Devil in the White City


The 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition World’s Fair was one of the most extraordinary events of the 19th Century. The previous fair in Paris highlighted by the Eiffel Tower was nothing compared to what Chicago offered.

There would be grand, whitewashed buildings that gave a gleaming portrait when the lights penetrated the night. It was labeled the “White City.” The fair would introduce a host of new products. The first dishwasher would be displayed. Cracker Jacks, Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit Gum, Aunt Jemima Pancake Syrup, Cream of Wheat, and picture postcards would all fascinate the public. In all, there would be more than 65,000 exhibits.

The biggest attraction meant to “Out-Eiffel, Eiffel” would also make its debut. It was a gigantic wheel supported by two steel towers. Around the wheel hung 36 wooden cradles, each with a capacity of 60 people. For 50 cents a person, one could take two complete revolutions on the 26 stories high contraption built by George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr., the Ferris Wheel.

However, amid the excitement only a few blocks away from the “White City” stood “the Castle,” as people called it. It was an ominous-looking building designed and constructed by Herman Webster Mudgett, better known as  Henry Howard (H.H.) Holmes. In a world of wonder and amazement where people were laughing and enjoying the sights and sound of the world’s enchanting fair, the first known American serial killer took the lives of nine people (27 by his confession, but some even say the number exceeds 200).

Erik Larson details both stories in his book “The Devil in the White City.” Holmes said of himself, “I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing — I was born with the “Evil One” standing as my sponsor beside the bed where I was ushered into the world, and he has been with me since.”

In a way, this is precisely the way Satan works in today’s world. His ways are subtle and hidden and often go unnoticed by the world until it is too late. When things are going well, life seems smooth, and we become complacent with what is happening around us. He reaches out and drags us down with his sly, evil ways. It can happen when we least expect it.

Sometimes his works show up in ways we fail to realize. It may be through anger that we allow feelings to build up and then release against a brother in disagreement. It could come through idle talk that we use behind someone’s back. It might appear through undue criticism toward one another. It can exist, hardly seen, but present still the same.

Satan is not omnipresent, and he cannot be everywhere at once. However, the tracks of evil that he lays in our path are ever-present. Amid all the good in our lives, he

wants a way into our hearts. The only way that happens is for a good person to ignore the signs that his influence is here. By allowing our thoughts and actions to be ruled by what God wants, there is no room for Satan to make his way into our hearts.

Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “the Lord is faithful and he will strengthen and protect you from the evil one.” 2 Thessalonians 3:3. As we live our lives, we must learn to be careful of becoming complacent in life and always be aware that there is One who is always watching over us to protect us from the one who is working against us. 

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” 1 Corinthians 9:24-27

Danny Minton is Pastoral Minister and Elder at Southern Hills Church of Christ


  • I read this book several years ago along with several other Erik Larson works. The main character was Satan-incarnate. The author has an amazing way with words, and it was terrifying reading. Are there people truly born (created) evil – so under Satan’s grasp – that they literally have no soul to save?


    • Good question Deborrah. I do not believe people are born evil. Everyone’s life is molded by many factors. The environment in which we grow up, the people in our lives, and events that have an effect on us all can be factors that enter into who we become. Satan does not have the power to make us do anything, but he does have the power of throwing evil influence into our paths. The weaker we become and distance ourselves from the good the easier it is for his influence to change us. Holmes for example never started out to be a killer. It appears that little things began to grow in his evil desires. Once we give in to Satan’s influence it becomes easier to keep moving farther and farther into his ways. On July 15, 1944, a young teenager wrote in her diary, “I do believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” Ann Frank wrote these words in hiding from those who sought to kill her and her family. When we allow God and good to live in our lives, it allows no room for the influence of Satan to make its way in.


  • I find the subject of evil puzzling and terrifying. I hate the thought that some people are born evil as Holmes said of himself.


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