The Devil in the White City | Study Guide

Erik Larson

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The Devil in the White City | Part 2, Chapters 21–25 : An Awful Fight | Summary



Chapter 21: "The Cold-Blooded Fact"

The winter before the fair opens is especially brutal in Chicago, which makes things difficult for Olmsted, Ferris, and Rice. Harry Codman dies that winter. Because of his own health issues, Olmsted leaves the landscaping work in the charge of his superintendent, Rudolph Ulrich, whom he doesn't trust. The Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building is once again a casualty of the weather; this time heavy snows collapse its roof.

Chapter 22: Acquiring Minnie

Holmes now presides over a growing empire of legitimate and shady enterprises. He continues to hire and not pay workers, buy on credit, and default on his bills. Some creditors have become more insistent, however, and Emeline and Julia's families have finally hired detectives to look for the missing women. Holmes realizes the detectives don't suspect him and simply want information.

Holmes now needs a new secretary. A plain woman, Minnie Williams, comes to Chicago to pursue Holmes, whom she met several years earlier in Boston. He courted her back then because she had inherited valuable property from her dead uncle in Texas. After Minnie reconnects with Holmes, he hires her and soon proposes marriage. She moves into the "castle" in March 1893. Holmes soon convinces Minnie to transfer the deed to her Fort Worth land to Alexander Bond (one of Holmes's aliases), who then transfers it to Benton Lyman (Pitezel's alias). Holmes then stages a bogus wedding; no record of the marriage appears in the state registry.

Chapter 23: Dreadful Things Done by Girls

Exhibits are arriving every day at Jackson Park in anticipation of the fair's opening. One especially ominous piece of technology, built by German arms baron Fritz Krupp, is the largest artillery piece in the world, which is capable of firing a one-ton shot. Buffalo Bill's Wild West show also arrives, replete with calvary officers, Indians, and Annie Oakley; it sets up outside the fairgrounds.

Carter Harrison is again running for mayor and gaining ground. The delusional Prendergast believes he is largely responsible for the ex-mayor's renewed popularity and expects a political appointment. Harrison is elected in April 1893.

Chapter 24: The Invitation

Minnie's sister, Anna, known as Nannie, hears about the transfer of her sister's land and is suspicious. Holmes suggests Minnie invite Nannie to Chicago to see the World's Fair at his expense.

Chapter 25: Final Preparations

In April 1893 four more workers die, and the carpenters walk off the job and demand a minimum union wage. Over the next few days more workers are threatening to join the strike, and Burnham becomes worried about "the unfinished appearance of the park." He agrees to negotiate with the carpenters and ironworkers, establishing a minimum wage and making other concessions to the union.

When Olmsted returns to Chicago, he is again frustrated by the delays, which puts the landscaping even further behind. In the third week of April a heavy rain causes damage. Continued rain creates additional problems and delays, even up until the night before the fair's opening. At the same time, the World's Fair Hotel announces its opening.


The last four months before Opening Day test the fair builders' mettle. Olmsted has had many problems with the project because he doesn't trust anyone to understand his vision and sometimes his ideas clash with Burnham's. He is frequently sick as well, so he doesn't spend a lot of time at the fair site, instead relying on other people to carry out his plans. After Codman dies, Olmsted writes to Ulrich to remind him "the whole field of the Exposition has already come to be popularly called 'THE WHITE CITY' ... I fear that against the clear blue sky and the blue lake, great towering masses of white, glistening in the clear, hot, Summer sunlight of Chicago, with the glare of the water that we are to have both within and without the Exposition grounds, will be overpowering."

The brutal winter of 1893 creates many problems for Burnham. Bad weather destroys some of the work, and Ferris struggles to sink his wheel's towers into frozen ground. In the spring Burnham continues to battle bad weather and finally gives in to some labor demands so he can get the work finished. Nonetheless, his commitment never falters.

Outside Chicago, people who expect to profit from the fair expand their operations. Holmes is among them. Minnie, his new secretary, is quite plain, but her wealth makes up for that. It doesn't take long for Holmes to steal her land deed—facilitated by his primary accomplice, Pitezel—and make Minnie his bigamous bride.

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