Summary and Analysis of The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America: Based on the Book by Erik Larson

Summary and Analysis of The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America: Based on the Book by Erik Larson

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So much to read, so little time? This brief overview of The Devil in the White City tells you what you need to know—before or after you read Erik Larsons book.

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This short summary and analysis of The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson includes:
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About The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson:
The Devil in the White City is the electrifying true story of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago—and the serial killer who used it as his hunting ground.
Meticulously researched and brimming with fascinating historical details, Larson’s bestselling book is a powerful amalgam of historical narrative and a true crime thriller.
The summary and analysis in this ebook are intended to complement your reading experience and bring you closer to a great work of nonfiction.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504044226
Publisher: Worth Books
Publication date: 02/21/2017
Series: Smart Summaries
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 30
File size: 2 MB

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Summary and Analysis of The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America

Based on the Book by Erik Larson

By Worth Books


Copyright © 2017 Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-4422-6




Aboard the Olympic

In April 1912, Daniel Burnham books passage across the Atlantic on the RMS Olympic. His long-ago partner on the Chicago World's Fair, Frank Millet, is making his own crossing on the Olympic's sister ship. Burnham tries to send a wireless message to Millet and ruminates on his fellow builders who have passed away in the nineteen years since the magnificence of the fair, the greatest achievement of Burnham's life. His attempt to send a message is unsuccessful.

Need to Know: The 1893 Chicago World's Fair was a momentous event, a spectacular undertaking that brought together first the greatest builders of the age, and after its completion a host of historical personages. But there was a darkness lurking amid the splendor.

Part I: Frozen Music


The Black City

It is easy to disappear in Chicago in 1893, easy to deny knowledge and mask that something foul is afoot. Thousands of trains come and go, bringing thousands of young women seeking work, a generation tasting a sort of freedom that women had not before enjoyed. Gambling houses, bars, and brothels blossom with authorities turning a blind eye. Advertisements circulate, cautioning young women to guard against unscrupulous "employers."

Need to Know: Chicago is a city ripe for the exploitation and victimization of women.

"The Trouble Is Just Begun"

A city of stockyards and squalor, trolleys and trash heaps, flies and foie gras, gilded carriages and new-moneyed barons of industry, Chicago yearns for its opportunity to prove itself on the world stage, to prove it can stand with the blue-blooded majesty of New York, the nation's cultural capital, by bidding to host the World's Fair. The city's elite lobby heavily with other organizers and financiers to sway public opinion and members of Congress, with an eye toward outdoing Paris and its Eiffel Tower. They seek respect, recognition, and the immense wealth that such an event would bring.

Chicago had undergone explosive growth in recent years. Its unique geology and proximity to Lake Michigan created a host of building challenges. Two young architects, Daniel Burnham and John Root, manage to solve many of those challenges with innovative foundation designs, which, along with Burnham's great personal charisma, propel the firm to prominence.

After five ballots, Chicago gains the votes necessary to win the bid.

Need to Know: Chicago wins the bid for the 1893 World's Fair.

The Necessary Supply

In August 1886, Herman Webster Mudgett, going by the name Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, comes to Chicago seeking his fortune. A handsome man with startling blue eyes, he has already left his first wife, Clara Lovering, behind in New Hampshire, along with a string of other women with whom he had breached promise. According to his memoir, by this time he had already formed the soul of a con artist, describing an abortive attempt at life insurance fraud, in which he had traveled to Chicago before to acquire three cadavers.

Mudgett settles in the booming suburb of Englewood and finds work as a doctor and pharmacist in a neighborhood drugstore, the proprietor of which is dying of cancer. After the owner's death, Mudgett insinuates himself into the widow's graces, takes over the store, and solidifies his identity as Dr. H. H. Holmes. The widow disappears soon after.

Need to Know: We see the inception of the cunning sociopath. A consummate con artist, oozing with charisma, Holmes begins his career of fraud and murder.


Fair organizers spend six months wrangling over the location, burning up priceless design and construction time and putting Chicago at risk of becoming a global laughingstock. Burnham & Root will oversee the design and construction of the fair, and they begin recruiting their team of architects. Frederick Law Olmsted, landscape designer of New York's Central Park, agrees to come on board to help choose the location. Due to its location abutting Lake Michigan, Olmsted advocates for Jackson Park as the site of the fair. A master of the sublime art of landscape design, Olmsted saw Jackson Park as the best site for a sense of holistic "becomingness."

Irish immigrant Patrick Prendergast writes scores of barely legible postcards to the most powerful men in Chicago. A fan of Carter Henry Harrison, the four-term mayor, the paranoid, delusional Prendergast believes that Harrison will grant him a prominent job in city government if Harrison were to win a fifth term as mayor in the April 1891 election.

Burnham is appointed chief of construction of the World's Fair, but there is still no place to put it.

Need to Know: Fredrick Olmsted, the eminent landscape architect and designer of Central Park, throws his hat into the ring and advocates for locating the fair at Jackson Park.

"Don't Be Afraid"

Holmes loves the chaos of Chicago for its efficacy in concealing his crimes. He courts a woman he met in Minneapolis, Myrta Belknap, coaxes her to come to Chicago, and proceeds to seduce her. They soon marry, Holmes neglecting to tell her that he's already married to Clara Lovering. Two weeks afterward, he files for divorce from Clara. Chicago's glamour and dangerous energy captivate Myrta, even as she quickly grows jealous of the beautiful young women that seem to flock to Holmes. He buys a house for Myrta in Wilmette, close enough to visit but far enough for him to operate without interruption.

As the suburbs boom, Holmes buys a vacant lot across the street from his drugstore, where he envisions a grand hotel, complete with shops, restaurants, and apartments. But he also envisions a number of sinister features, such as secret chutes and passages; an airtight, walk-in furnace; and hidden chambers in the basement. He finances the construction largely through fraud and credit. Due to the plenitude of desperate laborers, he can bring them in to work on the building and refuse to pay them after they had already done the work. Because of this high rate of turnover, no one knows the entirety of the building's secrets. During the construction, Benjamin Pitezel becomes Holmes's assistant. By the end of Holmes's career, Pitezel would become Holmes's "creature."

Holmes's building is mostly finished by May 1890. Using a series of aliases, he buys furniture and fixtures on credit and never pays most of his creditors, confident he can avoid prosecution through guile and charm.

Holmes learns that nearby Jackson Park has been selected as the site of the World's Fair, turning his property into a potential mother lode of wealth and potential victims.

Need to Know: Holmes's string of wives continues, even as he conceives and begins construction on what would become known as his "Murder Castle." When Jackson Park is chosen as the site of the fair, he is set to become not only flush with cash, but also with a steady stream of young, female victims.


Burnham travels to New York to recruit the eminent architects George B. Post, Charles McKim, and Richard M. Hunt. Their blatant skepticism of the project's feasibility sends Burnham home unsuccessful. Back in Chicago, he has outraged local architects for approaching the easterners first. Root travels to New York to make another plea.

Under the combined assurances of rich fees and disavowals of any artistic interference, the skeptical New York architects agree to come to Chicago for a meeting.

Need to Know: Through personal charisma and determination Burnham and Root manage to snag the attention of the country's most renowned architects.

A Hotel for the Fair

Holmes realizes that turning his building into a hotel for fairgoers is a gold mine. After the fair, he would burn the building to collect the insurance and destroy whatever evidence remained. To help deflect any future suspicion, he ingratiates himself with officers of the local police precinct.

Myrta's great-uncle, Jonathan Belknap, suspicious of Holmes, visits the property and survives a probable murder attempt after Holmes identifies him as a lucrative target.

Holmes installs a large furnace in the basement, ostensibly to manufacture glass. However, the furnace man later recognizes that the kiln would be perfect for a crematorium and would produce no odor.

Need to Know: Holmes's web of deception expands as he builds the necessary features into his "murder castle."

The Landscape of Regret

The eastern architects come to Chicago to review Jackson Park and are appalled, protesting that "it can't be done." The park is overgrown, full of dead trees, and adjacent to a lake, the level of which fluctuates as much as four feet. The Chicagoans pull out all the stops with wining and dining and impassioned speeches about their vision for the fair, but the time for construction is just too short. The eastern architects leave unconvinced.

Need to Know: With the eastern architects still refusing to get on board, the entire project seems lost.

Vanishing Point

Holmes hires Ned Conner as a pharmacist in his drugstore, quickly showing too much attention to Ned's wife Julia and sister Gertie.

One night, Holmes asks Ned to help him determine just how soundproof the big vault is.

Vanishings in Chicago are commonplace. With an inept, corrupt police force, no one pays attention unless someone wealthy disappears. Found bodies are given to the medical college or the hospital for research and instruction. Skeletons are flensed and sold to doctors, museums, or private collectors.

Need to Know: Chicago is a dark place, and Holmes is the darkest of predators.


The New York architects, led by Richard Hunt, unexpectedly agree to join the venture. They will become the fair's Board of Architects. John Root falls ill with pneumonia, declines quickly, and dies. Burnham is devastated by the death of his closest friend, now left alone to undertake the Sisyphean task of shepherding the fair to completion.

A major bank in Kansas City fails. Labor relations deteriorate. Strikes loom. There are fears of a cholera outbreak due to Chicago's abysmal sewage system. Prendergast sinks further into madness. A serial killer writes, "I was born with the devil in me."

Need to Know: Even at the cusp of triumph with bringing the eastern architects into the fold and work finally getting underway, Burnham faces a mounting series of impossible obstacles.

Part II: An Awful Fight

Chicago, 1891–93


The architects gather and present their designs for the fair's buildings. The collective result is one that, if successful, will go down in history as a breathtaking architectural marvel. But time is too short, the designs too ambitious. They can't pull it off. Olmsted and Burnham dispute their visions for the grounds and lakeshore. Olmsted strives for an aura of "mysterious poetic effect," using only a minimum of flowers, focusing on the sublime power of greenery.

It is all an extravagant vision, but can they accomplish it in less than fifteen months?

Strikes erupt. Committees must decide everything. Burnham hires Charles B. Atwood, an opium addict, to replace John Root. With time so short, commissioners are sent abroad to bring back exhibits. Chicago readies itself for a surge in crime.

Need to Know: The run-up to construction is a frenzy of desperation, with hundreds of steps all being taken in and out of order, and obstacles cropping up right and left.


Holmes instigates an affair with Ned Conner's sister Gertrude. Gertrude flees back to Iowa in shame, falls ill, and dies. Ned's wife Julia soon falls under Holmes's spell. Holmes sells Ned the pharmacy.

Creditors start to appear at the pharmacy demanding payment. Many of Holmes's debts now belong to Ned, the owner of the pharmacy.

After a final battle with Julia, Ned can take it no longer. He abandons Julia and his daughter Pearl to Holmes and moves out of town, filing for divorce as he goes.

Holmes's interest in Julia fizzles out quickly. Pearl's accusatory glares grow tiresome.

Need to Know: Holmes continues to leave the wreckage of human lives behind him, and sow the seeds of more foul play ahead.


Designs are finalized, but construction problems abound, due in large part to the geology of Jackson Park. Burnham continuously butts heads with committees both local and national. Aggravation and delay became a way of life.

The fair's ultimate look begins to take shape, featuring immense palaces by Hunt, Post, and others around the Court of Honor.

Designers and engineers are solicited for ideas to top Paris's Eiffel Tower, the crowning achievement of the previous World's Fair, but without success.

To prevent outbreaks of disease during the fair, Burnham finds a reliable source of fresh water somewhere outside of Chicago and arranges, somewhat backhandedly, for it to be shipped to the fair.

A battle ensues over the fair's electric lighting between Westinghouse Electric (an alternating current design using patents acquired from Nikola Tesla) and General Electric Company (a direct current design formerly belonging to Thomas Edison). Westinghouse ultimately wins the bid and changes the course of the history of electricity.

Need to Know: The Chicago World's Fair was a nexus for changing the history of America at many levels, not least which is the electrical system used today. But by December 1891, construction is far, far behind schedule. Failure to finish on time will disgrace not only Chicago but the entire country.

Remains of the Day

Julia Conner is pregnant, but Holmes only agrees to marry her if she lets him perform an abortion. On Christmas Eve, he subdues her with chloroform and disposes of her, along with her daughter Pearl. Neighbors ask pointed questions about Julia's welfare, but he puts them off with assurances that she left suddenly for Iowa. He pays a specialist for her cadaver to be articulated as a skeleton, and then sells the skeleton to Hahneman Medical College in Chicago. Demand for such bodies is high, and grave robbing is commonplace. No one asks where the bodies come from.

Need to Know: Holmes continues his covert murder spree, relying on the unscrupulous and desperate to hide his tracks.

A Gauntlet Dropped

Battles over wages and working hours plague the construction, along with the onslaught of winter. Workers pour into Chicago to join the construction effort. Skirmishes erupt over exhibits, décor, building materials, and committee oversight. The US steel industry itself is brought to its knees by the demands of the construction. Costs skyrocket.

If completed, the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building will be the largest building ever constructed up until that time. The fair's Midway Plaisance will be "a great pleasure garden stretching for more than a mile. ... An exotic realm of unusual sights, sounds, and scents."

In an illustration of the far-reaching historical ripples of the fair, we learn that one of the workers constructing this magical realm included a carpenter named Elias Disney. His son Walt would no doubt grow up listening to his father's tales of the White City.

Need to Know: The daily trials and tribulations that Burnham faced challenges the imagination.

The Angel from Dwight

Ben Pitezel visits Dwight, Illinois, seeking a cure for his alcoholism. There, he meets young Emeline Cigrand and returns to Chicago with such an awestruck description of her that Holmes immediately sends her an invitation to come to Chicago to be his personal secretary. Beautiful twenty-four-year-old Emeline comes to Chicago and finds herself in Holmes's web of seduction and deceit. Her infatuation with Holmes leads her to believe his claims to an English lordship.

Holmes asks her to marry him, and she accepts. He suggests a honeymoon in Europe, promising to introduce her to his father, an English lord.

Need to Know: Yet another hapless woman falls into Holmes's infernal grip.

Dedication Day

Olmsted and Burnham argue over the boats to be used in the fair's waterways, and over Olmsted's insistence that the Wooded Island be free of structures. Fearing that even worse monstrosities might be imposed upon his beloved green spaces, Olmsted consents to the placement of a serene Japanese temple. The endless struggles push Olmsted to the brink of collapse, so he leaves for England to recuperate. His condition, however, does not improve.

Inhabitants of an Algerian village headed for the fair arrive a year early, causing a panic for their accommodation.

Burnham's dreams of surpassing the Eiffel Tower seem to be in ashes. An engineer from Pittsburgh has sent a bold new design, but Burnham doesn't believe it can be built. Storms destroy parts of half-completed buildings.

Battles continue over the fair's color scheme. Burnham's insistence on the use of simple, perfect white for the major buildings prompts the resignation of the acting director of color. McKim recommends New York painter Frank Millet. He develops a new application process for the vast swaths of enormous buildings that must be painted, in effect, inventing spray paint.


Excerpted from Summary and Analysis of The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Worth Books. Copyright © 2017 Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents


Cast of Characters,
Direct Quotes and Analysis,
Critical Response,
About Erik Larson,
For Your Information,

Customer Reviews