The Devil in the White City | Study Guide

Erik Larson

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The Devil in the White City | Summary

See Plot Diagram


Prologue and Part 1: Frozen Music

The prologue finds architect Daniel Burnham on the ocean liner R.M.S. Olympic in 1912, more than a decade and a half after the story's action. He is waiting to hear about the fate of his friend Frank Millet, who is traveling at the same time but in the opposite direction on the Titanic. The Olympic and the Titanic were sister ships; the Titanic famously sunk, and more than two-thirds of its passengers were drowned, Frank Millet among them. Millet worked with Burnham on the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 (officially titled the World's Columbian Exposition), a landmark cultural event that showcased American architecture, science, technology, and art and reflected American ingenuity and optimism. The fair celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's first landfall in the New World. The rest of the narrative is a flashback to that era until the epilogue returns to the present.

The stories of Daniel Burnham, the visionary architect behind the fair, and Dr. Herman Mudgett (alias Dr. H.H. Holmes), the serial killer and architect of a murder castle, are told mostly in alternating chapters throughout the remainder of the text. The author links the two men because both were handsome, charismatic, persuasive, and ruthless in pursuit of a vision. They are connected by the Chicago World's Fair because Holmes, who is already killing women in his murder castle, turns his murder castle into a hotel during the fair to more easily lure his victims.

Holmes's story begins when he arrives in Englewood in 1886, a Chicago community on the southwest side of the city, about 12 miles from the downtown area. He buys a drugstore from a widow, who mysteriously disappears, and then begins courting Myrta Belknap, a woman from Minneapolis whom he brings to Chicago. He marries Myrta illegally in 1887; he is already married. Holmes married Clara Lovering in his home state of New Hampshire when he was 18 years old and left her with a child shortly thereafter, going off to medical school.

Holmes continues to spend most of his time in Chicago while Myrta lives in Wilmette, about 20 miles from Chicago, with her parents, who come to the area after Myrta marries. Holmes buys property across from his first drugstore in Englewood and begins building a large structure with three floors and many rooms. He works slowly because he fires people often on various pretexts so he doesn't have to pay them. The turnover also helps him keep the building's overall design a secret since no one person stays on the job long enough to understand how the building is being constructed. Some of the features of the building would have otherwise raised red flags—for example, gas jets controlled from a central location, an airtight vault with asbestos-coated iron walls that is somewhat soundproof, a chute from the second floor to the basement, and a subbasement. The first floor is reserved for seemingly respectable businesses, including another drugstore. This building will eventually be called "the castle" in the neighborhood, and later the "murder castle" and "murder hotel" when Holmes's dark deeds are uncovered.

The Conners—Ned, Julia, their daughter Pearl, and Ned's sister, Gertrude (Gertie)—move into an apartment in the castle after Holmes hires Ned for the jewelry counter in the drugstore. He hires the two women as clerks.

Meanwhile, Daniel Burnham and his partner, John Root, the leading architects in Chicago, learn Chicago has been chosen to host the World's Fair. Dedication Day is established by Congress as October 12, 1892. This is the "soft opening" to honor the day, 400 years ago, when Columbus landed on American shores. The formal, public opening of the fair is set for May 1, 1893. Burnham is formally named chief of construction, and he hires Frederick Law Olmsted to create the fair's natural landscape. Shortly thereafter, Burnham has to cope with Root's death and shoulder full responsibility for the fair.

Part 2: An Awful Fight

By spring of 1891 the architects begin to plan their stately palaces. Burnham conceives of the fairground as an ideal city in miniature; eventually it will have its own police force, a purified water supply, a hospital, and a fire department. Sol Bloom, an entrepreneur, is put in charge of the Midway, a strip of land that will hold concessions and various forms of entertainment for fairgoers.

Olmsted is frustrated by work delays and frets that his landscape plans will not be carried out. He also has serious health problems that sometimes prevent him from traveling, so he has to rely on surrogates in Chicago. Burnham issues a call to civil engineers to come up with a magnificent structure that will rival what Gustave Eiffel did in France. The Exposition Universelle of 1889 had unveiled the Eiffel Tower, the tallest steel structure in the world, and Americans wanted to showcase something grander than Gustave Eiffel's creation. Ultimately, George Ferris steps up with plans for a revolving steel wheel that extends 264 feet above the fair and can carry 60 people in each of its 36 cars. This structure is approved after much deliberation.

Meanwhile Gertrude Conner abruptly decides to move out of Holmes's castle and back to her home. Shortly after she returns home, she falls ill and dies. Ned and Julia Conner's marriage shows signs of fraying, and Ned moves out after learning Julia is having an affair with Holmes. When Julia announces she is pregnant, Holmes says he'll marry her if she agrees to an abortion, which he will give her. In fact he kills her with chloroform on his "operating table" and kills the child as well. Holmes next hires Emeline Cigrand as his assistant and gradually cajoles her into a bogus marriage. Emeline disappears after Christmas. Then Holmes takes up with Minnie Williams, a woman with a hefty inheritance; he soon cons her out of the deed to her property.

Part 3: In the White City

On the opening day of the Chicago World's Fair, carriages filled with dignitaries line up on Michigan Avenue and then continue to Jackson Park along the Lake Michigan waterfront. A big crowd shows up that first day, but attendance drops noticeably in the days that follow. After the Ferris Wheel is completed, attendance dramatically improves. While the number of fairgoers doubles, attendance is still far below expectations. On October 9th, Chicago Day, more than 750,000 people attend, and the fair finally earns enough to pay the last of its debts. The last day of the fair is expected to be spectacular, with a reenacted landing of Christopher Columbus in the New World using life-sized ships. But instead a madman fatally shoots the mayor, so closing day turns into a tragic day of mourning.

Not far from Jackson Park, Holmes turns his building into the World's Fair Hotel and opens it for business. Many young female guests begin to disappear. When Minnie's sister, Anna, who is nicknamed Nannie, visits, Holmes escorts her around town and shortly thereafter kills both Anna and Minnie, most likely by suffocating them in his airtight vault. By the time the fair closes, Holmes decides to leave town because his creditors are pursuing him and out-of-town detectives are asking a lot of questions about missing women. Along with Georgiana Yoke, his new fiancée, and his assistant, Benjamin Pitezel, Holmes flees to Fort Worth, Texas, where Minnie's property is located.

Part 4: Cruelty Revealed

Holmes is arrested more than a year after the Chicago World's Fair for insurance fraud. Holmes kills Pitezel to collect on a $10,000 life insurance policy. Pitezel's wife, Carrie, believes Holmes and Pitezel have faked her husband's death and will share the money. Pitezel actually is dead, but Holmes has led everyone to believe they faked his death by partially burning and disfiguring another corpse. Three of Pitezel's children go missing after Carrie allows Holmes to take them, supposedly to visit their father, who she thinks is hiding from the insurance company because he is supposed to be dead.

Holmes is being held for trial in Philadelphia, and Detective Frank Geyer is assigned to find the missing children in June 1895. Holmes has been telling a variety of lies about what happened to them. Geyer tracks the long route the murderer took with the children and finds their bodies in two separate locations. In September 1895 Holmes is indicted for the murder of Benjamin Pitezel and for those of the children in two other jurisdictions. However, he is tried only for the Pitezel murder in Philadelphia. After the news gets out about Geyer's investigations, the Chicago police finally investigate the World's Fair Hotel and find evidence of murder.


In this last section the narrative returns to the ocean liner and reveals that Millet has died aboard the Titanic. The narrator also reports on the last days of the major characters, including Holmes's death by hanging after he is found guilty of the murder of Benjamin Pitezel.

The Devil in the White City Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action


1 Burnham, on a ship, remembers the Chicago World's Fair.

Rising Action

2 Chicago wins the rights to build the World's Fair.

3 Burnham is made chief of construction and hires Olmsted.

4 Burnham hires 10 architects to build the White City.

5 Holmes begins building a murder castle.

6 Holmes kills Julia and Pearl Conner.

7 Holmes kills Emeline Cigrand.

8 The fair successfully opens in May 1893.

9 The Ferris Wheel opens in June, improving ticket sales.

10 The fair breaks even on Chicago Day.


11 Holmes suffocates Minnie and Nannie.

Falling Action

12 Prendergast kills the mayor two days before the fair closes.

13 Holmes is charged with the murder of Pitezel.

14 Detective Geyer finds the bodies of the Pitezel children.


15 Holmes is hanged in 1896; Burnham dies of ailments in 1912.

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