Study Guide

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

By Erik Larson

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

Who Wants To Time Travel Back To 1893? (Answer: Nobody Who's Read This Book.)

Get ready to have all your daydreams about living in the late Victorian Era (the clop-clop of horse carriages! Snazzy mustaches! Adorable gramophone music!) dashed to absolute smithereens. Because this book is much less The Secret Garden and much more The Silence of the Lambs.

But before the creeptastic stuff starts happening, we get a little historical background.

We begin in 1912. Famous guy Daniel Hudson Burnham has just learned that a ship carrying his friend has struck an iceberg somewhere in the Atlantic. Burnham and his friend were brought together by the most spectacular event ever in the history of America: the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. Burnham's the guy who designed the fair buildings and his friend Francis Millet filled them with all sorts of cool exhibitions.

But, whoops—Millet booked passage on the Titanic (We're guessing you've heard of it.) Burnham will later learn that his friend drowns along with a thousand others.

Yet for now, Burnham's thinking back to that magical time on the eve of the Great Fair.

Intended to celebrate the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus' discovery of America, the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition sees twenty-seven million visitors during a time when the nation's population is only sixty-five million. Visitors experience things for the first time, from lightbulbs to Cracker Jacks, and whole villages are imported from exotic parts of the world.

Never before are so many famous people been gathered in one place: Buffalo Bill, Susan B. Anthony, Thomas Edison, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, Nikola Tesla, and Theodore Roosevelt—to name a few.

A Creepier Castle Than Dracula's

At the same time, a young, rich, and handsome doctor going by the name H. H. Holmes steps off a train in Chicago. A hit among the ladies, Holmes is suave and charming. He purchases a plot of land on Sixty-third and Wallace and creates a hotel, a massive three-story structure that the neighbors called Holmes' "castle."

But inside, it's the place of terrors. Pipes pump gas into rooms with no windows, a kiln large enough for a person sits down in the garage, and an airtight vault is installed in Holmes' private office. If that's not spooky enough, Holmes would later claim that he was born with the devil inside him.

And the events that occur over the six years that Holmes is in Chicago just about make that claim legit.

While wonderful things are happening at the fair, darkness looms outside. Holmes' hotel is an Airbnb for exposition visitors—oh, except some of his female guests begin to go missing. Holmes marries Myrta Belknap, though he's already married to a Miss Clara Lovering. He makes his new wife live somewhere else when she becomes jealous of the attention he receives from other women. Holmes seduces Julia Connor, who divorces her husband for the handsome doctor, but he soon kills Julia and her daughter Pearl.

His next victims are Emeline Cigrand, Minnie Williams, and her sister Anna. (This guy is seriously bad news.) Letters from worried family members begin to arrive, but not a single person suspects Holmes of foul play.

World's Fair One-Upmanship

Back at the fairgrounds, Burnham's quest to create the iconic White City is not an easy one. When Chicago wins the bid for the fair in 1890, the city faces the immense challenge of surpassing the wonders of the Paris Exposition of 1889, the same event that had produced the colossal Eiffel Tower.

Many of the nation's leading architects aren't convinced they want to devote so much time and effort to structures that are going to be demolished after their six-month use. The exposition committee takes forever to decide where they want to even put the fair, no engineer steps forward with any plans to out-Eiffel Eiffel's Tower, and Burnham is running out of time before Opening Day celebrations.

But Burnham and his dream-team of architects work tirelessly to transform vision into reality. When the White City finally rises, it's comprised of a hundred magnificent neo-classical buildings, a tribute to architects of ancient wonders. Trains with thousands of people and goods that will be on display at the fair zoom into Chicago, and among such cargo are German weapons, Buffalo Bill and his Wild West show, sphinxes, mummies, and ostriches.

Yup. Ostriches. They really pulled out all the stops.

A young engineer proposes his design to rival the Eiffel Tower: a spinning wheel that could carry two thousand passengers at a time. The man's name is George Washington Gale Ferris. Can you guess his creation?

The fair provides visitors with a vision of what a city could be: "[t]he Black City to the north lay steeped in smoke and garbage, but here in the White City of the fair visitors found clean public bathrooms, pure water, an ambulance service, electric streetlights" (3.4.1). Visitors take delight in the nighttime spectacle, where illuminations are some people's first encounter with electricity. One such visitor is the writer L. Frank Baum, and the sight would inspire his own magical city in Oz.

Two days before the fair's closure, Chicago's beloved Mayor Carter Harrison, a champion of the working class and labor unions, is assassinated by a crazed Patrick Prendergast. The Closing Ceremony is cancelled and the fair's final day becomes a large funeral procession. The fairgrounds are illuminated at night for one final time, and then the fair is over. Soon the first planned fires occur and destroy several structures, transforming the once vibrant fair into a landscape of "twisted and blackened steel" (3.22.3).

Sherlock-ing Holmes

Speaking of "twisted," let's get back to Holmes. It's not until much later in 1894 that people finally start to wonder what happened to the women who went to the fair but were never heard from again. Perhaps they found their way to Holmes' Castle? That's what one of Philadelphia's top detectives Frank Geyer sets out to discover.

Geyer's contacted by Carrie Pitezel, the wife of Holmes' most trusted associate, Benjamin Pitezel. She believes Holmes killed her husband for his life insurance money, and now three of her children, last seen in Holmes' care, have gone missing.

By this time, Holmes is in custody, arrested for insurance fraud. After a wild goose chase that leads Geyer all over the Midwest, the detective sadly produces the bodies of the three Pitezel children. Holmes is found guilty for the murder of Pitezel, and he's sentenced to death by hanging (ironically, the electric chair made its debut at the Chicago fair).

After Holmes is gone, some weird stuff happens that makes us wonder if Holmes really was the devil: Geyer becomes seriously ill, the jury foreman is electrocuted in a freak accident, and a fire destroys the district attorney's office burns to the ground—leaving only a photograph of Holmes unscathed.

Ugh, that's creepy.

But let's end on a positive note. The 1893 Chicago World's Fair had a powerful and lasting impact on the nation. Walt Disney's Magic Kingdom was a descendant—Walt's father Elias worked on the White City. And if it weren't for the fair, we wouldn't have cool inventions like Shredded Wheat cereal, Wrigley's chewing gum, and zippers. Even Washington D.C.'s Lincoln Memorial can trace its architectural heritage to the fair.

So although it was only here for a brief period of time, the dream the White City offered Americans was the fair's greatest impact of all.