The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City, is a non-fiction novel by Erik Larson, published in 2003, which combines two fascinating events in 1893.  The first is the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, and the second is the life and “career” of Dr. H.H. Holmes, one of the first documented serial killers of the United States.

The main story of the novel is about the trials of American architect Daniel Burnham during the building of what would later be known as The White City – the temporary site of the World’s Columbian Expo.  Trying to prove itself to the country and to the world as a progressive and sophisticated city, Chicago fought to host the World Exposition of 1893.  The Columbus World’s Expo was to commemorate Christopher Columbus’ 400th anniversary of reaching the United States, and to show the world that the United States could outdo the very successful World’s Fair held in Paris in 1889.

Daniel Burnham and the group of architects involved in building the site of the Chicago World’s Fair wanted to do something great, and amazing – something no city had ever done, and something no one had ever seen before.  The three years it took to build the White City was fraught with setbacks, challenges, and tragedies, and even after its opening in the spring of 1893, Chicago and Burnham continued to face challenges every day.

Set amid this hustle and bustle of getting the White City done in time of Opening Day, Herman Webster Mudgett, also known as Dr. H.H. Holmes, set up a business in a neighborhood adjacent to The White City to satisfy, at will, his bizarre and equally terrible urges and obsessions.

The late 1890’s was a time when young women, eager and intoxicated by their newfound freedom and independence, moved to big cities to find jobs as typists, secretaries, etc.  To answer to the growing need to house women moving into the city, and to capitalize on the visitors who would be coming to Chicago to visit the World’s Fair, Dr. Holmes constructed a hotel which would allow him to earn money, as well as to carry out his devious activities.

Chapters in The Devil in the White City alternate between the story of Daniel Burnham and the construction of The White City, and murders of Dr. H.H. Holmes.  Through memoirs, and historical accounts, Eric Larson was able to piece together the timelines of important events in the lives of both men and other significant people.

The parts of the book devoted to Daniel Burnham and the World’s Fair was interesting enough – it described the condition of Chicago at the time, and the challenges architects and engineers faced in building skyward.  It was also fascinating to learn about the historical significance of The Chicago World’s Fair, not only to the United States, but to the whole world.  The Chicago World’s Fair revolutionized the use of electricity in powering buildings, streets, and homes; it also led to a cultural revolution by introducing media and art forms that would later sweep the country.

The spray paint was invented and used the first time during the Chicago World’s Fair, as well as shredded wheat cereal and cracker jacks.  One of the most important inventions of the time was the Ferris Wheel, created by George Washington Gale Ferris, to symbolize the Chicago World’s Fair and to outdo Gustave Eiffel’s famous tower, built for the Paris World Expo of 1889.

Though the parts about the World’s Fair was fascinating and interesting because of its historical and cultural significance, I was much more interested in the story of Dr. H.H. Holmes – con artist, fraud, psychopath and murderer.  In the course of his career, he was charged with the murder of at least 200 women, including 4 children.  Though Holmes was responsible for the disappearance and death of countless young women in Chicago during the time of the World’s Fair, he was not arrested until after the Fair ended –  not for murder, but for insurance fraud.

Dr. H.H. Holmes was known as a charismatic, handsome man who, because of this warmth and charm, was able to manipulate people easily.  Women were naturally attracted to him – and he fed on their vulnerability, anxiety, and weakness.

After Holmes’ arrest in 1895, police investigators raided his hotel/murder castle, and discovered numerous bones and articles of clothing inside its many secret rooms and vaults.  Detectives dedicated to Holmes’ case also discovered bodies and bones of children he’s killed in other cities.

Apart from Dr. H.H. Holmes activities coinciding with the building and 6-month run of the Chicago World’s Fair, there is no direct link between the story of Daniel Burnham and Dr. H.H. Holmes.

The novel starts out slow, with introductions of characters and the setting up of the scene, and because the chapters in the novel alternate between Burnham and Holmes, I found myself impatiently reading the parts about the construction of the World’s Fair in order to reach the chapters about Holmes, and to know more about his activities. I kept waiting for the novel to truly focus on Holmes and his killings, but as it progressed, it focused more on the World’s Fair and less on Holmes.  Though Holmes was mentioned, in part, throughout the first part of the novel, it focuses on him mostly in the end, after he was arrested and police detectives uncovered evidence of his heinous crimes.

Though The Devil in the White City, is a fascinating story about architecture, city planning and the lives of pioneering architects, what makes it truly interesting, for me at least, were the parts devoted to Dr. H.H. Holmes and his career as the devil incarnate.


The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (2003) – Erik Larson

Vintage, 390 pages

Personal rating:  3/5

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