The Devil in the White City | Study Guide

Erik Larson

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The Devil in the White City | Part 4, Chapters 48–50 : Cruelty Revealed | Summary



Chapter 48: "Property of H. H. Holmes"

It is now June 1895, more than two years since the Chicago World's Fair began. Holmes is in prison in Philadelphia; Pinkerton detectives arrested him for insurance fraud after he falsely confessed to faking Benjamin Pitezel's death and collecting the money. Now, however, authorities suspect Holmes killed Pitezel. Detective Frank Geyer has been assigned to investigate Holmes and to track down three of Pitezel's children.

Carrie Pitezel had sent her 15-year-old daughter, Alice, to Holmes in Philadelphia to help identify Pitezel's corpse so Holmes could collect the insurance payment. Afterward Holmes returned with Alice to St. Louis and persuaded Carrie to let him take two more of her children, Howard, age 8, and Nellie, age 11, to see their father, who was supposedly in hiding. Geyer is now using letters the children wrote to trace their movements. Holmes tells the detective that the children are in England with Minnie Williams.

Geyer begins his search in Cincinnati at the end of June 1895, checking with hotels and real estate agents to find out where Holmes and the children stayed. He also travels to Indianapolis, Chicago, and Detroit and ultimately learns Holmes has been moving three parties (the missing children, Carrie Pitezel and her remaining two children, and his fiancée) from place to place. Holmes has kept them separated, sometimes only by a few blocks. Geyer realizes Holmes is playing a diabolical game.

Chapter 49: Moyamensing Prison

Holmes becomes a model prisoner, "using his charm to gain concessions from his keepers." He enjoys his increasing notoriety and begins writing a memoir. He also writes to Carrie Pitezel, insisting the children are in England.

Chapter 50: The Tenant

In Toronto Geyer again finds the trail of the three parties Holmes is moving around. He also finds Alice's and Nellie's bodies in a grave dug in the basement of a house Holmes rented. Carrie Pitezel returns to Toronto to identify her girls. The coroner believes Holmes locked the girls in a big trunk and gassed them.


The law finally catches up with Holmes when the Pinkerton detectives are sent after him for insurance fraud. Larson leaves out a lot of details in piecing the story together. A lot of speculation is involved in attempting to reconstruct crimes from another era. In a case like Holmes's, many details from archival material may contradict one another; others may be erroneous or even patently false. Moreover, the genre of narrative nonfiction requires a coherent story arc and thus sometimes leaves out details.

Yet those very details may contribute to understanding what happened or comprehending the killer's motives. There are some unanswered questions about Holmes. Why does the insurance company pay out the money and then send the Pinkerton detectives after Holmes? What new evidence turns up? When do the police realize Pitezel has been murdered—and what makes them draw that conclusion? Is Carrie Pitezel an accomplice to either the fraud or murder? Why would she send her child Alice to identify either a fraudulent body or her father? Why would she allow Holmes to take her children? Why would Holmes save the letters from the children, and how do the police get them?

Larson says he used Frank Geyer's account of the case as well as the trial transcript to write this part of the story, but in Geyer's book, The Holmes-Pitezel Case: A History of the Greatest Crime of the Century and of the Search for the Missing Pitezel Children, Geyer says Carrie Pitezel was aware of the insurance fraud and was arrested and indicted by a grand jury as a coconspirator. Holmes ended up conning her out of most of the money. She thought her husband was still alive when Holmes took the children, and he mercilessly led her on a fruitless quest to reunite with her husband and children. Geyer's book includes many other details that do not appear in the Larson account. Geyer notes Holmes and Pitezel argued before Pitezel was killed and says Pitezel claimed part ownership in the Texas property that had belonged to Minnie as well as the murder castle. Geyer says Holmes killed the children as part of a grand plan to kill the entire Pitezel family so there could be no claim to Holmes's ill-gotten real estate. It is clear Holmes took a perverse pleasure in moving the soon-to-be-murdered children around separately from their mother and other siblings, even as both parties longed to be reunited. Additional information from the Geyer account points to greed as Holmes's primary motive.

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