Both entertaining and educational, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America will fascinate students as it weaves history and legend into a nonfiction story that feels more like a literary novel.

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 plotline centers on the architect of the fair, Daniel Burnham, and the struggles he faces and ultimately overcomes. The other plotline focuses on H. H. Holmes, a serial killer who takes advantage of the crowds the fair attracts to find his victims.

Students will be kept in suspense throughout The Devil in the White City’s intertwined plots while also learning about the difficulties, successes, and planning that came together to create one of the grandest events in American history. The book can be easily incorporated into, or paired with, the curriculum of a U.S. History class because of its in-depth analysis of the years surrounding the construction of the 1893 World’s Fair.

Discover the secrets of teaching The Devil in the White City below!

Summary of The Devil in the White City

Key Facts

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

In 1891, Daniel H. Burnham, a prominent architect and urban planner, was tasked with the project of a lifetime: the construction of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. From its inception to its completion, the project faced many obstacles, including funding issues, construction accidents, and fires. Nevertheless, Burnham’s efforts paid off, as nearly 26 million visitors attended the fair.

Meanwhile, a man named Herman Webster Mudgett moved to Chicago under the alias H. H. Holmes. Outside of the fairgrounds, Holmes constructed a building called the World’s Fair Hotel, known today as the “murder castle.” Built with secret passages, hidden rooms, and body chutes, Holmes used the hotel to lure his many murder victims during fair.

Content Warning: The Devil in the White City contains graphic descriptions of violence.

What Your Students Will Love About The Devil in the White City

  • Larson’s narrative approach to recounting historical events
  • The excitement and intrigue of the World’s Fair and the characters’ obsession with it

Potential Student Struggles With The Devil in the White City

  • The length and slow pacing of the book
  • The dark aspects of Holmes’ plotline, especially the murders

Learning Objectives for The Devil in the White City

  • Evaluate how the characters of Daniel Burnham and H. H. Holmes demonstrate the conflict between good and evil.
  • Compare and contrast the juxtaposition between the grand architecture of the world’s fair and Holmes’s deadly hotel.
  • Identify the narrative techniques Larson uses to build suspense.
  • Examine the evolution of the symbolism behind the Ferris Wheel throughout its construction, its use during the fair, and its ultimate demolition.

Literary Elements in The Devil in the White City

  • Flashback
  • Foreshadowing
  • Juxtaposition
  • Metaphor
  • Narrative
  • Parallelism
  • Simile
  • Suspense
  • Symbolism
  • And more!

Major Themes in The Devil in the White City

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.

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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.

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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.

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Other Resources for The Devil in the White City

Order The Devil in the White City Resources from Prestwick House

Resource Format
The Devil in the White City Paperback Student Edition

This free guide was originally posted in June 2015. It has been updated as of October 2019.