Thesis: Devil in White City the Seductions

Pages: 5 (1501 words)  ·  Style: Chicago  ·  Bibliography Sources: 1  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Criminal Justice  ·  Buy This Paper

Devil in White City

The seductions of murder and spectacle:

Erik Larson's the Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness in the Fair that Changed America

In his 2003 the Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness in the Fair that Changed America, the author Erik Larson examines two parallel quests. The first is the rehabilitative project of the upstart city of Chicago, then best known for its success in the commodity industry and as the meat-packing capital of the nation. In the 19th century, it sought to refine its reputation by staging the 1893 World's Fair. This is the great 'White City' of the title. The devil is the perverse and strange case of Dr. H.H. Holmes, often described as the first serial killer in American history. Holmes was a man who loved killing as well as killed for profit. Both Chicago and Holmes attempted to conceal a potentially seamy and dark identity with beauty, and smooth-talking confidence schemes.

Another connection between the two characters of Larson's book, the city and the man, is that Holmes ran a hotel and was the landlord of apartments near the Chicago World's Fair. An unprecedented number of tenants and visitors were streaming through the ever-changing city and provided the victims to satisfy Holmes' penchant for torturing, killing, and skinning his victims. Many, but not all (unlike Jack the Ripper, Holmes' Victorian parallel) were young women. The American people, including women, were newly mobile, traveling far away from home, employed in the private sector rather than working at home on farms, and Chicago's economy was booming.

Holmes was able to kill partially because the civic, law-enforcement resources of the city were diverted to the World's Fair. However, all of America was changing, growing increasingly urbanized and impersonal and forming communities of strangers in cities rather than communities in small towns and rural areas where everyone knew one another's names. "In the time of the [World's F]air the rate at which men and women killed one another rose sharply throughout the nation." Human life was cheap -- people were run down by streetcars, fires were set by careless use of gaslight, epidemic diseases raged, because of close and unhealthy living conditions. (in fact, one of the reasons Chicago's city leaders were so eager to stage the World's Fair was that they wanted to eradicate the memory of the city's terrible 1871 fire). And murder was common -- especially in "Chicago, where police found themselves without the manpower or expertise to manage the volume" of new people. All of this made it easy for Holmes to conceal the corpses of his victims -- and so did the sustained self-image of the nation, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, that such things did not happen in moral America, only in London where Jack the Ripper reigned.

Even Holmes' name was a lie. His real name was Herman Webster Mudgett. He called himself Holmes after the great British fictional detective, but instead of a solver of crimes, he committed them. He thrived on the city's anonymous quality: "Holmes adored Chicago... adored in particular how the smoke and din could envelop a woman and leave no hint that she had ever existed, save perhaps a blade-thin track of perfume amid the stench of dung, anthracite and putrefaction." In Chicago, Holmes could refashion himself anew, again and again, as a businessman and for every new victim.

Holmes acquired hotels and apartments, as well as had an interest in a company that was selling the first Xerox-type machines, sold patent medicines, all the while keeping his creditors at bay. With a ruthlessness that makes even psychopathic serial killers like Ted Bundy seem disorganized and befitting the industrial age, Holmes made an industry of killing, and approached it with scientific zeal. Along with creating stores, apartments, and hotels he also included prison-like crypts, crematoriums, and gas chambers to kill his victims in his rapidly-expanding array of properties. But Larson does not simply record these grisly details -- he also tries to envision how the killings were orchestrated, and how Holmes seduced his victims. He does so in a way to intensify the parallels between Chicago's reputation and the murders.

Larson thus takes the reader on a tour of the Fair as a place that depicted how America wished to see itself and the world, in contrast with the seamy darkness of industrialization. He portrays Holmes taking his victims to see pigs being slaughtered at Chicago's famous Union Stock Yards, then wandering through the great exhibition buildings of the 'White City,' where everything from belly dancers to circus animals were showcased. Then Holmes takes his victims to towering and inspiring sights like the Transportation Building, Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building and to the great Ferris wheel itself, as gleaming in the distance. (the Ferris Wheel was actually created for the Fair by George Washington Ferris to outdo the Eiffel Tower displayed in Paris for the 1889 exposition). Holmes plies young women with lemonade and root beer at one of the Hires Root Beer Oases in a kind of image of innocence, Larson's imagination suggests, even while he plans his victim's demise.

Although some of Larson's narrative is imaginative nonfiction, he does cite contemporary accounts of Holmes that supports his view of the man. Holmes knew how to make a woman feel special, and knew how to use the greater liberalism of the time by carefully, gently flouting convention, which women away from their homes and families desired: "He stood too close, stared too hard, touched too much and long. And women adored him for it." Even after he was discovered, women defended him: "Holmes, she swore, had a gentle heart. He adored children and animals. "He was a lover of pets and always had a dog or cat and usually a horse." Holmes could create the appearance of normalcy and charm, despite what slaughter and brutality lurked beneath his own 'white city' of a lie.

Holmes did not merely kill -- he delighted in flouting his atrocities, giving the skeletons to anatomy classes, even writing a memoir along the lines of O.J. Simpson, pretending he wanted the real killer brought to justice. This bravado was part of his appeal, as the body count neared two hundred, before he was stopped. The marketing of Holmes and the Fair is another parallel. Holmes constructed his life, made himself up, and not only murdered, but also created his own web of legitimate and semi-legitimate enterprises, through sheer showmanship. The spectacle of marketing the Fair, first from winning it from New York, and then constructing it over the breathtaking span of only a few years makes both Holmes and the Fair seem uniquely American in artifice and daring.

Even the obsessive cataloguing of the Fair, of encapsulating individuals from alternative culture, and its celebration of industrialism and science, as if only good things could come of American enterprise (Shredded Wheat and other processed breakfast cereals also apparently were born at the Fair) resonates with Holmes' desire to seem scientific and scholarly in his crooked business dealings and killings. The assumed persona of a doctor, the taking of a name of a methodical character from detective fiction, and his sexual charm seemed to make Holmes represent all that was good about America -- yet Holmes really was all that was evil about the new nation, namely the dangers of anonminity the ease of reinvention, the perils of the city and sexuality, and the cruelty and destruction of commerce.

Serial killers, it is sometimes said, are a purely American phenomenon. While this claim is debatable, after reading Larson's book one is tempted to agree. Only in America is there enough disconnection between individuals, and enough empty space to reinvent one's self, in… [END OF PREVIEW]

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