The Devil in the White City is a literary nonfiction novel that spans the years surrounding the building of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, also known as The World's Columbian Exposition, which was designed to commemorate the landing of Columbus in America. This nonlinear novel is divided into four parts with the first three parts of the novel primarily taking place in Chicago between the years 1890-1893. However, Part IV of the novel takes the reader to Philadelphia circa 1895. In The Devil in the White City, author Erik Larson uses extensive research to recreate the lives of two real men and to reinvent Chicago during the World's Columbian Exposition. In the process, he creates two separate, yet connected plot lines and attempts to fill in some of the gaps left by history. One plot line centers on Daniel Burnham, the architect who builds the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. The other plot line focuses on character H.H. Holmes, the serial killer who exploits the fair to find his victims.
The story of Daniel Burnham, his building of the fair, and the struggles he overcomes in order to make the enterprise a success form one plot line. This sequence of events begins in 1890, when Chicago wins the bid for the 1893 World's Exposition. Daniel Burnham and his then partner, John Root, are given the honor of being the architects who build the fair and consequently, a more positive global reputation for Chicago. Throughout the novel, Daniel Burnham encounters many obstacles that threaten the success of the fair at all stages of construction. Early on, Burnham is left on his own after the untimely death of partner John Root. Burnham then faces many compromising forces, such as late-arriving building drafts, significant global economic decline, union strikes, construction injuries and deaths, and discovery of an attraction more amazing than the Eiffel Tower of the 1889 World's Fair in Paris. Despite these hurdles, Burnham and his crew persist, eventually finding a proposal to outshine the Eiffel Tower — the Ferris wheel. Construction continues and the fair opens, albeit incomplete, in 1893. Once the fair begins, Burnham still faces the challenges of finishing the Ferris wheel, boosting fair attendance, and making the fair turn a profit amidst a suffering economy. With grace, persistence, and determination, Burnham completes construction and increases fair attendance enough to pay debts and make a profit. Unfortunately, the closing of the fair brings tragedy, as the mayor of Chicago, Carter Henry Harrison, is assassinated.
While the story of Daniel Burnham progresses, another plot simultaneously unfolds. H.H. Holmes comes to Chicago in 1886 in search of work as a pharmacist or doctor. Holmes maliciously acquires a pharmacy in Englewood, a location very close to the future site of the World's Fair in Jackson Park. Eventually, Holmes buys the lot across the street from the pharmacy and builds an elaborate construction well suited to his practice of killing people and disposing of their bodies. The first floor of the building serves as his pharmacy, along with retail shop fronts for some of Holmes's illegal activities. The top two floors of his building have apartments for rent with secret passages, hallways, and chutes to the basement to make the disposal of dead bodies convenient for Holmes. Once Jackson Park is announced as the site of the fair, Holmes decides to turn his building into the World's Fair Hotel, and the building undergoes another construction project. The addition of a kiln in the basement enables easy disposal of Holmes's victims. Throughout his stay in Chicago, Holmes becomes involved with many women, marries a few, kills many he comes into contact with, acquires loads of debt he never plans on paying off, and commits several acts of fraud. On the verge of being discovered for some of his illegal activities, Holmes flees Chicago and travels around from place to place until he is finally arrested for insurance fraud in Philadelphia. Detective Frank Geyer investigates Holmes's past illegal activity and uncovers several of Holmes's murders across the Midwest and in Toronto.