In Erik Larson’s tantalizing book, The Devil in the White City, we are faced with a choice, “between good and evil, daylight and darkness, the White City and the Black” (xi). On the good side, the reader has Daniel Burnham, a man who is building up the city of Chicago after the great fire that destroyed most of its infrastructure. Burnham has seen many defeats in life but has also been entrusted with bringing the World’s Fair to Chicago. On the bad side, there is a man by the name of Henry Howard Holmes or H.H. Holmes for short. This man walked off the train claiming to be a doctor, and as such “[h]e walked with confidence and dressed well, conjuring [the] impression of wealth and achievement” (35). Holmes was brand new to the city of Chicago and decided to take up residency in “a village called Englewood in the town of Lake, a municipality of 200,000 people that abutted Chicago’s southern-most boundary”(35). In The Devil in The White City, Daniel Burnham and H.H. Holmes are prime examples of the vast differences between good and evil in the windy city of Chicago.
When we first meet Burnham he is a down on his luck man who has tried many different jobs in life but ultimately failed at everything. Burnham wrote “[t]here is, a family tendency to get tired of doing the same thing [for] very long” (19). He has no interest in anything until he meets John Wellborn Root, a civil engineer from Atlanta who would eventually become Burnham’s business partner. In 1889, the city of Chicago citizens committee passed their resolution stating “[t]he men who have helped build Chicago want the fair, and, having a just and well-sustained claim, they intend to have it” (16). Burnham knew, after hearing this new decree, that it would take a lot of work to turn the city of Chicago into a venue worthy of having a World’s Fair. A french editor described Chicago as “[a] Gordian city, so excessive, so satanic” (28). Another depiction of the windy city came from author and publisher, Paul Lindan saying “ [Chicago is] a gigantic peep show of utter horror, but extraordinarily to the point” (28). The city was steeped in evil which helped draw malicious and devious characters like Dr. H.H. Holmes.
As readers dive deeper into this book they realize that the Chicago Times-Herald description of Holmes is correct saying, “ [he was] a prodigy of wickedness, a human demon, a being so unthinkable that no novelist would dare invent such a character. The story, too, tends to illustrate the end of the century” (370). Yet Holmes was also very charismatic, using this trait Holmes left a trail of deceit, heartbreak, fraud, and eventually murder in his wake. In the chapter “Don’t Be Afraid” readers also find out the real reason Holmes moved to Chicago:
“Holmes adored Chicago, adored in particular how the smoke and din could envelop a woman and leave no hint that she ever had existed, save perhaps a blade thin track of perfume amid the stench of dung, anthracite, and putrefaction” (62).
Holmes is the epitome of evil, he is rumored to have killed as many as 200 people from the time his Englewood mansion was completed to the time he was caught. The acts of H.H. Holmes drove the small village of Englewood to become the Black City.
Maneuvering through the complexities of good and evil in The Devil in The White City readers become entranced by the characters of Daniel Burnham and H.H. Holmes. As Burnham seeks to build up the decimated city of Chicago, Holmes finalizes plans for the castle in which he will commit his horrendous crimes. When work finishes on the site of the World’s Fair, bringing new light to the city of Chicago, the darkness inside of Holmes radiates through the village of Englewood transforming it into the Black City.
Larson, Erik. The Devil in The White City. Vintage, 2004.