Just finished reading The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, a non-fiction book by Erik Larson. It’s written in a novelistic style but is based on real characters and events. Set in Chicago it mixes the true tales of Daniel H. Burnham, the architect behind the 1893 World’s Fair with the twisted tales of Dr. H. H. Holmes, one of the first documented serial killers. A monster who lured his victims to their deaths in his elaborately constructed “Murder Castle,” built near the exposition. His real name was Herman Webster Mudgett and while he confessed to 27 murders, nine of which were confirmed, he may have killed as many as 200 people. A trail that went well beyond Chicago, across the U.S. and over the border to Toronto, Ontario.
It’s 447 pages filled with fascinating stories about a place that inspired a young Walt Disney, helped launch Cream of Wheat, Juicy Fruit gum, Aunt Jemima pancake mix and Quaker Oats. Where Milton Hershey first added chocolate to his caramel manufacturing business and millions who attended tasted Pabst Blue Ribbon beer for the first time. The dishwasher and fluorescent light bulbs were first displayed there and bridge builder George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. debuted a 264-foot-tall wheel. The engineering marvel, could fit 2,160 people at a time and cost 50 cents to ride. The “Ferris Wheel” was twice the price of a ticket to the fair itself.
Known as The White City for its buildings of white stucco siding painted for the first time by a new technique of ‘air’ spraying, the World’s Columbian Exposition featured streets illuminated by electric lights amidst lush landscaping by Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of New York’s Central Park. It made Chicago one of the first cities to adopt aspects of the new City Beautiful Movement. Dozens of other cities followed, most notably Washington, D.C., where by 1902 plans were in place for a redesign of the city center that would result in the creation of the National Mall.
Larson takes this bright history, even with its dimmest moments and brilliantly juxtaposes it with the darkness that happened just a short distance away.
Leonardo DiCaprio purchased the film rights to the book 6 years ago; the movie is to be produced by Paramount Pictures and DiCaprio’s own production company. Martin Scorsese will direct. Writer Billy Ray is adapting the book into a screenplay. He is perhaps best known for writing the 2012 blockbuster The Hunger Games, and his Academy Award nominated screenplay for Captain Phillips.
About the Author
Erik Larson is the author of five New York Times bestsellers, most recently Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, which hit #1 on the Times list soon after launch. His previous book was In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, which also hit #1 and remained on the printed list for 35 weeks. Staying another 53 weeks as a paperback spending 15 of them in the #1 spot. Movie rights were optioned by Universal Studios and Tom Hanks’ Playtone.
The Devil in the White City stayed on the Times‘ hardcover and paperback lists for over five years. It won an Edgar Award for nonfiction crime writing and was a finalist for a National Book Award. Larson lives in Seattle with his wife and three daughters where he writes his books, contributes to magazines and provides an entertaining blog.
For more insight read this article, Wall Street Journal Reveals All About Erik’s Secret High-Tech Life.