The Devil in the White City | Study Guide

Erik Larson

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The Devil in the White City | Part 3, Chapters 38–42 : In the White City | Summary



Chapter 38: Worry

While ticket sales are close to 300,000 on July 4, attendance falls off after the holiday. Burnham's department has gone over budget building the fair, and now the bankers are lobbying for cost-cutting measures. The fair needs to sell at least 100,000 tickets each day for the remainder of the fair to avoid financial failure.

Chapter 39: Claustrophobia

The chapter provides an extended imagined description of Nannie Williams's murder. Holmes asks her to retrieve something from the vault and then locks her in and listens as Nannie panics. Nannie beats on the door with her shoe and then either suffocates or dies of gas poisoning. Holmes returns to the apartment to pick up Minnie and bring her to the castle.

On July 7 the Oker family receives a letter from Holmes saying he no longer needs their apartment. Nannie's trunk arrives from Texas several days later and remains in the Wells-Fargo office since there is no one to receive it at the Wrightwood Avenue apartment.

Shortly thereafter Holmes employs Cephas Humphrey, a mover, to deliver a box the size of a coffin to Union Depot, where it will be loaded on a train. The box is in a windowless room with a heavy door. He also delivers a trunk to Chappell. Holmes gives Minnie's clothes to Pitezel's wife, saying his "cousin" got married and moved east. His caretaker, Patrick Quinlan, gets Minnie's old trunks.

Chapter 40: Storm and Fire

A fierce windstorm in July damages buildings and shreds the hot-air balloon, but the people on the Ferris Wheel are unaffected. The next day a fire erupts in the Cold Storage tower, killing 12 firemen and 3 workers and burning down the structure. Fearing further mishaps, Burnham closes the roof walks on two buildings and the balconies and upper galleries on another. Burnham is charged with criminal negligence along with the fire marshal and two other men. At the same time, the fair directors establish a Retrenchment Committee with wide latitude to cut costs. This is the last thing Burnham needs as he fights to boost ticket sales.

Chapter 41: Love

A party of schoolteachers from St. Louis arrives at the fair on July 17, accompanied by a young reporter and future novelist named Theodore Dreiser. He squires the party around the fair and takes a shine to one of the teachers, Sara White, who later becomes his wife. The Ferris Wheel becomes "a vector for love," and couples ask to be married on it, but this is never allowed.

Holmes takes up with a new woman, Georgiana Yoke, whom he met months before at a department store, and they become engaged. Mayor Harrison, a widower, plans to announce his own engagement on October 28, when the fair hosts American Cities Day.

Chapter 42: Freaks

The Retrenchment Committee investigates the fair's expenses and calls for drastic cuts and the power to approve or deny all future expenditures. The fair board pushes back, and committee members resign. The fair directors unsuccessfully lobby the railroads to lower their fares. Meanwhile, Frank Millet steps up promotional efforts for a series of exotic events and stages a ball. By August the fair is finally bringing in a crowd of 100,000 or more per day, although the nation's economic woes continue to grow.


The reimagining of Nannie's death delves deeply into the realm of speculation. A footnote says police believe Holmes killed both sisters in his vault. Harold Schechter, the author of Depraved, an account of Holmes's life and crimes, imagines Holmes pretended to forget something in the vault and then escorted Nannie into it with him. But the narrator thinks Holmes was a "cowardly" killer and more likely tricked Nannie into going into the vault by herself. He also speculates Holmes filled the vault with gas and achieved an extended "sexual release" from listening to Nannie die, thus coupling Holmes's murderous behavior with sexual perversion. The narrator doesn't describe Minnie's murder but leads the reader to believe he kills her in a similar fashion after he brings her back to the murder hotel. The narrator implies Holmes then loads the women into a box and a trunk; one woman was sent to the articulator Chappell, and one went to some unknown destination on a train.

Ultimately, it is impossible to fully understand why Holmes killed, although the book's explanation—that Holmes wanted to "acquire" people or possess them as an ultimate thrill or for sexual gratification—is as good a theory as any. There is also the murderer's own explanation: he was a devil.

The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the bible of mental illness for psychologists, psychoanalysts, and psychiatrists, was published in 2013. It now classifies both sociopathy and psychopathy under the broader term of "antisocial personality disorder." Many mental health professionals recognize similarities between psychopaths and sociopaths, but it is generally believed psychopaths are born as psychopaths and sociopaths are usually the product of their environment. Psychopaths are believed to have underdeveloped parts of the brain associated with emotion regulation and impulse control. Holmes would seem to fit the description of a psychopath.

While Holmes continues to commit crimes with impunity, Burnham and others are charged with criminal negligence in the death of 12 firemen and 3 workers. Burnham argues he knew nothing about the building's dangers since it was out of his purview, and his construction superintendent notes, "The attempt to hold you in any degree responsible or censurable for the loss of life is an outrage." But as director of works, Burnham is responsible for everything that goes on at the fair, and this is not the first time people have been killed. Burnham closes down parts of pavilions that might be dangerous to fairgoers, but it seems too little, too late. Burnham's single-minded pursuit of his vision for the White City has perhaps made him careless with the lives of the people who built the fair.

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