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TheThe DeDevviill iinn the the WWhithitee CityCity

This book has been optimized for viewing at a monitor setting of 1024 x 768 pixels.

Chicago, 1891.

Also by Erik Larson

Isaac’s Storm

Lethal Passage

The Naked Consumer

The The DeDevvil in theil in the WWhithite Citye City

Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America

Erik Larson

Crown Publishers • New York

Illustration credits appear on page 433.

Copyright © 2003 by Erik Larson

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted

in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying,

recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without

permission in writing from the publisher.

Published by Crown Publishers, New York, New York.

Member of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.


CROWN is a trademark and the Crown colophon is a registered trademark of

Random House, Inc.

Design by Leonard W. Henderson

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Larson, Erik.

The devil in the white city : murder, magic, and madness at the fair that changed

America / Erik Larson.—ed.

Includes bibliographical references and index.

1. Mudgett, Herman W., 1861–1896. 2. Serial murderers—Illinois—Chicago—

Biography. 3. Serial murders—Illinois—Chicago—Case studies. 4. World’s

Columbian Exposition (1893 : Chicago, Ill.) I. Title.

HV6248.M8 L37 2003



eISBN 1-4000-7631-5


To Chris, Kristen, Lauren, and Erin,

for making it all worthwhile

—and to Molly, whose lust for socks

kept us all on our toes

Evils Imminent (A Note) /xi

Prologue: Aboard the Olympic /1

Part I: Frozen Music /9

Part II: An Awful Fight /111

Part III: In the White City /233

Part IV: Cruelty Revealed /337

Epilogue: The Last Crossing /371

Notes and Sources /391

Bibliography /425

Acknowledgments /431

Illustration Credits /433

Index /435


EvEvils Imminentils Imminent (A NOTE)

In Chicago at the end of the nineteenth century amid the smoke of

industry and the clatter of trains there lived two men, both handsome,

both blue-eyed, and both unusually adept at their chosen skills. Each

embodied an element of the great dynamic that characterized the rush of

America toward the twentieth century. One was an architect, the builder

of many of America’s most important structures, among them the Flat-

iron Building in New York and Union Station in Washington, D.C.; the

other was a murderer, one of the most prolific in history and harbinger

of an American archetype, the urban serial killer. Although the two never

met, at least not formally, their fates were linked by a single, magical

event, one largely fallen from modern recollection but that in its time was

considered to possess a transformative power nearly equal to that of the

Civil War.

In the following pages I tell the story of these men and this event, but I

must insert here a notice: However strange or macabre some of the fol-

lowing incidents may seem, this is not a work of fiction. Anything between

quotation marks comes from a letter, memoir, or other written document.

The action takes place mostly in Chicago, but I beg readers to forgive me

for the occasional lurch across state lines, as when the staunch, grief-struck

Detective Geyer enters that last awful cellar. I beg forbearance, too, for the

occasional side journey demanded by the story, including excursions into

the medical acquisition of corpses and the correct use of Black Prince gera-

niums in an Olmstedian landscape.

Beneath the gore and smoke and loam, this book is about the evanes-

cence of life, and why some men choose to fill their brief allotment of

time engaging the impossible, others in the manufacture of sorrow. In the

end it is a story of the ineluctable conflict between good and evil, daylight

and darkness, the White City and the Black.

Erik Larson



Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.

Daniel H. Burnham

Director of Works

World’s Columbian Exposition, 1893

I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a

murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing.

Dr. H. H. Holmes




Aboard the Olympic


The architects (left to right): Daniel Burnham, George Post, M. B. Pickett, Henry Van Brunt, Francis Millet, Maitland Armstrong, Col. Edmund Rice,

Augustus St. Gaudens, Henry Sargent Codman, George W. Maynard, Charles McKim, Ernest Graham, Dion Geraldine.

The date was April 14, 1912, a sinister day in maritime history, but of

course the man in suite 63–65, shelter deck C, did not yet know it. What

he did know was that his foot hurt badly, more than he had expected. He

was sixty-five years old and had become a large man. His hair had turned

gray, his mustache nearly white, but his eyes were as blue as ever, bluer

at this instant by proximity to the sea. His foot had forced him to delay

the voyage, and now it kept him anchored in his suite while the other

first-class passengers, his wife among them, did what he would have

loved to do, which was to explore the ship’s more exotic precincts. The

man loved the opulence of the ship, just as he loved Pullman Palace cars

and giant fireplaces, but his foot problem tempered his enjoyment. He

recognized that the systemic malaise that caused it was a consequence in

part of his own refusal over the years to limit his courtship of the finest

wines, foods, and cigars. The pain reminded him daily that his time on

the planet was nearing its end. Just before the voyage he told a friend,

“This prolonging of a man’s life doesn’t interest me when he’s done his

work and has done it pretty well.”

The man was Daniel Hudson Burnham, and by now his name was

familiar throughout the world. He was an architect and had done his

work pretty well in Chicago, New York, Washington, San Francisco,

Manila, and many other cities. He and his wife, Margaret, were sailing

to Europe in the company of their daughter and her husband for a grand

tour that was to continue through the summer. Burnham had chosen this

ship, the R.M.S. Olympic of the White Star Line, because it was new and

glamorous and big. At the time he booked passage the Olympic was the

largest vessel in regular service, but just three days before his departure a

Aboard the Olympic


sister ship—a slightly longer twin—had stolen that rank when it set off

on its maiden voyage. The twin, Burnham knew, was at that moment car-

rying one of his closest friends, the painter Francis Millet, over the same

ocean but in the opposite direction.

As the last sunlight of the day entered Burnham’s suite, he and

Margaret set off for the first-class dining room on the deck below. They

took the elevator to spare his foot the torment of the grand stairway, but

he did so with reluctance, for he admired the artistry in the iron scroll-

work of its balustrades and the immense dome of iron and glass that

flushed the ship’s core with natural light. His sore foot had placed

increasing limitations on his mobility. Only a week earlier he had found

himself in the humiliating position of having to ride in a wheelchair

through Union Station in Washington, D.C., the station he had designed.

The Burnhams dined by themselves in the Olympic’s first-class salon,

then retired to their suite and there, for no particular reason, Burnham’s

thoughts returned to Frank Millet. On impulse, he resolved to send

Millet a midsea greeting via the Olympic’s powerful Marconi wireless.

Burnham signaled for a steward. A middle-aged man in knife-edge

whites took his message up three decks to the Marconi room adjacent to

the officer’s promenade. He returned a few moments later, the message

still in his hand, and told Burnham the operator had refused to accept it.

Footsore and irritable, Burnham demanded that the steward return to

the wireless room for an explanation.


Millet was never far from Burnham’s mind, nor was the event that had

brought the two of them together: the great Chicago world’s fair of 1893.

Millet had been one of Burnham’s closest allies in the long, bittersweet

struggle to build the fair. Its official name was the World’s Columbian

Exposition, its official purpose to commemorate the four hundredth

anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of America, but under Burnham, its

chief builder, it had become something enchanting, known throughout

the world as the White City.

It had lasted just six months, yet during that time its gatekeepers

4 • Erik Larson

recorded 27.5 million visits, this when the country’s total population was

65 million. On its best day the fair drew more than 700,000 visitors. That

the fair had occurred at all, however, was something of a miracle. To build

it Burnham had confronted a legion of obstacles, any one of which could

have—should have—killed it long before Opening Day. Together he and

his architects had conjured a dream city whose grandeur and beauty

exceeded anything each singly could have imagined. Visitors wore their

best clothes and most somber expressions, as if entering a great cathedral.

Some wept at its beauty. They tasted a new snack called Cracker Jack and

a new breakfast food called Shredded Wheat. Whole villages had been

imported from Egypt, Algeria, Dahomey, and other far-flung locales,

along with their inhabitants. The Street in Cairo exhibit alone employed

nearly two hundred Egyptians and contained twenty-five distinct build-

ings, including a fifteen-hundred-seat theater that introduced America to

a new and scandalous form of entertainment. Everything about the fair

was exotic and, above all, immense. The fair occupied over one square

mile and filled more than two hundred buildings. A single exhibit hall had

enough interior volume to have housed the U.S. Capitol, the Great Pyra-

mid, Winchester Cathedral, Madison Square Garden, and St. Paul’s

Cathedral, all at the same time. One structure, rejected at first as a “mon-

strosity,” became the fair’s emblem, a machine so huge and terrifying that

it instantly eclipsed the tower of Alexandre Eiffel that had so wounded

America’s pride. Never before had so many of history’s brightest lights,

including Buffalo Bill, Theodore Dreiser, Susan B. Anthony, Jane Addams,

Clarence Darrow, George Westinghouse, Thomas Edison, Henry Adams,

Archduke Francis Ferdinand, Nikola Tesla, Ignace Paderewski, Philip

Armour, and Marshall Field, gathered in one place at one time. Richard

Harding Davis called the exposition “the greatest event in the history of

the country since the Civil War.”

That something magical had occurred in that summer of the world’s

fair was beyond doubt, but darkness too had touched the fair. Scores of

workers had been hurt or killed in building the dream, their families con-

signed to poverty. Fire had killed fifteen more, and an assassin had trans-

formed the closing ceremony from what was to have been the century’s

The Devil in the White City • 5

greatest celebration into a vast funeral. Worse had occurred too, although

these revelations emerged only slowly. A murderer had moved among the

beautiful things Burnham had created. Young women drawn to Chicago

by the fair and by the prospect of living on their own had disappeared,

last seen at the killer’s block-long mansion, a parody of everything archi-

tects held dear. Only after the exposition had Burnham and his colleagues

learned of the anguished letters describing daughters who had come to the

city and then fallen silent. The press speculated that scores of fairgoers

must have disappeared within the building. Even the street-hardened

members of the city’s Whitechapel Club, named for the London stalking

grounds of Jack the Ripper, were startled by what detectives eventually

found inside and by the fact that such grisly events could have gone undis-

covered for so long. The rational explanation laid blame on the forces of

change that during this time had convulsed Chicago. Amid so much tur-

moil it was understandable that the work of a young and handsome doc-

tor would go unnoticed. As time passed, however, even sober men and

women began to think of him in less-than-rational terms. He described

himself as the Devil and contended that his physical shape had begun to

alter. Enough strange things began happening to the men who brought

him to justice to make his claim seem almost plausible.

For the supernaturally inclined, the death of the jury foreman alone

offered sufficient proof.


Burnham’s foot ached. The deck thrummed. No matter where you

were on the ship, you felt the power of the Olympic’s twenty-nine boil-

ers transmitted upward through the strakes of the hull. It was the one

constant that told you—even in the staterooms and dining chambers and

smoking lounge, despite the lavish efforts to make these rooms look as

if they had been plucked from the Palace of Versailles or a Jacobean

mansion—that you were aboard a ship being propelled far into the bluest

reaches of the ocean.

Burnham and Millet were among the few builders of the fair still

alive. So many others had gone. Olmsted and Codman. McKim. Hunt.

6 • Erik Larson

Atwood—mysteriously. And that initial loss, which Burnham still found

difficult to comprehend. Soon no one would remain, and the fair would

cease to exist as a living memory in anyone’s brain.

Of the key men, who besides Millet was left? Only Louis Sullivan:

embittered, perfumed with alcohol, resenting who knew what, but not

above coming by Burnham’s office for a loan or to sell some painting or


At least Frank Millet still seemed strong and healthy and full of the

earthy good humor that had so enlivened the long nights during the fair’s


The steward came back. The expression in his eyes had changed. He

apologized. He still could not send the message, he said, but at least now

he had an explanation. An accident had occurred involving Millet’s ship.

In fact, he said, the Olympic was at that moment speeding north at max-

imum velocity to come to her aid, with instructions to receive and care

for injured passengers. He knew nothing more.

Burnham shifted his leg, winced, and waited for more news. He hoped

that when the Olympic at last reached the site of the accident, he would

find Millet and hear him tell some outrageous story about the voyage. In

the peace of his stateroom, Burnham opened his diary.

That night the fair came back to him with extra clarity.

The Devil in the White City • 7

Part I

Frozen Music

Chicago, 1890–91

Chicago, circa 1889.

How easy it was to disappear:

A thousand trains a day entered or left Chicago. Many of these trains

brought single young women who had never even seen a city but now

hoped to make one of the biggest and toughest their home. Jane Addams,

the urban reformer who founded Chicago’s Hull House, wrote, “Never

before in civilization have such numbers of young girls been suddenly

released from the protection of the home and permitted to walk unat-

tended upon the city streets and to work under alien roofs.” The women

sought work as typewriters, stenographers, seamstresses, and weavers.

The men who hired them were for the most part moral citizens intent on

efficiency and profit. But not always. On March 30, 1890, an officer of

the First National Bank placed a warning in the help-wanted section of

the Chicago Tribune, to inform female stenographers of “our growing

conviction that no thoroughly honorable business-man who is this side

of dotage ever advertises for a lady stenographer who is a blonde, is

good-looking, is quite alone in the city, or will transmit her photograph.

All such advertisements upon their face bear the marks of vulgarity, nor

do we regard it safe for any lady to answer such unseemly utterances.”

The women walked to work on streets that angled past bars, gambling

houses, and bordellos. Vice thrived, with official indulgence. “The par-

lors and bedrooms in which honest folk lived were (as now) rather dull

places,” wrote Ben Hecht, late in his life, trying to explain this persistent

trait of old Chicago. “It was pleasant, in a way, to know that outside

their windows, the devil was still capering in a flare of brimstone.” In an

analogy that would prove all too apt, Max Weber likened the city to “a

human being with his skin removed.”

The Black City


Anonymous death came early and often. Each of the thousand trains

that entered and left the city did so at grade level. You could step from a

curb and be killed by the Chicago Limited. Every day on average two peo-

ple were destroyed at the city’s rail crossings. Their injuries were

grotesque. Pedestrians retrieved severed heads. There were other hazards.

Streetcars fell from drawbridges. Horses bolted and dragged carriages into

crowds. Fires took a dozen lives a day. In describing the fire dead, the term

the newspapers most liked to use was “roasted.” There was diphtheria,

typhus, cholera, influenza. And there was murder. In the time of the fair

the rate at which men and women killed one another rose sharply

throughout the nation but especially in Chicago, where police found them-

selves without the manpower or expertise to manage the volume. In the

first six months of 1892 the city experienced nearly eight hundred violent

deaths. Four a day. Most were prosaic, arising from robbery, argument, or

sexual jealousy. Men shot women, women shot men, and children shot

one another by accident. But all this could be understood. Nothing like the

Whitechapel killings had occurred. Jack the Ripper’s five-murder spree in

1888 had defied explanation and captivated readers throughout America,

who believed such a thing could not happen in their own hometowns.

But things were changing. Everywhere one looked the boundary

between the moral and the wicked seemed to be degrading. Elizabeth

Cady Stanton argued in favor of divorce. Clarence Darrow advocated

free love. A young woman named Borden killed her parents.

And in Chicago a young handsome doctor stepped from a train, his

surgical valise in hand. He entered a world of clamor, smoke, and steam,

refulgent with the scents of murdered cattle and pigs. He found it to his


The letters came later, from the Cigrands, Williamses, Smythes, and

untold others, addressed to that strange gloomy castle at Sixty-third

and Wallace, pleading for the whereabouts of daughters and daughters’


It was so easy to disappear, so easy to deny knowledge, so very easy in

the smoke and din to mask that something dark had taken root.

This was Chicago, on the eve of the greatest fair in history.

12 • Erik Larson

On the afternoon of Monday, February 24, 1890, two thousand peo-

ple gathered on the sidewalk and street outside the offices of the Chicago

Tribune, as similar crowds collected at each of the city’s twenty-eight

other daily newspapers, and in hotel lobbies, in bars, and at the offices of

Western Union and the Postal Telegraph Company. The gathering outside

the Tribune included businessmen, clerks, traveling salesmen, stenogra-

phers, police officers, and at least one barber. Messenger boys stood

ready to bolt as soon as there was news worth reporting. The air was

cold. Smoke filled the caverns between buildings and reduced lateral vis-

ibility to a few blocks. Now and then police officers cleared a path for

one of the city’s bright yellow streetcars, called grip-cars for the way their

operators attached them to an ever-running cable under the street. Drays

full of wholesale goods rumbled over the pavers, led by immense horses

gusting steam into the murk above.

The wait was electric, for Chicago was a prideful place. In every cor-

ner of the city people looked into the faces of shopkeepers, cab drivers,

waiters and bellboys to see whether the news already had come and

whether it was good or bad. So far the year had been a fine one.

Chicago’s population had topped one million for the first time, making

the city the second most populous in the nation after New York,

although disgruntled residents of Philadelphia, previously in second

place, were quick to point out that Chicago had cheated by annexing

large expanses of land just in time for the 1890 decadal census. Chicago

shrugged the sniping off. Big was big. Success today would dispel at last

the eastern perception that Chicago was nothing more than a greedy,

hog-slaughtering backwater; failure would bring humiliation from which

“The Trouble Is Just Begun”


the city would not soon recover, given how heartily its leading men had

boasted that Chicago would prevail. It was this big talk, not the persist-

ent southwesterly breeze, that had prompted New York editor Charles

Anderson Dana to nickname Chicago “the Windy City.”

In their offices in the top floor of the Rookery, Daniel Burnham, forty-

three, and his partner, John Root, newly forty, felt the electricity more

keenly than most. They had participated in secret conversations, received

certain assurances, and gone so far as to make reconnaissance forays to

outlying parts of the city. They were Chicago’s leading architects: They

had pioneered the erection of tall structures and designed the first build-

ing in the country ever to be called a skyscraper; every year, it seemed,

some new building of theirs became the tallest in the world. When they

moved into the Rookery at La Salle and Adams, a gorgeous light-filled

structure of Root’s design, they saw views of the lake and city that no one

but construction workers had seen before. They knew, however, that

today’s event had the potential to make their success so far seem meager.

The news would come by telegraph from Washington. The Tribune

would get it from one of its own reporters. Its editors, rewrite men, and

typesetters would compose “extra” editions as firemen shoveled coal into

the boilers of the paper’s steam-driven presses. A clerk would paste each

incoming bulletin to a window, face out, for pedestrians to read.

Shortly after four o’clock, Chicago standard railroad time, the Tribune

received its first cable.


Even Burnham could not say for sure who had been first to propose

the idea. It had seemed to rise in many minds at once, the initial intent

simply to celebrate the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s dis-

covery of the New World by hosting a world’s fair. At first the idea gained

little momentum. Consumed by the great drive toward wealth and power

that had begun after the end of the Civil War, America seemed to have

scant interest in celebrating its distant past. In 1889, however, the French

did something that startled everyone.

In Paris on the Champ de Mars, France opened the Exposition

14 • Erik Larson

Universelle, a world’s fair so big and glamorous and so exotic that visi-

tors came away believing no exposition could surpass it. At the heart of

the exposition stood a tower of iron that rose one thousand feet into the

sky, higher by far than any man-made structure on earth. The tower not

only assured the eternal fame of its designer, Alexandre Gustave Eiffel,

but also offered graphic proof that France had edged out the United

States for dominance in the realm of iron and steel, despite the Brooklyn

Bridge, the Horseshoe Curve, and other undeniable accomplishments of

American engineers.

The United States had only itself to blame for this perception. In Paris

America had made a half-hearted effort to show off its artistic, industrial,

and scientific talent. “We shall be ranked among those nations who have

shown themselves careless of appearances,” wrote the Chicago Tribune’s

Paris correspondent on May 13, 1889. Other nations, he wrote, had

mounted exhibits of dignity and style, while American exhibitors erected

a mélange of pavilions and kiosks with no artistic guidance and no uni-

form plan. “The result is a sad jumble of shops, booths, and bazaars often

unpleasing in themselves and incongruous when taken together.” In con-

trast, France had done everything it could to ensure that its glory over-

whelmed everyone. “Other nations are not rivals,” the correspondent

wrote, “they are foils to France, and the poverty of their displays sets off,

as it was meant to do, the fullness of France, its richness and its splendor.”

Even Eiffel’s tower, forecast by wishful Americans to be a monstrosity

that would disfigure forever the comely landscape of Paris, turned out to

possess unexpected élan, with a sweeping base and tapered shaft that

evoked the trail of a skyrocket. This humiliation could not be allowed to

stand. America’s pride in its growing power and international stature had

fanned patriotism to a new intensity. The nation needed an opportunity

to top the French, in particular to “out-Eiffel Eiffel.” Suddenly the idea

of hosting a great exposition to commemorate Columbus’s discovery of

the New World became irresistible.

At first, most Americans believed that if an exposition honoring the

deepest roots of the nation were to be held anywhere, the site should be

Washington, the capital. Initially even Chicago’s editors agreed. As the

The Devil in the White City • 15

notion of an exposition gained shape, however, other cities began to see

it as a prize to be coveted, mainly for the stature it would confer, stature

being a powerful lure in this age when pride of place ranked second only

to pride of blood. Suddenly New York and St. Louis wanted the fair.

Washington laid claim to the honor on grounds it was the center of gov-

ernment, New York because it was the center of everything. No one

cared what St. Louis thought, although the city got a wink for pluck.

Nowhere was civic pride a more powerful force than in Chicago,

where men spoke of the “Chicago spirit” as if it were a tangible force and

prided themselves on the speed with which they had rebuilt the city after

the Great Fire of 1871. They had not merely restored it; they had turned

it into the nation’s leader in commerce, manufacturing, and architecture.

All the city’s wealth, however, had failed to shake the widespread per-

ception that Chicago was a secondary city that preferred butchered hogs

to Beethoven. New York was the nation’s capital of cultural and social

refinement, and its leading citizens and newspapers never let Chicago for-

get it. The exposition, if built right—if it topped Paris—might dispel that

sentiment once and for all. The editors of Chicago’s daily newspapers,

upon seeing New York enter the contest, began to ask, why not Chicago?

The Tribune warned that “the hawks, buzzards, vultures, and other

unclean beasts, creeping, crawling, and flying, of New York are reaching

out to get control of the fair.”

On June 29, 1889, Chicago’s mayor, DeWitt C. Cregier, announced

the appointment of a citizens committee consisting of 250 of the city’s

most prominent men. The committee met and passed a resolution whose

closing passage read: “The men who have helped build Chicago want the

fair, and, having a just and well-sustained claim, they intend to have it.”

Congress had the final say, however, and now the time for the big vote

had come.


A Tribune clerk stepped to the window and pasted the first bulletin.

The initial ballot put Chicago ahead by a big margin, with 115 votes to

New York’s 72. St. Louis came next, followed by Washington. One con-

16 • Erik Larson

gressman opposed having a fair at all and out of sheer cussedness voted

for Cumberland Gap. When the crowd outside the Tribune saw that

Chicago led New York by 43 votes, it exploded with cheers, whistles, and

applause. Everyone knew, however, that Chicago was still 38 votes shy of

the simple majority needed to win the fair.

Other ballots followed. Daylight faded to thin broth. The sidewalks

filled with men and women leaving work. Typewriters—the women who

operated the latest business machines—streamed from the Rookery, the

Montauk, and other skyscrapers wearing under their coats the custom-

ary white blouse and long black skirt that so evoked the keys of their

Remingtons. Cab drivers cursed and gentled their horses. A lamplighter

scuttled along the edges of the crowd igniting the gas jets atop cast-iron

poles. Abruptly there was color everywhere: the yellow streetcars and the

sudden blues of telegraph boys jolting past with satchels full of joy and

gloom; cab drivers lighting the red night-lamps at the backs of their han-

soms; a large gilded lion crouching before the hat store across the street.

In the high buildings above, gas and electric lights bloomed in the dusk

like moonflowers.

The Tribune clerk again appeared in the newspaper’s window, this

time with the results of the fifth ballot. “The gloom that fell upon the

crowd was heavy and chill,” a reporter observed. New York had gained

fifteen votes, Chicago only six. The gap between them had narrowed.

The barber in the crowd pointed out to everyone in his vicinity that New

York’s additional votes must have come from congressmen who previ-

ously had favored St. Louis. This revelation caused an army lieutenant,

Alexander Ross, to proclaim, “Gentlemen. I am prepared to state that

any person from St. Louis would rob a church.” Another man shouted,

“Or poison his wife’s dog.” This last drew wide agreement.

In Washington the New York contingent, including Chauncey Depew,

president of the New York Central and one of the most celebrated ora-

tors of the day, sensed a tide change and asked for a recess until the next

day. On learning of this request the crowd outside the Tribune booed and

hissed, correctly interpreting the move as an attempt to gain time to

lobby for more votes.

The Devil in the White City • 17

The motion was overruled, but the House voted for a brief adjourn-

ment. The crowd remained in place.

After the seventh ballot Chicago was only one vote short of a major-

ity. New York had actually lost ground. A stillness settled on the street.

Cabs halted. Police ignored the ever-longer chains of grip-cars that

stretched left and right in a great cadmium gash. Passengers disembarked

and watched the Tribune window, waiting for the next announcement.

The cables thrumming beneath the pavement struck a minor chord of

suspense, and held it.

Soon a different man appeared in the Tribune window. He was tall,

thin, and young and wore a black beard. He looked at the crowd with-

out expression. In one hand he held a paste pot, in the other a brush and

a bulletin sheet. He took his time. He set the bulletin on a table, out of

sight, but everyone in the crowd could tell what he was doing by the

motion of his shoulders. He took his time unscrewing the paste pot.

There was something somber in his face, as if he were looking down

upon a casket. Methodically he painted paste onto the bulletin. It took

him a good long while to raise it to the window.

His expression did not change. He fastened the bulletin to the glass.


Burnham waited. His office faced south, as did Root’s, to satisfy their

craving for natural light, a universal hunger throughout Chicago, where

gas jets, still the primary source of artificial illumination, did little to

pierce the city’s perpetual coal-smoke dusk. Electric bulbs, often in fix-

tures that combined gas and electricity, were just beginning to light the

newest buildings, but these in a sense added to the problem, for they

required basement dynamos driven by coal-fired boilers. As the light

faded, gaslights on the streets and in the buildings below caused the

smoke to glow a dull yellow. Burnham heard only the hiss of gas from

the lamps in his office.

That he should be there now, a man of such exalted professional

stature in an office so high above the city, would have come as a great

and satisfying surprise to his late father.

18 • Erik Larson

Daniel Hudson Burnham was born in Henderson, New York, on Sep-

tember 4, 1846, into a family devoted to Swedenborgian principles of

obedience, self-subordination, and public service. In 1855, when he was

nine, the family moved to Chicago, where his father established a suc-

cessful wholesale drug business. Burnham was a lackluster student: “the

records of the Old Central show his average scholarship to be frequently

as low as 55 percent,” a reporter discovered, “and 81 percent seems the

highest he ever reached.” He excelled, however, at drawing and sketched

constantly. He was eighteen when his father sent him east to study with

private tutors to prepare him for the entrance exams for Harvard and

Yale. The boy proved to have a severe case of test anxiety. “I went to

Harvard for examination with two men not as well prepared as I,” he

said. “Both passed easily, and I flunked, having sat through two or three

examinations without being able to write a word.” The same happened

at Yale. Both schools turned him down. He never forgot it.

In the fall of 1867, at twenty-one, Burnham returned to Chicago. He

sought work in a field where he might be successful and took a job as a

draftsman with the architectural firm of Loring & Jenney. He had found

his calling, he wrote in 1868, and told his parents he wanted to become

the “greatest architect in the city or country.” The next year, however, he

bolted for Nevada with friends to try his hand at mining gold. He failed.

He ran for the Nevada legislature and failed again. He returned to

Chicago broke, in a cattle car, and joined the firm of an architect named

L. G. Laurean. Then came October 1871: a cow, a lantern, confusion,

and wind. The Great Chicago Fire took nearly eighteen thousand build-

ings and left more than a hundred thousand people homeless. The

destruction promised endless work for the city’s architects. But Burnham

quit. He sold plate glass, failed. He became a druggist, quit. “There is,”

he wrote, “a family tendency to get tired of doing the same thing very


Exasperated and worried, Burnham’s father in 1872 introduced his

son to an architect named Peter Wight, who admired the young man’s

skill at drawing and hired him as a draftsman. Burnham was twenty-five.

He liked Wight and liked the work; he liked especially one of Wight’s

The Devil in the White City • 19

other draftsmen, a southerner named John Wellborn Root, who was four

years younger. Born in Lumpkin, Georgia, on January 10, 1850, Root

was a musical prodigy who could sing before he could talk. During the

Civil War, as Atlanta smoldered, Root’s father had smuggled him to

Liverpool, England, aboard a Confederate blockade-runner. Root won

acceptance into Oxford, but before he could matriculate, the war ended

and his father summoned him back to America, to his new home in New

York City, where Root studied civil engineering at New York University

and became a draftsman for the architect who later designed St. Patrick’s


Burnham took to Root immediately. He admired Root’s white skin

and muscular arms, his stance at the drafting table. They became friends,

then partners. They recorded their first income three months before the

Panic of 1873 snuffed the nation’s economy. But this time Burnham stuck

with it. Something about the partnership with Root bolstered him. It

filled an absence and played to both men’s strengths. They struggled for

their own commissions and in the meantime hired themselves out to

other more established firms.

One day in 1874 a man walked into their office and in a single gal-

vanic moment changed their lives. He wore black and looked ordinary,

but in his past there was blood, death, and profit in staggering quantity.

He came looking for Root, but Root was out of town. He introduced

himself instead to Burnham and gave his name as John B. Sherman.

There was no need to amplify the introduction. As superintendent of

the Union Stock Yards, Sherman ruled an empire of blood that employed

25,000 men, women, and children and each year slaughtered fourteen

million animals. Directly and indirectly nearly one-fifth of Chicago’s

population depended on the yards for its economic survival.

Sherman liked Burnham. He liked his strength, his steady blue gaze,

and the confidence with which he conducted the conversation. Sherman

commissioned the firm to build him a mansion on Prairie Avenue at

Twenty-first Street among homes owned by other Chicago barons and

where now and then Marshall Field, George Pullman, and Philip Armour

20 • Erik Larson

could be seen walking to work together, a titanic threesome in black.

Root drew a house of three stories with gables and a peaked roof, in red

brick, buff sandstone, blue granite, and black slate; Burnham refined the

drawings and guided construction. Burnham happened to be standing in

the entrance to the house, considering the work, when a young man with

a mildly haughty air and an odd strut—not ego, here, but a congenital

fault—walked up to him and introduced himself as Louis Sullivan. The

name meant nothing to Burnham. Not yet. Sullivan and Burnham talked.

Sullivan was eighteen, Burnham twenty-eight. He told Sullivan, in confi-

dence, that he did not expect to remain satisfied doing just houses. “My

idea,” he said, “is to work up a big business, to handle big things, deal

with big business men, and to build up a big organization, for you can’t

handle big things unless you have an organization.”

John Sherman’s daughter, Margaret, also visited the construction site.

She was young, pretty, and blond and visited often, using as her excuse

the fact that her friend Della Otis lived across the street. Margaret did

think the house very fine, but what she admired most was the architect

who seemed so at ease among the cairns of sandstone and timber. It took

a while, but Burnham got the point. He asked her to marry him. She said

yes; the courtship went smoothly. Then scandal broke. Burnham’s older

brother had forged checks and wounded their father’s wholesale drug

business. Burnham immediately went to Margaret’s father to break the

engagement, on grounds the courtship could not continue in the shadow

of scandal. Sherman told him he respected Burnham’s sense of honor but

rejected his withdrawal. He said quietly, “There is a black sheep in every


Later Sherman, a married man, would run off to Europe with the

daughter of a friend.

Burnham and Margaret married on January 20, 1876. Sherman

bought them a house at Forty-third Street and Michigan Avenue, near the

lake but more importantly near the stockyards. He wanted proximity. He

liked Burnham and approved of the marriage, but he did not entirely

trust the young architect. He thought Burnham drank too much.

The Devil in the White City • 21

Sherman’s doubts about Burnham’s character did not color his respect

for his skill as an architect. He commissioned other structures. In his

greatest vote of confidence, he asked Burnham & Root to build an entry

portal for the Union Stock Yards that would reflect the yards’ growing

importance. The result was the Stone Gate, three arches of Lemont lime-

stone roofed in copper and displaying over the central arch the carved

bust—Root’s touch, no doubt—of John Sherman’s favorite bull,

Sherman. The gate became a landmark that endured into the twenty-first

century, long after the last hog crossed to eternity over the great wooden

ramp called the Bridge of Sighs.

Root also married a daughter of the stockyards, but his experience

was darker. He designed a house for John Walker, president of the yards,

and met Walker’s daughter, Mary. During their courtship she became ill

with tuberculosis. The disease rapidly gained ground, but Root remained

committed to the engagement, even though it was clear to everyone he

was marrying a dead woman. The ceremony was held in the house Root

had designed. A friend, the poet Harriet Monroe, waited with the other

guests for the bride to appear on the stairway. Monroe’s sister, Dora, was

the sole bridesmaid. “A long wait frightened us,” Harriet Monroe said,

“but at last the bride, on her father’s arm, appeared like a white ghost at

the halfway landing, and slowly oh, so hesitatingly dragging her heavy

satin train, stepped down the wide stairway and across the floor to the

bay window which was gay with flowers and vines. The effect was

weirdly sad.” Root’s bride was thin and pale and could only whisper her

vows. “Her gayety,” Harriet Monroe wrote, “seemed like jewels on a


Within six weeks Mary Walker Root was dead. Two years later Root

married the bridesmaid, Dora Monroe, and very likely broke her poet-

sister’s heart. That Harriet Monroe also loved Root seems beyond dis-

pute. She lived nearby and often visited the couple in their Astor Place

home. In 1896 she published a biography of Root that would have made

an angel blush. Later, in her memoir, A Poet’s Life, she described Root’s

marriage to her sister as being “so completely happy that my own

22 • Erik Larson

dreams of happiness, confirmed by that example, demanded as fortunate

a fulfillment, and could accept nothing less.” But Harriet never found

its equal and devoted her life instead to poetry, eventually founding

Poetry magazine, where she helped launch Ezra Pound toward national


Root and Burnham prospered. A cascade of work flowed to their firm,

partly because Root managed to solve a puzzle that had bedeviled

Chicago builders ever since the city’s founding. By solving it, he helped

the city become the birthplace of skyscrapers despite terrain that could

not have been less suited to the role.

In the 1880s Chicago was experiencing explosive growth that pro-

pelled land values to levels no one could have imagined, especially within

the downtown “Loop,” named for the turn-around loops of streetcar

lines. As land values rose, landowners sought ways of improving the

return on their investments. The sky beckoned.

The most fundamental obstacle to height was man’s capacity to walk

stairs, especially after the kinds of meals men ate in the nineteenth cen-

tury, but this obstacle had been removed by the advent of the elevator

and, equally important, by Elisha Graves Otis’s invention of a safety

mechanism for halting an elevator in free-fall. Other barriers remained,

however, the most elemental of which was the bedeviling character of

Chicago’s soil, which prompted one engineer to describe the challenge of

laying foundations in Chicago as “probably not equaled for perverseness

anywhere in the world.” Bedrock lay 125 feet below grade, too deep for

workers to reach with any degree of economy or safety using the con-

struction methods available in the 1880s. Between this level and the

surface was a mixture of sand and clay so saturated with water that

engineers called it gumbo. It compressed under the weight of even

modest structures and drove architects, as a matter of routine, to design

their buildings with sidewalks that intersected the first story four inches

above grade, in the hope that when the building settled and dragged the

sidewalks down with it, the walks would be level.

There were only two known ways to resolve the soil problem: Build

The Devil in the White City • 23

short and avoid the issue, or drive caissons down to bedrock. The latter

technique required that workers excavate deep shafts, shore the walls,

and pump each so full of air that the resulting high pressure held water

at bay, a process that was notorious for causing deadly cases of the bends

and used mainly by bridge builders who had no other choice. John

Augustus Roebling had used caissons, famously, in building the Brooklyn

Bridge, but their first use in the United States had occurred earlier, from

1869 through 1874, when James B. Eads built a bridge over the

Mississippi at St. Louis. Eads discovered that workers began experienc-

ing the bends at sixty feet below ground, roughly half the depth to which

a Chicago caisson would have to descend. Of the 352 men who worked

on the bridge’s notorious east caisson, pressure-related illness killed

twelve, left two crippled for life, and injured sixty-six others, a casualty

rate of over 20 percent.

But Chicago’s landowners wanted profit, and at the city’s center,

profit meant height. In 1881 a Massachusetts investor, Peter Chardon

Brooks III, commissioned Burnham & Root to build the tallest office

building yet constructed in Chicago, which he planned to call the Mon-

tauk. Previously he had brought them their first big downtown commis-

sion, the seven-story Grannis Block. In that structure, Burnham said, “our

originality began to show. . . . It was a wonder. Everybody went to see it,

and the town was proud of it.” They moved their offices into its top floor

(a potentially fatal move, as it happens, but no one knew it at the time).

Brooks wanted the new building to be 50 percent taller “if,” he said, “the

earth can support it.”

The partners quickly grew frustrated with Brooks. He was picky and

frugal and seemed not to care how the building looked as long as it was

functional. He issued instructions that anticipated by many years Louis

Sullivan’s famous admonition that form must follow function. “The

building throughout is to be for use and not for ornament,” Brooks

wrote. “Its beauty will be in its all-adaptation to its use.” Nothing was to

project from its face, no gargoyles, no pedimenta, for projections col-

lected dirt. He wanted all pipes left in the open. “This covering up of pipes

is all a mistake, they should be exposed everywhere, if necessary painted

24 • Erik Larson

well and handsomely.” His frugal glare extended to the building’s bath-

rooms. Root’s design called for cabinets under sinks. Brooks objected: A

cabinet made “a good receptacle for dirt, mice too.”

The trickiest part of the Montauk was its foundation. Initially Root

planned to employ a technique that Chicago architects had used since

1873 to support buildings of ordinary stature. Workers would erect pyr-

amids of stone on the basement slab. The broad bottom of each pyramid

spread the load and reduced settlement; the narrow top supported load-

bearing columns. To hold up ten stories of stone and brick, however, the

pyramids would have to be immense, the basement transformed into a

Giza of stone. Brooks objected. He wanted the basement free for the boil-

ers and dynamo.

The solution, when Root first struck it, must have seemed too simple

to be real. He envisioned digging down to the first reasonably firm layer

of clay, known as hard-pan, and there spreading a pad of concrete nearly

two feet thick. On top of this workers would set down a layer of steel

rails stretching from one end of the pad to the other, and over this a sec-

ond layer at right angles. Succeeding layers would be arranged the same

way. Once complete, this grillage of steel would be filled and covered

with Portland cement to produce a broad, rigid raft that Root called a

floating foundation. What he was proposing, in effect, was a stratum of

artificial bedrock that would also serve as the floor of the basement.

Brooks liked it.

Once built, the Montauk was so novel, so tall, it defied description by

conventional means. No one knows who coined the term, but it fit, and

the Montauk became the first building to be called a skyscraper. “What

Chartres was to the Gothic cathedral,” wrote Thomas Talmadge, a

Chicago architect and critic, “the Montauk Block was to the high com-

mercial building.”

This was the heyday of architectural invention. Elevators got faster

and safer. Glassmakers became adept at turning out ever larger sheets of

plate glass. William Jenney, of the firm Loring & Jenney, where Burnham

started his architectural career, designed the first building to have a load-

bearing metal frame, in which the burden of supporting the structure was

The Devil in the White City • 25

shifted from the exterior walls to a skeleton of iron and steel. Burnham

and Root realized that Jenney’s innovation freed builders from the last

physical constraints on altitude. They employed it to build taller and

taller buildings, cities in the sky inhabited by a new race of businessmen,

whom some called “cliff-dwellers.” These were men, wrote Lincoln

Steffens, “who will not have an office unless it is up where the air is cool

and fresh, the outlook broad and beautiful, and where there is silence in

the heart of business.”

Burnham and Root became rich men. Not Pullman rich, not rich

enough to be counted among the first rank of society alongside Potter

Palmer and Philip Armour, or to have their wives’ gowns described in the

city’s newspapers, but rich beyond anything either man had expected,

enough so that each year Burnham bought a barrel of fine Madeira and

aged it by shipping it twice around the world on slow freighters.

As their firm prospered, the character of each partner began to emerge

and clarify. Burnham was a talented artist and architect in his own right,

but his greatest strength lay in his ability to win clients and execute

Root’s elegant designs. Burnham was handsome, tall, and strong, with

vivid blue eyes, all of which drew clients and friends to him the way a

lens gathers light. “Daniel Hudson Burnham was one of the handsomest

men I ever saw,” said Paul Starrett, later to lead construction of the

Empire State Building; he joined Burnham & Root in 1888 as an all-

purpose helper. “It was easy to see how he got commissions. His very

bearing and looks were half the battle. He had only to assert the most

commonplace thing and it sounded important and convincing.” Starrett

recalled being moved by Burnham’s frequent admonition: “Make no lit-

tle plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.”

Burnham understood that Root was the firm’s artistic engine. He

believed Root possessed a genius for envisioning a structure quickly, in

its entirety. “I’ve never seen anyone like him in this respect,” Burnham

said. “He would grow abstracted and silent, and a faraway look would

come into his eyes, and the building was there before him—every stone.”

At the same time he knew Root had little interest in the business side of

26 • Erik Larson

architecture and in sowing the relationships at the Chicago Club and

Union League that eventually led to commissions.

Root played the organ every Sunday morning at the First Presbyterian

Church. He wrote opera critiques for the Chicago Tribune. He read

broadly in philosophy, science, art, and religion and was known through-

out Chicago’s upper echelon for his ability to converse on almost any sub-

ject and to do so with great wit. “His conversational powers were

extraordinary,” a friend said. “There seemed to be no subject which he

had not investigated and in which he was not profoundly learned.” He

had a sly sense of humor. One Sunday morning he played the organ with

particular gravity. It was a while before anyone noticed he was playing

“Shoo, Fly.” When Burnham and Root were together, one woman said, “I

used always to think of some big strong tree with lightning playing

around it.”

Each man recognized and respected the other’s skills. The resultant

harmony was reflected in the operation of their office, which, according

to one historian, functioned with the mechanical precision of a

“slaughterhouse,” an apt allusion, given Burnham’s close professional

and personal association with the stockyards. But Burnham also created

an office culture that anticipated that of businesses that would not appear

for another century. He installed a gym. During lunch hour employees

played handball. Burnham gave fencing lessons. Root played impromptu

recitals on a rented piano. “The office was full of a rush of work,”

Starrett said, “but the spirit of the place was delightfully free and easy

and human in comparison with other offices I had worked in.”

Burnham knew that together he and Root had reached a level of suc-

cess that neither could have achieved on his own. The synchrony with

which they worked allowed them to take on ever more challenging and

daring projects, at a time when so much that an architect did was new

and when dramatic increases in the height and weight of buildings ampli-

fied the risk of catastrophic failure. Harriet Monroe wrote, “The work of

each man became constantly more necessary to the other.”

As the firm grew, so did the city. It got bigger, taller, and richer; but it

The Devil in the White City • 27

also grew dirtier, darker, and more dangerous. A miasma of cinder-

flecked smoke blackened its streets and at times reduced visibility to the

distance of a single block, especially in winter, when coal furnaces were

in full roar. The ceaseless passage of trains, grip-cars, trolleys, carriages—

surreys, landaus, victorias, broughams, phaetons, and hearses, all with

iron-clad wheels that struck the pavement like rolling hammers—

produced a constant thunder that did not recede until after midnight and

made the open-window nights of summer unbearable. In poor neighbor-

hoods garbage mounded in alleys and overflowed giant trash boxes that

became banquet halls for rats and bluebottle flies. Billions of flies. The

corpses of dogs, cats, and horses often remained where they fell. In

January they froze into disheartening poses; in August they ballooned

and ruptured. Many ended up in the Chicago River, the city’s main com-

mercial artery. During heavy rains, river water flowed in a greasy plume

far out into Lake Michigan, to the towers that marked the intake pipes

for the city’s drinking water. In rain any street not paved with macadam

oozed a fragrant muck of horse manure, mud, and garbage that swelled

between granite blocks like pus from a wound. Chicago awed visitors

and terrified them. French editor Octave Uzanne called it “that Gordian

city, so excessive, so satanic.” Paul Lindau, an author and publisher,

described it as “a gigantic peepshow of utter horror, but extraordinarily

to the point.”

Burnham loved Chicago for the opportunity it afforded, but he grew

wary of the city itself. By 1886 he and Margaret were the parents of five

children: two daughters and three sons, the last, a boy named Daniel,

born in February. That year Burnham bought an old farmhouse on the

lake in the quiet village of Evanston, called by some “the Athens of sub-

urbs.” The house had sixteen rooms on two floors, was surrounded by

“superb old trees,” and occupied a long rectangle of land that stretched

to the lake. He bought it despite initial opposition from his wife and her

father, and did not tell his own mother of his planned move until the pur-

chase was complete. Later he wrote her an apology. “I did it,” he

explained, “because I can no longer bear to have my children in the

streets of Chicago. . . .”

28 • Erik Larson

Success came easily to Burnham and Root, but the partners did have

their trials. In 1885 a fire destroyed the Grannis Block, their flagship

structure. At least one of them was in the office at the time and made his

escape down a burning stairway. They moved next to the top floor of the

Rookery. Three years later a hotel they had designed in Kansas City col-

lapsed during construction, injuring several men and killing one.

Burnham was heartbroken. The city convened a coroner’s inquest, which

focused its attention on the building’s design. For the first time in his

career Burnham found himself facing public attack. He wrote to his wife,

“You must not worry over the affair, no matter what the papers say.

There will no doubt be censure, and much trouble before we get through,

all of which we will shoulder in a simple, straightforward, manly way; so

much as in us lies.”

The experience cut him deeply, in particular the fact his competence

lay exposed to the review of a bureaucrat over whom he had no influ-

ence. “The coroner,” he wrote Margaret three days after the collapse, “is

a disagreeable little doctor, a political hack, without brains, who dis-

tresses me.” Burnham was sad and lonesome and wanted to go home. “I

do so long to be there, and be at peace again, with you.”

A third blow came in this period, but of a different character.

Although Chicago was rapidly achieving recognition as an industrial and

mercantile dynamo, its leading men felt keenly the slander from New

York that their city had few cultural assets. To help address this lack, one

prominent Chicagoan, Ferdinand W. Peck, proposed to build an audito-

rium so big, so acoustically perfect, as to silence all the carping from the

East and to make a profit to boot. Peck envisioned enclosing this gigan-

tic theater within a still larger shell that would contain a hotel, banquet

room, and offices. The many architects who dined at Kinsley’s

Restaurant, which had a stature in Chicago equal to that of Delmonico’s

in New York, agreed this would be the single most important architec-

tural assignment in the city’s history and that most likely it would go to

Burnham & Root. Burnham believed likewise.

Peck chose Chicago architect Dankmar Adler. If acoustically flawed,

Peck knew, the building would be a failure no matter how imposing the

The Devil in the White City • 29

finished structure proved to be. Only Adler had previously demonstrated

a clear grasp of the principles of acoustical design. “Burnham was not

pleased,” wrote Louis Sullivan, by now Adler’s partner, “nor was John

Root precisely entranced.” When Root saw early drawings of the

Auditorium, he said it appeared as if Sullivan were about to “smear

another façade with ornament.”

From the start there was tension between the two firms, although no

one could have known it would erupt years later in a caustic attack by

Sullivan on Burnham’s greatest achievements, this after Sullivan’s own

career had dissolved in a mist of alcohol and regret. For now, the tension

was subtle, a vibration, like the inaudible cry of overstressed steel. It

arose from discordant beliefs about the nature and purpose of architec-

ture. Sullivan saw himself as an artist first, an idealist. In his autobiogra-

phy, in which he always referred to himself in the third person, he

described himself as “an innocent with his heart wrapped up in the arts,

in the philosophies, in the religions, in the beatitudes of nature’s loveli-

ness, in his search for the reality of man, in his profound faith in the

beneficence of power.” He called Burnham a “colossal merchandiser”

fixated on building the biggest, tallest, costliest structures. “He was ele-

phantine, tactless, and blurting.”

Workers began building the Auditorium on June 1, 1887. The result

was an opulent structure that, for the moment, was the biggest private

building in America. Its theater contained more than four thousand seats,

twelve hundred more than New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. And

it was air-conditioned, through a system that blew air over ice. The sur-

rounding building had commercial offices, an immense banquet hall, and

a hotel with four hundred luxurious rooms. A traveler from Germany

recalled that simply by turning an electric dial on the wall by his bed, he

could request towels, stationery, ice water, newspapers, whiskey, or a shoe

shine. It became the most celebrated building in Chicago. The president

of the United States, Benjamin Harrison, attended its grand opening.

Ultimately these setbacks proved to be minor ones for Burnham and

Root. Far worse was to occur, and soon, but as of February 14, 1890, the

30 • Erik Larson

day of the great fair vote, the partners seemed destined for a lifetime of



Outside the Tribune building there was silence. The crowd needed a

few moments to process the news. A man in a long beard was one of the

first to react. He had sworn not to shave until Chicago got the fair. Now

he climbed the steps of the adjacent Union Trust Company Bank. On the

top step he let out a shriek that one witness likened to the scream of a

skyrocket. Others in the crowd echoed his cry, and soon two thousand

men and women and a few children—mostly telegraph boys and hired

messengers—cut loose with a cheer that tore through the canyon of

brick, stone, and glass like a flash flood. The messenger boys raced off

with the news, while throughout the city telegraph boys sprinted from

the offices of the Postal Telegraph Company and Western Union or

leaped aboard their Pope “safety” bikes, one bound for the Grand Pacific

Hotel, another the Palmer House, others to the Richelieu, Auditorium,

Wellington, the gorgeous homes on Michigan and Prairie, the clubs—

Chicago, Century, Union League—and the expensive brothels, in partic-

ular Carrie Watson’s place with its lovely young women and cascades of


One telegraph boy made his way through the dark to an unlit alley

that smelled of rotted fruit and was silent save for the receding hiss of

gaslights on the street he had left behind. He found a door, knocked, and

entered a room full of men, some young, some old, all seeming to speak

at once, a few quite drunk. A coffin at the center of the room served as a

bar. The light was dim and came from gas jets hidden behind skulls

mounted on the walls. Other skulls lay scattered about the room. A hang-

man’s noose dangled from the wall, as did assorted weapons and a blan-

ket caked with blood.

These artifacts marked the room as headquarters of the Whitechapel

Club, named for the London slum in which two years earlier Jack the

Ripper had done his killing. The club’s president held the official title of

The Devil in the White City • 31

the Ripper; its members were mainly journalists, who brought to the

club’s meetings stories of murder harvested from the city’s streets. The

weapons on the wall had been used in actual homicides and were pro-

vided by Chicago policemen; the skulls by an alienist at a nearby lunatic

asylum; the blanket by a member who had acquired it while covering a

battle between the army and the Sioux.

Upon learning that Chicago had won the fair, the men of the

Whitechapel Club composed a telegram to Chauncey Depew, who more

than any other man symbolized New York and its campaign to win the

fair. Previously Depew had promised the members of the Whitechapel

Club that if Chicago prevailed he would present himself at the club’s

next meeting, to be hacked apart by the Ripper himself—metaphorically,

he presumed, although at the Whitechapel Club could one ever be cer-

tain? The club’s coffin, for example, had once been used to transport the

body of a member who had committed suicide. After claiming his body,

the club had hauled it to the Indiana Dunes on Lake Michigan, where

members erected an immense pyre. They placed the body on top, then

set it alight. Carrying torches and wearing black hooded robes, they cir-

cled the fire singing hymns to the dead between sips of whiskey. The club

also had a custom of sending robed members to kidnap visiting celebri-

ties and steal them away in a black coach with covered windows, all

without saying a word.

The club’s telegram reached Depew in Washington twenty minutes

after the final ballot, just as Chicago’s congressional delegation began cel-

ebrating at the Willard Hotel near the White House. The telegram asked,

“When may we see you at our dissecting table?”

Depew sent an immediate response: “I am at your service when

ordered and quite ready after today’s events to contribute my body to

Chicago science.”

Although he was gracious in acknowledging defeat, Depew doubted

that Chicago really understood the challenge that lay ahead. “The most

marvelous exhibit of modern times or ancient times has now just closed

successfully at Paris,” he told the Tribune. “Whatever you do is to be

compared with that. If you equal it you have made a success. If you sur-

32 • Erik Larson

pass it you have made a triumph. If you fall below it you will be held

responsible by the whole American people for having assumed what you

are not equal to.

“Beware,” he warned. “Take care!”


Chicago promptly established a formal corporation, the World’s

Columbian Exposition Company, to finance and build the fair. Quietly

officials made it clear that Burnham and Root would be the lead design-

ers. The burden of restoring the nation’s pride and prominence in the

wake of the Paris exposition had fallen upon Chicago, and Chicago in

turn had lodged it firmly, if for now discreetly, on the top floor of the


Failure was unthinkable. If the fair failed, Burnham knew, the nation’s

honor would be tarnished, Chicago humiliated, and his own firm dealt a

crushing blow. Everywhere Burnham turned there was someone—a

friend, an editor, a fellow club member—telling him that the nation

expected something tremendous out of this fair. And expected it in record

time. The Auditorium alone had taken nearly three years to build and

driven Louis Sullivan to the brink of physical collapse. Now Burnham

and Root were being called upon to build what amounted to an entire

city in about the same amount of time—not just any city, but one that

would surpass the brilliance of the Paris exposition. The fair also would

have to make a profit. Among Chicago’s leading men, profitability was a

matter of personal and civic honor.

By traditional architectural standards the challenge seemed an impos-

sible one. Alone neither architect could have done it, but together,

Burnham believed, he and Root had the will and the interlocking powers

of organization and design to succeed. Together they had defeated grav-

ity and conquered the soft gumbo of Chicago soil, to change forever

the character of urban life; now, together, they would build the fair and

change history. It could be done, because it had to be done, but the

challenge was monstrous. Depew’s oratory on the fair quickly grew tire-

some, but the man had a way of capturing with wit and brevity the true

The Devil in the White City • 33

character of a situation. “Chicago is like the man who marries a woman

with a ready-made family of twelve,” he said. “The trouble is just begun.”

Even Depew, however, did not foresee the true magnitude of the forces

that were converging on Burnham and Root. At this moment he and they

saw the challenge in its two most fundamental dimensions, time and

money, and these were stark enough.

Only Poe could have dreamed the rest.

34 • Erik Larson

One morning in August 1886, as heat rose from the streets with the

intensity of a child’s fever, a man calling himself H. H. Holmes walked

into one of Chicago’s train stations. The air was stale and still, suffused

with the scent of rotten peaches, horse excrement, and partially com-

busted Illinois anthracite. Half a dozen locomotives stood in the train-

yard exhaling steam into the already-yellow sky.

Holmes acquired a ticket to a village called Englewood in the town of

Lake, a municipality of 200,000 people that abutted Chicago’s southern-

most boundary. The township encompassed the Union Stock Yards and

two large parks: Washington Park, with lawns, gardens, and a popular

racetrack, and Jackson Park, a desolate, undeveloped waste on the


Despite the heat Holmes looked fresh and crisp. As he moved through

the station, the glances of young women fell around him like wind-blown


He walked with confidence and dressed well, conjuring an impression

of wealth and achievement. He was twenty-six years old. His height was

five feet, eight inches; he weighed only 155 pounds. He had dark hair and

striking blue eyes, once likened to the eyes of a Mesmerist. “The eyes

are very big and wide open,” a physician named John L. Capen later

observed. “They are blue. Great murderers, like great men in other walks

of activity, have blue eyes.” Capen also noted thin lips, tented by a full

dark mustache. What he found most striking, however, were Holmes’s

ears. “It is a marvelously small ear, and at the top it is shaped and carved

after the fashion in which old sculptors indicated deviltry and vice in

The Necessary Supply


their statues of satyrs.” Overall, Capen noted, “he is made on a very del-

icate mold.”

To women as yet unaware of his private obsessions, it was an appeal-

ing delicacy. He broke prevailing rules of casual intimacy: He stood too

close, stared too hard, touched too much and long. And women adored

him for it.

He stepped from the train into the heart of Englewood and took a

moment to survey his surroundings. He stood at the intersection of Sixty-

third and Wallace. A telegraph pole at the corner held Fire Alarm Box

No. 2475. In the distance rose the frames of several three-story homes

under construction. He heard the concussion of hammers. Newly planted

trees stood in soldierly ranks, but in the heat and haze they looked like

desert troops gone too long without water. The air was still, moist, and

suffused with the burned-licorice scent of freshly rolled macadam. On the

corner stood a shop with a sign identifying it as E. S. Holton Drugs.

He walked. He came to Wentworth Street, which ran north and south

and clearly served as Englewood’s main commercial street, its pavement

clotted with horses, drays, and phaetons. Near the corner of Sixty-third

and Wentworth, he passed a fire station that housed Engine Company

no. 51. Next door was a police station. Years later a villager with a blind

spot for the macabre would write, “While at times there was consider-

able need of a police force in the Stock Yards district, Englewood pursued

the even tenor of its way with very little necessity for their appearance

other than to ornament the landscape and see that the cows were not dis-

turbed in their peaceful pastures.”

Holmes returned to Wallace Street, where he had seen the sign for

Holton Drugs. Tracks crossed the intersection. A guard sat squinting

against the sun watching for trains and every few minutes lowered a

crossing gate as yet another locomotive huffed past. The drugstore was

on the northwest corner of Wallace and Sixty-third. Across Wallace was

a large vacant lot.

Holmes entered the store and there found an elderly woman named

Mrs. Holton. He sensed vulnerability, sensed it the way another man

might capture the trace of a woman’s perfume. He identified himself as a

36 • Erik Larson

doctor and licensed pharmacist and asked the woman if she needed assis-

tance in her store. He spoke softly, smiled often, and held her in his frank

blue gaze.

He was good with conversation, and soon she revealed to him her

deepest sorrow. Her husband, upstairs in their apartment, was dying of

cancer. She confessed that managing the store while caring for him had

become a great burden.

Holmes listened with moist eyes. He touched her arm. He could ease

her burden, he said. Not only that, he could turn the drugstore into a

thriving establishment and conquer the competition up the block.

His gaze was so clear and blue. She told him she would have to talk to

her husband.


She walked upstairs. The day was hot. Flies rested on the window sill.

Outside yet another train rumbled through the intersection. Cinder and

smoke drifted like soiled gauze past the window. She would talk to her

husband, yes, but he was dying, and she was the one who now managed

the store and bore its responsibilities, and she had come to a decision.

Just thinking about the young doctor gave her a feeling of contentment

she had not experienced in a long while.


Holmes had been to Chicago before, but only for brief visits. The city

impressed him, he said later, which was surprising because as a rule noth-

ing impressed him, nothing moved him. Events and people captured his

attention the way moving objects caught the notice of an amphibian: first

a machinelike registration of proximity, next a calculation of worth, and

last a decision to act or remain motionless. When he resolved at last to

move to Chicago, he was still using his given name, Herman Webster


As for most people, his initial sensory contact with Chicago had been

the fantastic stink that lingered always in the vicinity of the Union Stock

Yards, a Chinook of putrefaction and incinerated hair, “an elemental

The Devil in the White City • 37

odor,” wrote Upton Sinclair, “raw and crude; it was rich, almost rancid,

sensual and strong.” Most people found it repulsive. The few who found

it invigorating tended to be men who had waded in its “river of death,”

Sinclair’s phrase, and panned from it great fortunes. It is tempting to

imagine that all that death and blood made Mudgett feel welcome but

more realistic to suppose it conveyed a sense that here at last was a city

that allowed a broader range of behavior than was tolerated in

Gilmanton Academy, New Hampshire, the town in which he was born

and where he drifted through childhood as a small, odd, and exception-

ally bright boy—and where, as a consequence, in the cruel imaginations

of his peers, he became prey.

The memory of one episode stayed with him throughout his life. He

was five, wearing his first boy’s suit, when his parents sent him off to

begin his education at the village schoolhouse. “I had daily to pass the

office of one village doctor, the door of which was seldom if ever barred,”

he wrote in a later memoir. “Partly from its being associated in my mind

as the source of all the nauseous mixtures that had been my childish ter-

ror (for this was before the day of children’s medicines), and partly

because of vague rumors I had heard regarding its contents, this place

was one of peculiar abhorrence to me.”

In those days a doctor’s office could indeed be a fearsome place. All

doctors were in a sense amateurs. The best of them bought cadavers for

study. They paid cash, no questions asked, and preserved particularly

interesting bits of diseased viscera in large clear bottles. Skeletons hung

in offices for easy anatomical reference; some transcended function to

become works of art so detailed, so precisely articulated—every

bleached bone hitched to its neighbor with brass, under a skull grinning

with slap-shoulder bonhomie—that they appeared ready to race chat-

tering down the street to catch the next grip-car.

Two older children discovered Mudgett’s fear and one day captured

him and dragged him “struggling and shrieking” into the doctor’s office.

“Nor did they desist,” Mudgett wrote, “until I had been brought face to

face with one of its grinning skeletons, which, with arms outstretched,

seemed ready in its turn to seize me.

38 • Erik Larson

“It was a wicked and dangerous thing to do to a child of tender years

and health,” he wrote, “but it proved an heroic method of treatment,

destined ultimately to cure me of my fears, and to inculcate in me, first,

a strong feeling of curiosity, and, later, a desire to learn, which resulted

years afterwards in my adopting medicine as a profession.”

The incident probably did occur, but with a different choreography.

More likely the two older boys discovered that their five-year-old victim

did not mind the excursion; that far from struggling and shrieking, he

merely gazed at the skeleton with cool appreciation.

When his eyes settled back upon his captors, it was they who fled.


Gilmanton was a small farming village in New Hampshire’s lake coun-

try, sufficiently remote that its residents did not have access to a daily

newspaper and rarely heard the shriek of train whistles. Mudgett had

two siblings, a brother and sister. His father, Levi, was a farmer, as was

Levi’s own father. Mudgett’s parents were devout Methodists whose

response to even routine misbehavior relied heavily on the rod and

prayer, followed by banishment to the attic and a day with neither speech

nor food. His mother often insisted he pray with her in her room, then

filled the air around him with trembly passion.

By his own assessment, he was a “mother’s boy.” He spent a good deal

of time alone in his room reading Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe and

inventing things. He built a wind-powered mechanism that generated

noise to scare birds from the family fields and set out to create a perpet-

ual motion machine. He hid his most favored treasures in small boxes,

among them his first extracted tooth and a photograph of his “twelve-

year-old sweetheart,” although later observers speculated these boxes also

contained treasures of a more macabre sort, such as the skulls of small

animals that he disabled and then dissected, alive, in the woods around

Gilmanton. They based this speculation on the hard lessons learned dur-

ing the twentieth century about the behavior of children of similar char-

acter. Mudgett’s only close friend was an older child named Tom, who

was killed in a fall while the boys were playing in an abandoned house.

The Devil in the White City • 39

Mudgett gouged his initials into an old elm tree at his grandfather’s

farm, where the family marked his growth with notches in a doorjamb.

The first was less than three feet high. One of his favorite pastimes was

to hike to a high boulder and shout to generate an echo. He ran errands

for an “itinerant photographer” who stopped for a time in Gilmanton.

The man had a pronounced limp and was glad for the help. One morn-

ing the photographer gave Mudgett a broken block of wood and asked

him to take it to the town wagon maker for a replacement. When

Mudgett returned with the new block, he found the photographer sitting

beside his door, partly clothed. Without preamble, the photographer

removed one of his legs.

Mudgett was stunned. He had never seen an artificial limb before and

watched keenly as the photographer inserted the new block into a portion

of the leg. “Had he next proceeded to remove his head in the same mys-

terious way I should not have been further surprised,” Mudgett wrote.

Something about Mudgett’s expression caught the photographer’s eye.

Still on one leg, he moved to his camera and prepared to take Mudgett’s

picture. Just before he opened the shutter, he held up his false leg and

waved it at the boy. Several days later he gave Mudgett the finished pho-


“I kept it for many years,” Mudgett wrote, “and the thin terror-

stricken face of that bare-footed, home-spun clad boy I can yet see.”

At the time Mudgett described this encounter in his memoir, he was

sitting in a prison cell hoping to engineer a swell of public sympathy.

While it is charming to imagine the scene, the fact is the cameras that

existed during Mudgett’s boyhood made candid moments almost impos-

sible to capture, especially when the subject was a child. If the photogra-

pher saw anything in Mudgett’s eyes, it was a pale blue emptiness that he

knew, to his sorrow, no existing film could ever record.

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