Book Reviews

Go To Hopkins & Company Homepage

Go to Executive Times Archives


Go to 2003 Book Review List


The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson


Rating: (Recommended)


Click on title or picture to buy from




Erik Larson takes readers to the end of the 19th century and makes that time come alive in his book. The Devil in the White City. The White City is the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago from 1893-4. Part of this book tells the story of the architects and visionaries who created a wonderland for fairgoers. Daniel Burnham comes alive, and the dreams of Frederick Law Olmstead become vivid through Larson’s writing skills. The Devil is the murderer, Henry Holmes, who preyed on women drawn to Chicago for the fair. For that part of the story, Larson presents a mystery tale, and leads readers through the murders, the investigation, and the capture of Holmes. Here’s an excerpt from early in the book (pp. 13-21), from the chapter titled, “The Trouble is Just Begun”:

On the afternoon of Monday, February 24, 1890, two thousand people gathered on the sidewalk and street outside the offices of the Chicago Tribune, as similar crowds collected at each of the city's twenty-eight other daily newspapers, and in hotel lobbies, in bars, and at the offices of Western Union and the Postal Telegraph Company. The gathering outside the Tribune included businessmen, clerks, traveling salesmen, stenographers, police officers, and at least one barber. Messenger boys stood ready to bolt as soon as there was news worth reporting. The air was cold. Smoke filled the caverns between buildings and reduced lateral visibility to a few blocks. Now and then police officers cleared a path for one of the city's bright yellow streetcars, called grip-cars for the way their operators attached them to an ever-running cable under the street. Drays full of wholesale goods rumbled over the pavers, led by immense horses gusting steam into the murk above.

The wait was electric, for Chicago was a prideful place. In every corner of the city people looked into the faces of shopkeepers, cab drivers, waiters and bellboys to see whether the news already had come and whether it was good or bad. So far the year had been a fine one. Chicago's population had topped one million for the first time, making the city the second most populous in the nation after New York, although disgruntled residents of Philadelphia, previously in second place, were quick to point out that Chicago had cheated by annexing large expanses of land just in time for the 1890 decadal census. Chicago shrugged the sniping off. Big was big. Success today would dispel at last the eastern perception that Chicago was nothing more than a greedy, hog-slaughtering backwater; failure would bring humiliation from which the city would not soon recover, given how heartily its leading men had boasted that Chicago would prevail. It was this big talk, not the persistent southwesterly breeze that had prompted New York editor Charles Anderson Dana to nickname Chicago "the Windy City."

In their offices in the top floor of the Rookery, Daniel Burnham, forty-three, and his partner, John Root, newly forty, felt the electricity more keenly than most. They had participated in secret conversations, received certain assurances, and gone so far as to make reconnaissance forays to outlying parts of the city. They were Chicago's leading architects: They had pioneered the erection of tall structures and designed the first building in the country ever to be called a skyscraper; every year, it seemed, some new building of theirs became the tallest in the world. When they moved into the Rookery at La Salle and Adams, a gorgeous light-filled structure of Root's design, they saw views of the lake and city that no one but construction workers had seen before. They knew, however, that today's event had the potential to make their success so far seem meager.

The news would come by telegraph from Washington. The Tribune would get it from one of its own reporters. Its editors, rewrite men, and typesetters would compose "extra" editions as firemen shoveled coal into the boilers of the paper's steam-driven presses. A clerk would paste each incoming bulletin to a window, face out, for pedestrians to read.

Shortly after four o'clock, Chicago standard railroad time, the Tribune received its first cable.


Even Burnham could not say for sure who had been first to propose the idea. It had seemed to rise in many minds at once, the initial intent simply to celebrate the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus's discovery of the New World by hosting a world's fair. At first the idea gained little momentum. Consumed by the great drive toward wealth and power that had begun after the end of the Civil War, America seemed to have scant interest in celebrating its distant past. In 1889, however, the French did something that startled everyone.

In Paris on the Champ 'de Mars, France opened the Exposition Universelle, a world's fair so big and glamorous and so exotic that visitors came away believing no exposition could surpass it. At the heart of the exposition stood a tower of iron that rose one thousand feet into the sky, higher by far than any man-made structure on earth. The tower not only assured the eternal fame of its designer, Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, but also offered graphic proof that France had edged out the United States for dominance in the realm of iron and steel, despite the Brooklyn Bridge, the Horseshoe Curve, and other undeniable accomplishments of American engineers.

The United States had only itself to blame for this perception. In Paris America had made a half-hearted effort to show off its artistic, industrial, and scientific talent. "We shall be ranked among those nations who have shown themselves careless of appearances," wrote the Chicago Tribune's Paris correspondent on May 13, 1889. Other nations, he wrote, had mounted exhibits of dignity and style, while American exhibitors erected a melange of pavilions and kiosks with no artistic guidance and no uniform plan. "The result is a sad jumble of shops, booths, and bazaars often unpleasing in themselves and incongruous when taken together." In contrast, France had done everything it could to ensure that its glory overwhelmed everyone. "Other nations are not rivals," the correspondent wrote, "they are foils to France, and the poverty of their displays sets off, as it was meant to do, the fullness of France, its richness and its splendor."

Even Eiffel's tower, forecast by wishful Americans to be a monstrosity that would disfigure forever the comely landscape of Paris, turned out to possess unexpected elan, with a sweeping base and tapered shaft that evoked the trail of a skyrocket. This humiliation could not be allowed to stand. America's pride in its growing power and international stature had fanned patriotism to a new intensity. The nation needed an opportunity to top the French, in particular to "out-Eiffel Eiffel." Suddenly the idea of hosting a great exposition to commemorate Columbus's discovery of the New World became irresistible.

At first, most Americans believed that if an exposition honoring the deepest roots of the nation were to be held anywhere, the site should be Washington- the capital. Initially even Chicago's editors agreed. As the notion of an exposition gained shape, however, other cities began to see it as a prize to be coveted, mainly for the stature it would confer, stature being a powerful lure in this age when pride of place ranked second only to pride of blood. Suddenly New York and St. Louis wanted the fair. Washington laid claim to the honor on grounds it was the center of government, New York because it was the center of everything. No one cared what St. Louis thought, although the city got a wink for pluck.

Nowhere was civic pride a more powerful force than in Chicago, where men spoke of the "Chicago spirit" as if it were a tangible force and prided themselves on the speed with which they had rebuilt the city after the Great Fire of 1871. They had not merely restored it; they had turned it into the nation's leader in commerce, manufacturing, and architecture. All the city's wealth, however, had failed to shake the widespread perception that Chicago was a secondary city that preferred butchered hogs to Beethoven. New York was the nation's capital of cultural and social refinement, and its leading citizens and newspapers never let Chicago forget it. The exposition, if built right—if it topped Paris—might dispel that sentiment once and for all. The editors of Chicago's daily newspapers, upon seeing New York enter the contest, began to ask, why not Chicago? The Tribune warned that "the hawks, buzzards, vultures, and other unclean beasts, creeping, crawling, and flying, of New York are reaching out to get control of the fair."

On June 29, 1889, Chicago's mayor, DeWitt C. Cregier, announced the appointment of a citizens committee consisting of 250 of the city's most prominent men. The committee met and passed a resolution whose closing passage read: "The men who have helped build Chicago want the fair, and, having a just and well-sustained claim, they intend to have it."

Congress had the final say, however, and now the time for the big vote had come.


A Tribune clerk stepped to the window and pasted the first bulletin. The initial ballot put Chicago ahead by a big margin, with 115 votes to New York's 72. St. Louis came next, followed by Washington. One congressman opposed having a fair at all and out of sheer cussedness voted for Cumberland Gap. When the crowd outside the Tribune saw that Chicago led New York by 43 votes, it exploded with cheers, whistles, and applause. Everyone knew, however, that Chicago was still 38 votes shy of the simple majority needed to win the fair.

Other ballots followed. Daylight faded to thin broth. The sidewalks filled with men and women leaving work. Typewriters—the women who operated the latest business machines—streamed from the Rookery, the Montauk, and other skyscrapers wearing under their coats the customary white blouse and long black skirt that so evoked the keys of their Remingtons. Cab drivers cursed and gentled their horses. A lamplighter scuttled along the edges of the crowd igniting the gas )ets atop cast-iron poles. Abruptly there was color everywhere: the yellow streetcars and the sudden blues of telegraph boys jolting past with satchels full of joy and gloom; cab drivers lighting the red night-lamps at the backs of their hansoms; a large gilded lion crouching before the hat store across the street. In the high buildings above, gas and electric lights bloomed in the dusk like moonflowers.

The Tribune clerk again appeared in the newspaper's window, this time with the results of the fifth ballot. "The gloom that fell upon the crowd was heavy and chill," a reporter observed. New York had gained fifteen votes, Chicago only six. The gap between them had narrowed. The barber in the crowd pointed out to everyone in his vicinity that New York's additional votes must have come from Congressmen who previously had favored St. Louis. This revelation caused an army lieutenant, Alexander Ross, to proclaim, "Gentlemen. I am prepared to state that any person from St. Louis would rob a church." Another man shouted, "Or poison his wife's dog." This last drew wide agreement.

In Washington the New York contingent, including Chauncey Depew, president of the New York Central and one of the most celebrated orators of the day, sensed a tide change and asked for a recess until the next day. On learning of this request the crowd outside the Tribune booed and hissed, correctly interpreting the move as an attempt to gain time to lobby for more votes.

The motion was overruled, but the House voted for a brief adjournment. The crowd remained in place.

After the seventh ballot Chicago was only one vote short of a majority. New York had actually lost ground. A stillness settled on the street. Cabs halted. Police ignored the ever-longer chains of grip-cars that stretched left and right in a great cadmium gash. Passengers disembarked and watched the Tribune window, waiting for the next announcement. The cables thrumming beneath the pavement struck a minor chord of suspense, and held it.

Soon a different man appeared in the Tribune window. He was tall, thin, and young and wore a black beard. He looked at the crowd without expression. In one hand he held a paste pot, in the other a brush and a bulletin sheet. He took his time. He set the bulletin on a table, out of sight, but everyone in the crowd could tell what he was doing by the motion of his shoulders. He took his time unscrewing the paste pot. There was something somber in his face, as if he were looking down upon a casket. Methodically he painted paste onto the bulletin. It took him a good long while to raise it to the window.

His expression did not change. He fastened the bulletin to the glass.


Burnham waited. His office faced south, as did Root's, to satisfy their craving for natural light, a universal hunger throughout Chicago, where gas jets, still the primary source of artificial illumination, did little to pierce the city's perpetual coal-smoke dusk. Electric bulbs, often in fixtures that combined gas and electricity, were just beginning to light the newest buildings, but these in a sense added to the problem, for they required basement dynamos driven by coal-fired boilers. As the light faded, gaslights on the streets and in the buildings below caused the smoke to glow a dull yellow. Burnham heard only the hiss of gas from the lamps in his office.

That he should be there now, a man of such exalted professional stature in an office so high above the city, would have come as a great and satisfying surprise to his late father.


Daniel Hudson Burnham was born in Henderson, New York, on September 4, 1846, into a family devoted to Swedenborgian principles of obedience, self-subordination, and public service. In 1855, when he was nine, the family moved to Chicago, where his father established a successful wholesale drug business. Burnham was a lackluster student: "the records of the Old Central show his average scholarship to be frequently as low as 55 percent," a reporter discovered, "and 81 percent seems the highest he ever reached." He excelled, however, at drawing and sketched constantly. He was eighteen when his father sent him east to study with private tutors to prepare him for the entrance exams for Harvard and Yale. The boy proved to have a severe case of test anxiety. "I went to Harvard for examination with two men not as well prepared as I," he said. "Both passed easily, and I flunked, having sat through two or three examinations without being able to write a word." The same happened at Yale. Both schools turned him down. He never forgot it.

In the fall of 1867, at twenty-one, Burnham returned to Chicago. He sought work in a field where he might be successful and took a job as a draftsman with the architectural firm of Loring & Jenney. He had found his calling, he wrote in 1868, and told his parents he wanted to become the "greatest architect in the city or country." The next year, however, he bolted for Nevada with friends to try his hand at mining gold. He failed. He ran for the Nevada legislature and failed again. He returned to Chicago broke, in a cattle car, and joined the firm of an architect named L. G. Laurean. Then came October 1871: a cow, a lantern, confusion, and wind. The Great Chicago Fire took nearly eighteen thousand buildings and left more than a hundred thousand people homeless. The destruction promised endless work for the city's architects. But Burnham quit. He sold plate glass, failed. He became a druggist, quit. "There is," he wrote, "a family tendency to get tired of doing the same thing very long."

Exasperated and worried, Burnham's father in 1872 introduced his son to an architect named Peter Wight, who admired the young man's skill at drawing and hired him as a draftsman. Burnham was twenty-five. He liked Wight and liked the work; he liked especially one of Wight's other draftsmen, a southerner named John Wellborn Root, who was four years younger. Born in Lumpkin, Georgia, on January 10, 1850, Root was a musical prodigy who could sing before he could talk. During the Civil War, as Atlanta smoldered. Root's father had smuggled him to Liverpool, England, aboard a Confederate blockade-runner. Root won acceptance into Oxford, but before he could matriculate, the war ended and his father summoned him back to America, to his new home in New York City, where Root studied civil engineering at New York University and became a draftsman for the architect who later designed St. Patrick's


Burnham took to Root immediately. He admired Root's white skin and muscular arms, his stance at the drafting table. They became friends, then partners. They recorded their first income three months before the Panic of 1873 snuffed the nation's economy. But this time Burnham stuck with it. Something about the partnership with Root bolstered him. It filled an absence and played to both men's strengths. They struggled for their own commissions and in the meantime hired themselves out to other more established firms.

One day in 1874 a man walked into their office and in a single galvanic moment changed their lives. He wore black and looked ordinary, but in his past there was blood, death, and profit in staggering quantity. He came looking for Root, but Root was out of town. He introduced himself instead to Burnham and gave his name as John B. Sherman.

There was no need to amplify the introduction. As superintendent of the Union Stock Yards, Sherman ruled an empire of blood that employed 25,000 men, women, and children and each year slaughtered fourteen million animals. Directly and indirectly nearly one-fifth of Chicago's population depended on the yards for its economic survival.

Sherman liked Burnham. He liked his strength, his steady blue gaze, and the confidence with which he conducted the conversation. Sherman commissioned the firm to build him a mansion on Prairie Avenue at Twenty-first Street among homes owned by other Chicago barons and where now and then Marshall Field, George Pullman, and Philip Armour could be seen walking to work together, a titanic threesome in black. Root drew a house of three stories with gables and a peaked roof, in red brick, buff sandstone, blue granite, and black slate; Burnham refined the drawings and guided construction. Burnham happened to be standing in the entrance to the house, considering the work, when a young man with a mildly haughty air and an odd strut—not ego, here, but a congenital fault—walked up to him and introduced himself as Louis Sullivan. The name meant nothing to Burnham. Not yet. Sullivan and Burnham talked. Sullivan was eighteen, Burnham twenty-eight. He told Sullivan, in confidence, that he did not expect to remain satisfied doing just houses. "My idea," he said, "is to work up a big business, to handle big things, deal with big business men, and to build up a big organization, for you can't handle big things unless you have an organization."

John Sherman's daughter, Margaret, also visited the construction site. She was young, pretty, and blond and visited often, using as her excuse the fact that her friend Delia Otis lived across the street. Margaret did think the house very fine, but what she admired most was the architect who seemed so at ease among the cairns of sandstone and timber. It took a while, but Burnham got the point. He asked her to marry hitti. She said yes; the courtship went smoothly. Then scandal broke. Burnham's older brother had forged checks and wounded their father's wholesale drug business. Burnham immediately went to Margaret's father to break the engagement, on grounds the courtship could not continue in the shadow of scandal. Sherman told him he respected Burnham's sense of honor but rejected his withdrawal. He said quietly, "There is a black sheep in every family."

Later Sherman, a married man, would run off to Europe with the daughter of a friend.

Burnham and Margaret married on January 20, 1876. Sherman bought them a house at Forty-third Street and Michigan Avenue, near the lake but more importantly near the stockyards. He wanted proximity. He liked Burnham and approved of the marriage, but he did not entirely trust the young architect. He thought Burnham drank too much.

The Devil in the White City will appeal to readers who enjoy engaging presentations of history, have an interest in architecture, or who are captivated by criminal behavior. The murder bits can be grizzly at times, so enter with warning. Architecture buffs will enjoy the personalities and challenges faced by the architects, as well as their snobbery and infighting. The story of the Ferris wheel adds extra fun, as does the description of the Midway. The Exposition was a monumental event, and The Devil in the White City shares many of the fair’s stories with readers who may have paid no attention to this watershed enterprise.

Steve Hopkins, November 24, 2003


ã 2003 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the December 2003 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Devil in the White City.htm


For Reprint Permission, Contact:

Hopkins & Company, LLC • 723 North Kenilworth Avenue • Oak Park, IL 60302
Phone: 708-466-4650 • Fax: 708-386-8687