The Devil in the White City | Study Guide

Erik Larson

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The Devil in the White City | Part 2, Chapters 11–15 : An Awful Fight | Summary



Chapter 11: Convocation

In February 1891 the architects meet with Burnham and Olmsted to unveil their designs. "Each building was more lovely, more elaborate than the last, and all were immense—fantastic things on a scale never before attempted," the narrator says. The architects are working successfully as a team, and a few agree to modify their designs to maintain harmony in the overall design. Augustus St. Gaudens, one of America's premier sculptors, who has been invited to the unveiling, says, "This has been the greatest meeting of artists since the fifteenth century."

Olmsted, however, is concerned that the architects are getting off track and forgetting that a fair is supposed to be fun. He wants the lagoons and canals he plans to build filled with colorful birds and small boats. The lagoon and "Wooded Island" are to be the "centerpiece" of his design and will create a "mysterious poetic effect." The clock is ticking, so the architects decide to use "staff," a mixture of plaster and jute fibers, to cover the wood frames and create the appearance of stone. Burnham replaces Root with Charles Atwood of New York. Burnham must contend with disgruntled union workers angered when he hires Italian laborers. After fair officials meet with the union, they agree to maintain an eight-hour day but do not give in to the union's other demands to maintain union-scale wages or hire union men first.

Chapter 12: Cuckoldry

Back at Holmes's castle, Gertrude approaches Ned in tears and abruptly decides to leave. Shortly after she returns home to Iowa, she falls ill and dies. In Chicago Ned and his wife, Julia, become increasingly estranged; people tell Ned something is going on between Julia and the pharmacist, but he doesn't believe it. Holmes sells Ned the pharmacy, supposedly increasing his salary by six dollars and using the extra cash to cover installment payments on the purchase. Holmes tries to convince Ned to buy a life insurance policy, but Ned refuses. Creditors are now appearing at the pharmacy and presenting the debts to Ned. Since Ned and Julia's relationship continues to deteriorate, they separate, and Ned abandons his interest in the pharmacy. Eventually Ned meets another woman and divorces Julia. He attempts to get custody of Pearl but fails. After the divorce is final, Holmes sees Julia and Pearl as a burden.

Chapter 13: Vexed

By spring 1891 Daniel Burnham is living full-time in a simple shanty at Jackson Park and rarely sees his wife and children. He is frustrated when public relations interferes with his work, and he is also concerned that the architects are late with their drawings. The landscaping is slowed down when Olmsted becomes ill. Construction finally begins in July 1981, 16 months before Dedication Day. In addition to the centerpiece, called the Grand Court or the Court of Honor, and the other palaces to be built according to the architects' specifications, every state plans a building, as do 200 companies and foreign governments.

Mike De Young, one of the fair's national commissioners, hires Sol Bloom to oversee the concessions on the Midway Plaisance (also called the Midway), a strip that connects Jackson and Washington Parks. Here the fair will offer food and popular amusements to fairgoers. The Ways and Means Committee turns down Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, and he sets up on land adjacent to the park.

Burnham conceives the fair as an ideal city, so he creates the Columbian Guard, a police force for the fair under Colonel Edmund Rice. Chicago's water is contaminated with bacteria, so he hires a sanitary engineer, William MacHarg, to build a sterilization plant to clean water that will be used throughout the park. Since fires are a great danger, he also forms a fire department, installs fire hydrants and alarm boxes, and commissions a fire boat.

Additional obstacles arise, such as infighting about modifications to the Woman's Building, designed by Sophia Hayden; arguments with Olmsted over the types of boats that will cruise the lagoon; committee interference; and accidents, injuries, and four deaths. The fair is behind schedule, and the country as a whole is struggling with bank and company failures and the threat of cholera, which immigrants might bring with them.

Chapter 14: Remains of the Day

Julia Conner announces in November that she is pregnant. Holmes agrees to marry her, provided she allows him to perform an abortion. On Christmas Eve Holmes kills Julia with chloroform in his "operating room" and then kills Pearl in her room with the same weapon. A couple who live in an apartment in the castle and had befriended Julia and Pearl are surprised not to see them on Christmas Day. Holmes says she has gone to Davenport, Iowa—a trip she had been planning—earlier than expected.

After Christmas Holmes calls Chappell, who can strip bodies of their flesh and reassemble the bones into skeletons used by doctors and medical schools. The medical community is short on cadavers and skeletons; thus no one who buys such material inquires too closely into their origin. When Chappell arrives he finds that the corpse has already been partially stripped of flesh and is unidentifiable. This does not trouble him, and he agrees to take the corpse and return a skeleton for $36. Holmes then sells the skeleton to a local medical college at a great profit.

Chapter 15: A Gauntlet Dropped

The year 1892 ushers in a cold winter, although fair work continues. Union leader Samuel Gompers asks Burnham to investigate charges of discrimination against union workers, and labor unrest creates a constant threat of strike. Money is running out, so Burnham calls for cost-cutting measures while continuing to search for a civil engineer who can create a technical marvel for the fair. Money worries create increased tensions between Burnham and George Davis of the National Commission, who believes his commission should control federal money. The two also argue about who should direct the artistic design of exhibits and interiors. On the bright side, the Midway is taking shape as "a great pleasure garden stretching for more than a mile from Jackson Park all the way to the border of Washington Park." Bloom's promotional efforts result in a lineup of exotic talent.


When the architects meet to unveil their designs, they collectively realize it is a momentous occasion, and the narrator evokes the hush of a sacred place, saying it was as if "a new force had entered the room. They spoke, Burnham said, 'almost in whispers.' Each building was more lovely, more elaborate than the last, and all were immense—fantastic things on a scale never before attempted." The pavilions' beauty is in direct contrast to the ugly, deranged edifice Holmes has erected, and the narrator highlights the difference between the forces of darkness and light. Unlike Holmes, who works alone, the architects work together. For example, when it becomes evident that Post's proposed building is too big and will diminish the pavilions of the others, he immediately says he will modify his design without any nudging from his colleagues. Once again civic pride and patriotism seem to be at work as the architects pull together for the good of the whole. At the back of everyone's mind is the Paris fair, which the Americans intend to surpass, but as a writer for Engineering Magazine points out, the timeline presents serious difficulties: "How is it possible that this vast amount of construction, greatly exceeding that of the Paris Exhibition of 1889, will be ready in two years?"

Once construction is under way, Burnham finds himself in labor disputes; he is focused on what needs to be done and therefore is not sympathetic to the workers' cause. He takes a somewhat ruthless attitude toward the workers, in fact, and registers little concern about the first four deaths, which occur at the Electricity Building. He is as single-minded as Holmes in his determination to achieve his goal. Burnham has a clear vision for the White City; in contrast to the real Chicago, it will have clean drinking water, proper sanitation, and a police department focused on crime prevention. Moreover, the White City will be a thing of beauty. Burnham's vision guides the Ways and Means Committee to turn down Buffalo Bill's Wild West show on the grounds of "incongruity." This turns out to be a bad decision; the fair ends up with a shortfall of ticket receipts until the very end of its run, while the Wild West show makes a great deal of money, a share of which could have gone to the fair if Buffalo Bill had been given a concession. Burnham is still looking for a civil engineer who can "out-Eiffel Eiffel," but he has yet to appear.

As Burnham begins to raise his buildings, Holmes continues his misdeeds at the murder castle. Suddenly Gertrude wants to leave, probably because Holmes has aggressively and sexually accosted her, although this can only be surmised from the facts presented by the narrator. She immediately dies after returning home, but the reader does not find out why. Is it coincidental, or did Holmes have something to do with it? By now Julia has completely abandoned her husband for the serial killer, but once Ned is out of the picture, the remaining Conners become a nuisance to him. The nuisance factor is compounded when Julia announces she is pregnant, and Holmes ruthlessly takes care of the problem.

The neighbors who have befriended Julia seem to turn a blind eye to her sudden disappearance. The reader cannot help but wonder whether Charles Chappell had any suspicions when called upon to articulate the corpse or whether he is actively involved as a coconspirator and accomplice. The corpse has been rendered unidentifiable, and it is reasonable to think this should have raised some red flags for Chappell, even if Holmes is a doctor. Why would he have such a corpse in the first place? As time goes on and Chappell articulates more corpses that have been stripped of any identifying flesh, he still doesn't concern himself about the implications. After Holmes has been identified as a serial killer, Chappell comes forward to say he did this work for him, but Chappell is not held accountable.

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