Hannibal Free Public Library

Devil in the White City

Erik Larson

February 25, 2013

Often times, truth is indeed stranger than fiction. Take the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago , Illinois . The fair was the groundbreaking birthplace of such things as neon lights and the Ferris Wheel. It was also the playground of a demented murderer who set up his very own chamber of torture within striking distance of the fair. This bizarre dichotomy of creation and destruction is what enticed Erik Larson to tell the twisted tale of the 1893 World's Fair in his fourth book Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America.

Erik Larson is a writer, journalist and novelist. Nominated for a Pulitzer prize for investigative journalism on The Wall Street Journal, he has taught non-fiction writing at San Francisco State and Johns Hopkins.

Discussion Questions

1. What is the essential difference between men like Daniel Burnham and Henry H. Holmes? Are they alike in any way?

2. What motives, in addition to "civic honor," drove Chicago to build the Fair? In what ways might the desire to "out-Eiffel Eiffel" and to show New York that Chicago was more than a meat-packing backwater be seen as problematic?

3. The White City is repeatedly referred to as a dream. What accounts for the dreamlike quality of the White City ? What are the positive and negative aspects of this dream?

4. How did the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 change America ? What lasting inventions and ideas did it introduce into American culture? What important figures were critically influenced by the Fair?

5. At the end of the book, Larson suggests that "Exactly what motivated Holmes may never be known" [p. 395]. What possible motives are exposed in The Devil in the White City? Why is it important to try to understand the motives of a person like Holmes?

6. What is the relationship between the opulence and grandeur of the Fair and the poverty and degradation that surrounded it? In what ways does the Fair bring into focus the extreme contrasts of the Gilded Age?

7. What narrative techniques does Larson use to create suspense in the book? How does he end sections and chapters of the book in a manner that makes the reader anxious to find out what happens next?

8. What does The Devil in the White City add to our knowledge about Frederick Law Olmsted and Daniel Burnham? What are their most important aesthetic principles?  (Frederick Law Olmsted is responsible for the design of Riverview Park in Hannibal .)

9. In what way is the entire Fair an example of the power of human ingenuity, of the ability to realize the dreams of imagination?

10. How was Holmes able to exert such power over his victims? What weaknesses did he prey upon? Why was he not caught earlier?

11. What is the total picture of late nineteenth-century America that emerges from The Devil in the White City? How is that time both like and unlike contemporary America ? In what ways does that time mirror the present? 


Adapted from questions issued by the publisher, from Amazon.com and from http://www.litlovers.com/reading-guides/13-fiction/258-devil-in-the-white-city-larson?start=1