The Devil in the White City | Study Guide

Erik Larson

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The Devil in the White City | Epilogue, Chapters 54–57 : The Last Crossing | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 54: The Fair

The chapter recaps the highlights of the Chicago World's Fair and explains how it made a lasting impression on American culture. The fair "awakened America to beauty" and paved the way for architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright. Walt Disney's father, Elias Disney, helped build the White City, and Walt Disney's Magic Kingdom may well be based on it. L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz, and his artist partner, William Wallace Denslow, visited the fair, and the White City informed their vision of Oz and the Emerald City. Because of the fair's tribute to Columbus, President Benjamin Harrison designated October 12 as a national holiday, Columbus Day. In addition every carnival since 1893 has had a Ferris wheel and a midway, and many of the products first sold at the fair are still sold today. Most importantly, the fair forever changed the way Americans saw their cities and the architects who built them. The fair helped people "steeped only in the necessary" realize cities could be something other than "dark, soiled, and unsafe bastions of the strictly pragmatic. They could also be beautiful."

Chapter 55: Recessional

In 1895 Olmsted is 73 and losing his memory. Olmsted's dementia advances over the following years, and his family puts him in McLean Asylum, outside Boston, whose grounds were designed by Olmsted. He dies in 1903.

George Ferris dies young in 1896, and the Ferris Wheel is eventually disassembled and sold for scrap. Sol Bloom becomes rich but then loses his money on bad investments; then he becomes a congressman and "one of the crafters of the charter that founded the United Nations." Prendergast is tried and sentenced to death.

Chapter 56: Holmes

Holmes is tried in Philadelphia. Although 35 witnesses are brought in from various cities, they are never called, which "eliminated from the historical record a rich seam of a detail on the murders of Dr. Herman W. Mudgett." He is convicted only on the evidence tying him to Pitezel's murder and sentenced to hang. Before he is executed Holmes makes three confessions and ultimately is held accountable for murdering 27 people, although he admits to murdering more. However, some of the people he names are still alive. "At the very least he killed nine: Julia and Pearl Conner, Emeline Cigrand, the Williams sisters, and Pitezel and his children."

Chapter 57: Aboard the Olympic

The story ends on the Olympic as Burnham waits for news of Frank Millet. As it turns out, the Olympic's sister ship is the Titanic, and Millet has died in the accident. Burnham dies 47 days later, on June 1, 1912. He and his wife, Margaret, who outlived him by three decades, are buried in Chicago.

Analysis

Larson notes that if the witnesses that were assembled for Holmes's trial had been deposed, then the historical record would have been more complete, but the record would have covered only the murders of the three children and shed light on his plan to wipe out the Pitezel family. This is explained in the Geyer account. No inquiries or investigations are opened on Holmes's other murder victims, and Larson's account is silent about why. Perhaps there simply was not enough evidence.

Larson sheds light on a particular moment in American history and creates a riveting and plausible account of the Chicago World's Fair, the man who made it happen, and the heinous crimes of one of America's first known serial killers, whose murderous path crossed that of the fair's existence. The narrative nonfiction form marries reported facts to fictional techniques, which creates a riveting story. Yet the story of the psychopath Holmes necessarily leaves the reader with more questions than answers since it is impossible to fathom the mind of such a human aberration.

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