The Devil in the White City

by Erik Larson

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What sources did Erick Larson use to write The Devil in the White City?

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At the end of his book (in the section "Notes and Sources"), Larson writes that he used several sources in writing his book. To find out more information about Burnham, he used the archives of the Chicago Historical Society and the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries at the Art Institute of...

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At the end of his book (in the section "Notes and Sources"), Larson writes that he used several sources in writing his book. To find out more information about Burnham, he used the archives of the Chicago Historical Society and the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries at the Art Institute of Chicago. Within these archives, he used sources such as family correspondence. He also used the University of Washington's Suzallo Library and consulted the papers of Frederick Law Olmsted at the Library of Congress. The author also called on previous books, such as Thomas Hines's Burnham of Chicago (1974) and FLO: A Biography of Frederick Law Olmsted by Laura Wood Roper.

In consulting the notes section, you can see the other types of sources Larson used. These sources include Chicago Tribune articles published around the time of the fair, as well as articles from other newspapers at the time, such as the New York Times. Larson sometimes had to call on many sources at a time. For example, to reconstruct the way that Holmes may have killed Julia and Pearl Connor (page 145), the author used the known evidence, the statements that Holmes made, detective work done by others, statements made at Holmes's trial, and psychiatric research.

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Erik Larson has said before in interviews that he does all of his own research. He doesn't have a research assistant to help him because he says he likes to encounter the sources himself. He likes to find then, follow them, and handle them all on his own.

For Devil in the White City, as with his other nonfiction historical bookshe relied heavily on primary sources from the timeframe the book takes place. He tracked down documents that each of the people in the book had actually written, like in this example where he discusses the postcards from Prendergast:

I found it infinitely valuable to be able to touch the original postcards on which Patrick Prendergast revealed his insane delusion, one that would bring the fair to such a tragic end. The obvious pressure he placed on his pencil as he wrote brought his part of the story vividly to life (Crown Publishing interview).

He also found historical records of deaths, real estate sales, contracts related to the building of the fair site, blueprints for the fair and the murder mansion, arrest records, newspapers documenting the search for Holmes, and so on.

Larson also regularly travels to the places he is researching so that he can access the sources directly, as many are kept in historical societies, local libraries, cemeteries, and city records. His research methods also often require travel, as he does not typically use the Internet to do his research, as noted in a NY Times article:

It's worth noting that Mr. Larson insisted on doing research by himself, only with firsthand sources. (No researchers, no Internet.) When he found one of Mr. Prendergast's threatening notes at the Chicago Historical Society, he says, ''I saw how deeply the pencil dug into the paper.'' (New York Times).

 

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