Two men, each handsome and unusually adept at his chosen work, embodied an element of the great dynamic that characterized America’s rush toward the twentieth century. The architect was Daniel Hudson Burnham, the fair’s brilliant director of works and the builder of many of the country’s most important structures, including the Flatiron Building in New York and Union Station in Washington, D.C. The murderer was Henry H. Holmes, a young doctor who, in a malign parody of the White City, built his “World’s Fair Hotel” just west of the fairgrounds—a torture palace complete with dissection table, gas chamber, and 3,000-degree crematorium.
Burnham overcame tremendous obstacles and tragedies as he organized the talents of Frederick Law Olmsted, Charles McKim, Louis Sullivan, and others to transform swampy Jackson Park into the White City, while Holmes used the attraction of the great fair and his own satanic charms to lure scores of young women to their deaths. What makes the story all the more chilling is that Holmes really lived, walking the grounds of that dream city by the lake.
The Devil in the White City draws the reader into a time of magic and majesty, made all the more appealing by a supporting cast of real-life characters, including Buffalo Bill, Theodore Dreiser, Susan B. Anthony, Thomas Edison, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, and others. Erik Larson’s gifts as a storyteller are magnificently displayed in this rich narrative of the master builder, the killer, and the great fair that obsessed them both.
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About the Author
Date of Birth:January 1, 1954
Place of Birth:Brooklyn, New York
Education:B.A., University of Pennsylvania, 1976; M.S., Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, 1978
Read an Excerpt
The Black City
How easy it was to disappear:
A thousand trains a day entered or left Chicago. Many of these trains brought single young women who had never even seen a city but now hoped to make one of the biggest and toughest their home. Jane Addams, the urban reformer who founded Chicago's Hull House, wrote, "Never before in civilization have such numbers of young girls been suddenly released from the protection of the home and permitted to walk unattended upon the city streets and to work under alien roofs." The women sought work as typewriters, stenographers, seamstresses, and weavers. The men who hired them were for the most part moral citizens intent on efficiency and profit. But not always. On March 30, 1890, an officer of the First National Bank placed a warning in the help-wanted section of the Chicago Tribune, to inform female stenographers of "our growing conviction that no thoroughly honorable business-man who is this side of dotage ever advertises for a lady stenographer who is a blonde, is good-looking, is quite alone in the city, or will transmit her photograph. All such advertisements upon their face bear the marks of vulgarity, nor do we regard it safe for any lady to answer such unseemly utterances."
The women walked to work on streets that angled past bars, gambling houses, and bordellos. Vice thrived, with official indulgence. "The parlors and bedrooms in which honest folk lived were (as now) rather dull places," wrote Ben Hecht, late in his life, trying to explain this persistent trait of old Chicago. "It was pleasant, in a way, to know that outside their windows, the devil was still capering in a flare of brimstone." In an analogy that would prove all too apt, Max Weber likened the city to "a human being with his skin removed."
Anonymous death came early and often. Each of the thousand trains that entered and left the city did so at grade level. You could step from a curb and be killed by the Chicago Limited. Every day on average two people were destroyed at the city's rail crossings. Their injuries were grotesque. Pedestrians retrieved severed heads. There were other hazards. Streetcars fell from drawbridges. Horses bolted and dragged carriages into crowds. Fires took a dozen lives a day. In describing the fire dead, the term the newspapers most liked to use was "roasted." There was diphtheria, typhus, cholera, influenza. And there was murder. In the time of the fair the rate at which men and women killed each other rose sharply throughout the nation but especially in Chicago, where police found themselves without the manpower or expertise to manage the volume. In the first six months of 1892 the city experienced nearly eight hundred homicides. Four a day. Most were prosaic, arising from robbery, argument, or sexual jealousy. Men shot women, women shot men, and children shot each other by accident. But all this could be understood. Nothing like the Whitechapel killings had occurred. Jack the Ripper's five-murder spree in 1888 had defied explanation and captivated readers throughout America, who believed such a thing could not happen in their own hometowns.
But things were changing. Everywhere one looked the boundary between the moral and the wicked seemed to be degrading. Elizabeth Cady Stanton argued in favor of divorce. Clarence Darrow advocated free love. A young woman named Borden killed her parents.
And in Chicago a young handsome doctor stepped from a train, his surgical valise in hand. He entered a world of clamor, smoke, and steam, refulgent with the scents of murdered cattle and pigs. He found it to his liking.
The letters came later, from the Cigrands, Williamses, Smythes, and untold others, addressed to that strange gloomy castle at Sixty-third and Wallace, pleading for the whereabouts of daughters and daughters' children.
It was so easy to disappear, so easy to deny knowledge, so very easy in the smoke and din to mask that something dark had taken root.
This was Chicago, on the eve of the greatest fair in history.
Reading Group Guide
#1 NATIONAL BESTSELLER
National Book Award Finalist
“As absorbing a piece of popular history as one will ever hope to find.” —San Francisco Chronicle
The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are designed to enliven your group’s discussion of Erik Larson’s gripping account of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
1) In the note “Evils Imminent,” Erik Larson writes “Beneath the gore and smoke and loam, this book is about the evanescence of life, and why some men choose to fill their brief allotment of time engaging the impossible, others in the manufacture of sorrow” [xi]. What does the book reveal about “the ineluctable conflict between good and evil”? What is the essential difference between men like Daniel Burnham and Henry H. Holmes? Are they alike in any way?
2) At the end of The Devil in the White City, in Notes and Sources, Larson writes “The thing that entranced me about Chicago in the Gilded Age was the city’s willingness to take on the impossible in the name of civic honor, a concept so removed from the modern psyche that two wise readers of early drafts of this book wondered why Chicago was so avid to win the world’s fair in the first place” [p. 393]. What motives, in addition to “civic honor,” drove Chicago to build the Fair? In what ways might the desire to “out-Eiffel Eiffel” and to show New York that Chicago was more than a meat-packing backwater be seen as problematic?
3) The White City is repeatedly referred to as a dream. The young poet Edgar Lee Masters called the Court of Honor “an inexhaustible dream of beauty” [p. 252]; Dora Root wrote “I think I should never willingly cease drifting in that dreamland” [p. 253]; Theodore Dreiser said he had been swept “into a dream from which I did not recover for months” [p. 306]; and columnist Teresa Dean found it “cruel . . . to let us dream and drift through heaven for six months, and then to take it out of our lives” [p. 335]. What accounts for the dreamlike quality of the White City? What are the positive and negative aspects of this dream?
4) In what ways does the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 change America? What lasting inventions and ideas did it introduce into American culture? What important figures were critically influenced by the Fair?
5) At the end of the book, Larson suggests that “Exactly what motivated Holmes may never be known” [p. 395]. What possible motives are exposed in The Devil in the White City? Why is it important to try to understand the motives of a person like Holmes?
6) After the Fair ended, Ray Stannard Baker noted “What a human downfall after the magnificence and prodigality of the World’s Fair which has so recently closed its doors! Heights of splendor, pride, exaltation in one month: depths of wretchedness, suffering, hunger, cold, in the next” [p. 334]. What is the relationship between the opulence and grandeur of the Fair and the poverty and degradation that surrounded it? In what ways does the Fair bring into focus the extreme contrasts of the Gilded Age? What narrative techniques does Larson use to create suspense in the book? How does he end sections and chapters of the book in a manner that makes’ the reader anxious to find out what happens next?
7) Larson writes, “The juxtaposition of pride and unfathomed evil struck me as offering powerful insights into the nature of men and their ambitions” [p. 393]. What such insights does the book offer? What more recent stories of pride, ambition, and evil parallel those described in The Devil in the White City?
8) What does The Devil in the White City add to our knowledge about Frederick Law Olmsted and Daniel Burnham? What are the most admirable traits of these two men? What are their most important aesthetic principles?
9) In his speech before his wheel took on its first passengers, George Ferris “happily assured the audience that the man condemned for having ‘wheels in his head’ had gotten them out of his head and into the heart of the Midway Plaisance” [p. 279]. In what way is the entire Fair an example of the power of human ingenuity, of the ability to realize the dreams of imagination?
10) How was Holmes able to exert such power over his victims? What weaknesses did he prey upon? Why wasn’t he caught earlier? In what ways does his story “illustrate the end of the century” [p. 370] as the Chicago Times-Herald wrote?
11) What satisfaction can be derived from a nonfiction book like The Devil in the White City that cannot be found in novels? In what ways is the book like a novel?
12) In describing the collapse of the roof of Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building, Larson writes “In a great blur of snow and silvery glass the building’s roof—that marvel of late nineteenth-century hubris, enclosing the greatest volume of unobstructed space in history—collapsed to the floor below” [p. 196–97]. Was the entire Fair, in its extravagant size and cost, an exhibition of arrogance? Do such creative acts automatically engender a darker, destructive parallel? Can Holmes be seen as the natural darker side of the Fair’s glory?
13) What is the total picture of late nineteenth-century America that emerges from The Devil in the White City? How is that time both like and unlike contemporary America? What are the most significant differences? In what ways does that time mirror the present?