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True Crime Book Club - Past Titles: Oct. 2022

Trigger Warning: Take a look through our previous titles from our True Crime Book Club.

"The Devil in the White City" by Erik Larson

  1. How does Larson’s description of the time period help set the mood for the story? Did any of the descriptions surprise you?
  2. 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?
  3. You know who the serial killer is from the beginning of the book. Does this cause anticipation for the rest of the story, or does it ruin it for you?
  4. In the note "Evils Imminent," Erik Larson writes, "Beneath the gore and smoke and loam, this book is about the evanescence of life, and why some men choose to fill their brief allotment of time engaging the impossible, others in the manufacture of sorrow." 
    1. What does the book reveal about “conflict between good and evil"? 
    2. What is the essential difference between men like Daniel Burnham and Henry H. Holmes? 
    3. Are they alike in any way?
  5. Do you think a fair of this size could happen in today’s America? What advantages or disadvantages can you foresee with such a project?
  6. Who was more powerful – Burnham or Holmes? Why? In what ways?
  7. Why do you think Erik Larson chose to tell Burnham and Holmes' stories together? How did the juxtaposition affect the narrative? Do you think they worked well together or would you have preferred to read about just Holmes or just Burnham?
  8. How was Holmes able to get away with so many murders without becoming a suspect? Were you surprised by how easy it was for him to commit crimes without being caught?
  9. How was Holmes able to exert such power over his victims? What weaknesses did he prey upon? Why wasn't he caught earlier? In what ways does his story "illustrate the end of the century" (pg. 370), as the Chicago Times-Herald wrote?
  10. Could this many murders and/or disappearances have gone undetected in a different city? What about today?
  11. What ultimately led to Holmes' capture and the discovery of his crime? Was it inevitable? If Detective Geyer had been a little less persistent, do you think Holmes would have gotten away with murder?
  12. What do you think of Holmes' claim that he was the devil? 
    1. Can people be inherently evil? 
    2. How would you explain his strange allure and cold-hearted behavior?
  13. What satisfaction can be derived from a nonfiction book like The Devil in the White City that cannot be found in novels? In what ways is the book like a novel?
  14. At the end of the book, Larson suggests that "Exactly what motivated Holmes may never be known" (pg. 395). 
    1. What possible motives are exposed in The Devil in the White City? 
    2. Why is it important to try to understand the motives of a person like Holmes?
  15. What is the total picture of late nineteenth-century America that emerges from The Devil in the White City? 
    1. How is that time both like and unlike contemporary America? 
    2. What are the most significant differences? 
    3. In what ways does that time mirror the present?
  16. Do you believe that H. H. Holmes was really responsible for ALL the murders he was accused of? Could someone have really gotten away with that many murders? 
    1. Selzer wrote “The sort of forensic analysis of human remains that could have convicted him in Chicago was only a couple of years off. Bones were found in Holmes’s cellar, but the current science couldn’t determine whose bones they were, or if they were even human. Yet by the end of the decade, scientists would have been able to figure it out. Holmes’s career and crimes came in the last era of human history when they’d have to remain a mystery, subject to wild speculation and helpless against what the Philadelphia Press called ‘the lurid vagueness of legend.’” (H.H. Holmes: The True Story of the Devil in the White City pg. x)
  • Born May 16, 1861, in Gilmanton, New Hampshire, U.S. (Britannica)
  • Died May 7, 1896, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Britannica)
  • Spouse(s): 
    • Georgiana Yoke Holmes (m. 1894–1896)
    • Myrta Z. Belknap Holmes (m. 1887–1896)
    • Clara A. Lovering Mudgett (m. 1878–1896) (Course Hero)
  • Born as Herman Mudgett (Britannica)
    • Mudgett was born into a wealthy family and showed signs of high intelligence from an early age. 
    • Always interested in medicine, he allegedly trapped animals and performed surgery on them; some accounts of his life even suggest that he killed a childhood playmate. 
      • Mudgett attended medical school at the University of Michigan, where he was a mediocre student. 
        • In 1884 he was nearly prevented from graduating when a widowed hairdresser accused him of making a false promise of marriage to her. (Britannica)
        • While enrolled in medical school, Holmes stole cadavers from the laboratory, burned or disfigured them, and then planted the bodies, making it look as if they had been killed in an accident. The scandal behind it was that Holmes would take out insurance policies on these people before planting the bodies and would collect money once the bodies were discovered. (Crime Museum)
  • In 1886 Mudgett moved to Chicago and took a job as a pharmacist under the name “Dr. H.H. Holmes.” 
    • In 1884 Holmes passed his medical exams and then moved to Chicago, where he got a job working at a pharmacy under the alias Dr. Henry H. Holmes. (Crime Museum)
    • Soon afterward, he apparently began killing people in order to steal their property. 
    • The house he built for himself, which would become known as “Murder Castle,” was equipped with secret passages, trapdoors, soundproof rooms, doors that could be locked from the outside, gas jets to asphyxiate victims, and a kiln to cremate the bodies. 
      • During its 1889 construction, Holmes hired and fired several construction crews so that no one would have a clear idea of what he was doing; he was designing a “Murder Castle.” (Crime Museum)
      • At the reputed peak of his career, during the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, he allegedly seduced and murdered a number of women, typically by becoming engaged to them and then killing them after securing control of their life savings. 
        • The first floor of the Castle had several stores; the two upper levels contained Holmes’ office and over 100 rooms that were used as living quarters. Some of these rooms were soundproof and contained gas lines so that Holmes could asphyxiate his guests whenever he felt like it. Throughout the building, there were trap doors, peepholes, stairways that lead nowhere, and chutes that led into the basement. The basement was designed as Holmes’ own lab; it had a dissecting table, stretching rack, and crematory. Sometimes he would send the bodies down the chute, dissect them, strip them of the flesh and sell them as human skeleton models to medical schools. In other cases, he would choose to cremate or place the bodies into pits of acids. (Crime Museum)
      • Mudgett also required his employees to carry life insurance policies naming him as the beneficiary so that he could collect money after he killed them. 
        • He sold the bodies of many of his victims to local medical schools. (Britannica)
  • In 1893 Mudgett was arrested for insurance fraud after a fire at his home, but he was soon released. 
  • He then concocted a scheme with an associate, Ben Pitezel, to defraud an insurance company by faking Pitezel’s death. 
    • After Pitezel purchased a $10,000 life insurance policy, he and Mudgett traveled to Colorado, Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas, where they committed other acts of fraud. 
    • Returning to Missouri, Mudgett was arrested for fraud and briefly jailed in St. Louis. 
      • While in jail, he met Marion Hedgepeth, a career criminal who agreed to help Mudgett in the insurance scheme with Pitezel. 
    • Meanwhile, Pitezel moved to Philadelphia and opened a fake patent office to swindle inventors. 
    • After his release from jail, Mudgett traveled to Philadelphia and killed Pitezel. 
      • He then convinced Pitezel’s widow, who had been aware of her husband’s involvement in the insurance scheme, that her husband was still alive, later giving her $500 of the money he collected. 
      • Worried that some of Pitezel’s five children might alert the authorities, Mudgett killed three of them. 
      • Insurance investigators were alerted to the fraud by Hedgepeth, and Mudgett was arrested in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1894. 
      • He was tried in Philadelphia for the murder of Pitezel and was sentenced to death by hanging. (Britannica)
  • At the time of his arrest, Holmes appeared as if he was prepared to flee the country, and police became suspicious of him. Chicago police investigated Holmes’ Castle, where they discovered his strange and efficient methods for committing tortuous murders. Many of the bodies they located were so badly dismembered and decomposed that it was hard for them to determine exactly how many bodies there really were. (Crime Museum)
  • In 1896 H.H. Holmes was sentenced to execution by hanging for his long series of murders. However, authorities misjudged his weight. This mistake caused a bungled execution that left Holmes strangling to death for 15 minutes since the force of the hanging wasn't enough to instantaneously break his neck. The execution took place on May 7, 1896, at the Moyamensing Prison near Philadelphia. Before his death, Holmes confessed to killing over 100 people; however, this figure was reduced to 27 after police realized he'd confessed to the murders of numerous individuals who were still alive. (Course Hero)
  • Mudgett confessed to 27 murders (he later increased the total to more than 130), though some researchers have suggested that the real number exceeded 200. (Britannica)
  • Mudgett sold his story to the Hearst Corporation for $10,000. (Britannica)
  • The real H.H. Holmes had an odd request for his burial
    • He wished to be encased in concrete so his body couldn't be unearthed. Despite the irony of his fear of being dug up and dissected, as he had done to so many others during his killing spree, authorities granted him his final wish. (Course Hero)
  • On May 7, 1896, in Philadelphia, PA, one of America’s first serial killers, H.H. Holmes, was hanged. 
    • The Castle was remodeled as an attraction and named the “Holmes Horror Castle”
    • However, it burned to the ground shortly before its opening. (Crime Museum)
      • Many reports say that in 1895, sometime before Holmes was executed, the building burned to the ground.
        • This part is not true. Selzer points out in his book that while there was a fire that damaged the building at that time, the upper two floors were rebuilt afterward – and the building remained until it was finally torn down in the 1930s to make way for a Post Office. (Chicago Hauntings)  

Mass murderer Dr H H Holmes: The story of the Chicago Murder Castle, plus  Benjamin Pitezel & his other victims - Click Americana

  • Archival information: 1893 World's Fair
  • Held in celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in America, the fair was a stage for the world’s newest inventions, innovations and ideas. (Architecture)
  • Timeline of Activities: 1893 World's Fair Timeline.pdf
  • People who attended: People - Chicago's 1893 World's Fair  
  • Food & Drinks:
    • Snacks like Juicy Fruit gum, Cracker Jack, and brownies 
    • The beef sausage that would become the foundation of the Chicago-style hot dogs also made its appearance at the White City. 
    • Even Pabst beer has claimed its roots stem back to the exposition, where the company won its namesake blue ribbon. (Architecture)
    • Among the well-loved commercial products that made their debut at the Chicago World’s Fair was Cream of Wheat. (
  • Architecture:
    • The chief architect of the fair, Daniel Burnham, chose the Beaux Arts architectural style for the fair’s main buildings. 
    • Beaux Arts design is characterized by classical details like columns and pediments, highly decorative surfaces, statues, symmetry, and the use of stone. Burnham’s choice of style influenced architecture in the United States for several decades. (Beaux Arts)
    • Many turn-of-the-century towns’ city halls, libraries, and courthouses look very similar to the buildings at the World’s Fair. (Architecture)
  • Setup:
    • At the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris, Gustave Eiffel unveiled his signature tower, which soon became a worldwide sensation. 
    • When the Chicago World’s Fair committee began to plan the exposition, it asked U.S. architects to design a structure that would “out-Eiffel, Eiffel.” 
    • The initial proposals the committee received included what would have been the modern world’s first bungee jump and a 1,500-foot tower made entirely of logs. 
    • Gustave Eiffel even offered to build a tower similar to his Parisian masterpiece, but considerably larger. 
    • The committee seriously considered Eiffel’s offer, but the U.S. engineering community insisted an American design the structure. 
    • It chose Pittsburgh engineer George Washington Ferris’s design
    • Olmsted recounted collecting over one million plants and then planting the lagoons with 100,000 willows, seventy-five large railway platform car-loads of herbaceous aquatic plants, and 140,000 other aquatic plants, largely native and Japanese irises, with 285,000 ferns and other perennial herbaceous plants. (Olmstead)
  • Location:
    • Several cities competed to host the Columbian Exposition of 1893. 
      • In addition to Chicago, New York City, Washington, D.C., and St. Louis all threw their hats in the ring. 
      • All four cities made strong cases, especially Washington, D.C., as the seat of our government and New York as the nation’s largest city. 
      • Congress cited several reasons for their choice, including Chicago’s extensive railway system, its central location, and its citizens’ fundraising efforts, which totaled more than $5 million.
      •  But there was another factor at play: Chicago’s tenacity 
      • While New York boasted its logistical capabilities, Chicago touted its resilience. 
      • Chicago had risen from the ashes of a debilitating fire to become a symbol of America’s aspirations—an energetic, brash growing metropolis where anything was possible. (Architecture)
    • The lakefront of Jackson Park was the main setting of the 1893 World’s Fair. It was designed by the renowned landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted, who also created New York's Central Park. During the fair, the manicured grounds were home to more than 200 buildings, islands, lagoons, gardens, and more.
      • Today, the fair’s structures are largely gone but much of the landscape architecture remains. Jackson Park includes nearly 600 acres of idyllic green space that stretches through three Chicago neighborhoods.
      • One striking remnant of the World’s Fair: the Garden of the Phoenix, an authentic Japanese garden nestled on the Wooded Island in the center of Jackson Park’s lagoon. The intricate garden stands on the former site of Phoenix Pavilion, a recreation of an 11th-century Buddhist temple from Japan that was a popular exhibit during the World’s Fair.
      • The Phoenix Pavilion was where Frank Lloyd Wright first encountered Japanese architecture, an aesthetic that would continue to influence his work throughout his career. (Choose Chicago)
    • The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition occupied 686 acres on Chicago’s South Side. The main fairgrounds in Jackson Park occupied the area bounded by 56th Street on the north to 67th Street on the south and from Lake Michigan on the east to Stony Island Avenue on the West and included the “White City” of great palaces along the Grand Basin. 
      • The Midway Plaisance stretched west from Stony Island Avenue to Cottage Grove Avenue, between 59th Street and 60th Street. The fairgrounds contained hundreds of buildings, fifty-seven miles of roadway, and three miles of intertwining waterways. (World’s Fair Chicago 1893)
    • Fairgrounds - Chicago's 1893 World's Fair 
  • Technology:
    • Electricity had been introduced and exploited at the Paris Exposition of 1889, but in 1893 it was still unfamiliar to most Americans.
      • The exposition was opened by a dramatic act when Pres. Grover Cleveland pushed a button on a ceremonial platform in front of the Administration Building and set the great Allis engine in motion, turning on the electric power for the exposition. 
      • The engine, the dynamo, and the alternating-current generator displayed for the first time by George Westinghouse later became the basic tools of the electric power industry.  (Britannica
    • Technological products that would soon find their way into homes nationwide, such as the dishwasher and fluorescent light bulbs, had early prototype versions on display in Chicago as well. (
    • Elevators, the zipper, the Ferris wheel, the first voice recording, and more premiered (Choose Chicago)
  • Profits:
    • The Columbian Exposition’s gross outlays amounted to $28,340,700, of which $18,678,000 was spent on grounds and buildings. 
    • There were some 21.5 million paid admissions to the exposition, and actual total attendance (including free admissions) was more than 25.8 million. 
    • However, because some visitors were counted twice, the total figure is sometimes reported as having been between 27 and 28 million. 
    • The cash balance remaining at closing was $446,832 making it the first American international exposition to close with a profit. 
    • The Palace of Fine Arts, a 600,000-square-foot building, was rebuilt in permanent limestone in 1928-1932 to house the public exhibitions of the Museum of Science and Industry.  (Britannica
    • There were over 28.5 million visits, representing almost half the U.S. domestic population in 1893 (Olmstead)
  • National Pavilions:
    • Nearly 50 foreign countries and 43 states and territories were represented in Chicago. 
      • American pavilions touted the country’s diverse history, food, and culture with exhibits like Virginia’s replica of George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, a century-old palm tree from California, a massive stained glass display by Louis Comfort Tiffany, and a full-service Creole restaurant from Louisiana. 
      • Philadelphia even sent the Liberty Bell, as well as two replicas: one in rolled oats and one made of oranges. 
      • Not to be outdone, Norway sailed a full-sized replica of a Viking ship across the ocean for the fair
      • German industrial giant Krupp spent the equivalent of more than $25 million in today’s money to mount a massive artillery display, including a number of weapons that would later be used in World War I. (
  • Racism:
    • While Exposition organizers planned an immense, broad-sweeping attraction that would dazzle fairgoers with the achievements of many nations (with an emphasis on American accomplishments), they refused to give African Americans a voice in the development of the fair. Blacks were allowed to participate as low-level workers, performers, speakers, and, of course, paying guests, but white organizers kept them from any meaningful positions of influence or authority. (
    • Social reformers Ida B. Wells, Frederick Douglass, Irvine Garland Penn, and Ferdinand Lee Barnett wrote a protest pamphlet intended for distribution at the fair in multiple languages: The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition
      • The pamphlet was written to make international visitors aware of both the achievements of blacks since emancipation and the difficult and dangerous conditions they continued to face after slavery. 
      • The Haitian government allowed protestors to use their building which assured that the pamphlet was distributed to park guests. Unfortunately, it was only printed in English due to limited funding. (

What Really Happened at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893?

Remaining Artifacts from the White City: The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition

  • January 3, 1954 - present
  • Larson was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Freeport, Long Island, New York.
  • He studied Russian history at the University of Pennsylvania and graduated summa cum laude in 1976
  • He attended the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, graduating in 1978
  • Larson's first newspaper job was with the Bucks County Courier Times in Levittown, Pennsylvania, where he wrote about murder, witches, environmental poisons, and other "equally pleasant" things
  • He later became a features writer for The Wall Street Journal and Time
  • He currently lives in Seattle with his wife, three daughters, a Chinese fighting fish, a dwarf hamster, and a golden retriever named Molly
  • The Devil in the White City was a finalist for the National Book Award and won an Edgar Award for fact-crime writing 
    • It lingered on various Times bestseller lists for the better part of a decade.
  • Hulu plans to adapt the book for a limited TV series, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese as executive producers.
  • Larson conducted all the research for the book himself. On his website, the author notes that carefully arranging volumes upon volumes of materials and primary sources is often the most demanding part of his research method. (Course Hero)
  • Larson explained in an interview that he wanted to bring the 1893 World's Fair to life in his novel by exploring the most unique and fascinating aspects of the event and time period while still maintaining historical accuracy. (Course Hero)
  • Larson got the idea to write true crime from reading Caleb Carr’s novel, The Alienist (which is realistic fiction, not true crime). 
    • He was intrigued by the fair upon learning that Juicy Fruit Gum premiered at the 1893 World’s Fair 

He was worried during publication that reviewers would critique the book’s interactions between Holmes & Burnham, who never actually had any connection (Wall Street Journal)



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