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Old 03-19-2010, 12:13 PM   #1
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Discussion: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

So... tell us about the Murder and Mayhem.

BOb
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Old 03-19-2010, 12:38 PM   #2
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Did anybody else who read this also read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair? This book really brought me back to The Jungle with its descriptions of the slaughter houses.

At first I was a little put off by authenticity. There are several scenes where the author describes what Holmes or his victim is feeling or thinking. I kept thinking to myself 'I wonder how he would know this'. But, at the end, Larson describes how he fictionalized those parts. Cool, as long as he wasn't trying to pass it off as real then I was okay with it.

Great book.
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Old 03-19-2010, 06:06 PM   #3
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It didn't really grab me. I was a bit put off at the start by the chopping of the narrative - starting out on a cruise liner, then hopping back in time, then hopping again and again.
Also the author's repeated use of 'teases' were a bit tiresome (e.g. what was going to be the the Eiffel Tower for Chicago, what Prendergast was up to, not being told Millet was on the Titanic).
And Holmes didn't really become a three-dimensional figure for me.

There were some interesting facts and anecdotes; but it left me with the feeling that, as a whole, it didn't achieve what Larson had hoped for when he started his project.
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Old 03-19-2010, 09:27 PM   #4
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The parts of the book that grabbed me the most when I read this a few years ago were 1) the architecture and also reading about Olmstead and 2) the pure evilness of the serial killer. Man that was some twisted stuff. After I read it I really really wanted to go to Chicago and see what was left of the fairgrounds. I talked to a friend of mine who grew up out there and she recognized the museum that was still standing, but if I recall correctly she said that there was nothing else out there. I don't know why that amazes me so much. To see an area put together by so many skilled minds has basically turned into a swamp.

I guess I'm stuck with Central Park if I want to channel Olmstead *sigh* such torture.
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Old 03-20-2010, 04:11 AM   #5
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When they realised they were short of time, they resorted to using staff rather than stone - this might have contributed to its lack of longevity.

(I thought using staff was a bit of a cheat - what the visitors saw wasn't what it was pretending to be, and the achievement is less spactacular than it appears. Although it should be said that staff was used in other expos too, not just at Chicago.)
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Old 03-20-2010, 09:14 AM   #6
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I was amazed at the number of new ideas/products that were introduced at the fair. Shredded wheat, Cracker Jacks, the hamburger, and of course, the Ferris Wheel. Lots more.

Also, I never knew that the AC vs DC electricity debate was settled by the fair.

As for the buildings, don't forget that a lot of them burned.
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Old 03-20-2010, 05:00 PM   #7
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The author's obsession with eye color and the types of hats people wore was jarring and kept interfering with my concentration.

It seemed to me (especially considering the author's professed love of digging into primary sources for research) that Larson started off trying to write a book about Mudgett/Holmes, went off on a research tangent about the Columbian Exposition, and tried to make the two stories fit together. I grant that they were concurrent, but Larson seemed to me to be implying that Holmes wouldn't have been as successful without the backdrop of the Exposition.
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Old 03-20-2010, 09:26 PM   #8
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The author's obsession with eye color and the types of hats people wore was jarring and kept interfering with my concentration.

It seemed to me (especially considering the author's professed love of digging into primary sources for research) that Larson started off trying to write a book about Mudgett/Holmes, went off on a research tangent about the Columbian Exposition, and tried to make the two stories fit together. I grant that they were concurrent, but Larson seemed to me to be implying that Holmes wouldn't have been as successful without the backdrop of the Exposition.

I would agree with that. I read this a while ago in dead tree format. Interesting pictures. I've seen some documentaries concentraing more on HH Holmes than the Fair which is what intrigued me. Some of them included the recordings he made while in jail. America's First Serial Killer. Very, very creepy man.

One of the things that stuck with me was that some of his victims are still hanging around medical schools, quite literally. I found that whole part intriguing in a morbid sort of way. He would have his way with the victims, then sell their articulated skeletons to medical schools. He wanted the money and they wanted the skeletons. He apparently had so many victims that they believe some are still around to this day being used in the schools.

The whole beginnings of the medical field as outlined in the book are pretty dicey. There weren't enough bodies around for the students to work on so they'd have to resort to illegal means to get more and asked little to no questions when bodies showed up at the back door in the middle of the night.

I found a lot of interesting things in this book. The products and technology that were introduced at the fair, the depths of depravity of our fellow man, many of the things that came out about medical schools of the day and the seemingly ever present police incompetance just to name a few.

I was in Chicago shortly after I finished the book a few years ago and wanted badly to go to the places in the book too. Apparently there is a post office where the murder house was that has some reports of hauntings. Now that does not surprise me. LOL I didn't end up going because it wasn't in a great part of town and I didn't want to go alone. While it was sometimes a bit hard to follow because of all the jumping back and forth, I enjoyed the book.
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Old 03-26-2010, 05:20 AM   #9
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I've just been made aware of this project to create CG images of what the Columbian Exposition would have looked like:

http://www.ust.ucla.edu/ustweb/Proje...mbian_expo.htm
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Old 04-02-2010, 06:52 PM   #10
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It didn't really grab me. I was a bit put off at the start by the chopping of the narrative - starting out on a cruise liner, then hopping back in time, then hopping again and again.
Also the author's repeated use of 'teases' were a bit tiresome (e.g. what was going to be the the Eiffel Tower for Chicago, what Prendergast was up to, not being told Millet was on the Titanic).
And Holmes didn't really become a three-dimensional figure for me.

There were some interesting facts and anecdotes; but it left me with the feeling that, as a whole, it didn't achieve what Larson had hoped for when he started his project.
I suspect that Larson achieved exactly what he intended. He is, after all, a professional writer looking for sales, not a history professor looking for tenure. He did a skillful job of writing a readable novel-like book interesting to a wide audience. If he had written only about the fair, or only about Holmes, he would have had to go into more depth to write a book of the same length. He may have thought this was more than his intended audience wanted.

I would have preferred more about the architects. I could have done without Holmes. I don’t think psychopaths are very interesting. They’re defined by what’s missing. There’s less to them than to other people. That may be why Holmes doesn’t seem three-dimensional. The real-life Holmes might not seem three-dimensional.
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Old 04-02-2010, 06:57 PM   #11
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America's First Serial Killer.
The description of Holmes as "America's First Serial Killer" piqued my curiosity, so I did some googling. According to one site, America's first known serial killers were the Harp Boys, who got started during the American Revolution. There may have been many we don't know about. One interesting thing about the Holmes case is how long he was at it before anyone suspected anything.
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Old 04-02-2010, 07:58 PM   #12
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Vector, that's quite the appropriate avatar!

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Old 04-03-2010, 04:25 PM   #13
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The description of Holmes as "America's First Serial Killer" piqued my curiosity, so I did some googling. According to one site, America's first known serial killers were the Harp Boys, who got started during the American Revolution. There may have been many we don't know about. One interesting thing about the Holmes case is how long he was at it before anyone suspected anything.
The author may have been referring to the first serial killer that made the headlines. His book, Thunderstruck, is about the first high-speed chase covered by the media *as it happened*. He documents the development of wireless radio transmission technology by Marconi and how the implementation of the technology coincided with the wife-murderer Crippen's need to escape across the Atlantic Ocean. Someone recognized him on the ship and messages were sent ahead to the authorities, and the papers. It was all very exciting at the time.

DITWC also compares the thought-process and techniques of higher-order thinkers. Creating the Exposition and creating a murder house to take advantage of the increased number of potential victims the exposition would bring, require a very similar mind and skill set. But that's just what I get out of Larson's books - he's the only true-crime guy I read because his books aren't just about vicious criminals, they're also about what's going on in the world around them and how they are affected by contemporary technology.
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Old 04-03-2010, 10:29 PM   #14
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The description of Holmes as "America's First Serial Killer" piqued my curiosity, so I did some googling. According to one site, America's first known serial killers were the Harp Boys, who got started during the American Revolution. There may have been many we don't know about. One interesting thing about the Holmes case is how long he was at it before anyone suspected anything.


I believe that's how the book described him as did some History Channel shows I've seen on him. When I do Google searches for America's first serial killer his name is the one that pops up. There are so many ways to classify and categorize these types that maybe the difference is that Holmes was a one man show and the Harp Boys were not?

When I search America's first serial killer's' the Harp Boys names pops up first. I'm pretty sure that's the distinction - killer & killerS. Interesting nonetheless.

Last edited by Shopaholic; 04-03-2010 at 10:33 PM. Reason: to fix typos
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Old 04-04-2010, 09:15 PM   #15
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I thought the story about Holmes was fascinating, in a sick way. Dude was seriously messed up. I could not believe the extent of his depravity, it was bone chilling.
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