faster and faster as the book moves forward. I am seriously amazed at how little I knew about the history and events covered in this book. At the end of each chapter I found myself asking, "How have I never heard about this before?"
The book tells two main stories and for the most part alternates between the two every chapter. The first story is that of the Chicago World's Fair and the second is of H.H.Holmes, a seemingly wealthy and charming business owner/hotel manager/fraud/bigamist/murderer/psychopath who lives in Chicago during the fair.
I'll be honest that in the beginning of this book the two stories seemed pretty unequally yoked and I found myself rushing through the chapters detailing the conversations and business meetings leading up to the fair so that I could find out what crazy pants Holmes was going to do next. However, while the business details of the fair were slow and tedious at times to follow, the descriptions of the construction and exhibits of the fair itself were amazing. The descriptions of beauty and innovation sometimes seemed other worldly. It reminded me at times of the Night Circus only it is something that actually existed. It was interesting to read about the construction that was fraught with terrible weather, freak accidents, construction deaths, etc. I also enjoyed reading about the exhibits- the ferris wheel, modern electricity, shredded wheat, and more. I was also stunned to learn that an assassin ruined the closing ceremonies...again, how have I never heard about this?
The history of H.H. Holmes was insane. Often referred to as the first american serial killer he built an apartment building (also used as a Hotel during the world's fair) full of secret passages, air tight rooms, secret chutes to the basement and torture chambers. He killed friends, family, strangers, business partners, etc. Sometimes to collect insurance money, sometimes to cover up other lies, and mostly just for the thrill of it. Sometimes he cremated the bodies himself and other times he sold the bodies to medical schools as cadavers or skeletons.
While he's doing all of this he somehow finds the time to get married to several different women and have two children. He even lets two of his wives live. The scary part is how he manages to commit these horrendous crimes while still playing the part of normal, successful, charming business man and husband. Amazingly as girlfriends, secretaries, and acquaintances go missing he is questioned several times by family, neighbors, police, and private investigators and is still never suspected. Everyone seems to just keep believing him when he says they went back to live with their parents, or they eloped with another suitor, or they were hiding from ex-lovers.
He also cheats and steals from others using several different aliases and businesses owned by the different aliases. When people come to collect money he simply blames the debt on one of his other aliases to divert the attention and punishment away from himself. He is finally arrested on a charge of fraud against an insurance company who believes he faked the death of his business partner. During the investigation they find out that he actually murdered his business partner for the insurance claim and that his partners three children are now missing. As the investigators search for the three children they uncover all of his horrific secrets.
The scariest part for me was in the end that he really believed he was the Devil and that many of the people who helped bring him to justice seemed to be cursed afterward. A very creepy ending to an already creepy story. That again left me thinking "How have I never heard of this before?".
While this book was definitely not one I would have picked up on my own it had some fascinating history and I'm excited to discuss it for book group.
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