The Devil in the White City | Study Guide

Erik Larson

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The Devil in the White City | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Erik Larson's 2003 historical novel The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America dives into the world of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. The World's Fair was then a massive event showcasing exhibitions from around the globe and often requiring cities to build grand structures and dedicate space to accommodate the chaotic crowds. In The Devil in the White City, Larson explores this event from a number of perspectives, particularly focusing on the horrific actions of H.H. Holmes, considered by many America's first modern serial killer.

Larson's painstakingly thorough research methods allowed him to convey the madness and wonder of the World's Fair, while exploring the warped psyche of Holmes, a man who forever cast a dark cloud over the great celebration. Due to Larson's commitment to historical accuracy, The Devil in the White City is read both as a nonfictional account of 1890s Chicago as well as a literary work of great depth and careful characterization.

1. Larson conducted all the research for The Devil in the White City himself.

Larson conducts meticulous research for all his novels, and The Devil in the White City was no different. Larson has stated that he does all of his research alone, and he scoured Chicago archives for information pertinent to the novel. Piecing together Holmes's story was difficult. He had to access the killer's official death decree as well as pay a visit to Holmes's plot at Holy Cross Cemetery near Philadelphia. On his website, the author notes that carefully arranging volumes upon volumes of materials and primary sources is often the most demanding part of his research method. He also jokes:

You might think, in this age when everything is digitized, that I would have done away with paper files long ago, but anyone visiting my office will see that I reside in a catacomb walled with the remains of dead trees.

2. Larson was inspired by another historical novel about a serial killer.

In an interview, Larson explained that he was inspired to write The Devil in the White City after reading another novel that details the twisted deeds of a turn-of-the-century serial killer, Caleb Carr's The Alienist. Published in 1994, The Alienist tells the story of police tracking a gruesome killer in 1896 New York City. The novel also features historical characters of the era, such as Theodore Roosevelt, in the same way that The Devil in the White City incorporates famous figures of old Chicago, such as Carter Harrison, mayor during the World's Fair and famous for his untimely assassination.

3. Scholars dispute The Devil in the White City's classification as nonfiction.

Despite Larson's meticulous research for The Devil in the White City, there is controversy surrounding the novel's classification as nonfiction. Scholars note that certain scenes of the book, particularly the dialogue between characters such as Burnham and Root, must be based on speculation even though Larson presents them as fact. Historian Carl Smith, however, has gone so far as to cite The Devil in the White City for a scholarly monograph on the city entitled The Plan of Chicago, a historical account of the city's development.

4. Larson wrote The Devil in the White City in response to historical texts he considered "boring."

Larson explained in an interview that he wanted to bring the 1893 World's Fair to life in his novel by exploring the most unique and fascinating aspects of the event and time period while still maintaining historical accuracy. He stated:

People don't teach the rich stories in high school and even in college. I can just about guarantee that if somebody were to teach a course on the World's Fair of 1893 today in a college, what they would emphasize would be the Congresses of Religion, of Women, of Politics and so forth—I found them boring.

5. Larson disagrees with the idea that Holmes was America's "first" serial killer.

H.H. Holmes is often popularly considered the first true serial killer in United States history—to the point where a 2004 documentary entitled H.H. Holmes: America's First Serial Killer explores his grisly actions. Although Larson hasn't named another historical figure who fills the role of "first" serial killer, he once noted:

Some people say that I'm claiming he's the first serial killer in American history, and I'm not. What I am saying is he's the prototype of the urban serial killer who's taking advantage of the anonymity of the city, to do what he does.

6. The real H.H. Holmes had a botched execution.

In 1896 H.H. Holmes was sentenced to execution by hanging for his long series of murders. However, authorities misjudged his weight. This mistake caused a bungled execution that left Holmes strangling to death for 15 minutes since the force of the hanging wasn't enough to instantaneously break his neck. The execution took place on May 7, 1896, at the Moyamensing Prison near Philadelphia. Before his death, Holmes confessed to killing over 100 people; however, this figure was reduced to 27 after police realized he'd confessed to the murders of numerous individuals who were still alive.

7. There was a great deal of animosity between New York and Chicago over the 1893 World's Fair.

The 1893 World's Fair was a controversial event, as both New York and Chicago vied to host the massive gathering. Although New York was a larger, more accessible destination, Chicago officials claimed that the city's rapid expansion in industry made it the most worthy candidate. This disagreement led to a rivalry between the metropolises as newspapers from each city attacked the other: New York publications "ridiculed Chicago's pretentiousness," while Chicago periodicals "attacked New York's political corruption."

8. Mayor Carter Harrison was assassinated at the end of the World's Fair, just like in the novel.

Larson was careful to include the most important historical figures of 1893 Chicago in The Devil in the White City and rarely had to embellish their characters or dramatic fates. The real Mayor Carter Harrison did, in fact, meet his end at the conclusion of the World's Fair when he was assassinated in his own home by Patrick Eugene Prendergast, a disgruntled and deranged newspaper distributor. Mayor Harrison's tendency to leave his door open and to welcome constituents into his home turned out to be a fatal mistake. He was shot three times on October 28, 1893.

9. H.H. Holmes requested that he be buried in concrete.

The real H.H. Holmes had an odd request for his burial: He wished to be encased in concrete so his body couldn't be unearthed. Despite the irony of his fear of being dug up and dissected, as he had done to so many others during his killing spree, authorities granted him his final wish.

10. A bus tour in Chicago borrows the name of Larson's novel.

A bus tour in Chicago, Illinois, stops at destinations popularized by The Devil in the White City. The bus tour visits the site of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, exploring the exhibits, grand structures, and murky political underworld of the event. Capitalizing on the popularity of Larson's novel, the route is named the "Devil in the White City" Plus tour.

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