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8 Compelling Facts About Erik Larson’s ‘The Devil in the White City’

Ellen Gutoskey
It's scarier because it's true.
It's scarier because it's true. / Penguin Random House (Book cover); James Mato (Background)
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The full title of Erik Larson’s 2003 narrative nonfiction classic is The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, and it manages to deliver all that and more. The story shifts between two fascinating historical figures: Daniel H. Burnham, the architect behind the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago; and H.H. Holmes, the cunning serial killer murdering his victims mere miles away.

With a TV adaptation from Hulu currently in the works, there’s no better time to learn about the book’s influences, development, and ongoing legacy.

1. The Alienist by Caleb Carr piqued Larson’s interest in 19th-century murderers …

In 1994, Larson read Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, a bestselling novel from that year about a psychiatrist who investigates murders in late-1890s New York City (and the basis for the TNT television series of the same name). The story—particularly its immersive setting—prompted Larson to consider writing about a real-life murder from the era, so he borrowed an Encyclopedia of Murder from the library and started looking for a suitable candidate. Though the volume included H.H. Holmes, Larson initially dismissed him “because he was so over-the-top bad, and I did not want to do a slasher book,” as he said in a 2003 C-SPAN interview.

2. … And Juicy Fruit gum inspired his focus on the 1893 World’s Fair.

But while reading about Holmes, Larson did come across a reference to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, a massive world’s fair in Chicago that attracted some 27 million visitors over a six-month period. He started researching that, instead—paying special attention to the footnotes of books, “because that’s where the good stuff, frankly, usually is,” he explained in a WSJ+ Books talk

One footnote mentioned that Juicy Fruit gum debuted at the fair. “This was the specific trigger … the fulcrum on which my life subsequently spun,” Larson said. Being a “passionate chewer” of Juicy Fruit himself, Larson was struck by the fair’s lasting influence on modern-day society, and he realized the book he wanted to write wasn’t just about the fair or Holmes’s nearby murders. It was “this monument to darkness and this monument to civic goodwill juxtaposed against one another.”

3. Larson’s research for this book led him to the idea for Isaac’s Storm.

Aftermath of the Galveston Hurricane of 1900
Galveston after the 1900 hurricane. / Library of Congress/GettyImages

That said, the progression didn’t happen overnight: Larson wrote a whole other book between reading The Alienist and landing on the final idea for The Devil in the White City. Published in 1999, Isaac’s Storm chronicles the story of a hurricane that killed thousands of people in Galveston, Texas, in 1900. The hurricane was the subject of an article in an old issue of the New York World that Larson was reading while hunting for a good murder to write about.

4. Larson doesn’t think Holmes killed hundreds of people.

It was also the New York World—a bastion of yellow journalism—that suggested Holmes had murdered some 200 people. “Based on my research, I think that’s too extraordinary,” Larson told Identity Theory, explaining that he thinks “several dozen” is probably closer to the mark. We’ll never get a definitive answer: Holmes was frustratingly fickle in his confessions. At one point, he owned up to murdering 27 people, a few of whom weren’t even dead. 

5. The Ferris wheel was meant to be a surprise for readers.

Ferris Wheel at Chicago World's Columbian Exposition of 1893
The original Ferris wheel. / Library of Congress/GettyImages

Juicy Fruit gum was far from the only still-relevant innovation first unveiled to the public during the fair. As Larson mentions in the book, shredded wheat, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, and zippers were some of the other exciting new offerings. So was the original Ferris wheel—which rose 264 feet above the ground and could carry a staggering 60 passengers per car.

George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. had developed this hulking wheel of wonder as a way to compete with the Eiffel Tower, constructed for the 1889 World’s Fair (or Exposition Universelle) held in Paris. Because Larson wanted readers to be surprised when they learned that the mystery structure was, in fact, a Ferris wheel, he tried to treat it as a spoiler pre-publication.

“I actually fought tooth and nail with the marketing department at Crown not to say anything about the Ferris wheel, because of the way I presented it as sort of a secret thing that came out of the fair,” he said. By the time he was doing press, he’d essentially abandoned the attempt at secrecy.

6. Larson approached his retellings of Holmes’s murders like a prosecutor would.

serial killer h.h. holmes during the late 19th century
Holmes during the late 19th century. / Murderpedia, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood helped Larson get a narrative feel for recounting murders in minute-to-minute detail. But Capote was famous for filling in gaps with embellishments from his own imagination, and Larson wasn’t willing to blur the line between fiction and nonfiction. Instead, he decided to do what prosecutors do in their opening statements: Use all the evidence they have to build their best theory about exactly how a given crime unfolded. Prosecutors then spend the rest of the trial presenting that evidence; Larson presented his in the form of “copious footnotes … in the back of the book.”

“I will detail any kind of intuitive leap that I make, show what information I use [and] where you can find that information,” he said on C-SPAN. “You’re free to read my description of how I came to certain conclusions and decide for yourself.”

7. The Devil in the White City has spent years on The New York Times bestseller lists.

Larson’s propulsive page-turner is a perennial fixture of The New York Times bestseller lists. As of early September 2022, it’s nursing a 374-week streak on the paperback nonfiction list. It also won the 2004 Edgar Award for best fact crime and was a 2003 National Book Award nonfiction finalist.

8. Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese are producing a miniseries based on the book.

Leonardo DiCaprio, Martin Scorsese at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in 2014
Scorsese and DiCaprio at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in 2014. / Michael Kovac/GettyImages

The book’s road from page to screen has been pretty tortuous so far. Tom Cruise acquired the rights to it soon after publication and enlisted Kathryn Bigelow to direct what was then going to be a feature film. The contract lapsed before they got it off the ground, and Leonardo DiCaprio optioned the story in 2010, bringing Martin Scorsese on board as director some five years later. 

At the time, the plan was still to make a movie, with DiCaprio reportedly starring as Holmes; but in 2019, news broke that the adaptation would instead be a Hulu series. While it’s unclear whether DiCaprio will play the titular devil, we know for sure who will bring Daniel Burnham to life: Keanu Reeves.

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