Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City is about the creation and execution of the 1893 World’s Fair, the Columbian Exposition and the actions of America’s first known serial killer. A powerful portrait of America in the 1890s, the book represents the best and worst of the Gilded Age. The book focuses on two men, Daniel Burnham, the mastermind behind the Fair, and H.H. Holmes, America’s first known serial killer. Both men work tirelessly to achieve their goals and both prove to be quite successful; Burnham gets his grand affair and Holmes manages to kill a number of people. Overall, The Devil in the White City is about the importance of being important.
Throughout the book, Daniel Burnham works very hard to get the World’s Fair in Chicago and succeed. The beginning of the book starts at the end, almost twenty years after the fair, and Larson lets the reader know how tired the older Burnham is as he tries to relax on a ship voyage. From here we go backwards with Burnham and find out what why he is so exhausted. Through the book we learn the history of Chicago and what it meant to Burnham and his cohorts to be the best. Completely ignoring the outstanding plight of Chicago (the stench from the infamous stockyards is mentioned often) and obsessed with the success of the World’s Fair in Paris, specifically the amazement of the Eiffel Tower, Larson portrays these professional, educated, sophisticated men as boys who are only looking out for themselves.
=As for the serial killer, Holmes, we get to watch him plan his madness around the building of the great Fair. As soon as he finds out where the Fair is going to be held in Chicago, Holmes gets to work, readying his life as a psychopathic murderer. From his first introduction, we know that Holmes is a bad man, someone who thinks nothing of lying, cheating, even killing, solely for his own personal gain. Even at the end, when Holmes is found guilty of murder and sentenced to die, he goes to his grave reveling in his own importance. And the fact that people continued to cater towards this convicted killer only enhances Holmes’ self-centered beliefs.
Erik Larson did an amazing amount of research for this book. With over 25 pages of notes and sources, he proves that this book is as factual as it gets. Further proof of that is when he admits that he used dramatic license when describing two death scenes that only Holmes and the victim would have witnessed. Larson said that his main source of inspiration for those scenes was from Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, another history/true crime/feels like a novel book about violent murder. He also read from the testimonies of Holmes’ trial on how one of the murders most likely occurred. Aside from those two parts, the main source of the book appears to be Larson’s findings at various institutions in Chicago.
At the Chicago Historical Society, Larson was able to find actual writings by one of the more important characters in the book, Patrick Prendergast, the assassin who kills the mayor of Chicago at the end of the fair, among other primary sources. He also used the archives at the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries at the Art Institute of Chicago, which is housed in one of the two buildings left from the 1893 World’s Fair. Larson also credits Chicago travel guides, two current and two from the 1890s as valuable to his research methods. I think even more credit should be given to the author for not relying heavily on the autobiographical memoir that Holmes wrote while he was in prison. This would have been Holmes’ worst nightmare, that he was not in charge of telling his own story.
If a friend had recommended The Devil in the White City to me and not mentioned it was non-fiction, I might have thought it was a really good novel. Larson wrote this book for people to read, not for people to use for one or two pages of research. The review on the front cover by the San Francisco Chronicle says “As absorbing a piece of popular history as one will ever hope to find.” Larson managed to take a subject (History) that a lot of people would say is boring and made it the opposite. He created characters, developed plot, drew a setting, and made connections that some fiction writers cannot even do. The way Larson describes Holmes is captivating. The re-occurring life insurance policies that Holmes is forever trying to get people to sign up for is a constant reminder of this evil man’s motives. Even his non-violent actions, such as deserting his first wife, trying to commit insurance fraud and selling the original pharmacy before opening a new one across the street, make Holmes a character you feel like you have read about in a mystery. When you remember that Holmes was a real person, this is even more unsettling, knowing a man like this actually existed.
Two people vaguely mentioned in the book left me with questions. First, why was Buffalo Bill Cody not allowed to have his act inside the fair? The organizers turned him down as “incongruity”( 133). But when Cody immediately purchases the land next to the fair to set up his show, why didn’t the organizers change their minds, knowing how successful Cody’s act would be? I understand the class issue of their reasoning but from a business standpoint, it did not make sense. I would have liked Larsen to explain more of the fair organizers feelings as they saw how successful the Wild West Show was. Also, I would have liked to have learned more about Holmes’ second wife, Myrta. I understand that when Holmes left New Hampshire, he would not have heard from his first wife, especially considering he had changed his name. But Myrta and their child were still around Chicago with her family but she is never mentioned after Holmes’ marriage to Minnie.
I also would have liked more historic photographs or drawings. Larson did so well at describing the scenes that photographs and drawings were not necessary but they would have added to the historical aspect of the story more. Like any good true crime novel, there should always be a center section of photographs. Understandably there may not have been photographs available of many of the victims, but Larson mentions photographs, especially when Detective Geyer is searching for the Pitezel children.
In terms of historical popularity, the 1890s is not a time period Americans seem to care much about. So soon after the Civil War and so close to the new century, this decade gets lost in history textbooks. I feel that Larsen’s book cannot be compared with the textbook at all, because the textbook is expected to encompass so much more than a non-text book based on one part of American History.
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in American history, true crime or from Chicago. Because Larson writes like a novelist, there is a great deal of suspense in the book; he does an excellent job making Holmes into a terrifying villain. He also describes Chicago so well I could easily picture Jackson Park going from a nothing swamp to the White City. Larson also explores an era that was vital to what America is now but is so often overlooked in history. I think this is a great book for a class assignment because it is so well written, students would not realize how much they are being taught while being entertained.