Study Guide

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

By Erik Larson

John Wellborn Root

Root, a small-town boy, was born in Lumpkin, Georgia in 1850…which is probably the cutest-sounding town to have born in.

But the guy didn't live a small-town life. From the get-go, he was destined for bigger things: he was supposedly a musical prodigy who could sing before he could talk. During the Civil War, his father smuggled him to Liverpool, England. He was accepted into Oxford but didn't go because the war ended and went back to America. Root studied civil engineering at New York University and worked as a draftsman for big New York projects like St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Root was twenty-one when he met Burnham, and the two liked each other immediately. They formed a business partnership, with one of their first jobs being the mansion of stockyard superintendent John B. Sherman.

Following Burnham's lead when it came to marrying well, Root married Mary, the daughter of stockyards millionaire John Walker. Unfortunately, Mary contracted tuberculosis and died shortly after their wedding. Two years later he married the bridesmaid Dora Monroe, whose sister Harriet was in love with Root.

Awkward love triangles were alive and well in the 1800's, apparently.

Anyway, Burnham & Root prospered, creating the first skyscraper and ultimately twenty-seven buildings along Chicago's Loop. During the fair's construction, Burnham names Root supervising architect. However, before completion, Root becomes sick with pneumonia and has to drop out. A few days later, with Burnham at his side, Root passes away at the age of forty-one.

He may have had a short life, but the native son of Lumpkin made it a long, long way from small-town Georgia.