Literary Companion: Chicago and The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson


Whether you’re visiting, thinking about a trip, or live in Chicago, Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City is a must-read. Written in 2003, this historical non-fiction book is presented in a novelistic style. The story is based on real characters and events, telling the story of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition from the perspective of the designers (including renowned Chicago architect Daniel Burnham) and H.H. Holmes, the notorious serial killer.


Set in 1893 Chicago, Larson artfully incorporates both stories—those of Daniel Burnham and Dr. H.H. Holmes—in a dramatic and revealing fashion. The book is divided into four parts; the first three happen in Chicago between 1890 and 1893, while Part Four takes place in Philadelphia in 1895. Daniel Burnham’s plot line consists of the struggles he overcomes to build and design the World’s Far. The other, strikingly different plot line belongs to Dr. H.H. Holmes a pharmacist turned serial killer who forms a plan to use an abandoned lot close to the Fair to lure in and kill multiple victims, all of whom have traveled to Chicago for the international spectacle.


This book is an essential read for any and all people interested in Chicago. Larson vividly describes the neoclassical architecture that comprised much of the 1893 World’s Fair, and visitors can easily spot relics of this part of the city’s past. Daniel Burnham is responsible for much of the 19th and early 20th century makeup of Chicago’s architecture, and his name and signature are featured on dozens of buildings along the Magnificent Mile and farther south toward Jackson Park.


Conversely, Chicago’s history is tainted by serial killers, organized crime, and gang violence; the H.H. Holmes plot provides readers with a first-hand, in-depth look at one of the city’s most notorious murderers. Though the “Muder House” was burnt down following Dr. Holmes’ death, readers and visitors will find themselves entrenched in Chicago’s darker history.

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