The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

My favorite nonfiction texts are those that place narratives about individuals in larger sociological contexts, because they draw the reader in on a human level and allow them to connect with larger-than-life stories. Not only does no other work of true crime do that better than The Devil in The White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson (Crown Publishers, 2003), but it also seamlessly ties two such stories together to create a truly unique and memorable book.

Larson blends together the stories of Daniel Burnham, the architect behind the World’s Columbian Exposition, known as The White City, and H.H. Holmes, a medical doctor and pharmacist believed to be one of the most prolific serial killers in history, leading up to and during, and after the fair. Rather than treating them as a backdrop, Larson uses many details that make both the fair and the city of Chicago characters themselves. 

The book portrays a time of tremendous economic growth in America that is referred to as the Gilded Age. Wages increased and there was an influx of European immigrants and an expansion of industrialization that cemented the United States of America as a major economic and global power. It also proved to be a period of austerity, greed, and ultimately, corruption.

It was also a time of great transition. Newly crowded cities generated anonymity and the new kinds of crimes that a big city breeds, such as riots and pick pocketing, which were virtually nonexistent in rural communities. Social mores changed, and most significantly of all, women became more independent. No longer confined to just keeping house, women in industrial cities had, for the first time, a multitude of career options, like working in the newly opened factories and shops. This was particularly true in Chicago at the time. All of which helped facilitate Holmes’ crimes:

“How easy it was to disappear:

A thousand trains a day entered or left Chicago. Many of these trains brought single young women who had never even seen a city but now hoped to make one of the biggest and toughest their home. Jane Addams, the urban reformer who founded Chicago’s Hull House, wrote, ‘Never before in civilization have such numbers of young girls been suddenly released from the protection of the home and permitted to walk unattended upon the city streets and to work under alien roofs.’ The women sought work as typewriters, stenographers, seamstresses, and weavers. The men who hired them were for the most part moral citizens intent on efficiency and profit. But not always. On March 30, 1890, an officer of the First National Bank placed a warning in the help-wanted section of the Chicago Tribune, to inform female stenographers of ‘our growing conviction that no thoroughly honorable business-man who is this side of dotage ever advertises for a lady stenographer who is a blonde, is good-looking, is quite alone in the city, or will transmit her photograph. All such advertisements upon their face bear the marks of vulgarity, nor do we regard it safe for any lady to answer such unseemly utterances’” (11).

Larson reminds us that with great progress, also comes great problems. By contrasting Burnham and Holmes, Larson shows both the glittering surface and the dark underbelly of the era, and Chicago, whose population grew exponentially during the fair, makes for the perfect microcosm of Gilded Age America.

The main theme of the book is that of good vs. evil. Just as Chicago exemplifies the Guided Age, Burnham and Holmes exemplify what men can accomplish, both good and bad. As Larson puts is:

“Beneath the gore and smoke and loam, this book is about the evanescence of life, and why some men choose to fill their brief allotment of time engaging the impossible, others in the manufacture of sorrow. In the end it is a story of the ineluctable conflict between good and evil, daylight and darkness, the White City and the Black” (ix).

In the book, Larson conveys to the reader that through sheer will, people can accomplish incredible things. He encourages us to interrogate our own motivations by showing us that some people, like Burnham, are motivated to improve the lives of others. While there are people like Holmes, whose intentions are far darker. In one of the most unsettling passages, Larson describes the confusion of police detective Frank Greyer over Holmes’ motivations for abducing three children, whose deaths he helped fake in an insurance fraud scheme he plotted with their parents:

“Why had Holmes taken the children? Why had he engineered that contorted journey from city to city? What power did Holmes possess that gave him such control? There was something about Holmes that Geyer just did not understand. Every crime had a motive. But the force that propelled Holmes seemed to exist outside the world of Geyer’s experience. He kept coming back to the same conclusion: Holmes was enjoying himself. He had arranged the insurance fraud for the money, but the rest of it was for fun. Holmes was testing his power to bend the lives of people” (355).

Both Burnham and Holmes bent the lives of others, but the things that one did made the world a better place, and the other made it worse. Yet, Larson does not portray it as a triumph of good over evil even though he illustrates how influential Burnham’s work was, but instead shows how the two coexist.

Although I was drawn to The Devil in The White City for the serial killer element, I found that contrasting the stories of Holmes and Burnham made for a rich tale of both a watershed moment in American history and the eternal struggle of good vs. evil. Larson doesn’t give either of his protagonists the short-shift, despite the fact that a story about a particularly prolific serial killer is an easier sell than the story of an architect. This balance allows him to achieve a vivid and insightful work. It is a masterpiece.

Please add The Devil in the White City to your Goodreads shelf and follow Erik Larson on Twitter.

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About the Writer:

Anastasia Rose Hyden (she/her) is a Florida native with a BA in Philosophy and Psychology from Saint Xavier University, a MA in Liberal Studies from Hollins University, and a MA in English from the University of North Florida. She fell in love with true crime after reading Dominick Dunne’s articles in Vanity Fair when she was a kid.

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