“The Devil in the White City”

Devil White City

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Journalist and author Erik Larson’s fourth book, published in 2003. My library still keeps four copies of this in circulation (and at least two or three are always out). With a movie in the works, this is likely to remain true for some time.

3.5 out of 5 stars.

This is a narrative nonfiction telling the story of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair from two perspectives: Daniel Burnham, the architect commissioned to plan and build the city and H.H. Holmes, a charismatic serial killer.

In narrative nonfiction (also called creative or literary nonfiction), the author uses research and facts to construct an entertaining story, often developed with the beats of genre fiction. It makes for interesting, engaging books for people who want to learn something without suffering through a dry, academic text.

But I wonder about the legality of narrative nonfiction. It is understood that authors will take some liberties with the subject to make a more engaging story (filling in gaps in time; explaining thoughts, feelings and motivations of people they have no way to communicate with). Some of it seems like deliberate deception. Larson does a good job of citing his sources (in the Notes and Sources section at the back of the book) and he also explains when he has fictionalized events. He does not tip the reader off in the narrative when he’s employing full-blown guesswork, though. He just dives in:

[Holmes] removed the apron and rolled down his sleeves. The chloroform and his own intense arousal made him feel light-headed. The sensation, as always, was pleasant and induced in him a warm languor, like the feeling he got after sitting too long in front of the hot stove. He stopped the chloroform, found a fresh cloth, and walked down the hall to Pearl’s room.


In the Notes, Larson says about the above passage:

Holmes left no firsthand account of the method he used to kill Julia and Pearl Connor; nor did he describe how he managed to subdue both victims (…) I constructed the murder scenes in this chapter using a combination of sources: fragments of known evidence (…); the detective work of other investigators (…); statements made by Holmes after the murders; psychiatric research into the character, motives and needs of criminal psychopaths; and testimony at Holmes’s trial as to how a person would react to an overdose of chloroform.


Larson has done a tremendous amount of legitimate, thorough research. But the fabricated sections (Holmes’s day at the fair with his wife and sister-in-law, other murders, etc.) stand out in the book in an unpleasant way. If you pay attention, you can tell when you’re entering bullshit-land. It sits weirdly in a book with an otherwise measured and well-evened tone.

[1] Vocabulary: 

Refulgent with the scents of murdered cattle and pigs.



adjective – shining brightly.

[2] This is a bizarre way to describe the foundation of a friendship:

Burnham took to Root immediately. He admired Root’s white skin and muscular arms, his stance at the drafting table.


Larson doesn’t give any information on why Root’s white skin or physical appearance would draw Burnham to be friends with him. I’m left confused (and the Notes don’t help, either).

[3] Larson is not afraid to call bullshit on some of Holmes’s written statements, which is a nice change for this type of book. Many authors believe every word from a serial killer. But Larson never had to cope with meeting or speaking with Holmes. With something like In Cold Blood (hugely sympathetic to Perry Smith, one of the killers), author Truman Capote developed a relationship and rapport with Smith, making him more likely to believe Smith’s statements.

“I kept [the photo] for many years,” Mudgett wrote, “and the thin terror-stricken face of that bare-footed, home-spun clad boy I can yet see.”

At the time Mudgett described this encounter in his memoir, he was sitting in a prison cell hoping to engineer a swell of public sympathy. While it is charming to imagine the scene, the fact is the cameras that existed during Mudgett’s boyhood made candid moments almost impossible to capture, especially when the subject was a child.


[4] This is an ugly, confusing sentence:

Patrolman, many of them, were barely competent, appointed solely at the direction of ward bosses.


[5] Vocabulary:

To him, Hunt was a janissary of a dead vernacular.



noun – a devoted follower or supporter. (Historical term for a member of the Turkish infantry between the 14th and 19th centuries.)

[6] I wrote this down because I liked it very much. Then I wondered (feeling like an ass for having this thought in the middle of a very sad scene): Why is Larson using so many commas? (Check out the second paragraph.)

Burnham found Root struggling for breath. Throughout the day Root had experienced strange dreams, including one that had come to him many times in the past of flying through the air. When Root saw Burnham, he said, “You won’t leave me again, will you?”

Burnham said no, but he did leave, to check on Root’s wife, who was in a neighboring room. As Burnham talked with her, a relative also entered the room. She told them Root was dead. In his last moments, she said, he had run his fingers over the bedding as if playing the piano. “Do you hear that?” he whispered. “Isn’t it wonderful? That’s what I call music.”


[7] An interesting example of ingrained, almost subliminally sexist language (I would likely do the same thing as Larson without noticing; I wouldn’t have even picked up on it if the two examples didn’t happen within a page of each other):

Mrs. Palmer was in Europe at the time, but her private secretary, Laura Hayes, a gossip of virtuosic scope, made sure her employer learned all the details.



Olmsted got wind of it from Harry Codman, who in addition to being his chief operating man in Chicago served as a kind of spy, keeping Olmsted abreast of all threats to Olmstead’s vision.


The female secretary informing her employer is a “gossip” giving “details”. The male employee is a “spy” keeping his boss aware of “threats.”


“It takes no end of time and worry to get a thing settled right but only a second to have orders given out for a wrong thing to be done.” (Frances Millet)


[9] A fantastically creepy image from one of Holmes’s death rooms:

Somehow a footprint had become etched into the smooth enameled finish on the inside of the vault door at a point roughly two feet above the floor. The toes, the ball, and the heel were so clearly outlined as to leave no doubt that a woman had left the print. The degree of detail mystified the police, as did the print’s resilience. They tried rubbing it off by hand, then with a cloth and soap and water, but it remained as clear as ever.


[10] Vocabulary:

“Rather than gaudy, flashy, cheap and meretricious.”



adjective – apparently attractive but having in reality no value or integrity.

[11] Vocabulary:

Secure a writ of replevin to take the iron back.



noun – a procedure whereby seized goods may be provisionally restored to their owner pending the outcome of an action to determine the rights of the parties concerned.

[12] A strange, lovely, poetic bit; surrealistically evocative without context. It would win one of those less-than-twenty-word story competitions. I want this to be Eli Cash’s next book.

Sad news arrived from Zanzibar: There would be no Pygmies. Lieutenant Schufeldt was dead, of unclear causes.


[13] Vocabulary:

The advice that rankled most came from Ward McAllister, factotum and chief slipperlick to Mrs. William Astor.




noun – an employee who does all kinds of work (handyman, jack of all trades, etc).


noun – a yes man (I assume Larson used this instead of “bootlicker” because he was referring to an employee of a woman. Which kind of leads us back to the gossip vs. spy thing in note [7]).

[14] Reference:

“It is impossible for the non-mechanical mind to understand how such a Brobdingnag continues to keep itself erect.”



Brobdingnag is a fictional land in Gulliver’s Travels occupied by giants. (I probably should have known this.)

[15] Vocabulary:

Everywhere it reflected the authoritarian spandrels of his character.



noun (architecture) – the almost triangular space between one side of the outer curve of an arch, a wall, and the ceiling or framework.

Just because you are writing about an architect, it does not mean you should use architectural terms to describe his personality. This doesn’t really make sense.

[16] Vocabulary:

A catafalque carrying Harrison’s black casket led the cortege.



noun – a decorated wooden framework supporting the coffin of a distinguished person during a funeral or while lying in state.


“Being broke didn’t disturb me in the least. I had started with nothing, and if I now found myself with nothing, I was at least even. Actually, I was much better than even: I had had a wonderful time.” (Sol Bloom)


[18] Reference:

In 1997 police in Chicago arrested a physician named Michael Swango at O’Hare Airport.



Michael Swango (b. 1954) is an American serial killer and former licensed physician. Estimated to have been involved in up to 60 fatal poisonings of patients and colleagues. Still alive; sentenced to three consecutive life terms.

I went into this book knowing nothing about Chicago’s World Fair and with more interest in Holmes’s story. I was pleasantly surprised to find the World’s Fair sections just as compelling (often more). I wonder if Larson started this project intending to write a book about Holmes, only to discover there wasn’t enough on record to make a novel-length account.

In the Notes and Sources, Larson says he read In Cold Blood to get a feel for writing from a killer’s point of view. Ultimately, these sections in The Devil in the White City are the weakest. He’s cobbling scenes from assumptions and it shows. Capote presented the murders in his book calmly, precisely, and with a clinical disconnect. Larson is too aware of the entertainment factor of murder. His attempts to get into Holmes’ head and his pleasure of each death rattle treads dangerously close to titillation.

This is a small complaint and I’d still highly recommend the book. Straight-forward language and short chapters make it a good one to take on an airplane or while stuck in waiting rooms. It does end very abruptly, though. I would have liked more detail about the short- and long-term cultural effects of the fair and Holmes’s trial. Did his trial or the case cause any changes in the legal system? In detective work? How did Chicago cope post-World’s Fair? We get closure with Burnham but a lot other other elements are left hanging.

Next week, we’re going back to Don DeLillo to look at his new release, Zero K.


2 thoughts on ““The Devil in the White City”

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