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January Book Club Meeting, Alternative Meeting

Our January book is The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson.  Erik Larson intertwines the true tale of the 1893 World's Fair and the cunning serial killer who used the fair to lure his victims to their death. Daniel H. Burnham, the architect responsible for the fair's construction, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer masquerading as a charming doctor. Burnham's challenge was immense. In a short period of time, he was forced to overcome the death of his partner and numerous other obstacles to construct the famous "White City" around which the fair was built. His efforts to complete the project, and the fair's incredible success, are skillfully related along with entertaining appearances by such notables as Buffalo Bill Cody, Susan B. Anthony, and Thomas Edison. The activities of the sinister Dr. Holmes, who is believed to be responsible for scores of murders around the time of the fair, are equally remarkable. He devised and erected the World's Fair Hotel, complete with crematorium and gas chamber, near the fairgrounds and used the event as well as his own charismatic personality to lure victims. Combining the stories of an architect and a killer in one book, mostly in alternating chapters, seems like an odd choice but it works. The magical appeal and horrifying dark side of 19th-century Chicago are both revealed through Larson's skillful writing.

Since our discussion is held at the Nordstrom Market Cafe, I plan on enjoying breakfast during our discussion. Eating or drinking is optional but I certainly plan on enjoying something to eat and drink during our discussion. The Nordstrom Market Cafe is located on the second floor of Norstroms in the Columbia Mall.


Their fates were linked by the magical Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, nicknamed the “White City” for its majestic beauty. Architect Daniel Burnham built it; serial killer Dr. H. H. Holmes used it to lure victims to his World’s Fair Hotel, designed for murder. Both men left behind them a powerful legacy, one of brilliance and energy, the other of sorrow and darkness.

In The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson takes readers into a richly complex moment in American history, a moment that would draw together the best and worst of the Gilded Age, the grandeur and triumph of the human imagination, and the poverty, violence, and depravity that surrounded it.

The book's two most powerful figures, the great architect Daniel Burnham and the psychopathic killer, Henry H. Holmes, in many ways embody the opposing forces of the age. Burnham was responsible for building the White City, overcoming a series of crushing professional obstacles and personal tragedies to make the Fair the magical, awe-inspiring event that it was. He brought together some of the greatest architects of the day—Charles McKim, George Post, Richard Hunt, Frederick Law Olmsted, and others—convinced them of the importance of the Fair, and somehow got them to work together to achieve what many considered to be an impossible project in an astonishingly brief amount of time.

Simultaneously, in the shadow of the White City, Henry H. Holmes set up his own World's Fair Hotel to take advantage of naive young single women arriving in Chicago from surrounding small towns. Using his mesmerizing charm and an uncanny ability to fend off creditors and police, Holmes bent his victims to his will and committed a series of murders as cold-blooded as any in American history.

But The Devil in the White City is about more than just two men. It is about America on the threshold of the twentieth century—a time of widespread violence, fantastic wealth, growing labor unrest, and financial panic; a time when Buffalo Bill could take a bow to Susan B. Anthony; and a time when men and women as diverse as Jane Addams, Theodore Dreiser, Thomas Edison, Samuel Gompers, and Frank Lloyd Wright—could all gaze in wonder at the magnificence of the White City.

Book Availability at the Howard Count Public Library

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America is available for checkout at the Howard County Public Library. The Howard County Public Library has:

(9) Copies of the book.

(1) Copy as an ebook.

(6) Copies of the book on CD.

(1) Copy as downloadable audio.

Howard County Library Central Branch

10375 Little Patuxent Pkwy

Columbia, MD 21044


Branch Hours

Mon. - Thurs. 10 am - 9 pm

Fri. - Sat. 10 am - 6 pm

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  • Shelley

    I enjoyed the discussions. I can't wait to read the next book.

    January 19, 2014

  • Wayne M.

    Thanks everyone for participating, we had just an excellent discussion this morning. I look forward to seeing you next month.

    January 18, 2014

  • Wayne M.

    I'm looking forward to your thoughts about "The Devil in the White City." I'll see you Saturday morning at 10:30 in the Nordstrom Marketplace Cafe.

    January 17, 2014

  • Wayne M.

    "Books fall open, you fall in. When you climb out again, you’re a bit larger than you used to be." - Gregory Maguire.

    I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts about "The Devil in the White City." Here is one more question to think about and let's discuss it at our meeting Saturday morning.

    "What satisfaction can be derived from a nonfiction book like The Devil in the White City that cannot be found in novels? In what ways is the book like a novel?"

    January 15, 2014

  • Wayne M.

    Hi everyone, here is another question for us to think about as we are reading. Let's talk about this when we meet:

    "In what ways does the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 change America? What lasting inventions and ideas did it introduce into American culture? What important figures were critically influenced by the Fair?"

    January 12, 2014

  • Wayne M.

    Hi everyone. I hope that your reading is going well. I'm looking forward to our book discussion next week. Here is a question for you to think about as you are reading. Let's discuss this at our meeting:

    In the note "Evils Imminent," Erik Larson writes "Beneath the gore and smoke and loam, this book is about the evanescence of life, and why some men choose to fill their brief allotment of time engaging the impossible, others in the manufacture of sorrow". What does the book reveal about "the ineluctable conflict between good and evil"? What is the essential difference between men like Daniel Burnham and Henry H. Holmes? Are they alike in any way?

    January 9, 2014

  • Joanne

    Darn it, I have work events both Thursday evening and Saturday morning this month. I'm bummed. It's a really good book and I was looking forward to discussing it with the group.

    January 2, 2014

    • Wayne M.

      Hi Joanne. That's a bummer that you have to work during both of our book club discussions. If you want to talk about the book, I will very likely be leading a hike with the Mid-Atlantic Hiking Group on either Sunday (1/19) or Monday (1/20). I haven't decided which hike I'll be doing and I'll have to work out the details with Kellie Carlisle concerning which hike I might lead but this would be another chance for you to talk about the book.

      January 5, 2014

  • Miranda

    This isn't related to this month, but is there anyone I can contact to suggest a book for a future meeting? Thanks! :)

    December 20, 2013

    • Wayne M.

      Hi Miranda, I'm sorry for the long delay in responding you your question concerning how to make book suggestions for future meetings. We have a discussion for books to read in 2014 here:­

      January 5, 2014

  • A former member
    A former member

    Just ordered the book and determined to make this meetup. Thanks so much Wayne for organizing this as I know how much time and effort it takes to get a group of people together regularly.

    1 · December 16, 2013

    • Wayne M.

      Kellie, Thank you. I learn from the best, you do an awesome job organizing the Mid-Atlantic Hiking Group. You make it uber easy for me to go hiking.

      December 16, 2013

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