The Devil in the White City | Study Guide

Erik Larson

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The Devil in the White City | Part 3, Chapters 26–29 : In the White City | Summary



Chapters 26: Opening Day

On opening day a line of 23 carriages appears on Michigan Avenue in preparation for the ride to Jackson Park and the Chicago World's Fair's. Among the illustrious riders are President Grover Cleveland, Mayor Harrison, and the duke of Veragua, a direct descendent of Columbus. Some 10,000 men have worked through the night to ready the park for the visitors' arrival. "The success of the exhibition now seemed assured" even though Olmsted and Ferris have not finished their work. Anywhere from 250,000 to 500,000 people attend on opening day, but attendance falls off dramatically in subsequent days. Meanwhile, bank and business failures multiply around the country as the economic disruption continues.

Chapter 27: The World's Fair Hotel

Holmes turns away prospective male patrons to his hotel, saying he is booked; his guest rooms begin to fill with young women. Minnie's jealousy becomes a nuisance, so Holmes rents an apartment on the top floor of a private home away from the hotel, on Wrightwood Avenue. The house's owner, Mr. Oker, and his family also live there. Holmes explains this move to Minnie by saying they need a place away from the business. Holmes is now free to enjoy his hotel; some guests appear to check out without notice. The hotel has no amenities and exudes a chemical odor, but people seem to think that's normal since the proprietor is a physician who has a pharmacy on the ground floor.

Chapter 28: Prendergast

Prendergast expects the mayor to appoint him corporation counsel. He continues to write irrational letters.

Chapter 29: Night Is the Magician

Although it isn't quite complete, the fair appears to guests as an ideal city, in stark contrast to the Black City of Chicago, which is marred by smoke and garbage. The White City is clean and has pure water, an ambulance service, electric streetlights, a daycare, and more. Many new wonders are on display, including the telephone, the zipper, and an automatic dishwasher, and people are introduced to new foods, such as Cracker Jack popcorn, Aunt Jemima's pancakes, Shredded Wheat, and Juicy Fruit gum. The stately buildings contrast with the structures on the Midway, where people can witness a suggestive belly dance in the "Streets of Cairo."

While the fair fights for attendance, Buffalo Bill's Wild West show is pulling in tens of thousands. During the six-month time period of the fair, the show attracts nearly four million visitors. Nonetheless, the fair is a vision of beauty, especially at night when lit by electric lamps. When people return home, they say the fair is "grander and more powerful than they had been led to expect."


Despite setbacks created by the weather, especially driving rain the night before opening day, the World's Fair opens on time. True, it is not entirely completed—the landscaping needs more work, and the Ferris Wheel will not open for another two and a half months—but no one is disappointed with the result. A friend tells Burnham, "The scene burst on me with the beauty of a full blown rose." The fair accurately represents Burnham's vision of the ideal city: clean, safe, and shining. The White City symbolizes the metaphorical city on the hill and stands in stunning contrast to Chicago's reality, a Black City drenched in coal dust.

The shining city on the hill is a recurring motif in the story of America. Jesus refers to a city on a hill in the New Testament, and it was first brought into American civic discourse by the Puritan John Winthrop. Faced with building a new American government on hostile territory, he said, "We must always consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us." President-Elect John F. Kennedy referred to this metaphor before taking office in 1961, saying, "Our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state, and local, must be as a city upon a hill—constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities." In his farewell speech, President Ronald Reagan said the shining city of America is "a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace." In the same spirit, the Chicago World's Fair architects build a shining city to represent all that is good and hopeful.

On a more mundane level, the White City meets the requirements of besting the French even before the Ferris Wheel goes up. The fair also serves up a large number of new inventions and products, some of which are still being sold today. Still, the terrible economic depression wracking the country has its effect, and fair attendance drops dramatically after the first day. The country is experiencing the Panic of 1893, in which a run on the banks causes currency devaluation and lost jobs. Unemployment at the height of the panic may have been as high as 19 percent by some estimates. While the fair suffers, Buffalo Bill's Wild West show does not, perhaps because it is exciting enough to draw in many more locals. If William Cody had had a concession inside the fair, he would have significantly boosted fair attendance.

Back in the Black City, Holmes has set up his diabolical murder palace, one in which guests check in but do not check out. Meanwhile, the madman Prendergast is awaiting his vindication. Carter Harrison is reelected in April, and Prendergast's increasingly irrational letters to strangers reflect his growing obsession with being appointed to a government position.

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