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The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America

Erik Larson

  Acclaim for Erik Larson’s


  “As absorbing a piece of popular history as one will ever hope to find. Readers will soon forget that Larson’s work is nonfiction and, instead, imagine that they are holding a fictional page-turner.”

  —San Francisco Chronicle

  “[Larson] has a spooky eye for the small stories that hum and flicker underneath grand narratives, the unlikely intersections that so beautifully illuminate and amplify our understanding of history. In the soaring dreams of Daniel Burnham and the hellish ones of Henry Holmes, Larson has paired two unlikely stories that paint a dazzling picture of the Gilded Age and prefigure the American century to come.”

  —Entertainment Weekly

  “In a style that is suspenseful as well as entertaining, Larson shows us how both our highest aspirations and our most loathsome urges figured in the creation of the modern world.”




  “A wonderfully unexpected book…. An essential volume in the annals of true crime literature that evokes Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Larson is a historian … with a novelist’s soul.”

  —Chicago Sun-Times

  “Fascinating…. Saturated with historical detail.”

  —The Philadelphia Inquirer

  “The juxtaposition of the two main characters—architect Daniel H. Burnham and murderer H. H. Holmes—is fascinating. The combination of the birth of Chicago as a world-class city, the magic of the Fair, and the creepy serial killer makes for a compelling read.”

  —Elle, Readers’ Prize 2003

  “Embedded … [with] treasures of description and anecdote…. Larson has crafted a work of excellence, not just suspenseful but historically informative in the best bedtime-story way. An ultra-satisfying read.”

  —The Boston Globe

  “A thoroughly engaging portrait of America as it was, and the impact of that America on the society we inhabit today.”

  —Houston Chronicle

  “[Larson] succeeds at wringing out an affecting sort of docu-fictional history from his nose-to-the-ground detective work, dabblings into forensic psychology and careful reading of contemporary sources. Like Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit … Larson also resurrects an era’s dreams through those who fulfill them…. An entertaining tour.”

  —The Miami Herald

  “Enthralling narratives that fully transport the reader into the past. An unqualified success.”

  —The Denver Post

  “A thrilling account. Suspenseful, rich in period detail…. The Devil in the White City is a wholly factual work of history that reads like a mysery novel.”

  —Richmond Times-Dispatch

  “Larson tells this true story with a novelist’s verve, conjuring the grandeur of the scene, the power of the historical moment…. He brings to life the human emotions and frailties behind great events, often with humor…. Larson makes us long to see that vanished city by the lake, and wish for a little of the innocence lost.”

  —The New Orleans Times-Picayune

  “A book as lively as its title…. Devil is given shape and energy by the author’s dramatic inclinations.”

  —Austin American-Statesman

  “An irresistible page-turner that reads like the most compelling, sleep-defying fiction.”

  —Time Out New York

  “[Larson’s use of] Burnham’s creative triumph and Holmes’ triumph of destruction … as a sort of yin and yang of the human spirit is convincing. Alternating chapters from each story make the other more compelling, and the end result is a far more pungent, more compelling picture of an era than either narrative could have achieved alone.”

  —Seattle Post-Intelligencer

  “A spectacular and grisly tale.”

  —The San Diego Union-Tribune

  “Absorbing. Larson has an eye for the heartbreaking detail.”

  —The Dallas Morning News

  “A vivid history of the glittering Chicago World’s Fair and its dark side…. Larson is a talented writer with a gift for surprising language, and an admirable impulse to show and not tell. The book whips back and forth from character to character, anecdote to anecdote, building plenty of momentum in the process.”

  —New York magazine, Best Pick of the Week

  “[Shows us] the glory to which human imagination can soar, and the horror to which it can sink. Simply terrific.”

  —Detroit Free Press

  “A great story, recounted with authority, entertainment, and insight…. Larson writes with marvelous confidence, enthusiasm, polish, and scholarship.”

  —New York Daily News

  “Fascinating, detailed and novelistic.”

  —The Oregonian

  “Vastly entertaining…. Larson sets his scene splendidly. His description of the fair itself, of its grandiosity and almost magical impact, is stellar. He has given us a rousing and moving story … of the heights and depths of which we humans are capable.”

  —The Toronto Globe and Mail


  Isaac’s Storm

  Lethal Passage

  The Naked Consumer



  Erik Larson, author of the international bestseller Isaac’s Storm, has written for Harper’s, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and Time, where he is a contributing writer. He is a former staff writer for The Wall Street Journal. Larson lives in Seattle with his wife, three daughters, and assorted pets, including a golden retriever named Molly.

  Chicago, 1891.

  If you cannot read the map on your e-reading device, click here to download a PDF version:

  To Chris, Kristen, Lauren, and Erin,

  for making it all worthwhile

  —and to Molly, whose lust for socks

  kept us all on our toes


  Evils Imminent (A Note)


  Aboard the Olympic


  Frozen Music


  An Awful Fight


  In the White City


  Cruelty Revealed


  The Last Crossing

  Notes and Sources



  Illustration Credits

  Excerpt from In the Garden of Beasts

  If you cannot read the map on your e-reading device, click here to download a PDF version:


  (A NOTE)

  IN CHICAGO AT THE END of the nineteenth century amid the smoke of industry and the clatter of trains there lived two men, both handsome, both blue-eyed, and both unusually adept at their chosen skills. Each embodied an element of the great dynamic that characterized the rush of America toward the twentieth century. One was an architect, the builder of many of America’s most important structures, among them the Flatiron Building in New York and Union Station in Washington, D.C.; the other was a murderer, one of the most prolific in history and harbinger of an American archetype, the urban serial killer. Although the two never met, at least not formally, their fates were linked by a single, magical event, one largely fallen from modern recollection but that in its time was considered to possess a transformative power nearly equal to that of the Civil War.

  In th
e following pages I tell the story of these men and this event, but I must insert here a notice: However strange or macabre some of the following incidents may seem, this is not a work of fiction. Anything between quotation marks comes from a letter, memoir, or other written document. The action takes place mostly in Chicago, but I beg readers to forgive me for the occasional lurch across state lines, as when the staunch, grief-struck Detective Geyer enters that last awful cellar. I beg forbearance, too, for the occasional side journey demanded by the story, including excursions into the medical acquisition of corpses and the correct use of Black Prince geraniums in an Olmstedian landscape.

  Beneath the gore and smoke and loam, this book is about the evanescence of life, and why some men choose to fill their brief allotment of time engaging the impossible, others in the manufacture of sorrow. In the end it is a story of the ineluctable conflict between good and evil, daylight and darkness, the White City and the Black.



  Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.




  I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing.





  Aboard the Olympic


  The architects (left to right): Daniel Burnham, George Post, M. B. Pickett, Henry Van Brunt, Francis Millet, Maitland Armstrong, Col. Edmund Rice, Augustus St. Gaudens, Henry Sargent Codman, George W. Maynard, Charles McKim, Ernest Graham, Dion Geraldine.

  Aboard the Olympic

  THE DATE WAS APRIL 14, 1912, a sinister day in maritime history, but of course the man in suite 63–65, shelter deck C, did not yet know it. What he did know was that his foot hurt badly, more than he had expected. He was sixty-five years old and had become a large man. His hair had turned gray, his mustache nearly white, but his eyes were as blue as ever, bluer at this instant by proximity to the sea. His foot had forced him to delay the voyage, and now it kept him anchored in his suite while the other first-class passengers, his wife among them, did what he would have loved to do, which was to explore the ship’s more exotic precincts. The man loved the opulence of the ship, just as he loved Pullman Palace cars and giant fireplaces, but his foot problem tempered his enjoyment. He recognized that the systemic malaise that caused it was a consequence in part of his own refusal over the years to limit his courtship of the finest wines, foods, and cigars. The pain reminded him daily that his time on the planet was nearing its end. Just before the voyage he told a friend, “This prolonging of a man’s life doesn’t interest me when he’s done his work and has done it pretty well.”

  The man was Daniel Hudson Burnham, and by now his name was familiar throughout the world. He was an architect and had done his work pretty well in Chicago, New York, Washington, San Francisco, Manila, and many other cities. He and his wife, Margaret, were sailing to Europe in the company of their daughter and her husband for a grand tour that was to continue through the summer. Burnham had chosen this ship, the R.M.S. Olympic of the White Star Line, because it was new and glamorous and big. At the time he booked passage the Olympic was the largest vessel in regular service, but just three days before his departure a sister ship—a slightly longer twin—had stolen that rank when it set off on its maiden voyage. The twin, Burnham knew, was at that moment carrying one of his closest friends, the painter Francis Millet, over the same ocean but in the opposite direction.

  As the last sunlight of the day entered Burnham’s suite, he and Margaret set off for the first-class dining room on the deck below. They took the elevator to spare his foot the torment of the grand stairway, but he did so with reluctance, for he admired the artistry in the iron scrollwork of its balustrades and the immense dome of iron and glass that flushed the ship’s core with natural light. His sore foot had placed increasing limitations on his mobility. Only a week earlier he had found himself in the humiliating position of having to ride in a wheelchair through Union Station in Washington, D.C., the station he had designed.

  The Burnhams dined by themselves in the Olympic’s first-class salon, then retired to their suite and there, for no particular reason, Burnham’s thoughts returned to Frank Millet. On impulse, he resolved to send Millet a midsea greeting via the Olympic’s powerful Marconi wireless.

  Burnham signaled for a steward. A middle-aged man in knife-edge whites took his message up three decks to the Marconi room adjacent to the officer’s promenade. He returned a few moments later, the message still in his hand, and told Burnham the operator had refused to accept it.

  Footsore and irritable, Burnham demanded that the steward return to the wireless room for an explanation.

  Millet was never far from Burnham’s mind, nor was the event that had brought the two of them together: the great Chicago world’s fair of 1893. Millet had been one of Burnham’s closest allies in the long, bittersweet struggle to build the fair. Its official name was the World’s Columbian Exposition, its official purpose to commemorate the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of America, but under Burnham, its chief builder, it had become something enchanting, known throughout the world as the White City.

  It had lasted just six months, yet during that time its gatekeepers recorded 27.5 million visits, this when the country’s total population was 65 million. On its best day the fair drew more than 700,000 visitors. That the fair had occurred at all, however, was something of a miracle. To build it Burnham had confronted a legion of obstacles, any one of which could have—should have—killed it long before Opening Day. Together he and his architects had conjured a dream city whose grandeur and beauty exceeded anything each singly could have imagined. Visitors wore their best clothes and most somber expressions, as if entering a great cathedral. Some wept at its beauty. They tasted a new snack called Cracker Jack and a new breakfast food called Shredded Wheat. Whole villages had been imported from Egypt, Algeria, Dahomey, and other far-flung locales, along with their inhabitants. The Street in Cairo exhibit alone employed nearly two hundred Egyptians and contained twenty-five distinct buildings, including a fifteen-hundred-seat theater that introduced America to a new and scandalous form of entertainment. Everything about the fair was exotic and, above all, immense. The fair occupied over one square mile and filled more than two hundred buildings. A single exhibit hall had enough interior volume to have housed the U.S. Capitol, the Great Pyramid, Winchester Cathedral, Madison Square Garden, and St. Paul’s Cathedral, all at the same time. One structure, rejected at first as a “monstrosity,” became the fair’s emblem, a machine so huge and terrifying that it instantly eclipsed the tower of Alexandre Eiffel that had so wounded America’s pride. Never before had so many of history’s brightest lights, including Buffalo Bill, Theodore Dreiser, Susan B. Anthony, Jane Addams, Clarence Darrow, George Westinghouse, Thomas Edison, Henry Adams, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, Nikola Tesla, Ignace Paderewski, Philip Armour, and Marshall Field, gathered in one place at one time. Richard Harding Davis called the exposition “the greatest event in the history of the country since the Civil War.”

  That something magical had occurred in that summer of the world’s fair was beyond doubt, but darkness too had touched the fair. Scores of workers had been hurt or killed in building the dream, their families consigned to poverty. Fire had killed fifteen more, and an assassin had transformed the closing ceremony from what was to have been the century’s greatest celebration into a vast funeral. Worse had occurred too, although these revelations emerged only slowly. A murderer had moved among the beautiful things Burnham had created. Young women drawn to Chicago by the fair and by the prospect of living on their own had disappeared, last seen at the killer’s block-long mansion, a parody of everything architects held dear. Only after the exposition had Burnham and his colleagues le
arned of the anguished letters describing daughters who had come to the city and then fallen silent. The press speculated that scores of fairgoers must have disappeared within the building. Even the street-hardened members of the city’s Whitechapel Club, named for the London stalking grounds of Jack the Ripper, were startled by what detectives eventually found inside and by the fact that such grisly events could have gone undiscovered for so long. The rational explanation laid blame on the forces of change that during this time had convulsed Chicago. Amid so much turmoil it was understandable that the work of a young and handsome doctor would go unnoticed. As time passed, however, even sober men and women began to think of him in less-than-rational terms. He described himself as the Devil and contended that his physical shape had begun to alter. Enough strange things began happening to the men who brought him to justice to make his claim seem almost plausible.

  For the supernaturally inclined, the death of the jury foreman alone offered sufficient proof.

  Burnham’s foot ached. The deck thrummed. No matter where you were on the ship, you felt the power of the Olympic’s twenty-nine boilers transmitted upward through the strakes of the hull. It was the one constant that told you—even in the staterooms and dining chambers and smoking lounge, despite the lavish efforts to make these rooms look as if they had been plucked from the Palace of Versailles or a Jacobean mansion—that you were aboard a ship being propelled far into the bluest reaches of the ocean.