Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America

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Book and Author

Devil in the White City 
This book is about two men: An architect named Daniel Hudson Burnham, charged with constructing the buildings and grounds for the Chicago’s World Fair and a murderer named Henry H. Holmes, who used the attraction of the great fair and his own satanic charms to lure scores of young women to their deaths.

Erik Larson: From his childhood riding bikes all over Long Island, to his college days of wearing underwear on his head to stave off acne, to his life now as a happily married author living in Seattle–read more about Erik Larson here.

Erik LarsonAnd in this video clip from C-Span’s booknotes, Listen to Erik discuss how he was inspired by a novel and an encyclopedia to write about H.H. Holmes:

For the full video go to:

Quote from the book:

It was so easy to disappear, so easy to deny knowledge, so very easy in the smoke and din to mask that something dark had taken root. This was Chicago, on the eve of the greatest fair in history.


Topics this book will bring up for discussion include:

  • The ways in which the Chicago’s world’s fair changed Chicago and America.  What lasting effects did it have?
  • Is it possible to understand what motivates serial killers like Holmes?  How well does this book at explaining his motivations?
  • Larson writes, “The juxtaposition of pride and unfathomed evil struck me as offering powerful insights into the nature of men and their ambitions” [p. 393].  How well does Larson reach his goal of using two markedly different men to illustrate human nature?

More discussion questions are available from


Aunt Jemima DeeliciousThis list of food introduced at the fair may give your group some ideas for snacks or beverages to serve at your meeting: Cream of Wheat, Shredded wheat, Aunt Jemima’s Syrup, Juicy Fruit chewing gum, and Pabst Beer –which had been around for a while but which earned a ribbon at a fair competition and thus became known as “Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer”.  Or you may want to go with a more general “fair food” theme like this blogger did.

If the members of your group want to learn more about H. H. Holmes (A.K.A. Herman Mudgett) they could watch this DVD from the library.  Or if they want to know more about the Chicago World’s Fair (or Columbian Exposition) they could check out these materials which also includes a DVD.


Have you or your group read the Devil in the White City?  Would you recommend it to other groups?  Comment on this post to share your thoughts!