Home > History, Literature > Ambition, Murder, and Irony: The Devil in the White City

Ambition, Murder, and Irony: The Devil in the White City

It’s probably fair to say that the bestselling success of Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City was a surprise, although perhaps it shouldn’t have been. Juxtaposing a faded American milestone – Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 – with the fairgoer-predating murders committed by Dr. H.H. Holmes, one of the earliest examples of a distinctly American criminal archetype, Larson’s non-fiction yarn appeals to not only the popular fascination with serial killers like Holmes but also to conceptions of American architectural daring and industrial ardor that now seem firmly anachronistic.

Although the events described in The Devil in the White City happened more than a century ago, the book also seems remarkably modern in its thematic focal points. America just before the turn of the 19th century was a country of enormous disparity in income distribution, the agitations of labour unions only beginning to puncture the bloated bubble of ownership’s wealth (their situation was a bit more dire than that of Occupy protestors). It also had a vast seedy underbelly related to the facility of the acquisition of capital by the industrious, the clever, and the unscrupulous, an underbelly into which the keen psychopath Holmes tore with gory abandon.

Holmes manipulated and mutilated not only human beings but the emerging capitalist order as well, building a tiny, concentrated fiefdom in the Chicago suburb of Englewood on a foundation of coercion, credit, and lies. Contrasting Holmes and his dim, foreboding “castle” with the glimmering “White City” in nearby Jackson Park engineered by the fair’s lead architect Daniel Burnham, Larson implies the kinship between the men and their enterprises just as he points out their considerable divergences. Burnham, after all, could use men as tools to achieve his ambitious ends just as sure-handedly as Holmes could (though the famous architect had a far healthier relationship to women than the famous killer did). That the accomplishments of the former were impressive and inspiring while those of the latter were terrifying and reprehensible is a difference of context more than of degree.

Larson’s popular history is certainly a diverting read, his language poised and his chosen details evocative and novelistic (if, on occasion, a tad non-sequiturial). But it’s a substantial read as well, not only due to the extensive scholarship that has been boiled down by Larson into a sort of historical poetry but also due to how nicely attuned it is to the many ironies embodied in the tale. That Chicago, a city whose late-19th-century wealth was largely built on the large-scale mechanized slaughter of animals in the Union Stockyards, would play host to a murderer who built his own mechanisms of human slaughter is not lost on the author.

He also contrasts the giddy high of the Exposition with deflated lows, imbuing his conclusion with a tone of downbeat sadness and tragic elegy. Larson acknowledges the later triumphs of Burnham’s career while bookending his story with the death of his friend and key fair collaborator Francis Millet on the maiden voyage of the Titanic. He mentions the eventual bankruptcy of key Exposition figures like Midway boss Sol Bloom (who later landed on his feet, and in the US Congress, no less) and Buffalo Bill Cody, whose lucrative Wild West show ran adjacent to the fair but was technically separate since he couldn’t get an official commission. And the irony radar blips away insistently in the case of Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who designed the fair’s green spaces (and Central Park, too, while we’re on the subject) but who ended up expiring in frustrated senility in an asylum whose grounds he himself had designed.

Larson aims to remind us that the surpassing optimism and ambition of the American project is always already tempered by failure and defeat, and he largely succeeds. And the chilling H.H. Holmes, an amoral grifter, compulsive charmer, and all-American monster, is his most effective conduit for this message. It is not merely morbid, Dexter-type bloodlusty popular fascination with the gore and terror of serial murder that makes the arc of the Holmes narrative so absorbing (as remarkable as the Exposition-centric chapters are, one looks forward to the next twist in the gruesome Holmes tale with grim enthrallment). The interest goes deeper than that, I believe.

Holmes is the black mirror of the emerging juggernaut of American hegemony that Burnham and his fellow elite Chicagoans (like railroad car tycoon George Pullman, wholesaler and hotelier Potter Palmer, and meatpacking giant Phillip Armour) purport to represent. Certainly he anticipates future dark civic figures like Al Capone and Richard Daley (and, as Tea Party fantasists would gladly tell you, that Kenyan-born anti-colonialist socialist demon Barack Hussein Obama), to say nothing of John Wayne Gacy and Jeffrey Dahmer. But Holmes is not really a radical perversion of the self-creating American ideal, he is its nastily logical fulfillment. As the undercurrents of The Devil in the White City make painfully clear, the same forces that strove to erect the White City made the Devil in its midst not only possible, but inevitable.

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Categories: History, Literature
  1. December 29, 2011 at 1:45 am

    Damn, send me this book! I need to read it! 😉

  2. masturbation
    May 21, 2013 at 2:28 pm

    This book is really bad.
    The Devil in the White City concerns the Chicago’s World Fair of 1893, especially the Herculean efforts and tragedies it took to produce “The White City”, as the fair was nicknamed, spearheaded by Chicago architect Daniel Hudson Burnham. But at the same time, Chicago played host to a disarmingly charismatic serial killer who preyed on young women and children, Dr. Henry H. Holmes, providing a stark contrast between the glimmering ideal of The White City and the filthy reality of 1890s Chicago.

    While I knew that The Devil in the White City tried to be engaging by adopting some novelistic traits, I wasn’t prepared for how well it succeeded. While I initially felt that the build-up to the fair was a little slow, I later realized that it was necessary to make the success of the fair feel hard-earned, in the face of differing architects, deaths, and the weather trying to sabotage the fair whenever it got the chance. It also makes the effervescence of the six month long fair all that more sorrowful towards the end. In any case, whenever it might lag, there’s always a creepy chapter about Holmes to pick it right up. Larson also plays up the contrast between The White City and actual Chicago to great effect; the architects do their best to keep the White City clean, while Chicago is so filthy animal corpses lie in the street and a chance rain can upset the sewage system. This is utilized more towards the end, but when it is, it works wonderfully.

    The extent of my knowledge about the Gilded Age previous to reading The Devil in the White City was watching Titanic, I have to admit, so it’s fascinating to see what could be construed as the pinnacle of such a fleeting age, as Victorian social mores head into the twentieth century. Larson takes great care to point out that city life offered more freedom and opportunity for women than rural life, usually when he’s discussing how women fell victim to Holmes’ terrifying charm. I also liked the glimpse into the utter excess of life during that time period, especially contrasted against the burgeoning unions and a tanking economy. Nothing quite says unemployed masses like the groan inducing menus Larson includes every so often. But the star is really the Fair; many inventions we take for granted were first showed there. I especially loved the story of the Ferris Wheel; it was so cleverly designed that people thought it was unsafe, as it looked too delicate. The stereotypical Arabian musical riff (you know, the snake charmer one) was actually invented by one of the architects to accompany the belly dancers who performed at the Fair. Shredded Wheat was first shown at the Fair, and predicted to be a flop. The list goes on and on. Once we get to the Fair, it’s fascinating. It doesn’t hurt that Holmes’ criminal life picks up speed at the same time.

    The way Larson uses his research to bring these people to life from across time is quite remarkable; he quotes extensively from letters and affidavits to keep things from getting too dry, which I quite liked. The Gilded Age was a time brimming with correspondence, and even Holmes’ secretive life is revealed through a memoir protesting his innocence and the letters of his victims and their families. Most heartbreaking are the letters of the three children he killed while in his care, who gave him letters to send to their mother. Larson laments that a judge didn’t allow evidence of all of Holmes’ crimes towards the end, robbing history of all that testimony. It’s all deftly done, and I think it’s a real example of how historical nonfiction can make the past come alive.

    My only problem with The Devil in the White City is that the two stories, that of the fair and that of Holmes, never really connect. Obviously, Holmes takes advantage of the World’s Fair to collect victims, but you can read each story independent of each other and get the same thing out of it. It was nice to have a good bit of true crime to break up the squabbling architects, but I think Larson could have done that equally well with Prendergast, a man who commits a murder that derails the fair entirely. It’s an interesting juxtaposition, to be sure, but I feel it’s an unnecessary one. I was also a bit put off by how Larson tried to composite Holmes’ character and motivations from the traditional psychopathic template. He does his best to try and not put words into anyone else’s mouth, but often does so with Holmes, claiming that childhood events recorded in his, to be fair, mostly fictional memoir occurred otherwise. It’s a definite misstep.

    Bottom line: While I’m still not sure what the two stories honestly have to do with each other, The Devil in the White City is a fascinating look at Gilded Age Chicago, the World’s Fair, and a scarily charming serial killer. While Larson oversteps in reconstructing Holmes’ character and motives, he succeeds in bringing a rarefied piece of history to life.

  1. September 19, 2013 at 5:56 pm

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