The Devil in the White City Summary

Erik Larson

The Devil in the White City

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The Devil in the White City Summary

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The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America is a 2003 non-fiction historical thriller by American journalist and nonfiction writer Erik Larson. Set in Chicago in 1893, it centers around the events of the 1893 World’s Fair, and intertwines the story of Daniel H. Burnham, the architect of the fair, with that of serial killer H.H. Holmes. Holmes, who is considered the first serial killer to operate on American soil, and is known for his elaborately themed “Murder Castle” where his victims met their ends, used the fair to find his victims. Exploring themes such as the contrast between sanity and insanity; the anonymity that a large modern city affords; the gender roles of men and women at the time; and the difference between Burnham’s large circle of collaborators and Holmes’ isolation, The Devil in the White City has been extensively praised for its historical accuracy and detail, as well as for its success in weaving a nonfiction story into a thriller told in a novelistic style.

Told in a non-linear style and jumping between the lives of Burnham and Holmes over the years of 1890-1893 in Chicago, The Devil in the White City begins with Daniel H. Burnham’s rise to prominence. When Chicago wins the bid for the 1893 World’s Exposition, Burnham and his then-partner John Root are chosen as the architects and given the responsibility of building a more positive global reputation for their city. Along the way, Burnham faces many challenges that threaten the success of the fair. His partnership with Root comes to an untimely end when Root suddenly passes away due to Pneumonia at only 41 years old. Taking on the project alone, Burnham is beset by further difficulties, including delays in building drafts, a global recession, increased union discontent and strikes, and a series of accidents and deaths on his construction sites. He also struggles to match the spectacle of the previous World’s Fair in Paris, which unveiled the Eiffel Tower in 1889.

Eventually, Burnham and his crew settle on a proposal that wins the attention of the public, and they are responsible for introducing the world to the Ferris Wheel, which will become one of the most iconic carnival attractions of all time. Construction continues, with ongoing delays, but the fair eventually opens, albeit with some areas still incomplete including the signature giant Ferris Wheel. Burnham’s story reaches its climax as he is forced to manage the fair, boost attendance amid a struggling economy, and finish the Ferris Wheel before the fair closes. With grit and determination, Burnham eventually does complete the Ferris Wheel and boost attendance successfully. The fair closes a success and Burnham is able to pay off his debts, but the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair is overshadowed by tragedy when Mayor Carter Henry Harrison is assassinated by a political rival in his home shortly before the fair’s close.

As the story of Daniel Burnham and the Chicago World’s Fair advances, another plot unfolds side by side. Dr. H.H. Holmes arrives in Chicago in 1886, looking for work as a pharmacist or doctor. However, that is only a pretense for far more nefarious intentions. He purchases a pharmacy in Englewood, near the site of the future World’s Fair. As he becomes successful financially, he purchases an empty lot across the street that he converts into an elaborate building for his murderous plans. While the first floor serves as his pharmacy, the apartments on the higher levels are converted into a nightmarish maze of secret passages, hallways, and chutes to make disposal of his victims into the large well under the building easier. When the opening of the Fair draws closer, Holmes converts his building into a hotel, and builds a large kiln in the basement to make it easy to dispose of the bodies. He becomes involved with several women, marrying several times and killing many more.

Holmes falls deeply in debt as he proceeds to claim more and more victims, but in the end it is his financial dealings that lead to his downfall. Fearing that his many illegal deals will be discovered, Holmes flees Chicago and goes on the run around the country. His past finally catches up to him in Philadelphia when he is arrested for insurance fraud. Detective Frank Geyer, the policeman in charge of the case, begins to investigate Holmes’ past until he starts uncovering his murders across the Midwest and in Toronto, which eventually allows the Chicago police to discover Holmes’ murder spree tied to the World’s Fair. Put on trial for murder and quickly convicted, America’s first serial killer met his end at the gallows on May 7th, 1896.

The Devil in the White City, which was an New York Times bestseller, a finalist for the 2003 National Book Award, and the 2004 Edgar Award winner, has been optioned for a major motion picture by Paramount Pictures. Leonardo DiCaprio is set to play the title role of H.H. Holmes. Erik Larson is best known for his work as a journalist for some of the country’s most storied publications, including The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal. In addition to The Devil in the White City, Larson has written six additional nonfiction books, most focusing on similarly detailed recreations of historical events and periods, including the 1900 Galveston Hurricane and the 1915 sinking of the RMS Lusitania, which preceded the American entry into World War I. He is also a teacher of nonfiction writing at San Francisco State University, the University of Oregon, and the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, as well as a successful public speaker.