The Devil in the White City | Study Guide

Erik Larson

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The Devil in the White City | Part 1, Chapters 6–10 : Frozen Music | Summary



Chapter 6: Pilgrimage

The fair directors have finally decided to place the fair in Jackson Park, and Root, guided by Olmsted and Burnham, produces a rough plan for the major pavilions on a sheet of brown paper. Burnham goes to New York to meet and recruit three leading architects from New York (George Post, Charles McKim, and Richard Hunt) and one from Boston (Robert Peabody). He also writes to Henry Van Brunt of Kansas City, the only man immediately enthusiastic about the project. Back home, members of the World's Fair committee are not happy Burnham snubbed local talent; on the advice of the chairman, Root and Burnham choose five Chicago men as well. In January all 10 architects are offered a formal commission of $10,000.

Chapter 7: A Hotel for the Fair

"Holmes's new idea was to turn his building into a hotel for visitors to the World's Columbian Exposition" and make it cheap enough to lure in the right clientele. He plans to take a fire insurance policy out on the property, which he will burn down at an opportune moment to destroy incriminating evidence. He makes further renovations, again keeping tasks segregated and rotating workers. His creditors are more vigorously pursuing H.S. Campbell, the bogus deed holder to his property. He is also using the fictitious Warner Glass Bending Company to supply his growing criminal enterprise. He has legal income from his apartments and stores and from pharmacy sales as well as mail-order sales from fake drugs he produces to cure alcoholism and baldness.

When Myrta's rich great-uncle, Jonathan Belknap, arrives for a visit, Holmes attempts to woo and scam him. Belknap agrees to loan Holmes $2,500 to buy a home for himself and his wife, away from Myrta's parents, but he then forges Belknap's signature on a second note. Holmes makes Belknap uneasy; he senses that beneath his charming exterior Holmes lacks a basic sense of "humanness." Belknap agrees to tour the new hotel, but he refuses to be lured up to the roof to look at the view. He survives the night at the hotel locking himself in his room and refusing to admit the caretaker, who frightens him. He soon learns about the forgery, which he forgives after Holmes makes a heartfelt and convincing apology. Much later Belknap says Holmes probably would have thrown him off the roof if he had been given an opportunity.

After the Belknap episode, Holmes designs a kiln and has it built and installed in the basement, and a furnace professional helps him make it hotter by installing a more powerful burner. He says he needs the kiln to bend glass, but the man notices that it is shaped like containers used in a crematory. Nonetheless, he doesn't give it much thought. Holmes continues to hire young and attractive women as clerks for his businesses. According to a local busybody, they have the strange habit of disappearing abruptly, sometimes leaving their possessions behind.

Chapter 8: The Landscape of Regret

The five out-of-town architects arrive in Chicago in January 1891 and tour Jackson Park—"one square mile of desolation, mostly treeless. ... In the most exposed portions there was only sand tufted with marine and prairie grasses." The landscape is ugly, with many dead trees. Moreover, the "shoreline [is] subject to dramatic annual changes in the level of the lake." The architects are discouraged when they see the site and realize how much must be accomplished in so little time. They are invited to a sumptuous banquet following their tour, where Lyman Gage, president of the World's Fair, gives a rousing speech calling them to action in the service of a great vision.

Chapter 9: Vanishing Point

Ned Conner moves to Chicago with his wife, Julia, and their young daughter, Pearl, and takes a job at the jewelry counter of Holmes's drugstore. The Conners have an apartment on the second floor of Holmes's building, near Holmes's rooms. Holmes hires Julia as his clerk and bookkeeper and Ned's 18-year-old sister, Gertrude Conner, just arrived in town, as manager of his mail-order medicine business. Ned becomes uncomfortable with Holmes's excessive attention to his wife and sister. Later Ned eerily reports that Holmes asked for his assistance in testing a soundproof vault, with each taking a turn inside while the other listened at the door.

Meanwhile, the police are receiving letters about missing out-of-towners, and detectives sometimes come to Chicago to track them down. "At one point, half the city's detective force was involved in investigating disappearances," the narrator says. The narrator does not specifically say if these disappearances were connected to Holmes, but the tone of the narration darkens.

Chapter 10: Alone

After the banquet, the architects meet and choose Richard Hunt as their chairman and Louis Sullivan of the Chicago firm of Adler and Sullivan as their secretary. During the meeting Burnham gets a call from Root's wife telling him his partner is ill with pneumonia.

The architects have subsequent meetings without Burnham, who is at the bedside of his friend. They now feel more enthusiasm for the project with Hunt as their leader, and they approve the original plan sketched by Root on brown paper and choose a uniform neoclassical style (leading to the construction of the white classical structures) as the design theme. Root, who is only a little younger than Burnham, dies of his illness, to his partner's surprise and sadness. Now the entire weight of the fair is on Burnham's shoulders. Although the consensus is that Root was the genius behind the fair design, which undercuts Burnham's creative role, he is determined to carry on without his partner.


After the fair directors delay choosing a site for the fair, they demand that Burnham and Root immediately produce plans showing what the grounds will look like. Normally such plans would take weeks or months to prepare. Since Root is the supervising architect, he cannot design any of the structures, and Burnham wants only the most talented and well-regarded architects to deliver the best possible designs. Thus he recruits from outside Chicago. Burnham shows from the start that he is willing to be ruthless in service of the fair, which in this case means making some people unhappy.

The out-of-town men are discouraged when they see Jackson Park, but after being feted and flattered and given the power to choose their leader, they sign on. They are being paid handsomely for their designs, too: in today's money, the commission each receives for one design amounts to about $300,000. Nonetheless, the fact that these men—highly successful and not in need of immediate business—would become involved in such a difficult project shows that they were inspired by patriotic pride, which is a major theme in this narrative.

Burnham loses Root—his creative collaborator and business partner as well as his good friend—which is a terrible loss but also one of the first of many setbacks that he must overcome to successfully complete the fair. Burnham is reported to have said, "I have worked ... I have schemed and dreamed to make us the greatest architect in the world—I have made him see it and kept him at it—and now he dies—damn!—damn!—damn!" These are strong words for a 19th-century man to say in the earshot of women, and they reflect his anguish. The chairman of the Grounds and Buildings Committee later said no one had the architectural ability to take up where Root left off. This statement shows a blind disregard for Burnham, but instead of giving up, he becomes motivated to prove that he is the "engine driving the design of the fair; that he was the partner who had propelled the firm of Burnham and Root to greater and greater achievement." Thus Burnham determines to soldier on alone and, like Chicago, prove that he has what it takes to deliver the American fair in commemoration of Columbus and the glory of Chicago.

While Burnham struggles with the fair, Holmes is busy achieving his twisted version of the American dream: making lots of money and satisfying his urge to murder. He intends to capitalize on the fair to obtain additional victims. The Conners show up as fresh prey. Holmes co-opts the family by paying them three salaries, no doubt a windfall for working-class people during tough economic times. This may explain why Ned tolerates Holmes's attention to the Conner women.

Holmes sets about charming Myrta's rich uncle, and he succeeds in getting a loan from him as well as convincing him to overlook the theft of an additional $2,500, another testament to Holmes's powers of persuasion. Belknap knows deep down how dangerous Holmes is, which is why he refuses to go up to the roof with him or admit the caretaker into his room in the middle of the night. This raises the question of how much Holmes's accomplices—in this case, Patrick Quinlan—know about the serial killer's activities.

Holmes's daring and confidence are evident in the way he spontaneously decides to do away with Belknap, who admits Holmes probably would have killed him if he'd had the chance. Such people were called "moral imbeciles" by the early alienists—psychologists who treated the insane. By 1885 they were dubbed "psychopaths." In his memoir Holmes says he was born with the devil in him and "could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than a poet can help the inspiration to sing." While anything Holmes says must be suspect, this self-assessment rings true.

By now there is a lot of evidence Holmes is engaged in questionable activities, yet nobody questions him. One of the workmen might have questioned Holmes's strange building design; Ned might have asked about Holmes's need for a soundproof room; the furnace man who came to adjust the heat on the coffin-shaped kiln might have reported his suspicions when he thought the kiln looked like a cremation box; and on and on. The answer to why none of these people raised an alarm may be complicated. First, Holmes is a classic sociopath who can perfectly mimic the behavior of a normal person and has the additional advantage of being a gifted persuader. Second, the people involved with Holmes—particularly the workers—may be manifesting "bystander syndrome," in which people, especially groups, do nothing because they feel it is not their business. Finally, those around Holmes are in denial, a thread that connects the bystanders who appear throughout the narrative. They simply can't believe Holmes is a killer, or at least deeply disturbed, even though they sense it's true.

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