The Devil in the White City | Study Guide

Erik Larson

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The Devil in the White City | Part 1, Chapters 1–5 : Frozen Music | Summary



Chapter 1: The Black City

In 1890 young, single women are arriving in Chicago to obtain work and lead independent lives. Both men and women die in the big city of various causes. The narrator notes it is easy to disappear in a large metropolis. A "young handsome doctor," recently arrived, likes Chicago's anonymity.

Chapter 2: "The Trouble Is Just Begun"

Chicago's leading architects, Daniel Burnham and John Root, along with the rest of the city's residents, are anxiously waiting to hear if Chicago has been selected to host a World's Fair to rival the French exposition, which featured the Eiffel Tower. "America's pride in its growing power and international stature had fanned patriotism," which is how the idea arose to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus's arrival in the New World. Chicago is perceived as a "secondary city that preferred hogs to Beethoven" and is competing with New York, the cultural capital of the country. Chicagoans want their city to be recognized as a center of both culture and commerce. Burnham, age 43, waits in his office at the top floor of the Rookery, a skyscraper his partner designed. The windows face south to take advantage of natural light since Chicagoans at that time lived in a perpetual pall of coal smoke.

Burnham became an architect after trying a number of professions. He met Root when they were draftsmen and eventually partnered with him to form their own firm. The partners become very successful, erecting some of the first skyscrapers and designing the entry portal of the Union Stock Yards. Root figures out a better way to cope with Chicago's wet soil, which makes laying foundations a nightmare. He conceives a "grillage" of steel and cement, a "stratum of artificial bedrock." While Root is the "artistic engine" of the architectural duo, Burnham takes the lead in developing relationships that produce commissions. By the end of the chapter the reader learns Chicago has won, and Burnham and Root expect to play a major role in building the fair.

Chapter 3: The Necessary Supply

Chapter 3 returns to the mysterious doctor, who calls himself H.H. Holmes. Holmes is 26, with remarkable blue eyes and an appearance of prosperity and achievement. He comes to Chicago in the summer of 1886 and settles in Englewood, a suburb that is home to Chicago's stockyards and two parks. One of them, Jackson Park, is an undeveloped property along Lake Michigan's shore that will become the main site of the World's Fair.

Holmes's real name is Herman Webster Mudgett. He grew up in a small farming town in New Hampshire and was a bright child who may have been bullied. His one close friend was killed in a fall while he and Mudgett were playing in an empty house. Mudgett married Clara Lovering when he was 18, and at 19 he left her and enrolled in medical school, graduating in 1884. According to Mudgett's/Holmes's memoir, he didn't make much money as a doctor, so he and a former medical-school colleague devised a plan to defraud insurance companies by faking people's deaths with stolen cadavers.

Holmes enters a drugstore at the corner of Wallace and 63rd Street, says he is a doctor and pharmacist, and asks Mrs. Holton, the elderly woman behind the counter, for a job. As it turns out, Mrs. Holton's husband is dying of cancer, so she hires Holmes to run the store. After Dr. Horton dies Holmes buys the store from the widow Horton, allowing her to keep her second-floor apartment. Eventually Mrs. Holton disappears, and Holmes claims she left to live with relatives in California.

Chapter 4: "Becomingness"

President Benjamin Harrison signs the fair bill in April 1890, establishing Dedication Day (the fair's opening day) on October 12, 1892, with the formal opening on May 1, 1893. This leaves Chicago with the seemingly impossible task of building the fair in three years. Meanwhile by autumn a decision about where the fair should be located is still pending.

Burnham becomes chief of construction on October 30, and he appoints Root supervising architect. James Ellsworth, who is on the board of the Committee on Grounds and Buildings, hires Frederick Law Olmsted to create the fair's natural landscape. Olmsted, who designed Manhattan's Central Park, will report to Burnham. Olmsted must be cajoled into signing on to the project; he then weighs in with some very specific ideas about "unity of design" for the landscape and buildings.

This chapter also briefly introduces Patrick Eugene Joseph Prendergast, the manager of a team of newsboys and a budding madman. He writes regularly to politicians and has fixated on Carter Harrison, working for his mayoral candidacy. He expects Harrison to give him a job when he wins, although Harrison has no knowledge of his existence.

Chapter 5: "Don't Be Afraid"

By the end of 1886 Holmes's pharmacy is prospering, and his thoughts turn to Myrta Belknap, a woman he met briefly in Minneapolis. He courts and marries her in January 1887, although he is still married to Clara Lovering. Eventually Myrta becomes jealous of the procession of female customers demanding her husband's attention, a problem he solves by having her manage the books. Her parents move to Wilmette in 1888, right outside of Chicago, and she moves into the house with them and gives birth to a daughter.

Holmes spends most of his time in Chicago and buys land across from the drugstore, registering it under another pseudonym. He conceives a large building for the property, with retail stores on the first floor and apartments on the second and third floors. He plans to hire a lot of women to work with him. He intends to build a walk-in, airtight vault next to his office and installs gas jets in apartments throughout the building that are controlled from his quarters. The basement will have "hidden chambers" and a "subbasement for the permanent storage of sensitive materials." Holmes builds slowly—hiring construction crews, refusing to pay them, firing them, and then hiring new people. This keeps costs down and prevents any one person from understanding the overall design of the building.

Holmes acquires three important associates during this period: Charles Chappell, a machinist who will later articulate skeletons for him; Patrick Quinlan, who becomes a caretaker of the building; and Benjamin Pitezel, a carpenter who graduates to general assistant. Pitezel has a wife, Carrie, and many children. Holmes finishes his building in May 1890, sells the drugstore, and then promptly opens another drugstore in his own building after promising the buyer he will have little competition. He buys furniture and fixtures for the stores under another assumed name and then refers creditors to him. Meanwhile he is stockpiling the anesthetic chloroform.


The young doctor has changed his name from Mudgett to Holmes and is already killing shortly after he gets to Chicago. It's unclear what led to his psychopathic behavior. He seems to have had an unremarkable childhood, although he may have been bullied. But what is known about his childhood comes primarily from Mudgett's/Holmes's memoir, and since he is a notorious liar, anything he says about himself must be regarded as provisionally true. Holmes wrote his memoir after he was arrested to gain sympathy with the public. Thus it appears Holmes was likely born disturbed, and he may have even killed his best friend, although the narrator cannot speculate that far and simply says the best friend died while playing alone with the future serial killer. In his memoir Holmes admits he began trying to defraud insurance companies while he was still a student in medical school, indicating his schemes to make easy money started early.

When Holmes comes to Chicago he wastes no time beginning a killing spree. His first murder in the city, like most of his killing, is tied to a profit motive. Mrs. Horton is the first to disappear; no doubt Holmes kills her so he can take over the apartment as well as the store and not answer inconvenient questions when creditors come calling. Holmes has a mesmerizing personality and easily attracts women; he is never without a companion. He establishes a pattern of having a wife in the background even as he carries on flirtations or sexual relationships with other women, some of whom he murders. He doesn't kill Myrta when she gets in the way of his plans; instead he arranges to keep her out of the way until her parents move to a Chicago suburb and take her off his hands. Meanwhile he cultivates three important relationships with men who will become his accomplices, although it is not clear how much they know about the extent of Holmes's crimes.

While Holmes is no architect, he is smart enough to design his murder castle, cleverly hiring and firing contractors and workers and keeping the overall design secret. The narrator creates a sense of foreboding by mentioning Holmes's future need to store "sensitive materials" in the subbasement, and the reader's mind immediately jumps to body parts, given the fact that he is also stockpiling chloroform. Also mentioned are the death chambers he is building—the airtight vault and the rooms with the gas jets that he controls. Holmes's complete indifference to other people's feelings or condemnation is evident not only in his ability to easily face down his creditors, but also in his nonchalance in selling the pharmacy to an unsuspecting competitor who will be working across the street from him. He assures the new pharmacist he will have no competition and then immediately opens a second pharmacy. He doesn't care what other people think, except when he is trying to manipulate them to meet his needs.

The narrator contrasts the genesis of Holmes's murder castle with the beginnings of Burnham's architectural project. Unlike Holmes, Burnham is well-known and well respected, a pioneer in skyscraper building and a longtime Chicago resident. Everyone expects Burnham and Root to become the lead architects on the new project, which is exactly what happens when Chicago wins the right to create the fair. Like Holmes, Burnham is handsome and charismatic, and he cultivates the human relationships necessary to his architectural success. He has a knack for meeting the right people, and Root is an architectural genius. The two men have a synergistic relationship that makes them more than the sum of their parts. Burnham chose architecture after trying several other types of work; he is talented, but he feels a need to prove that he is not second-rate, just as the city of Chicago does. This becomes more apparent as the story progresses.

Frederick Olmsted is invited to join the World's Fair project because he is the best landscape architect in the country. Ellsworth and Burnham are frustrated because it is taking so long to get the project off the ground; with so little time, they can't afford to wait months to choose a fair site. For that reason Ellsworth gets in touch with Olmsted even before Burnham and Root are officially hired in October.

Olmsted's idea of "becomingness" means he envisions a unified design in which the fair's buildings are set off by the landscape. Olmsted uses trees, shrubs, and flowers as a painter uses colors on a palette. The Chicago World's Fair will be another canvas for him to paint on and an opportunity to display the art of landscape architecture for all the world to admire. For that reason he puts aside his initial reservations.

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