The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Eira Long

Eira has a PhD in English and new media studies. She has taught literature and writing to students of all ages.

This lesson provides an overview of Erik Larson's 2003 book 'The Devil in the White City', including a summary, an analysis of the book's structure, and a discussion of the real-life individuals and events at the heart of the story.

Who's the Devil, and Where is the White City?

When Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese team up to make a big-budget movie based on your book, you know you've arrived. This doesn't happen to most nonfiction authors, but it's happening to Erik Larson, best known for his 2003 book The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America.

The Devil in the White City is set in Chicago, Illinois in the early 1890s. The book entwines two true stories that, at first glance, don't seem to have much to do with each other: First, the story of architect and urban planner, Daniel H. Burnham, who masterminded the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago; second, the tale of Dr. H. H. Holmes, who has been called America's first serial killer.

By now, you've probably guessed that Holmes, who may have lured more than 200 people to their deaths in an elaborately-constructed building dubbed 'The Murder Castle', is the Devil of Larson's title.

In honor of the World's Fair, Chicago was decked out in temporary construction in a neoclassical style (that is, inspired by the architecture of Classical antiquity). The Fair buildings were covered with white stucco. This, plus the still-novel streetlights that illuminated Chicago's streets, led to the nickname 'The White City'.

The Devil: H. H. Holmes and The Murder Castle

Dr. H. H. Holmes
Dr. H. H. Holmes

Dr. H. H. Holmes is one of the two main figures in The Devil in the White City. Born Herman Webster Mudgett in 1861, Holmes was a shady character from the beginning. While studying medicine and surgery at the University of Michigan, he stole bodies from the university's laboratory, mutilated them, and reported their deaths as accidents so he could collect on the insurance policies he had taken out on the dead. Around the time that he arrived in Chicago, Holmes began using his famous alias, or false name, Dr. H. H. Holmes.

Upon arriving in Chicago in 1886, Holmes set himself up in business as a pharmacist. In 1893, sensing a once-in-a-lifetime business opportunity, he opened a hotel, which he called the World's Fair Hotel. The building would become notorious as Holmes's Murder Castle.

Holmes's hotel was an impenetrable maze of more than 100 windowless rooms, dead-end hallways, and doors opening to nowhere. To ensure that he alone understood the overall plan of the building, Holmes constantly hired and fired building crews, keeping anyone from working on the Murder Castle for too long.

Holmes murdered dozens - perhaps hundreds - of people who stayed in his hotel while they were in Chicago to attend the World's Fair. His victims were primarily women, but he preyed occasionally on men and children as well. His Murder Castle was specially equipped to kill its occupants: some bedrooms were fitted with gas lines, so Holmes could asphyxiate his guests; other rooms were walled with iron plates and fitted with blowtorches, so occupants could be burned to death. A hidden chute transported victims' bodies to the basement, where Holmes dissected them. Holmes sold many of his victims' skeletons to medical schools.

Holmes was finally captured in 1894. He confessed to 27 murders, but some have estimated, based on the remains discovered in the basement of his Murder Castle, that he may have killed more than 200. Holmes was executed in 1896 at Moyamensing Prison in Philadelphia.

The White City: Daniel H. Burnham and the World's Fair

Daniel H. Burnham
Daniel H. Burnham

Daniel H. Burnham is the other main figure in Larson's book, and he's much less chilling than Holmes, though no less fascinating. Born in 1846, Burnham was a leading architect responsible for a number of famous landmarks, including the triangular Flatiron Building in New York City and Union Station in Washington, DC. His firm, Burnham and Root, was responsible for designing and constructing the 1893 World's Fair, also called the World's Columbian Exhibition.

The World's Fair was a big deal. First, it was the biggest World's Fair in history up to that point. Second, it celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the New World (thus its official designation as the Columbian Exhibition). Third, Chicago had beaten out America's number-one city - New York - to host the fair, so Burnham was under a lot of pressure to impress. And impress he did.

Burnham's Fair covered almost 700 acres. Nearly 200 new buildings exemplified the neoclassical style, which is defined by principles of balance, symmetry, and splendor. Forty-six countries participated in the World's Fair, and a staggering 27 million people stopped by during the six months that the Fair was open.

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