The Devil in the White City | Study Guide

Erik Larson

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The Devil in the White City | Part 3, Chapters 34–37 : In the White City | Summary



Chapter 34: Heathen Wanted

In June Olmsted worries about the fair's "lackluster attendance." He speculates people are postponing trips to Chicago until the fair is complete. He imagines they are worried about being "fleeced unmercifully," especially by the fair's restaurants. Olmsted suggests some improvements to the landscape and advises Burnham to engineer "accidental moments of charm." Olmsted "wanted to make visitors laugh," but "Burnham wanted them struck dumb with awe." When a fire breaks out in the Cold Storage Building, no one tells Burnham. The fire is contained, but insurance underwriters warn the building is a firetrap.

Chapter 35: At Last

On June 21 the Ferris Wheel is officially open for business and is a stunning success. The narrator notes that if the Ferris Wheel had been ready at the fair's opening, ticket sales would have been substantially higher.

Chapter 36: Rising Wave

The end of June brings an uptick in fair attendance, with the number of visitors "more than doubling," but it is still far below original attendance projections. Visitors on the whole are very well-behaved, and the Columbian Guard makes few arrests. Many famous people attend the fair; however, Mark Twain gets sick and spends his visit in a hotel room.

The Ferris Wheel soon is the most popular attraction, although people continue to worry about its safety and even circulate some false stories about accidents. The fair is the pride of Chicago. It is also a bright spot in a country suffering economic calamity.

Chapter 37: Independence Day

The narrator describes the fair's spectacular celebrations, including fireworks displays on Independence Day. He imagines Holmes, Minnie, and Nannie are in attendance. Nannie writes to her aunt in Texas that the three of them are going to Milwaukee and then to Maine and New York, where they will sail for Europe. Her "brother" will be taking care of her from now on: "You need never trouble any more about me, financially or otherwise," she tells her aunt. Nannie's trunk is still awaiting shipment in Texas. The next morning Holmes takes Nannie to the World's Fair Hotel for a short tour while Minnie packs for their trip.


The irascible Olmsted is now writing to Burnham about the fair's poor attendance; he is sure improvements to the landscape will boost attendance. Although Olmsted is undoubtedly talented, he is also narcissistic, remaining entirely focused on his own contributions to the fair and fearing others are ruining his work. As it turns out, the fair is saved by its new attraction, the Ferris Wheel, which gives riders a thrill and an incredible view.

Independence Day is a great day for the fair. It features spectacular celebrations, and attendance reaches 300,000. The narrator imagines Holmes taking the sisters to the fair almost every day during Nannie's stay. In Nannie's letters to her aunt, she promises she is now safely under her brother-in-law's protection. Nannie's assurances reflect the times in which she lived, when single women were thought to need protection, much like children. Unmarried women were generally under the protection of older or married relatives, and although Nannie works as a teacher, she likely doesn't make much money. She lives with her aunt, probably both for financial reasons and propriety's sake. The narrator lets the reader feel the heartbreaking weight of Holmes's lies to Nannie. The theory that Holmes sought to possess his victims seems to apply here. Why else would he take so much trouble over Nannie? Perhaps he wants the conquest of winning her over entirely—she has begun to call him "brother"—before he consummates their connection with a murder.

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