The Devil in the White City

by Erik Larson

Start Free Trial

What are the similarities and differences between Daniel Burnham and H.H. Holmes in The Devil in the White City?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The title of Erik Larson's novel The Devil in the White City certainly is an indicator of the dichotomy of the main personages of his novel. The protagonist is Daniel Burnham and the antagonist is H.H. Holmes (formerly Herman Mudgett); the one man constructs while the other destructs, although each is ingenious in his endeavors.


Despite the antithesis between these two characters, they do both share some qualities:

  • Both Burnham's and Holmes's plans are grandiose and the men carry out their plans in a meticulous manner
  • Berham's character emerges strongly in the chapter entitled "Pilgrimage," in which his strength and determination are illustrated. Holmes is also determined.
  • Both Burnham and Holmes are creative, although their motivations differ greatly and they have completely different objectives.
  • Both men are preoccupied with fire, although for different reasons. Burnham worries about fire consuming his buildings constructed for the World's Fair; Holmes has cremation ovens under his hotel to use as a means of destroying the bodies of those he has killed.
  • Both affect the lives of other people--one positively, the other negatively.
  • Both become famous: Burham becomes a part of history, Holmes a part of infamy.


  • Burham's white city that he creates for the 1892 World's Fair brings joy and delight to many while H. H. Holmes is evil and destroys lives in his dark labyrinth.
  • Burham does everything he can to prevent his buildings from catching fire while Holmes incorporates a crematory under his hotel and burns bodies in order to destroy any evidence of his evil.
  • Holmes is a monster without compassion; he wears a mask of civility, but Burham is a gentleman.
  • Holmes is devious and evil. When one of his wives named Minnie and her sister Anna visit the Fair, they later visit Holmes's hotel. When Anna steps into a vault belonging to the devious Holmes in order to bring him some paper, the sadistic Henry closes the door. Unfortunately, she discovers that the vault is actually an airtight, sound-proof gas chamber. Minnie, her sister, never learns what has become of Anna.
    On the other hand, Burnham tries to negotiate reasonably with his architect and landscape architect. He is honest in his dealings.
Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This is an interesting question because, on the surface, these two men do not appear to have much in common. Erik Larson's story The Devil in the White City is the story of the Chicago World's Fair at the turn of the century, and he follows the actions of Daniel Burnham and H.H. Holmes. One is responsible for the most magnificent display of ingenuity and innovation the world had ever seen; one is responsible for a series of bizarre murders which take place in the shadow of the White City. Their differences, then, are relatively clear. Among other things:

  • Burnham's goal is lofty and will serve the greater good; Holmes's goal is self-serving and will actually harm everyone who comes too near him.
  • Burnam's creativity and ingenuity is on public display; Holmes's creativity and ingenuity is necessarily something he cannot have anyone see.

Despite that, they do have some things in common. Among them:

  • They are both men who know how to accomplish their goals. Burnham has to work with others to achieve his goal; Holmes must work alone to accomplish his goal.
  • Both men are creative and utilize great ingenuity in order to accomplish their goals.
  • Both men take advantage of visitors coming to Chicago--one to make money for the fair, the other to find unsuspecting victims who will not be easily missed.
  • Both men are personable and intelligent.



See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial