The Devil in the White City Summary

In his nonfiction book “The Devil in the White City” the author uses the same style he used for “Isaac Storm” - another his work written in 1999. Eric Larson takes a real historical event that took place in nineteenth century and reinterprets it from the points of view of several characters involved. Focusing on a few individuals he shows the impact that the event can have on personal, not global scale. In this book Larson shows the readers the issues of a growing big city of that time, and its peculiarities. The city during the Glided Age, with its newly developed transport, communication, electricity and anonymity serves as a background for the two stories: the one of Daniel Burnham, who struggles to create a world scale fair named the White city, and the other of Henry Holmes, a serial killer who really existed, horrifying all the Chicago in 1890’s. He is the “devil” from the name of the book: cunning, bloodthirsty and hungry for power. The novel takes part mostly in Chicago of 1890-1893, but it is divided to four parts, the fourth of which shows us the event in Philadelphia of 1895.

The story starts from the description of the real life World’s Columbian Exposition that took place in 1893 and was also known the Chicago World’s Fair (the White City seems to be a fictional name). The exhibition was held to commemorate the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’ landing in America. It is also an unofficial answer to the French exhibition of 1889, where the Eiffel Tower was presented. This magnificent building mesmerized all the world and now Daniel Burnham dreams to show something even greater. This character has a real life prototype: an architect who built the Chicago World’s Fair. But at first Chicago has to win a harsh competition with New York for an honor to host this exhibition. New York at first seems to be much more suitable location: Chicago is portrayed as dirty and crowded city, with many poor districts and high criminal rates. Moreover, city officials are also a problem – they see the fair not as a way to show national pride, but as a vast field for corruption. Chicago is run by greedy and generally unpleasant people, its weather is unpredictable and usually bad: the cold winds from the lake are miraculously combined with thick and smelly smog that covers the city and can’t be removed by any wind, even the strongest one. Nevertheless, after the fierce rivalry Chicago outran New York and Daniel Burnham with his partner, another architect named John Root, start their work on design and construction of the fair.

In the meantime a doctor, who names himself H. H. Holmes, arrives to the city. But it is something of a pseudonym: his real name is Herman Mudgett. We see his sociopathic traits from the very beginning: he is married to a woman named Clara, but isn’t ashamed to show attention of other women and promptly abandons his wife. The women are indeed attracted to him, because he neglects the traditional rules of dating, to the point of being rude, but they see it like a passion and a kind of animal magnetism. Also, the putrid smell of slaughterhouses - the biggest industry branch in the city - that disgusts most of the visitors of Chicago, is delightful for him. As a doctor, Holmes opens a drugstore and runs it mostly to attract women. Still married to Clara he seduces and illegitimately marries another woman named Myrta, but immediately starts neglecting her too. Secretly, he purchases the neighboring building and start to restore it, making a hotel there - but some of the rooms are clearly torture rooms. Still, Holmes is beyond suspicions, because no one can imagine that a serial killer can tell about his actions so openly. So, the “decorations” are considered a clever design move. But Holmes looks attentively at the workers, noticing that some of them are much more interested in these rooms than others. He takes them as his accomplices. Two of Holmes’ new “friends” are called Benjamin Pitezel and Charles Chappel. The first victim of the hotel should be Myrta’s wealthy distant relative. Holmes forges a letter from Myrta to him, inviting Jonathan to this new hotel. Jonathan accepts the invitation and stays alive - later he remembers a failed murder attempt.

Back to the architects. The job isn’t going to be easy. The two leading architects manage to gather the star team: Charles McKim, Frederick Olmsted and Louis Sullivan as the rest of the architects. They find a perfect location: in Jackson Park with a marvelous view to Lake Michigan. When the work seems to be planned, all the plans are disrupted by the untimely death of John Root. Now Burnham has to face all the horrors of crisis management all alone: the quarrel happened between the architects, some of which want to see the fair in neoclassical style and some of which don’t, the buildings drafts arrived very lately, the deadlines set by the employers were nearly impossible - they had to build literally a city in two years. Finally, the global economy almost collapses, some especially suspicious deaths of workers occur on the construction site and the workers go to strike, demanding higher salary and increased safety measures. The last straw is the coldest winter seen in the century that makes construction almost impossible.

Using the building World Fair as a reason to advertise his hotel, Holmes calls it “World Fair Hotel” and invites the guests to test it and see the work in progress near the lake. The first visitors are a married young couple: Ned and Julia Conner, who are travelling with Julia’s sister named Gertrude. The first thing Holmes tries to do is to seduce Gertrude. Then he persuades and tricks Ned into purchasing his drugstore (that was just a miserable source of debts at the time). Gertrude and Ned leave immediately, enraged and disgusted - but Julia, after a huge argument with her husband, decides to stay, charmed with the personality of the hotel owner. Holmes sleeps with Julia and impregnates her, and then brutally murders both her and their unborn child. He thinks these events over and understands that murdering women after having sex arouses him more than simply having sex. He invites another woman, Emeline Cigrand, to his hotel and murders her too. The crowded and self-obsessed city is still silent: no one bothers to investigate the mysterious disappearances of the women. Holmes goes travelling in search of new victims. His next target is found in Boston: the wealthy and beautiful woman named Minnie Williams. Holmes courts her, seduces her, brings Minnie to his hotel (with her younger sister Anna, who also wished to travel) and murders them both.

In the meantime, the misfortunes of the future fair continue. Standing against all the odds, Burnham still searches for a wonder that can shine brighter than the Eiffel Tower. Finally, he gets the project that satisfies him - the Ferris wheel. George Ferris gets a Fair concession and slowly starts assembling the wheel. Gradually the malaria-infested swamp turns into the real city with the streets, tall buildings and squares. Still, the builders have to overcome new and new obstacles: the cruel autumn and winter damaged the buildings with the rain and snow and they have to be repaired. But Burnham’s friend, Francis Milled, advised him to turn it into another opportunity to make the Fair special. He offered to repaint all the buildings white. It works: now the Fair is seen from far away and looks like a cloud castle. The mesmerized Chicago dwellers immediately nickname it “The White City”.

Finally, though unfinished, the exhibition opens. Burnham managed to overcome all the impossible obstacles, the biggest of which was lack of taste of his employers. The Fair looks so beautiful only due to Burnham’s persistence and willpower to persuade them to let him do his job over and over again. At first, when the Fair is opened, it goes deep into debts immediately, but Burnham manages to stop the plummeting and fix everything out. Very soon the Fair is profitable again even despite the whole economy is in dismay. More than two hundred of white buildings and stunningly beautiful grounds are presented to the guests of the Fair, illuminated by countless lightbulbs - in nineteenth century it is a huge boasting and one of the first demonstrations of possibilities of alternating current. The color of the buildings only emphasizes the shining of the light bulbs reflecting from the lake and from the white walls. The White City bathes in light, while some of its visitors have never seen electric light before. The Ferris Wheel is the biggest wonder, but there is everything new and good made in America. The guests of the Fair can taste the new Juicy Fruit chewing gum, Shredded Wheat and Cracker Jack - the products that are still associated with America all over the world. The new beers are presented on the beer competition. There are a lot of technical achievements: from dishwashers and zippers to electric chairs. Countless celebrities attend The White City and one can run into Thomas Edison or Harry Houdini right on its streets. The exotic entertainments include bellydancers and camel show from Cairo, masks and gondolas from Venice swimming across the lake and many others. Almost twenty-eight million people visited the Fair during the semi-annual period of its work. At that time it was almost half of the population of the United States. The only event that really was unfortunate for the Fair is the assassination of Chicago Mayor Harrison by Prendergast - his colleague, after Harrison promised to make him a corporation counsel but broke the promise.

While the Fair works the murders continue. Holmes marries some more women, killing them afterwards and inheriting some of their wealth. He even improves his hotel, making a real laboratory in the basement where he gets rid of the bodies of the victims. Unfortunately, he is good at killing, but awful at management. Like his drug store before, his hotel gradually accumulates debts. Only that - and not the mysterious disappearances of dozens of women! - draws attention of the government to Holmes’ activities. Understanding that he is about to be revealed, Holmes sets his hotel on fire to both conceal his tracks, announce himself bankrupt and get a huge insurance claim. However, he is also a bad arsonist and the insurance company starts to suspect him. Holmes kills Benjamin Pitezel - one of those who helped him all along - and flees Chicago. He travels from one place to another, never stopping anywhere for long. The insurance company starts a major pursuit. Detective Frank Geyer follows Holmes through Indianapolis and Toronto and finally gets him in Philadelphia, arresting the murderer for the insurance fraud.

But when he starts to investigate his past, more horrible details come out. Not only Holmes murdered Pitezel (as it was supposed by the detective before), but he also killed his three children. Digging deeper, Detective Geyer finally finds out that Holmes was a serial killer, guilty of murdering many people. Initially, Holmes denies everything, even writing a sweet and sympathetic memoir in jail, but nevertheless he is sentenced to death. When he hears that, his real personality comes out again and he claims that he is possessed by the Devil and curses everyone involved in his execution. The execution goes smooth though.

Burnham becomes an American hero and the most famous architect of his period. The World’s Fair is a major event that shows and changes American science and culture. Later in his life, Burnham learns that his friend Millet, who offered to make The White City white, boarded Titanic and drowned with the ship. Soon afterwards Burnham also dies, peacefully.