Justification for Teaching

The Devil in the White City will entertain and fascinate students as it weaves history and entertainment into a nonfiction story that feels more like a literary novel. The book can be easily incorporated into, or paired with, the curriculum of a U.S. History class because of its description of the years surrounding the construction of the World’s Fair.

Students will be kept in suspense throughout The Devil in the White City’s intertwined plot lines while also learning about the difficulties, successes, and planning that came together to create a great event in American history.


In The Devil in the White City, author Erik Larson spans the years surrounding the building of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, dividing the book into four parts—the first three parts take place in Chicago between the years 1890-1893, and part four takes place in Philadelphia circa 1895.

In the process, Larson develops two separate yet connected plot lines, following the lives of two different men involved with the fair’s legacy. One plot line centers on the architect of the fair, Daniel Burnham, and the struggles he faces and ultimately overcomes. The other plot line focuses on H.H. Holmes, a serial killer who takes advantage of the crowds the fair attracts to find his victims.

Key Literary Elements & Techniques

  • Foreshadowing
  • Suspense
  • Flashback

Themes and Motifs

  • Good vs. Evil — While Burnham uses his great talent to create the fair, Holmes uses his own talent and charm in a malicious way by exploiting the crowds coming to the city.
  • Pride — The residents of Chicago are proud to be hosting the fair because at the time it was a city that was looked down upon by Easterners. The city’s architects are not happy when Burnham requests help from architects in different cities because they think it will take away from the accomplishment as their own.
  • Man vs. Nature — The book addresses the natural elements that created difficulties for Burnham as he built the fair. Burnham and his crew are at the mercy of nature; winters in Chicago can be extremely cold and the summers hot, making the project a challenge to complete.

Related Works

Themes of Good vs. Evil

The Crucible, by Arthur Miller

Macbeth, by William Shakespeare

Animal Farm, by George Orwell

Themes of Pride

The Iliad, by Homer

The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway

Themes of Man vs. Nature

Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer

Lord of the Flies, by William Golding

Life of Pi, by Yann Martel

Key Facts

  • Recommended Grade Band: 11 – 12
  • Publication Date: 2003
  • Length: 464 pages
  • Lexile Measure: 1170L


  • 2003 New York Times Bestseller
  • Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime
  • Finalist for 2003 National Book Award


A movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio is currently in production; the release date is yet to be determined. A movie about H.H. Holmes has been made, called H.H. Holmes: America’s First Serial Killer; however, it may not be suitable for all students. You can watch it here to determine whether it would be acceptable for use in your classroom.

Your Students will love:

  • How the nonfiction story is told so artistically that it seems like a work of fiction
  • The excitement and intrigue of the Fair and the characters’ obsession with it

Students may have problems with:

  • The length of the book
  • The darkness of Holmes’ plot line, especially the murders
  • Confusing the two plot lines

Available from Prestwick House

You can buy The Devil in the White City here.

Other Prestwick House Teacher's Guides to Literature

See all our Teacher's Guides to Literature here.

The Devil in the White City