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The Devil in the White City

  • Study Guide
Summary

Part I: Frozen Music (Chapters 1-4)

Summary Part I: Frozen Music (Chapters 1-4)

Summary: Chapter 1: The Black City

In the late 19th century, Chicago is a city adept at masking darkness. Many young, newly independent women move to the rough and exciting city to work as secretaries or seamstresses. Some employers have seedy ulterior motives in hiring young, attractive women, living freshly alone. The city is filled with vices.

The death rate in Chicago rises due to disease, fire, train accidents, and murder, with the latter increasing due to robberies or domestic arguments. These killings were different than the 1888 “Jack the Ripper” slayings in the Whitechapel district of London. Chicago could not imagine such a dark thing occurring on its turf.

Larson introduces a young doctor who enjoys the smoke, chaos, and smell of butchered animals. Larson foreshadows that parents will later write “to a strange and gloomy castle” to inquire about their missing daughters.

Summary: Chapter 2: “The Trouble Is Just Begun”

On February 24, 1890, the people of Chicago hold their breath and stare at the window of the ChicagoTribune, waiting to see who Congress chooses to host the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Daniel Burnham waits in his light-filled office in the Rookery with his partner, John Root. Together, they are Chicago’s leading architects. Washington, D.C., New York, St. Louis, and Chicago all want to host the World’s Fair. After the Great Fire of 1871, the citizens quickly restored the city to be a leader of industry and architecture, but New York remains the frontrunner in culture and actively disparages Chicago as filthy and unsophisticated. The Fair could change the East Coast perception of Chicago as a “greedy, hog-slaughtering backwater.”

Paris hosted the glamorous Exposition Universelle in 1889 and unveiled the Eiffel Tower. As the highest structure in the world, it outshone the iron and steel achievements of American engineers. While the original goal of the American World’s Fair was to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus discovering America, the United States now desired a chance to best France.

By the seventh ballot, Chicago only needs one more vote to win the right to host the Fair. Extreme tension freezes everyone on the streets. Finally, a young man with a somber expression appears in the window and slowly pastes the last ballot.