The Devil in the White City

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Summary

Part I: Frozen Music (Chapters 1-4)

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

Larson cuts to Burnham, who reflects on his past. Despite mostly average schoolwork, he excelled at drawing. His rejection from Harvard and Yale was a failure he will always remember. After these rejections, he hopped between multiple jobs. In 1872 he worked for Peter Wight, an architect, and met another draftsman named John Wellborn Root. They became fast friends and then partners of their own architecture firm, Burnham & Root.

In 1874, John B. Sherman, superintendent of the Union Stock Yards, commissioned the firm to build him a mansion. Burnham married Sherman’s daughter, Margaret. Root married Mary, the daughter of the stockyards’ president, John Walker. She died of tuberculosis six weeks after their wedding. Root later married Mary’s bridesmaid, Dora Monroe. Dora’s sister, Harriet Monroe, was unquestionably in love with Root and never married.

Burnham and Root were successful architects. Elevators and plate glass rapidly advanced architecture in Chicago. Root invented a grillage, a grid of cement-filled steel that produced a solid “floating foundation” despite the sinking clay underneath most of Chicago. After that, the Loring & Jenney firm developed a “load-bearing metal frame,” allowing builders to go as high as they pleased.

Burnham’s impressive aptitude to win clients with his confidence and handsome blue eyes complemented Root’s artistry and ability to envision an entire structure. However, they faced trials. Fire destroyed the Grannis Block, their prize structure. A coroner’s inquest scrutinized the firm when a hotel collapsed during construction. Burnham & Root were passed over for the commission of a grand concert hall, losing to Adler & Sullivan, which created a lasting tension between the two firms. 

When Chicago wins the bid to host the Fair, the people erupts into cheers. Chauncey Depew, the symbolic figure of New York’s campaign to win the Fair, graciously acknowledges defeat. Chicago establishes the Word’s Columbian Exposition Company to build the Fair. In private, it quickly names Burnham and Root as lead architects. Building such a huge Fair in a short time period seems impossible, but together Burnham and Root are up to the challenge. America expects a masterpiece to overshadow France, and failure is not an option.

Summary: Chapter 3: The Necessary Supply

In August, 1886, a young man who goes by the name H. H. Holmes heads to Englewood, a suburb of Chicago. He is well-dressed, with dark hair and “striking blue eyes.” At a corner, he finds E.S. Holton Drugs across from a large vacant lot. In the drugstore he meets Mrs. Holton, who reveals that her husband is dying. Holmes offers to buy the store and renames it H. H. Holmes Pharmacy. He attracts many young women with his charm and quickly becomes successful. Strangely, Mrs. Holton disappears.