"The Devil in the White City" by Erik Larson

Book Club Discussion Questions

The Devil in the White City


"The Devil in the White City" by Erik Larson is a nonfiction novel based on a true story that takes place before, during, and after the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. It features real-life characters and weaves parallel plots throughout the narrative.

Plot Summary

Officially titled "The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America," this book is a nonfiction novel that focuses on events that occurred at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago: the creation of the fair and a series of killings that occurred during the fair. In one of the plotlines, Larson describes the trials and tribulations that real-life architect Daniel Burnham encountered and had to overcome to build the fair, officially called the World's Columbian Exposition, including overcoming a recession, union strikes, and the death of his partner in the venture. In the end, the fair is a great success, spurred by the introduction of the Ferris wheel, constructed by George Washington Gale Ferris Jr.

Meanwhile, H. H. Holmes, a pharmacist by trade, buys and sets up a building just a few miles from the site of the World's Fair. Holmes sets up the building as a sort of hotel for young women. After luring the women, he kills them and disposes of their bodies in the basement using a kiln. Holmes flees the city shortly after the fair closes but is arrested in 1894 in Boston on fraud charges. He eventually confesses to 27 murders but is convicted for only one—that of his business partner—and hanged in 1896. Holmes may have been the country's first serial killer.

Discussion Questions

Larson's historically accurate novel can facilitate rich discussions of both events and humanity. The questions below are designed to help inspire your group's discussion. Spoiler alert: These questions reveal important details about the book. Finish the book before reading on.

  1. Why do you think Erik Larson chose to tell Burnham and Holmes' stories together? How did the juxtaposition affect the narrative? Do you think they worked well together or would you have preferred to read about just Holmes or just Burnham?
  2. What did you learn about architecture? What do you think the fair contributed to the architectural landscape in the United States?
  3. How did the Chicago World's Fair change Chicago? America? The world? Discuss some of the inventions and ideas that were introduced at the fair that still impact life today.
  4. How was Holmes able to get away with so many murders without becoming a suspect? Were you surprised by how easy it was for him to commit crimes without being caught?
  5. What ultimately led to Holmes' capture and the discovery of his crime? Was this inevitable?
  6. How did Holmes' hotel contrast with the buildings of the World's Fair? Can architecture reflect goodness or evil, or are buildings neutral until used?
  7. How did the White City contrast with Chicago, the "Black City?"
  8. What do you think of Holmes' claim that he was the devil? Can people be inherently evil? How would you explain his strange allure and cold-hearted behavior?
  9. Burnham, architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Ferris, and Holmes were all visionaries in their own ways. Discuss what drove each of these men, whether they were ever truly satisfied, and how their lives ultimately ended.
  10. Rate "The Devil in the White City" on a scale of one to five.
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Your Citation
Miller, Erin Collazo. ""The Devil in the White City" by Erik Larson." ThoughtCo, May. 24, 2021, thoughtco.com/the-devil-in-the-white-city-by-erik-larson-361903. Miller, Erin Collazo. (2021, May 24). "The Devil in the White City" by Erik Larson. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-devil-in-the-white-city-by-erik-larson-361903 Miller, Erin Collazo. ""The Devil in the White City" by Erik Larson." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-devil-in-the-white-city-by-erik-larson-361903 (accessed March 30, 2023).