Study Guide

The Devil in the White City

by Erik Larson

The Devil in the White City Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

In The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson tells the story of two men, an architect and a serial killer, operating in Chicago during the 1890’s. As he did in Isaac’s Storm (1999), Larson takes a notorious but largely forgotten nineteenth century event and gives a broad understanding of it by focusing tightly on a few individuals. Here, he helps readers make sense of what was new about big cities at the end of the nineteenth century—transportation, communication, electricity, anonymity—by showing how these aspects of the Gilded Age helped Daniel Burnham create a world’s fair, dubbed the White City, and helped Henry Holmes, the devil of the book’s title, indulge his hunger for power, blood, and fear.

The story of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, more popularly known as the Chicago World’s Fair, begins with civic pride and rivalry. The 1889 French Exposition Universel drew the attention of the Western world to Paris, where the Eiffel Tower, built to be a temporary landmark, stood as a monument to French beauty and sophistication. The success of the exposition led to a desire for a similar event in the United States, to commemorate the four hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s landing and to demonstrate American ingenuity and culture. Rather like cities today competing to host the Olympics or the Super Bowl, New York and Chicago vied for the honor of hosting an American world’s fair. Chicago seemed an unlikely location for the exposition. It was dirty, poor, and overcrowded. Its leaders were greedy, proud, and occasionally corrupt. Its weather was unpleasant and unpredictable, and not even the cold lake winds could completely erase the smog and the smell of butchered hogs that hung over the city. Nevertheless, Chicago was chosen, and leading architects Daniel Burnham and John Root were hired to oversee the design and construction of the fair.

The saga of Burnham struggling to overcome a series of obstacles that might have driven most men to despair makes compelling reading. From the death of his partner early in the process to impossibly tight deadlines, labor unrest, a poor economy, and the worst Chicago winter on record, Burnham faces it all with remarkable determination and good old American ingenuity, ultimately turning a malaria-infested swamp into a White City so beautiful that many visitors wept when they saw it. Burnham was the chief of construction for the fair, but he worked at the behest of committees and boards who had agendas of their own and often no aesthetic sense. The force of his personality was as important as the power of his vision in getting the project completed.

The fair was a triumph. Beautiful to look at, with more than two hundred immense white buildings designed by the best architects of the day and grounds designed by the great Frederick Law Olmsted, the fair was illuminated by electric lights—the first large-scale demonstration of alternating current. Many visitors were seeing electricity for the first time, and the spectacle of thousands of bulbs reflecting off ponds, Lake Michigan, and the white buildings was simply overwhelming.

There were other wonders. Visitors sampled new foods, including Juicy Fruit gum, Cracker Jack, Shredded Wheat, and a new beer that won first place in the beer competition and was known afterward as Pabst Blue Ribbon. They saw the first dishwashers, zippers, motion pictures, pancake mix, electric chairs, and vertical files. They rubbed elbows with celebrities, including Susan B. Anthony, Helen Keller, Buffalo Bill Cody, Thomas Edison, and Harry Houdini. They saw belly dancers and camels from Cairo, gondolas from Venice, and cartoonish villages representing Lapland and Algeria; Pygmies from the Congo, alas, did not arrive. In one six-month period, some twenty-eight million people visited the fair, while the population of the United States was only sixty-five million.

Three of the...

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