Study Guide

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

  • Tone

    Enthralled and Somber

    As we're dealing with the two sides of human nature here—you know, the side of human nature that wants to build perfect cities and the side of human nature that wants to build murder castles—it's only fitting that author Erik Larson takes two vastly different tones.

    Like most of us, he's enthralled by the fair:

    One of the delights of the fair was never knowing who might turn up beside you. (3.11.8)

    Larson describes the fair as "perfect" (3.1.34), a "fairest dream" (3.21.31), and "beautiful" (5.1.2). He recreates the fair in an exciting tone, allowing us to experience its splendors as visitors would have in 1893.

    At the same time, Larson is somber in his descriptions of Holmes and his castle. He recreates the macabre, choosing to highlight words like "possessed" (2.4.2), "rising panic" (3.5.4), "woefully and gruesomely" (5.3.9). Quite a stark contrast from his cheery descriptions of the White City…and with good reason.

  • Genre

    Non-Fiction, Psychological Thriller, Mystery

    The Devil in the White City is a true story, cover to cover. At times we wish it weren't 100% fact: we'd actually probably sleep a little better if we could dismiss H.H. Holmes as a totally fictional creep.

    But unfortunately, he was a real-deal serial killer. We'll be double-locking the doors tonight for sure.

    At the same time, this book reads like a psychological thriller or mystery novels. We're permitted to enter inside the minds of Holmes and his victims, and share in their thrills and fears. This is largely due to author Erik Larson's promise that he used only primary sources to reconstruct everything in the book, from the fair to the castle.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    "I was born with the devil inside me," writes Dr. H. H. Holmes in his confession (1.10.25).

    Whether he's actually the spawn of Satan or not—and we're guessing "not"—Holmes certainly has some devilish ways. His own version of hell, the hotel on 63rd and Wallace, which is outfitted with gas chambers, a vault, and an incinerating kiln, becomes a sort of sick playground for its creator.

    Meanwhile, outside of Holmes' hell, great things are happening on the Chicago fairgrounds. The magical White City (named for its whitewashed exterior) delights visitor after visitor, and unlike the hellish Holmes castle, the White City is a place of dreams.

    But outside of the fairgrounds, in what is dubbed "the Black City," Holmes goes on murder sprees, the nation slips into economic turmoil, and labor unrest threatens to topple industries. At least within the walls of the White City, people can escape and experience exciting sights and sounds for the first time.

    The Devil in the White City is also your classic good/evil, dark/light, tale. It showcases the two sides of humankind: that we can use our gifts to carry out the ways of the devil, or we can use them to create an amazing display of human achievement.

    The choice, dear reader, is yours.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    We enter into The Devil in the White City a bit like we begin the movie Titanic: we already know what's going to happen in the end. Chicago will pull off the greatest world's fair in history and Holmes will pay for his murders, as surely as the ship will sink.

    What the story then becomes isn't so much about how it's going to end, but rather how we get there. How does Chicago score the bid to host the fair? How do architects overcome obstacles? How does Holmes do what he does for so long and get away with it?

    This book is about the journey, not the destination.

    After going along for the ride, we're left with a few nuggets of knowledge in the end. Chicago's pride and determination gets the city the bid. Talented architects under the guise of Burnham transform desolate, icy soil into a magical White City. Exhibits like an entire Algerian village and neat inventions like automatic dishwashers fill visitors with a sense of wonder and awe.

    Bonus: the world gets introduced to Cracker Jacks.

    As for Holmes—the guy has a winning ticket. The fair means more travelers to Chicago, which means more women for him to lure into his murder castle. Sure, he can dodge the police when they come asking about victims, but even he knows he can't hold them off forever. In the end, it's his becoming close with one victim, Pitezel, and his family that ultimately leads to his demise.

    It's not that Holmes makes any mistakes. Rather, he goes too far, getting lost in his thirst for more and more.

    Burnham gets the last word…but it's not an uplifting one. By the end of the book, Millet has drowned, and Burnham loses one of his last connections to the great Chicago World's Fair of 1893.

    Yeah. It's a bit of a downer.

  • Setting

    Chicago, 1890-95

    This story is all about Chicago. So if you love the City of Broad Shoulders/City That Works/ Windy City/Second City, you're in for a story that's more satisfying than an Italian beef sandwich during a Midwestern ice storm.

    We begin in 1890 with Chicago waiting on the edge of its seat to find out if it's going to be hosting the World's Fair of 1893. The city is filled with pride. At this point in history, its population is over one million, making it the second most populated American city after New York.

    But unlike New York, Chicago isn't known for its arts and politics scene. Instead, it's known for its slaughterhouses and labor unions (ever read The Jungle?). Winning the bid means Chicago can shake off the perception that it's a "greedy, hog-slaughtering backwater" (1.2.2). And with guys like Burnham spearheading the campaign, Chicago is set to put on a bright and shiny face for the world.

    And that's exactly what Chicago does during the fair and months leading up to its grand opening. Burnham's White City is a beautiful, mysterious place bringing all the marvels of the world together. It also offers people a vision of what a city "could be and ought to be" (3.4.1). In other words, the White City offers people a glimpse of Utopia. But just outside lies the Black City, and it's far from Utopia.

    Holmes' hotel at the intersection of 63rd and Wallace is the scene of torture and death. And beyond even those walls are threats of labor union strikes, a toppling economy, and a dwindling supply of deep dish pizza. (We're sorry—we shouldn't joke about something as serious as a deep dish shortage.)

    Anyway, the fair brings glamour and prestige to Chicago and proves to both the nation and the world that Chicago has the guts and gusto to pull off the greatest exhibition in history.

  • What's Up With the Epigraph?

    "Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood."
    Daniel H. Burnham, Director of Works, World's Columbian Exposition, 1893

    "I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing."
    - Dr. H. H. Holmes, confession, 1896

    What's up with the epigraph?

    This book is all about the dichotomy of good and evil, and the epigraph choice hammers home that point. One of these quotes is insanely inspiring…and the other one is just plain insane.

    Burnham, whose White City was a display of human achievement, urges architects to go big or go home. Make big plans, Burnham suggests—big and grand ideas excite people most. He's also indirectly speaking of humans' ability to choose: we can decide to make and do.

    Did people listen to his advice? Seems like it. The Ferris Wheel surpassed Paris' Eiffel Tower and Burnham's buildings live on even today in the works of such people as Walt Disney and L. Frank Baum.

    Holmes' quote is pretty much the polar opposite of Burnham's. Not only is Holmes' up to something far more nefarious than building dream cities, but he's also disregarding the element of human choice. He's a murderer, but he claims that he was destined to be a murderer.

    Throughout the book we see two men shape the lives of those around them…but not only does Burnham do this in a positive way, but he does it with a spirit of innovation and daring.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (5) Tree Line

    Erik Larson's writing style isn't that difficult to navigate—the Devil in the White City is super-straightforward, alternating chapters to talk about the Chicago World's Fair and H. H. Holmes' murder castle.

    Yeah, that's right: murder castle. What could have been a fusty history book about turn of the century Chicago gets all sorts of jazzed up, thanks to the fact it includes info about a murder castle. The "murder castle-y-ness" (that's probably definitely an official literature term) of this book pretty much ensures you won't fall asleep while reading.

    But it's not fluffy or pulpy, either. This book includes a lengthy index and citations list, both of which point you in the right direction if there's any historical detail you want to look up.

  • Writing Style

    Simply Thrilling

    Larson's not messing around here either: he's a straightforward writer and is clearly more about delivering the facts than doing stylistic loop-de-loops. But that doesn't mean that this book doesn't deliver in terms of eloquence.

    He tells about moments in history as they would have been experienced back then. "There had been so much energy, so much bravado" (1.4.1), Larson writes of Chicago's excitement having just secured the bid for the World's Fair. His truthful and sincere style adequately captures the emotions of an entire city at the turn of the 20th century.

    Larson's straightforward style also serves him well in his thrilling (and chilling) recreations of Holmes and his victims:

    Minnie was an asset now […] An acquisition to be warehoused until needed, like cocooned prey. (3.2.1)

    The candid and frank nature of his style makes Holmes motivation and though processes even creepier—we see the matter-of-fact way he thinks about achieving his gruesome goals.

  • The Chicago World Fair

    If you've ever seen the musical Meet Me In Saint Louis, you know just what a big, fat, deal going to the World's Fair was. (Hint: a big enough deal that they made a Judy Garland musical about going to the World's Fair.)

    Officially known at the World's Columbian Exposition, the Chicago World's Fair boasts all sorts of things to see and do. It's like Vegas, Disneyland, and Universal Studios rolled into one.

    Though intended to celebrate human achievement, the fair is also meant to beat the French, who startled everyone with their 1889 Exposition Universelle (complete with the Eiffel Tower).

    The Chicago fair lasts for only six months, but it records 27.5 million visits…and that's at a time when the nation's total population was 65 million. It occupies over one square mile and fills more than two hundred buildings. So yeah: it's pretty massive, bringing all sorts of people together, some who had never even been to a major city before.

    The fair also shows that a city could be quite beautiful and idyllic…which was not what most people thought about cities at the turn of the 20th century:

    The exposition revealed to its early visitors a vision of what a city could be and ought to be. (3.4.1)

    And the White City—which is the nickname bestowed on the World's Fair—is especially beautiful compared to the Black City—the nickname of sooty, smelly Chicago—to the north. It offers a glimpse of everything American cities were striving to be: clean and bright. Upon arrival, visitors wore their best clothes and most somber expressions. It's like they had just entered an immense cathedral.

    Olmsted wants the fair to produce an aura of "mysterious poetic effect" (2.1.19) and hoped the fair would have a theatrical effect on visitors. It certainly does, as the fair continues to impress right up until its final light show.

  • Ferris Wheel

    Yup: the Chicago World's Fair didn't just introduce to the world to newfangled inventions like the zipper and the lightbulb—it also gave the world its first spin on a Ferris Wheel.

    But George Washington Gale Ferris' "monstrosity" isn't well received at first. After all, he does propose to launch two thousand passengers through the air at once, which: yikes. However, Burnham wants something to out-Eiffel Eiffel's Tower from the 1889 Paris Exposition. And Ferris was one of the few to rise to the challenge, showing America that he has the ingenuity and prowess to do what has never been done before.

    Though it opens weeks after the fair gets underway, the Ferris Wheel becomes the fair's emblem in no time at all.

    [It's] a machine so huge and terrifying that it instantly eclipsed the tower of Alexandre Eiffel that had so wounded America's pride. (Prologue.8)

    With the Ferris Wheel, America is back on top again. Literally: the one at the World's Fair was taller than the Statue of Liberty, and broke all sorts of records.

  • Holmes’ Castle

    The internet is full of various Airbnb horror stories—filthy bathrooms, weird smells, freaky hosts, twenty-two beds in one apartment

    But none of these—none of them—is as bad as the Airbnb situation that Holmes sets up near the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. Let's just say that not everyone who check in gets to check out (shudder).

    Holmes' hotel is everything that is opposite the White City. It's dark and stuffy, and not meant to bring joy and delight. Well, unless you're Holmes.

    When the plot of land opens, Holmes sees opportunity. Construction just so happens to coincide with the opening of the fair. He knows a bunch of young, innocent, and naïve girls will be headed to town. So he decides to install special features just for them: an airtight vault and large kiln. And no, it's not for baking cupcakes.

    He envisions his hotel being "just comfortable enough and cheap enough to lure a certain kind of clientele and convincing enough to justify a large fire insurance policy" (1.7.1). We bet you can guess his ideal clientele—young women, far from home. But what's up with the fire insurance? Holmes reveals that after the fair he intends to burn the building to the ground and collect the insurance. Plus, a fire will destroy any material left over from the building's hidden storage chambers.

    Six months go by and the fair's draws to a close. Holmes decides it's probably a good time for him to leave too. The hotel remains abandoned until police come a-knocking and looking for answers. They find bones upon bones, and just when they might have some evidence to incriminate Holmes, the castle burns to the ground and destroys everything.

    So what does this mean? Well, for one thing, Holmes' hotel was never meant to last very long… sort of like the fair. And where the fair in the White City brought people short-lived happiness, the castle in the Black City brought enduring misery.

  • Fire

    Where there's smoke, there's fire. And there's a lot of red and black going on in The Devil in the White City. Here are a few of the instances where fire rears its flaming head:

    • It helps the plaster in park structures to speed dry
    • Burnham forms an official exposition fire department
    • He has hundreds of fire hydrants and alarm boxes installed in buildings
    • He even builds a boat, the Fire Queen, to navigate the park's shallow canals
    • Smoking is banned on the fairgrounds for fear of fire
    • There's a minor fire in the Cold Storage Building
    • There's a huge fire in the Cold Storage Building that kills twelve firemen
    • Holmes tries to burn his hotel to collect fire insurance
    • Some of Holmes' victims are found in fireplaces or in his homemade kiln
    • Holmes' hotel burns to the ground (likely arson)
    • The White City is set ablaze after the fair is over (it's intentional)
    • A fire destroys the district attorney's office and leaves only a photograph of Holmes unscathed (yeah, spooky)

    So: What's up with all the fire?

    Well for one thing, fire has the ability to create and to destroy. It helps create the White City's buildings, but it also destroys them. According to Mayor Harrison on American Cities Day:

    "If we cannot preserve [the fair] for another year I would be in favor of putting a torch to it and burning it down and let it go up into the bright sky to eternal heaven." (3.21.8)

    So in a sense, going up in flames preserves the White City forever and ever. It doesn't have time to crumble and make people sad. It disappears while it's still in its prime.

    Fire also equates power. Being able to control it, in Holmes' case, gives him authority over his victims. However, for Burnham, fire makes him powerless. Despite taking measures to safeguard against fire, he's unable to predict the horrible fate of the Cold Storage Building and the firemen who tried to put out the flames.

    And we can't forget about fire as being synonymous with hell. After all, doesn't the devil himself sleep on a bed made of fire? The frequent instances of fire, and especially the fact that Holmes' photograph is the only thing to survive the fiery fate of the district attorney's office, help to underline the truly sinister nature of this story.

  • Narrator Point of View

    Third Person (Omniscient)

    No fancy tricks here: this is historical non-fiction, not magical realism.

    Our narrator is likely author Erik Larson, recreating for us the events that unfolded in Chicago before the turn of the century. We're permitted to enter inside the minds of pretty much everyone: Burnham, Holmes, fair-goers, murder victims, and at times the entire city of Chicago.

    • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

      Anticipation Stage and "Call"

      When we first meet Holmes, he's loving the smell of slaughtered hogs in the morning (we're sure he likes napalm, too). Holmes marries women and kills them off, and he sets up his death castle just a train ride away from the Chicago World's Fair. He casts a threatening shadow over the dream city our hero Burnham works tirelessly to create.

      Burnham, meanwhile, is called to serve as the fair's lead architect and show the nation just how beautiful cities could and should be.

      Dream Stage

      While Holmes builds his dream—or is that "nightmare"?—hotel, Burnham prepares to pull off one of the greatest feats in architectural history. Holmes hires and fires construction workers, installs an airtight vault, connects gas pipes to windowless rooms. Burnham, by contrast, prepares to share his vision of a perfect American city.

      Frustration Stage

      Holmes receives letters from families whose daughters have disappeared. With the fair ending, he leaves Chicago but winds up in custody for identity fraud. Detective Geyer comes face to face with the monster, now a suspect in the murder of three children and their father.

      Back at the fairgrounds, Burnham sees the well-planned Closing Day festivities switch to a funeral procession for the assassinated mayor of Chicago.

      Nightmare Stage

      All Geyer has to do is produce the bodies of the three missing children. He's sent on a wild goose chase all around the Midwest. Meanwhile, Holmes sits calmly in prison. It's something of a game for him because he knows Geyer will never find any incriminating evidence.

      For Burnham, the end of the fair means his buildings are no longer needed. The first of the planned fires demolish the once beautiful White City.

      Death of the Monster

      Tables turn on Holmes as Geyer receives a tip that turns out to be helpful. He produces the three bodies and Holmes is charged with murder. The families of the missing women and children finally have some answers, through they're unsettling and disturbing.

      As for Burnham, the White City has a powerful and lasting impact on the nation, outlasting the architectural monstrosity that is Holmes' castle.

    • Plot Analysis

      Exposition (Initial Situation)

      We got the bid!

      Chicago is selected to host the 1893 World's Fair, and famed architect Daniel Burnham is named director of works. There's lots to be done, including hiring architects and construction workers, planning exhibitions, and finding a place to even put the fair. Burnham also dreams of surpassing the 1889 Paris World's Fair that produced the colossal Eiffel Tower, so engineers need to get on top of making something pretty breath-taking.

      And speaking of taking breaths…

      At the same time all this is happening, a young, rich, and handsome doctor arrives in Chicago. He goes by H. H. Holmes even though that's not even close to his real name (Herman Webster Mudgett). Anyway, Holmes takes over a drugstore, buys a plot of land, and marries a bunch of women.

      Seems harmless, right? Just you wait.

      Rising Action (Conflict, Complication)

      Trouble Ahead

      Burnham and his team of architects face many obstacles. For starters, the nation is in economic turmoil, people don't want to work on buildings that will only be used for six months, and the city still hasn't ever decided where to put the fair. Burnham also hasn't found an engineer with a plan to rival Eiffel's tower, so there's still that to deal with.

      Meanwhile, Holmes transforms his newly acquired property into a three-story hotel, complete with an airtight vault. The purpose of the vault will soon become clear (hint: many years later, police find a woman's footprint etched onto inside of the vault the door). Uh-oh.

      Climax (Crisis, Turning Point)

      Black and White

      Things start to look up for the fair. The city finally decides on a location and Burnham and his team get right to work constructing the White City. Trains carrying people and goods that will be displayed at the fair zoom into Chicago, and George Washington Gale Ferris steps forward with designs for a wheel that will carry two-thousand passengers at a time.

      Yet outside in the "Black City," things look way grimmer.

      Women who are lured to Holmes' hotel by the doctor's good looks and charming personality soon go missing. He goes on a killing binge, targeting young women and those whom he promises to marry. His "castle" is actually a death trap.

      Falling Action

      Beginning of the End

      Six months come and go, and soon it's time for the fair to come to an end. Burnham is poised to secure his place as one of America's greatest architects. But plans are disrupted by the sudden assassination of Chicago's beloved mayor Carter Harrison. The Closing Day ceremony is cancelled and the fair's final day becomes a large funeral procession. The first planned fires demolish the fairgrounds and several structures.

      Holmes is arrested for insurance fraud, and detective Frank Geyer sets out to find the three Pitezel children who have gone missing, last seen in Holmes' care. Geyer finds the children's bodies and Holmes is sentenced to death.

      Resolution (Denouement)

      A Fair Impact

      Thanks to the fair, Burnham ascends his place as one of the nation's leading architects. Chicago transforms its national image as a city of stockyards to one of great culture and wealth. The fair also introduces cool inventions like Shredded Wheat cereal, Cracker Jacks, moving pictures, and zippers.

      So though the fair was only in town for a brief period of time, the dream that the White City offers Americans is its greatest impact of all.

    • Three-Act Plot Analysis

      Act I

      Chicago is chosen as the host city for the 1893 World's Fair. Architect Daniel Burnham is ready to get to work right away, but the city doesn't seem to know where to put the fair.

      Meanwhile, across the way, Dr. H. H. Holmes takes over a drugstore, marries a bunch of women, and purchases a plot of land to build a hotel. His hotel lures a very particular type of guest: young, single women who seem to disappear shortly after checking in.

      Act II

      Things start to look up for Burnham and the fair. The city finally decides on a location, buildings go up, and all sorts of inventions and exhibitions arrive. The Ferris Wheel is constructed and it's a major delight to fair-goers. Yet outside in the Black City, things look grimmer. Holmes' death trap hotel claims its victims, and he flees the city shortly after the fair comes to an end.

      Act III

      Holmes is arrested on charges of insurance fraud, and his Chicago murders are brought to light by detective Frank Geyer. Holmes is sentenced to death by hanging.

      But let's not end on that bleak note: though the World's Fair was only in Chicago for a brief period of time, it introduced people to some pretty cool stuff like Cracker Jacks and zippers.

    • Allusions

      Literary and Philosophical References

      • Sherlock Holmes (1.3.47)
      • Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe (1.3.23)
      • L. Frank Baum (5.1.1)

      Historical References

      • This is a work of nonfiction in which author Erik Larson used only primary sources to recreate. All of the figures presented have been constructed from such as letters, journals, memoirs, and photographs. Noteworthy figures include Daniel Burnham, Frederick Olmsted, John Root, Carter Harrison, D. H. H. Holmes, Theodore Roosevelt, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, Helen Keller, Buffalo Bill, Susan B. Anthony, Thomas Edison, and Nikola Tesla—all in attendance at the fair.

      Pop Culture References

      • Several inventions that we know today debuted at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. Inventions with a tremendous impact on pop culture include: Cracker Jacks, Shredded Wheat, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, Aunt Jemima pancake mix, the Ferris Wheel, Wrigley's spearmint gum, the automatic dishwasher, and, of course, zippers.