Study Guide

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

  • Perseverance

    The Devil in the White City is chock full of perseverance.

    Chicago's a city determined to score the bid for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. Burnham's an architect resolved to secure his place among the greatest in architectural history. Ferris is an engineer dogged in his pursuits to out-Eiffel Eiffel's Tower.

    And the great fair proves to be like nothing the world has seen before. Though difficulties creep up along the way and threaten to keep lofty visions from becoming a reality, no obstacle is too great when the dream is compelling enough.

    Questions About Perseverance

    1. Why does Chicago display great tenacity in the scramble to secure the fair bid? What role does civic honor play in this?
    2. How does Chicago's perseverance change its self-image as a city of stockyards? How does the rest of the nation perceive Chicago during this time?
    3. What obstacles threaten to prevent Burnham's vision from becoming a reality? Do any challenges triumph?
    4. Why does the fair turn out to be Chicago's greatest pride?

    Chew on This

    Burnham and his architects are motivated by fear of failure. With mounting pressures from the nation to exceed the 1889 Paris Exposition, Burnham can't mess this one up.

    The desire to succeed motivates Burnham and his architectural team to outdo the Paris Exposition. Who doesn't want to be the best?

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    In The Devil in the White City, dreams take shape and materialize before Burnham, Chicago, and the world. Burnham dreams of the city and makes it happen. What he presents is a magical realm for all the greatest wonders of the world to converge in a single place. The White City would also inform author L. Frank Baum's wonderful Emerald City and later inspire the son of a construction worker named Disney to create his own magical kingdom.

    Visitors of the fair were so convinced they had stepped into a dream, they believed they could remain there forever. But even dreams must come to an end and life has to return to its waking pace.

    Questions About Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    1. Why is the White City likened to a dream?
    2. Were the fairgrounds intended to be dreamlike? Why did visitors perceive it in this way?
    3. Why would people rather see the buildings burned than remain where they are forever?
    4. How does the decision to burn the grounds impact the way the fair lives on in memory?

    Chew on This

    The White City is a dream for all the wonders it offers visitors. Like dreams, people get to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell things for the first time—perhaps even the only time in their lives.

    Only when compared with the Black City outside does the White City emerge as a dream. It offers people an escape from the grimy stockyards, impending economic failure, and gruesome murders occurring beyond the protection of the fair's realm.

  • Women and Femininity

    The Devil in the White City depicts an era when women were leaving the 'burbs for the cities. They were experiencing certain freedoms for the first time, choosing where they wanted to live and work and, eventually, who they wanted to marry. Those women who embarked on adventures paved the way for other women and everything was great.

    But they had to be careful with guys like Holmes. Because yeah: Holmes isn't your ordinary guy. From the get-go, he sets his sights on a very particular type of victim: young, beautiful, single women. Drawn to his good looks and charming personality, women think he's a catch. But how wrong they are.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. Why were young women attracted to Chicago around the turn of the century? What opportunities did the city afford?
    2. What are some characteristics of the Gilded Age woman? How does Holmes take advantage of these traits?
    3. What makes Holmes so enticing to women? How do women perceive Holmes?
    4. Does Holmes select his victims at random? Or does he have a "type?"

    Chew on This

    Because Holmes is handsome and charming, he's able to manipulate women for his own pleasures.

    Since women moving Chicago for the first time are unfamiliar with city behavior and conventions, they make easy prey for Holmes.

  • Madness

    Grab your popcorn, because The Devil in the White City is better than a really good Netflix series. It tells the story of H. H. Holmes, America's serial-killing psychopath (though the term "psychopath" wouldn't appear in medical books until a bit after Holmes' time). Stories of London's Jack the Ripper had already inspired something of an underground cult in America, but no one had imagined a guy like Holmes.

    The charming doctor is as cool as a cucumber, killing at five o'clock and sitting down to dinner at six. He's methodical in his ways and meticulous in his manners—like Hannibal Lecter, only spookier.

    Questions About Madness

    1. How does Holmes exhibit traits of madness? What explains this madness?
    2. Why does Holmes describe himself as the devil?
    3. What are Holmes' motives to kill?
    4. Why does Holmes lie in his confession and during his final days?

    Chew on This

    Holmes' bloodlust likely began in childhood. He read the gory tales of Poe, witnessed the death of a friend, and tortured small animals for fun.

    Holmes' curiosity about the human body likely began in medical school, as he experimented with cadavers and learned about the control he could have over the life of another.

  • Change

    Chicago is certainly swept up in change when the World's Fair comes to town. As The Devil in the White City reveals, the turn of the century brought along with it changes in gender roles, culture, architecture, politics, and much, much more. Women were leaving the 'burbs to live and work in cities. New inventions like Edison's lightbulb were bringing society into a newly modernized world. And labor unions were beginning to find voices through leaders like Chicago's mayor Carter Harrison.

    While some of these changes were here to stay, others—like the White City and the jobs it created—didn't last.

    Questions About Change

    1. How Chicago change as a result of the fair?
    2. Why did Chicago hope to change its national image? What role did the fair play in this?
    3. Do any changes have a harmful effect on Chicago?
    4. Did changes in Chicago reflect changes occurring across the nation?

    Chew on This

    Chicago had been changing before the fair came to town. The Great Fire of 1871 prompted the city to transform into a meatpacking industry powerhouse.

    Chicago changed as a result of the World's Fair. People came to see the city as one of immense pride, determination, and culture.

  • Awe and Amazement

    The Devil in the White City captures a turning point in the way Americans perceived cities. Burnham's White City, in all its beauty and charm, truly amazed people. No longer were cities necessarily places of factories and filth. They could be places where people could go to see and be seen, brief conversations could turn to magic, and people could behold the best in human accomplishments.

    Questions About Awe and Amazement

    1. How does Burnham's White City cause awe?
    2. What about the World's Fair amazes people the most?
    3. Why are people so easily amazed? What in particular impresses them?
    4. In what ways does the fair change people's perceptions of modern cities?

    Chew on This

    Fair-goers are amazed and filled with awe by the sights and sounds of the White City. They enjoy seeing the buildings as much as they enjoy people-watching.

    It's the exhibits and inventions that captivate fair-goers. They try Wrigley's spearmint gum and Cracker Jacks for the first time, and are totally amazed by the entertainment spectacles.