The Devil in the White City is a book by Erik Larson about both the creating of the Chicago World’s Fair and the notorious murderer Dr. H. H. Holmes who would prey upon the Fair. In Larson’s prefatory note “Evils Imminent”, he describes The Devil in the White City as a story of the ineluctable conflict between good and evil, daylight and darkness, the White City and the Black” (xi). This statement is true, Larson describes how the Chicago World’s Fair was pure intentioned by exposing America to different cultures and to highlight America’s greatness, however, the Fair became the perfect breeding grounds for crime, both misdemeanor and felony. Part one of The Devil in the White City best portrays the theme of light and dark due to most of the section dedicated to looking into the personal lives of each character and the drafting of the Fair.
The relationship between light and dark could be used to describe Holmes perfectly. Holmes’ wife Myrta said, “[h]e was so kind, so gentle and thoughtful…” (65). This description of Holmes shows us that he was charismatic and decent. However, his façade would sometimes leak out some of the festering evil that lurked below. A bricklayer named Bowman said, “… [Holmes] came over to me and, pointing down to the basement, said, ‘[y]ou see that man down there? Well, that’s my brother-in-law, and he has got no love for me, neither have I for him. Now, it would be the easiest matter for you to drop a stone on the fellow’s head while you’re at work and I’ll give you fifty dollars if you do’” (68). Holmes was a truly sick man, he would gain the trust of newcomers to Chicago just to take their lives as if they were only born for his amusement. His charisma did not only charm the naïve newcomers but businessmen and bill collectors as well. Holmes was known to charm the people whom he owed money too to the point where they had forgotten about the debt by the time they left. When the businessmen were fed up with Holmes’ charm, he sold his business to a man named Ned who was “of an easy-going nature” (124). Holmes fit Dr. Hervey Cleckley’s definition of a psychopath perfectly as a “reflex machine which can mimic the human personality perfectly” (88). With all of this in mind, Dr. Holmes is definitely the darkness in the White City.
Daniel Burnham is the light in the White City due to his pure intentions to better not only Chicago but the entirety of the United States of America. Burnham was a pure gentleman, upon learning that his “brother had forged checks” he contacted his fiancé’s father to end the courtship so not to harm her family’s reputation (21). Others also described Burnham to be “decisive, blunt, and cordial” (53). Burnham was tasked with building the Fair in a short period of time which he accepted. Burnham wasted no time at all to break ground on this massive project. He went to New York by himself to try to enlist some of the country’s best architects. Burnham went into this project with “no plan other than somehow to surpass Eiffel” (81). We can really see into Burnham’s personality and work ethic here which is significant evidence to name him as the light in the White City.
The Devil in the White City fits the light versus dark archetype perfectly which makes it even more amazing to be a nonfiction book. It was extremely interesting to read about the creation of such a huge feat of American ingenuity whilst simultaneously learning of one of America’s most sinister and notorious serial killers. Larson has effectively demonstrated that history can tell very bizarre and intriguing stories that one could only conclude was fiction.
Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City. Penguin, 2004.