Adult Books for Teens: Common Core: “The Devil in the White City”

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson   devil in white

The World’s Columbian Exposition took place in Chicago in 1893 and was commonly known as the Chicago’s World Fair. It was a beautiful triumph of architectural genius, of hard work inside a too-short time table, and a period of glory for Chicago, which stood in the shadow of the more cultured and refined New York City. In a period of economic recession and joblessness, Chicago was able to pay back all the investors in the project and made a profit to boot. All of these things were no small feat. With the city’s reputation at stake, Chicago created the “White City,” the court of honor of the fair, where all of the white neo-classical buildings surrounded a wooded island on a lagoon. The effect of its beauty was stunning.

Of the millions of people who came to the fair, most had ever seen anything so glorious. In addition, they learned about new products (Shredded Wheat was introduced here). They had a blast on the Midway, which featured the gigantic engineering marvel the Ferris Wheel, the first of its kind. It could hold 2000 passengers at a time. It was invented in answer to a challenge to out-do the Eiffel Tower, the centerpiece of the last World’s Fair, which took place in Paris.

When the city and its architects had worked so hard to succeed, and had done so in such a grand way, what could sully the country’s memory of that period and that place?

A man named Herman Mudgett, who went by the name of Henry H. Holmes. Well most of the time. He has some other aliases when he was wooing women that he would later kill.

Dr. Holmes was a psychopath and a serial killer. His victims were primarily women, young and naïve, who had come to the big city to experience the fair and to find work. Because of the fair, there was work—construction, of course, but also jobs in the new hotels that sprang up to accommodate all the tourists.  Holmes built one of those hotels. But it was a strange place. Some of the rooms were at the end of hallways to nowhere and had no windows. A room off of Holmes’ office was air-tight, lined with iron and had an opening for a gas jet. Many young women disappeared from this hotel, never to be heard from again.

No one knows how many people Holmes killed, but it appears that it was at least 25. (Some estimate 200 people, although the author, Larson, tells us that is probably too high a number.) This was just a few years after Jack the Ripper, who killed far fewer people, terrified London. Why do we know so little of Holmes’ murder streak in comparison? Primarily because he was so good at getting away with it, the police never suspected him until years after the fair had closed.

Holmes was very charismatic. He had stunning blue eyes. He entranced women, and they fell in love with him. He married them, or pretended to—he was ‘married’ to more than one woman at a time. After he had a woman fully under his control, he murdered her. Control over others, according to Larson, appeared to be his motivation. The reader may be astonished by how naïve some of the young women were—how they trusted him even as he used aliases and asked them to turn over their assets to him. But, as I’ve mentioned in earlier reviews, whatever charisma is, it goes a long way in hypnotizing people into foolish behavior. Usually, this only costs them some money and some pride. Unfortunately, in the case of Holmes, it cost many people their lives.

Holmes not only killed young women. He murdered his business partner to get a life insurance payment. And then, inexplicably, he murdered three of that man’s children while he was acting as their guardian. He was only caught because the insurance company decided to investigate the death of the business partner.

This is a fascinating book that juxtaposes the two tales of a single city. I recommend it to anyone.

High school housekeeping: This is another book that I believe is the sort that the framers of the Common Core are hoping you’ll read. The story is great. Of course, the strangeness of the serial murders is intriguing. But the planning and building of the World’s Columbian Exposition is also crazy-good stuff. The genius of the main architects (Burnham and Root), the landscape architect’s vision, and the engineers’ marvels are pitted again a slowly working planning commission and nature—which refused to cooperate, bringing devastating storms. Yet with all the odds stacked against having the project completed on time, the White City opened to high praise.

In addition, you’ll learn a lot about history just by seeing what goes on at the fair. I mentioned that Shredded Wheat was introduced there, as was the Ferris Wheel. It was also the first time alternating current had been used in electric lighting. In an epilogue to the book, Larson reminds us of other significant happenings: Walt Disney’s father helped to build the White City, Frank Baum the author of the Wizard of Oz may have modeled the Emerald City after it. Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous architect, picked up ideas. The Lincoln Memorial is made in imitation of the fair’s buildings.

There is a map of the World’s Columbian Exposition as well as a few photographs that will give you a taste of the period and the place. Larson discusses his research, which could be both interesting and helpful to you as a young beginning researcher, readying yourself for college.


About Victoria Waddle

I'm a high school librarian, formerly an English teacher. I love to read and my mission is to connect people with the right books. To that end, I read widely--from the hi-lo for reluctant high school readers to the literary adult novel for the bibliophile.
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5 Responses to Adult Books for Teens: Common Core: “The Devil in the White City”

  1. Excellent site. A lot of useful information here.
    I am sending it to several buddies ans additionally sharing in delicious.
    And of course, thanks to your effort!

  2. Phyllis says:

    Greetings from Los angeles! I’m bored to tears
    at work so I decided to browse your website on my iphone during lunch break.
    I love the info you present here and can’t wait to take a look when I get home.

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  3. shylockbooks says:

    This looks like a really great book! Love the premise of it!

    • Ms. Waddle says:

      You’re right! Sometimes the connection between the architects and the serial killer feels stretched (because there is no connection between the people, they don’t meet). But both the celebratory and the creep factors are certainly there–and the fair was the focal point in both stories.

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