Quicklet on Erik Larson's The Devil in White City: A Saga of Magic and Murder at the Fair that Changed America

by Nayla Wren

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    • About the Book
    • About the Author
    • Synopsis
    • Chapter-By-Chapter Commentary & Summary
    • Key Character List
    • Key Terms and Definitions
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    • Interesting Related Facts
    • Additional Reading



The Devil in the White City: A Saga of Magic and Murder at the Fair that Changed America is about the making of a great city and the development of two extraordinary, yet utterly disparate, men. The book is set in Chicago just before and during the 1983 World’s Columbian Exposition (or the World’s Fair as it’s more commonly known). Chicago is perched on the precipice of a great transformation, but whether for good or bad remains to be seen

Larson tells the story of the fair through the eyes of two men, both brilliant, each representing a different side of the city where they live. Daniel Burnham, a businessman and architect, has a vision of the glorious city Chicago can become. He represents the purity of spirit, innovation and diligence that make Chicago a great city. H. H. Holmes, a charming psychopath who uses the fair to lure his victims, represents the city’s darker side. Holmes is as efficient in his killing as the city’s slaughterhouses, and as destructive as its frequent fires. As Burnham elevates the city’s reputation, Holmes threatens to destroy its burgeoning greatness.


Nayla Wren has worked as a union organizer, comedy writer, farm hand, and performance artist. Currently, she is a law student at UCLA. She regularly presents on art, sociology, and law at academic conferences and writes about entertainment for various blogs. She lives in Los Angeles, where she once saw Glenn Danzig order a piece of apple pie.


The Devil in the White City is a story of two brilliant men: Daniel Burnham and H. H. Holmes. The book cuts back and forth between the two in order to highlight the greatest achievements and most sinister flaws of turn-of-the-century Chicago.

Burnham is skilled businessman who runs an architectural firm with his partner John Root. The two are responsible for remarkable innovations; together they designed and built some of the nation’s first skyscrapers. Burnham and Root campaigned for Chicago to host the 1892 World’s Fair, and when their campaign succeeds, Burnham is put in charge of the construction. He is determined that his fair rival Paris’ and thereby show the world that Chicago is a cosmopolitan, world-class city.

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