The Devil in the White City

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The Devil in the White City
Cover of The Devil in the White City
Author Erik Larson
Country United States
Language English
Genre History, True crime
Publisher Crown Publishers
Publication date
Media type Print (hardcover and paperback)
Pages 447
ISBN 0-609-60844-4
OCLC 54397544

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (Crown Publishers, ISBN 0-609-60844-4) is a 2003 non-fiction book by Erik Larson presented in a novelistic style. The book is based on real characters and events. Leonardo DiCaprio purchased the film rights in 2010.[1]


The book is set in Chicago in 1893, intertwining the true tales of Daniel H. Burnham, the architect behind the 1893 World's Fair, and Dr. H. H. Holmes, the serial killer who lured his victims to their deaths in his elaborately constructed "Murder Castle."


(Analysis Written by John Lyons, he has given approval of the publication of this analysis)

​The Historical book, The Devil in the White City, written by renowned author Erik Larson, was set to take place during the 1893 World Colombian Exposition held in Chicago. The events surrounding the World Colombian Exposition were selected by Erik Larson because he wanted to teach readers about an historic event from two points of view, one from the eyes of the creators and one from the extirpators. The events shown through these eyes are presented side by side to help show Chicago’s “White City and Black City”.(Larson 11) The two stories described in this book are written with such horrific details that seemingly convince you of a work of fiction, but readers are constantly reminded that all the events and facts are true.

Erik Larson was born January 3, 1954 in Brooklyn, NY. Erik Larson has spent most of his career writing works of nonfiction and has been an American Journalist for companies such as The Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, etc. Larson has also written a vast number of bestsellers, including The Devil in the White City. The Devil in the White City was one of Larson's most momentous works because of the vast array of awards it won. Larson is best known for being an expert at researching events and then applying them correctly and in a meaningful way into his works. Larson was undoubtedly noticed for his adept ability to recreate unknown stories from such known events with his work with The Devil in the White City and it's topical award; 2004 Edgar Award in the Best Fact Crime category.

Eric Larson used his writing to paint pictures of the past and show us stories untouched until now. Larson did an outstanding job of setting up the events leading up to the World's Columbian Exposition, the aftermath, and everywhere in between. While writing The Devil in the White City Larson exclaimed that he wanted to show a story "of the ineluctable conflict between good and evil, daylight and darkness, the White City and the Black."(Larson xi) Larson tells his story through two very different individuals who end up being connected by one event, World's Columbian Exposition. The story is told surrounding the events of the Serial Killer Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, and Architect Daniel Hudson Burnham. The two men lived in very different parts of Chicago, the "Dark City" and the "White City". The term White City refers to the World's Columbian Exposition (hope, benevolence) and the Dark City refers to all the crime and death that has been lurking in the shadows of Chicago.

​The Devil in the White City takes historians on a journey to the events surrounding the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. The World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 was seen as a way for America to compete with the recently constructed Eiffel Tower in Paris, and at the same time bring hope to a city (Chicago) that was losing all aspects of it very quickly. The City of Chicago in the late 1800's was well known for its constant increase in poverty and crime. The brilliant minds behind the Exposition hoped to diminish a large majority of the poverty and crime by providing large numbers of jobs for the people of Chicago for the creation and construction of the fair. The architecture presented in the Exposition was partially created and designed by Architect Daniel Burnham, one of the two main characters of the story. When the fair finally opened there were 27.5 million visits in the 6 months it was open. (Larson 5) The City officials were unprepared for such magnitudes of people and hence were unable to stop a large majority of crime surrounding the fair. The opportunity for crime without conviction was all too appealing for Dr. H.H. Holmes and took the opportunity without hesitation. Holmes was a striking man who used his charm to lure innocent young women into his home, kill them, and then sell their bodies to universities for science.

​While writing this book Larson decided to organize it into five parts in chronological order by time period. Larson starts the story in 1890 with the introduction to Chicago and then finishes it in 1895 with the full truth behind H.H. Holmes. Larson sets the story up in a way that makes it seem like history is writing itself as you read. Larson has the ability to connect facts together to make a story seem so elegant it almost doesn't feel real. Throughout the story Larson writes as if it is a fictional story but yet slams all the facts right in front of you. It is a beautifully constructed book that shows a way to make learning about historical events like these more interesting than just reading facts out of a textbook; instead he provides stories and meaning to those facts.

​When Larson speaks about his books he always makes the point that he himself researched everything found in the story. He makes the point to say that he never hired anyone or even pulled information off of the Internet. Larson is very proud to be one of the few writers who still goes to libraries and visits people to get firsthand accounts on historical stories. Larson explains in his notes section of the story that he came across many, as he believed, embellished stories and accounts while researching the major events. Although this was what he thought would be the norm, he decided to take these embellishments and research them more deeply. Larson was able to find that despite thinking most horrific stories were not real they ended up being most certainly and horrifyingly real. While researching, Larson used many police reports and many other exceedingly credible sources to help narrow down the differences between fact and fiction. His methods for finding the truth in all of the fiction are why his book, The Devil in the White City, managed to touch so many readers in many different ways.

​I would recommend this book not only for vast amount of historical information surrounding the World's Columbian Exposition, but because of the lessons taught throughout the book. The most amazing aspect of this story is that two people can be so alike but yet still remain distant through desires with one man’s desire to inflict pain while another's is to purge it. This is Larson’s attempt to show the readers that lying in the shadows there is an evil worth living for, but also that in the light there is also hope worth living for. It is up to you to decide not what is right or wrong but rather what you desire most. There are evil desires and benevolent desires. Larson chose to show two stories, one of a man who chose to let evil desires take control and the other to let benevolent desires take control. Larson has not told you which man is which but it is easy to decipher who has what desire. He shows us that there aren’t good or bad people, but rather good and bad desires. With this knowledge it is safe to say he hopes people will be able to figure out if their desires would leave them in the White City or the Black.

Burnham and the architects[edit]

Holmes and associates[edit]

1895 newspaper image of Dr. Henry Howard Holmes
  • Herman Webster Mudgett (aka Dr. H. H. Holmes): a serial killer who used the fair to lure his victims to their deaths. Dr. Holmes had built his "World's Fair Hotel" complete with a gas chamber, dissection table, and a crematorium to dispose of the bodies. Holmes would have the skeletons of his victims removed and sell them for medical and scientific study.
  • Clara A. Lovering: Holmes's first wife
  • Myrta Z. Belknap: Holmes's second wife
  • Lucy Holmes: Holmes's daughter with Myrta
  • Georgiana Yoke: Holmes's third wife
  • Julia Smythe: employee and lover of Holmes; wife of Ned Connor
  • Ned Connor: employee of Holmes; husband of Julia Smythe
  • Emeline Cigrand: fiancée (and murder victim) of Holmes
  • Benjamin Pietzel: business associate (and murder victim) of Holmes
  • Carrie Pietzel: wife of Benjamin Pietzel
  • Howard, Nellie and Alice Pietzel: son and two daughters(respectively) of Benjamin and Carrie Pietzel.
  • Frank Geyer: detective in charge of finding Pietzel's children after Holmes was jailed for fraud
  • Thomas W. Barlow: assistant district attorney who prosecuted Holmes

Other figures[edit]

External media
Erik Larson 03B.jpgAuthor Erik Larson
The Devil in the White City, Weekend Edition, National Public Radio, Larson interviewed by Scott Simon, 10:01, April 5, 2003
Booknotes - The Devil in the White City, C-SPAN, 58:00, September 14, 2003.

Film adaptation[edit]

Leonardo DiCaprio purchased the film rights to the book in 2010; the movie is to be produced by Paramount Pictures, Stacey Sher and Michael Shamberg's Double Feature Films, and DiCaprio's own production company Appian Way Productions.[2][3] Writer Graham Moore was originally hired to adapt the book into a screenplay, but it was later reported that Billy Ray would be writing the script.[4] Martin Scorsese will direct.[5]



External links[edit]