Erik Larson’s national bestseller The Devil in the White City is a work of art using macabre illustration and sourcing documentation. The two main figures Daniel Burnham, an architect and the infamous serial killer H. H. Holmes, an alias for Herman Webster Mudgett, are “both handsome” (xi) and “blue-eyed” (xi) emitting candor and affluence traceable to the White City, while refuting the gloom of the impoverished Black City. Larson leaves a prefatory note titled “Evils Imminent” explaining the book as “a story of the ineluctable conflict between good and evil, daylight and darkness, the White City and the Black” (xi). Larson depicts a theme that is the antithesis as “Chicago has disappointed her enemies and astonished the world” (310).
Larson shares the conflict of opposition as seen in the challenge of civic contribution for credibility in the World’s Fair, an exposition against critical reviews. Chicago is becoming a central for industrial growth, however is criticized for the United States’ ranking in comparison to other countries, especially counterbalanced by France’s Eiffel Tower. The city of Chicago erects “a mélange of pavilions and kiosks with no artistic guidance and no uniform plan” (15). Burnham feels compelled to complete, after the death of John Root, an artistic genius—the fair known as the World’s Columbian Exposition—a commemoration to “the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of America” (4) and will gloriously be announced as the White City.
The revelation of criticism as mentioned by Larson, is motivating spectators to prepare for the World’s Columbian Exposition on Opening Day located in Jackson Park. People will enjoy festivities, performances, and the Ferris Wheel named after George Washington Gale Ferris, an innovative engineering that will “make the Eiffel Tower seem like a child’s sculpture” (240). The World’s Columbian Exposition is certainly motivating Holmes, a young doctor and proprietor who sees “no difficulty in acquiring cadavers” (43). He is welcoming guests at the hotel called the World’s Fair Hotel located “at Sixty-third and Wallace in Englewood” (231), a perfect snare for victims accounted in the high two hundred range.
In contrast to a beginning that will proceed “impact on the nation’s psyche” (373), there is an end. Patrick Eugene Joseph Prendergast is questioned during his “trial in December 1893” (382) for shooting and killing Mayor Carter Henry Harrison, a tragedy that occurred in October 1893, two days before the closing ceremony of the fair. Holmes reaches his demise as he is “escorted to the gallows at Moyamensing Prison” (386) for murdering Benjamin Pitezel, a triumphant moment for the staunch detective Frank Geyer.
Chicago will go down in history as a place that experiences success and failure, civic pride and humiliation. The two main figures of Chicago are compared as Burnham executes excellence in good spirit, and Holmes exhibits horror in secret. Larson conveys a theme that illustrates a “vision of the White City and its profound contrast to the Black City” (374).
Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City. Vintage, 2004.