The Devil in the White City | Study Guide

Erik Larson

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The Devil in the White City | Part 3, Chapters 30–33 : In the White City | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 30: Modus Operandi

A waitress disappears from Holmes's restaurant, along with a stenographer named Jennie Thompson and Evelyn Stewart, who either worked for him or stayed at the hotel. Also missing without a trace is a male physician who had rented an office. Chemical odors continue to fill the halls, along with the smell of gas. Family and friends continue to make inquiries. "Holmes did not kill face to face" but enjoyed being near enough to hear his victims panic, as the vault did not completely deaden their cries. When Holmes fills a room with gas, victims die in their sleep. Sometimes the killer presses a chloroformed rag to a victim's face. Chappell's articulations are the crowning achievement of each "acquisition," but Holmes himself likely disposes of most of the "spent materials" in the kiln or pits of quicklime.

Chapter 31: One Good Turn

George Ferris's wheel is finally finished and tested on June 9. The rim arcs at a height of 264 feet and successfully completes its first revolution. In another part of the fair the Spanish emissary, who is supposed to receive Chicago's toast, prefers to slip out in secret and enjoy herself by moving around the city as an anonymous guest. She is Infanta Eulalia, the youngest sister of the dead King Alfonso XII and the daughter of Queen Isabel II. Reportedly Chicago feels jilted because "the guest of honor" preferred mingling with rank-and-file citizens over being feted by the city's high society.

Chapter 32: Nannie

Nannie Williams arrives in June, and Holmes turns up the charm and "touch[es] her in ways that made her glance apologetically at Minnie," a technique he uses consistently with women. Minnie and Holmes give Nannie a grand tour of the city, which includes the Union Stock Yards and the great fair. The narrator speculates about their route through the White City, mentioning famous buildings and some exhibitions that enthralled other fairgoers. Nannie's reservations about her brother-in-law disappear, and she happily agrees to spend the summer, sending for her big trunk.

Chapter 33: Vertigo

In a few days Ferris's men hang all the cars on the wheel, and people who take the first ride, including Ferris's wife, are thrilled by the view of the park and the landscape beyond it. While the Ferris Wheel seems to "embod[y] the potential for a catastrophe of almost unimaginable scale," it is actually quite safe, and people hardly feel as if they are moving when they are on it. However, an accident occurs on the Ice Railway, a kind of roller coaster involving bobsleds that reach speeds of 40 miles per hour; one person is killed, and others are injured.

Analysis

Holmes is on a killing spree. While the historical record cannot definitively place many of the murders mentioned at Holmes's door, there is sufficient evidence to conclude he killed numerous people who disappeared from his hotel or restaurant—a waitress, a stenographer, and another woman who might have worked for him. The castle reeks of chemicals and gas, and people who inquire about their missing loved ones never get a satisfactory response. The narrator speculates about the way Holmes killed and why. He imagines Holmes enjoyed listening to the anguished cries of his victims, and he opines that murder was the culminating act in his "quest for possession." Holmes made it a rule not to keep trophies, yet the skeletons Chappell produces from the murder victims are very much like trophies. But "[t]he possession he craved was a transient thing, like the scent of a fresh-cut hyacinth. Once it was gone, only another acquisition could restore it."

The narrator creates a sense of suspense and foreboding in relating the tale of the two sisters, Minnie and Nannie. Nannie is suspicious when her sister tells her she had signed her land deed over to Holmes, but when she arrives to meet Minnie's new husband, he immediately disarms her. The narrator imagines in detail Holmes taking Nannie and Minnie on a tour of the city and the White City, a tour that will not end well. Larson juxtaposes this part of the story with the progress of the Ferris Wheel, which is finally completed and tested. While the Ferris Wheel looks dangerous, in reality it is quite safe. On the other hand, the murder castle looks safe, albeit a little odd, but nothing could be more dangerous.

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