The Devil in the White City Book Summary - The Devil in the White City Book explained in key points
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The Devil in the White City summary

Erik Larson

Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America

3.8 (32 ratings)
11 mins
5 key ideas
Audio & text

What is The Devil in the White City about?

The Devil in the White City (2003) takes you to Chicago in the 1890s, when the growing city was the host of the World’s Fair amid a time of social upheaval and serious crime. These blinks blend a story of exciting American innovation with the unspeakable acts of one of the world’s first serial killers.

About the Author

Erik Larson has written for the Wall Street Journal, Time and other publications. He’s also the author of multiple books, including In the Garden of Beasts, Dead Wake, Thunderstruck and Isaac’s Storm.

Table of Contents

    The Devil in the White City
    summarized in 5 key ideas

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    Key idea 1 of 5

    At the close of the nineteenth century, the streets of Chicago were rife with vice and violence.

    Are you ready for a thrilling story of national pride, high society and murder? Before we dive in, let’s take a look at life in Chicago circa 1890.

    As the nineteenth century drew to a close, Chicago, an American city on the shores of Lake Michigan in Illinois, was a city rife with vice and violence.

    Death along the city’s many railroad crossings were commonplace; two people on average were crushed under the wheels of trains daily. Chicago residents weren’t fazed, and some even had the task of collecting severed heads and limbs found along the tracks.

    Fire was another common killer, with wooden shanty homes often going up in flames, killing dozens daily. The city’s water supply was also deadly, as sewage that spilled into the Chicago river was teeming with unhealthy bacteria. Cholera, typhus and other potentially fatal diseases were just a fact of life.

    Those in poor neighborhoods lived with trash-lined streets and suffered from infestations of rats and flies. The corpses of animals were also a common sight; no matter if a dog, cat or horse, the city had no organized groups to collect them. These dead animals would freeze under the ice of winter only to warm, bloat and rupture in the sweltering heat of summer.

    Murder rates in Chicago were some of the highest in North America. The city’s police didn’t have the manpower or even the training to manage this violent city. In the first half of 1892, some 800 gruesome deaths were counted in Chicago – that’s about four deaths every day.

    Amid all this chaos, Chicago was also witness to serious social change. Women were entering the workforce in droves, allowing many young, single women to build new lives for themselves in Chicago.

    Chicago’s working women worked as seamstresses, weavers, typists and stenographers, among many other jobs. As urban reformer Jane Addams wrote, there had never been a time in the history of civilization in which so many young girls could travel and live so freely.

    Indeed, Chicago’s industry was booming, with the city’s meatpacking district the largest in the nation. Demand for housing was high; the growth in real estate construction saw modern skyscrapers rapidly shaping the Chicago skyline.

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    Best quote from The Devil in the White City

    Sociologist Max Weber likened Chicago to a human being with his skin removed.

    —Erik Larson
    example alt text

    Who should read The Devil in the White City

    • Readers with a taste for the creepy
    • True-crime fans
    • American history buffs

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