Has The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary.
The third-largest city in the United States, Chicago has been the subject of many songs, its people and nightlife immortalized in movies and books. How did this initially sleepy midwest city rise to such fame?
In the nineteenth century, the Windy City played host to the World’s Columbian Exposition, a huge fair that attracted people from all over the world. The fair thrust the city into the limelight, and its aftereffects lingered for generations, from its skyline to demographics and even its language.
Yet the fair was not all fun and games. The event also inspired some of the most devilish sides of humanity, revealed here in this book summary.
In this summary of The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, you’ll learn
- why the wind has nothing to do with Chicago’s nickname, the Windy City;
- which famous brands launched at the fair still exist today;
- how Chicago became the home of the first-known serial killer.
The Devil in the White City Key Idea #1: At the close of the nineteenth century, the streets of Chicago were rife with vice and violence.
Are you ready for a thrilling story of national pride, high society and murder? Before we dive in, let’s take a look at life in Chicago circa 1890.
As the nineteenth century drew to a close, Chicago, an American city on the shores of Lake Michigan in Illinois, was a city rife with vice and violence.
Death along the city’s many railroad crossings were commonplace; two people on average were crushed under the wheels of trains daily. Chicago residents weren’t fazed, and some even had the task of collecting severed heads and limbs found along the tracks.
Fire was another common killer, with wooden shanty homes often going up in flames, killing dozens daily. The city’s water supply was also deadly, as sewage that spilled into the Chicago river was teeming with unhealthy bacteria. Cholera, typhus and other potentially fatal diseases were just a fact of life.
Those in poor neighborhoods lived with trash-lined streets and suffered from infestations of rats and flies. The corpses of animals were also a common sight; no matter if a dog, cat or horse, the city had no organized groups to collect them. These dead animals would freeze under the ice of winter only to warm, bloat and rupture in the sweltering heat of summer.
Murder rates in Chicago were some of the highest in North America. The city’s police didn’t have the manpower or even the training to manage this violent city. In the first half of 1892, some 800 gruesome deaths were counted in Chicago – that’s about four deaths every day.
Amid all this chaos, Chicago was also witness to serious social change. Women were entering the workforce in droves, allowing many young, single women to build new lives for themselves in Chicago.
Chicago’s working women worked as seamstresses, weavers, typists and stenographers, among many other jobs. As urban reformer Jane Addams wrote, there had never been a time in the history of civilization in which so many young girls could travel and live so freely.
Indeed, Chicago’s industry was booming, with the city’s meatpacking district the largest in the nation. Demand for housing was high; the growth in real estate construction saw modern skyscrapers rapidly shaping the Chicago skyline.
The Devil in the White City Key Idea #2: In 1890, Chicago won the votes of Congress to host the World’s Columbian Exposition.
At the turn of the century, the United States was eager to establish itself as a world leader in culture, yet it clearly lagged many of its European rivals. France, with its internationally chic capital of Paris, was the standard many countries looked to emulate.
In 1889, France hosted the Exposition Universelle, a colossal, glamorous world’s fair. While not common today, a world’s fair is a gigantic public exhibition that takes the form of a mini-city.
Countries of the world are invited to take part, hosting exhibits and putting modern innovations on display. Gustave Eiffel, for example, erected his now-famous tower of iron and steel as the centerpiece of the Exposition Universelle.
America had a section at the fair, but it wasn’t too impressive, and many felt the country’s jumble of booths an embarrassment. Officials afterward were determined to repair the country’s reputation by hosting a world's fair that would outdo France.
And so the World’s Columbian Exposition was born, its official purpose being a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus discovering America.
American cities competed for the chance to host the fair, and New York, Washington and Chicago were the favorites. Chicago, however, prevailed.
This might seem surprising, given the corrupt, violent nature of Chicago in the 1890s. Despite everything, Chicago residents were boastfully proud of their city – the true reason why it was nicknamed the Windy City in the first place!
Chicago’s big talk seemed to do the trick. On February 14, 1890, Congress named Chicago the host of the World’s Columbian Exposition.
While residents rejoiced, officials knew the project wasn’t going to be an easy one. Chicago was now under pressure to build what was essentially an entire city within the city – and they needed the right person to lead this massive project.
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The Devil in the White City Key Idea #3: Daniel Burnham headed the fair’s construction, which from the start was plagued with problems.
Chicago chose architect Daniel Burnham to head the fair’s construction. This decision was a no-brainer, as Burnham was a charming, successful and wealthy professional – people told the story of Burnham shipping a barrel of fine Madeira wine around the world twice to age it properly!
The handsome architect had the charisma of a born leader, but this didn’t make the project any easier.
From the outset, Burnham had to deal with a host of complications. The US economy was struggling, and the budget for the fair was tight.
As thousands of unemployed men made the trip to Chicago to find work at the fair, Burnham at the same time was laying off workers because of budget constraints.
Those who did work on the construction of the fair’s many buildings toiled amid dangerous conditions, and many workers lost their lives in the process. Many critics said the project acted as a mirror of the negative aspects of modern industrialization and the class conflict it created.
Burnham, against all the odds, was able to open the fair on time in 1893. The temporary yet grand buildings of the fair, with inspiring neoclassical facades, were painted a brilliant white – giving it the name The White City. Chicago was ready to welcome the world.
The Devil in the White City Key Idea #4: The fair was a runaway success, with new inventions and star-studded attendees.
The fair was a huge success, running for six months and receiving some 27.5 million visitors, with upwards of 700,000 people showing up on the fair’s biggest day.
A spectacle of glamor and technological innovation, the World’s Columbian Exposition awed visitors, with some even weeping at its inspiring beauty!
The fairgrounds covered just under one square mile, with models of over 200 buildings. One exhibition hall was large enough to house large replicas of the US Capitol Building, the Great Pyramid of Giza, Madison Square Garden, Winchester Cathedral and St. Paul’s Cathedral!
The fair also showcased new inventions and innovative products, such as the first clothing zipper, the first all-electric kitchen with an automatic dishwasher, Juicy Fruit gum, caramel popcorn, shredded wheat cereal, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and even a 22,000-pound wheel of cheese.
George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. presented his Ferris Wheel, an engineering achievement that was considered at the time to be equivalent if not surpassing in genius France’s Eiffel Tower.
Inventors Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, as well as author Theodore Dreiser, were honored guests at the fair. American journalist Richard Harding Davis called the exposition “the greatest event in the country since the Civil War.”
On the fair’s dedication day, American schoolchildren were brought together to recite a certain pledge for the first time, one which nearly all Americans know by heart today: the Pledge of Allegiance.
But behind the glare of the White City, all was not well. Chicago was still a city of violence and crime, and no fancy world’s fair could change that.
The Devil in the White City Key Idea #5: The fair did nothing to curb the brutal violence of Chicago, as Henry Howard Holmes was to prove.
What happens when you pour thousands of visitors into a dangerous city? In addition to the world’s first zipper and Ferris Wheel, Chicago played host to the world’s first-known serial killer.
Henry Howard Holmes appeared a charismatic, handsome physician to people who met him. In reality, he was a conman and psychopath who lured young women to their deaths, later cashing in on their life insurance.
Holmes and his associate Benjamin Pitezel ran a hotel for guests attending the world’s fair. The hotel was popular thanks to its convenient location and charming innkeeper.
What guests didn’t know was that the hotel had been specifically designed as a death trap.
Holmes installed gas pipes in rooms so he could silently asphyxiate his guests. Others suffocated in his soundproof basement vault or were hanged in a custom-made “hanging room.”
Holmes then dissected the corpses, stripping them of skin and organs. He sold the skeletons to hospitals and universities.
Nearly a decade later, Holmes was finally apprehended. Police after entering his apartment found a vat of acid that contained eight ribs and part of a skull. They also discovered a large kiln for burning bodies and a dissection table, in addition to a collection of bones, such as 18 ribs from a child’s torso.
All in all, police believed Holmes killed between 20 and 200 people.
In 1895, Holmes was tried for murder, found guilty and sentenced to death, the case a media sensation around the world. In 1896, to the relief of Chicago residents, Holmes was hanged.
In Review: The Devil in the White City Book Summary
The key message in this book:
At the end of the nineteenth century, Chicago was a booming industrial center, rife with social change and rampant violence. As the United States made its international cultural debut at the 1893 World’s Fair, one man’s obsession with murder introduced the world to its first-known serial killer.