Study Guide

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America

By Erik Larson

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America Introduction

We're guessing you didn't come across a book called The Devil in the White City and think, "Aha! That sounds like a fun and lighthearted read!" And it's good that you're not expecting to read something uplifting—this ain't a book for people who want to feel warm n' fuzzy inside.

Meet H.H. Holmes. He's handsome. He's suave. He's got a big house in Chicago. He's the definition of a lady-killer. The literal definition.

Before 20th-century serial killers like Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy made headlines (and nightmares) across the nation, Holmes was seducing women, promising to wed them, and then finishing them off in his homemade vault before they could even say "I do." He's responsible for the murder of twenty-seven people in the 1890's…and what's even more chilling is that his predictable patterns never once caught the attention of Chicago police.

Fasten your seatbelts folks—this is a very grim (and very true) story.

Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City chronicles the killing spree of America's first serial killer. But it's more than just another true crime mini-series. This book offers powerful insights into the nature of human ambition, because at the same time Holmes was constructing his death trap apartment complex, famous architect Daniel H. Burnham was building the greatest event ever in the history of America: the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, a.k.a. the White City.

Ever heard of it?

You might not be familiar with the fair itself, but you're definitely familiar with some of the inventions that debuted there, like steam engines, light bulbs, Ferris Wheels, and zippers.

But this fair wasn't just thrown together to give the good people of Chicagoland a nice time. This fair was masterminded and constructed to show the world that Middle America wasn't to be messed with. The previous World's Fair had been set in Paris and so, when Burnham helmed the Chicago World's Fair, he was facing the daunting task of proving that America could throw as good a party as Europe.

Oh yeah—and this White City was constructed just a few short blocks from the hotel where Holmes was busy getting his murder on. What's so captivating about The Devil in the White City is the juxtaposition of pride (Burnham) and unfathomed evil (Holmes) and how a single event draws out such different sides of human nature.

So grab some Cracker Jacks (which made their first appearance at the Chicago World's Fair) and delve in.

What is The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America About and Why Should I Care?

Ambition. It's a tricky subject.

On the one hand, we're told that it's pretty much the #1 Most Desirable Trait known to man. After all, people armed with enough ambition can go out and make their dreams come true. Straight A's can be earned. Ivy League schools can be gotten into. Books can be written. Symphonies can be composed. Businesses can be run. Empires can be assembled. Wars can be fought. Nations can be conquered...

See what we did there? Yeah: ambition can be good or bad, depending on how it's used.

The same ambition that can lead to, say, becoming valedictorian, can also lead to ruthlessly destroying other people in order to get ahead. Or, to throw out another example—ambition is the reason that Burnham made the 1893 Chicago World's Fair such a success…and the reason that H.H. Holmes creates a murder castle in the middle of Englewood.

Both men wanted something. Both had the ambition to achieve their dreams. But one of them had the dream of making Chicago into a bona fide world-class city and one had the dream of killing dozens of people.

Don't worry: Larson doesn't hammer you over the head with the moral ambiguity of ambition. He's not here to lecture you on whether ambition is a good trait or a bad one. He's simply setting two stories—Burnham and Holmes'—side by side, and letting you see how ambition can work.

And ambition is extra pertinent to this story because of its setting. There's a lot of talk in The Devil in the White City about the "Chicago spirit," which is a trait that, unbelievably, doesn't just mean "love of deep dish pizza." The "Chicago spirit" is grit, guts, determination, and (yes) ambition. It's the spirit necessary to live in the icy tundra of the Midwest and thrive. (They don't call Chicago "The City That Works" for nothing.)

So yeah: both Burnham and Holmes have that uber-ambitious "Chicago spirit." They just use it to achieve radically different things.

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America Resources

Websites

Inside the Chicago World’s Fair
A trip through the fair that features everything from historic photographs of the White City to novel inventions unveiled for the first time.

Fair Factoids
Here are seven things you may not know about the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.

On Display for the First Time
With Wrigley's gum at the top of the list, here are ten inventions that premiered in 1983 at the Chicago World’s Fair.

Burnham & Root
Take a peek at some of the buildings designed by famed architectural team Burnham & Root.

Website

The Rookery
One of Burnham and Root's remaining buildings in Chicago, the Rookery is used for many purposes today.

Movie or TV Productions

The Devil in the White City
Set to play H. H. Holmes himself, Leonardo DiCaprio purchased the film rights to the book in 2010. A feature film is finally in motion, with Martin Scorsese set to direct. (We're excited, too.)

Madness in the White City
This 2007 television documentary features Larson, historians, and behavioral experts discussing everything from the Fair's impact to Holmes's killing spree.

Articles and Interviews

Interview with Erik Larson
NPR's Scott Simon talks with Erik Larson about The Devil in the White City's depiction of architecture and murder in the Gilded Age.

A Real-Life Bates Motel
Is Alfred Hitchcock's Norman Bates like the notorious H. H. Holmes? The New York Times reviews Larson's The Devil in the White City.

New York Times Review
Noted as a book of the Times, this article reveals secrets behind Larson's work and the true story behind the magic and murder at the Fair.

Video

The True Story Behind The Devil in the White City
Author Erik Larson delves into the secrets of the Fair and offers compelling insights about Holmes.

Magic of the White City
Actor Gene Wilder (better known as Willy Wonka) narrates this montage of photographs from the Chicago World's Fair.

America’s Serial Killers
In this four part special, H. H. Holmes is profiled as America's first serial killer.

Audio

Audiobook
Scott Brick narrates The Devil in the White City, casting both feelings of excitement and terror as the events of the Fair unfold.

Images

Souvenir Map of the World’s Columbian Exposition, 1983
A bird's-eye view of the Chicago World's Fair.

The White City at Night
Visitors had never before seen such a magical display of lights against the night sky—the White City introduced a lot of people to the phenomenon of electric lights.

America’s First Serial Killer
Photograph of the infamous H. H. Holmes. He'll haunt your dreams.

Blueprint of the Holmes Castle
Though Holmes' hotel was burned to the ground, we can imagine its intricately dangerous layout.

Daniel Burnham Headshot
The great architect behind the magic of the White City.

The First Ferris Wheel
Designed to out-Eiffel Paris's Eiffel Tower, Ferris's Wheel was the highlight of the Fair.