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The Devil in the White City

"A reporter asked Major McClaughry whether the fair really would attract the criminal element. He paused a moment, then said, “I think it quite necessary that the authorities here should be prepared to meet and deal with the greatest congregation of criminals that ever yet met in the country” (122).

It’s virtually known that crime rates increase when large scale, worldly events takes place, but there are a lucky few that are known as not being troublesome. Woodstock is one that is well thought of when thinking of a sizable yet peaceful phenomenon, taking place as a three day music festival that had little to no crime recorded. Unlike White Lake, New York where Woodstock had taken place, Chicago, Illinois was known around the country for crime during the creation of the World Fair in 1893. In the book “The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America,” written by Erik Larson, it not only explains the creation of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, but the effects of a serial killer on the legacy of this great American event.

Throughout the World’s Fair’s creation and actual event, there was constant worries of fatal accidents caused by work site hazards, collapsing architecture, and illness. Erik Larson states early on in his book, “In the first six months of 1892 the city experience nearly eight hundred violent deaths” (12). During the late 1800’s, murder was also commonplace. With the thousands of women coming for a new start in a big city, disappearances became a normalcy in life as a Chicagoan. Even with this as a well known fact, that didn’t slow down any motion to have Chicago be the place of the 1893 World’s Fair. Thousands of residents in the Windy City started advocating for Chicago to be the chosen place. Congress had other cities in mind, such as New York City, Washington D.C., or St. Louis, so the rivalry began to advance at quicker rates than the expansion of downtown Chicago during this time period (which was extensive due to the invention of foundations that led to larger skyscrapers being built on the difficult soil of Chicago hatefully known as “gumbo” [23]). After a close vote between New York City and Chicago, Chicago was chosen and celebration rang through the streets.

When reading about the other potential options for the fair, I was honestly shocked that Chicago was the one that won the Congressional vote. Washington D.C. was thought to be the one that was going to be picked. It is the center of our country politically, yet it wasn’t even in the final vote. New York City almost won, and was very close to being the final location, but still didn’t win even if it at the time was known as the cross points of the world. Larson talks about the negative connotation that the city had during the 19th century, “...Chicago was nothing more than a greedy, hog-slaughtering backwater” (13). Although it’s pointless to think about as it is all in the past and can’t be changed, but imagine if Chicago wasn’t chosen and they were humiliated after not winning the vote. Would the city still be known as one of the best cities in the country or would the exploding growth of the city after the 1890’s not have even happened? The World’s Fair effected the city immensely, so to picture the city without the honor is strange.

During this entire process of Chicago being picked to be the place of the World’s Fair, architecture was one of the most successful careers alongside construction within the city. Specifically the firm Root and Burnham boomed with business. John Wellborn Root and Daniel Hudson Burnham became the best architects in the city, and were honored as the firm that took on the massive job that prepared Chicago for the world’s people to come and see what the Windy City had to offer. After being selected, the two made a short list of other firms that would join in on this project to create the White City, the name fondly given to the area of the World’s Fair.

What was shocking to hear was that many firms were filled with disdain about the fair rather than excitement. Within Larson’s book, Root’s co-worker, Harriet Monroe, later remarked that, “He [Root] felt that this was the greatest opportunity ever offer to his profession in this country, and he could not make them appreciate it,” and even though the architects were coming to Chicago to talk about the planning of the fair, “but reluctantly; their hearts were not in it” (84). If I was ever given the opportunity to place a building of my creation at a fair where thousands will come and view in awe, I would be ecstatic.

Although it’s difficult to understand, I can see why many architects weren’t thrilled. There were many issue that had to be solved before construction could even begin on the White City. The first was the location; Jackson Park was the final choice, but it wasn’t anyone’s favorite. Larson describes the area after a visit with all the architects who had agreed to work on the project as, “ square mile of desolation, mostly treeless...In the most exposed portions there was only sand tufted with marine and prairie grasses. Many of the oaks were dead.” (95). It doesn’t seem like a fantastic place that sparked much imagination by the architectural firms. This freezing winter day visit left a lot of the architects discouraged, but design and construction led on even with very few completely on board with the location. Not only was the area deserted, but weather played a major factor as Larson quotes Rudolf Ulrich, an architect’s landscape superintendent saying, “It was bad enough during the hot weather, when a south wind could blind the eyes of man and beast, but still worse during wet weather, the newly filled ground, which was till undrained becoming soaked with water” (132). It’s easy to see why there was a lot of trepidation when beginning the White City.

While all this prosper going on in the city at Jackson Park, Herman Webster Mudgett, also known as H. H. Holmes, came to the city to look for a job as a doctor. Larson goes into detail about his early life of being into the macabre killings of animals and witnessing the death of his close childhood friend, Tom (39). After living in New Hampshire from birth to late childhood, he visited Chicago often for business as a young adult and took to the city fondly. Once he moved to the city in 1886, he began his business entitled, “H. H. Holmes Pharmacy,” where he worked as a doctor (63).

During this first half of “The Devil in the White City,” there is little mention of Holmes as at the time of construction of the World’s Fair, he had only begun his career and hadn’t murdered anyone yet, although this doesn’t mean there aren’t tales of him acting oddly. Larson tells of the story once where Holmes asked a construction worker if he would murder his brother-in-law, H. H. Holmes says, “You 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 that fellow’s head while you’re at work and I’ll give you fifty dollars if you do” (68). Also, Holmes had installed a massive kiln that only afterward was perceived as odd by the furnace man. Larson documents that the man who installed the kiln said, “In fact, the general plan of the furnace was like that of a crematory for dead bodies, and with the provision already described there would be absolutely no odor from the furnace” (92). Of course, only after is a man as smooth and friendly as Holmes is deemed strange after he is convicted of murder, but that is often the case with serial killers.

Obstacles constantly struck Burnham and Roots’ plans after weather and unenthusiastic architects almost caused the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 to topple, but little stopped them from working to make the White City to be one of the most remarkable and astounding architectural feats in the world at the time. With all the effort every architect, construction worker, and city official put into this creation, it’s difficult to understand how H. H. Holmes legacy sometimes overshadows the World’s Fair. Although I haven’t gotten into the actual murders done by H. H. Holmes, it’s already easy to see how his life begins to upstage all the work put in by Burnham and Root. I look forward to continuing reading about the difficulties that had to be surpassed by the architects and if the disappearances of the murdered victims of H. H. Holmes affects the turn up for the World’s Fair.

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  • “The fair was so perfect, its grace and beauty like an assurance that for as long as it lasted nothing truly bad could happen to anyone, anywhere” (289).

    When looking around at a place as large as the Chicago’s World’s Fair of 1893, you see hundreds, if not thousands, of strangers you have never encountered. You don’t know their names, history, or past. Anyone surrounding you could be the kindest soul or a ghastly murderer. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson tells the story of the latter; a serial killer named H. H. Holmes who ran ramped during the World’s Fair and had anywhere from nine to two hundred victims. Even though his crimes are shocking, he was never suspected of murder until he went on the run and was caught later in life after this rampage on Chicago. Many who knew him described him as a seemingly normal and kind person.

    During the time of the fair, he ran a World’s Fair Hotel and was always perceived as normal. Larson proves this by saying, “The women found the hotel rather dreary, especially at night, but the presence of its handsome and clearly wealthy owner helped dispel some of its bleakness” (245). He was known for making women comfortable. I find that really shocking that the women that went to his hotel were so comfortable with a stranger, but this was also back before people knew of the horrible things humans were capable of. Most of these women were from the midwest where everyone has only the best intentions, so they weren’t nearly as cynical as I am when I go to places like Chicago or Los Angeles. Especially as a woman, I have to look out for people who may try to take advantage of me in some way. With H. H. Holmes story going nationwide, it probably put a lot of people around the country on defense. With serial killers becoming a popular topic to talk about, I can see why our generation is a lot more suspicious nowadays compared to women of the late 1800s.

    Serial killers wouldn’t be nearly as successful if they were weirdos. It’s horrible to say that, but they would be suspected of murders if they looked like murderers. H. H. Holmes ran the World’s Fair Hotel during the opening of the White City and was perceived as a smooth guy. Even his own wife, Georgiana Yoke, had no idea of his tendencies. Larson spoke of Yoke thinking that, “had never met anyone like him,” and, “he was handsome, articulate, and clearly well off” (307). It’s difficult to imagine that you wouldn’t know that the man you love is a psychopathic killer, but it happens all the time in the modern era. John Wayne Gacy had a wife when he murdered his workers, and Gary Ridgway had a wife and kids while going on his killing spree. What connect all of these murderers are the constant attention given to these killers by society.

    The spark of our society’s obsessions with serial killers often is seen as stemming from media. Even when I was younger I dreamed of becoming a criminologist because I found crime so interesting from seeing them on my television. There are countless movies and shows under the horror genre with serial killers as main characters. Not only do we see it constantly in the world of fiction, but in the news, too. Real life stories of serials killers on the loose spark our imagination when we see them. We question about their lives and how they weren’t caught earlier. In H. H. Holmes' case, he was one of the first serial killers that was well known around the country. His torture castle was horrifying, yet also fascinating. They are like the boogey man for adults, scary, yet still fun to tell spooky stories about. We can’t relate to them, but we still try to understand their actions making it almost seem like a puzzle for us to solve. With all of these horrible occurrences going on in Chicago, so many amazing inventions were being shown to the world.

    Every world fair has new inventions lined up for the public, yet Chicago is known for many. Larson goes on to say, “They [the visitors] saw even more ungodly things–the first zipper; the first-ever all-electric kitchen, which included an automatic dishwasher; and a box purporting to contain everything a cook would need to make pancakes, under the brand name Aunt Jemima’s” (225). Larson goes on to talk about the new companies that are now household names such as Juicy Fruit, Shredded Wheat, and Cracker Jack. Many fantastic inventions and people were brought to the city to better life, yet it is shadowed by one man who went on a rampage. It was a perfect storm of events that took place that allowed for H. H. Holmes to get away with his murders for so long. With all of his experience with getting away with bigamy and theft for years before he came, he knew what he was doing.

    When H. H. Holmes came to the city, he had no clue that there would be a World’s Fair in the near future. Everything that led him to the point of torturing and slaughtering his victims in his murder castle happened to be luck. He was never caught during the actual murders or beforehand for the constant thievery he did. Holmes definitely should have, but he was brilliant at lying and getting what he wanted with his personality. Having all of the bustle of the fair and tourists constantly within the city limits game him the perfect cover as well.

    Even with H. H. Holmes' horrors always in the history book alongside the story of the White City, the entirety of the fair is still seen as a success. The most famous part of Chicago’s fair was the ferris wheel as it has been a staple of the American carnival since. The fair may have even had an impact on Walt Disney. Larson states, “What Disney’s father, Elias, helped build the White City; Walt’s Magic Kingdom may well be a descendant” (373). Larson goes on to say that because of the financial profitability of the fair, the family was able to have the financial stability to have another child, otherwise known as Walt Disney. The successes of the 1893 fair continue to live on through our architecture, and shouldn't be erased because of a man who went on a rampage during the entirety of the event.
  • What might account for our cultural fascination with serial (and or spree) killers?
  • With architectural advances in place that he could use and the World Fair on the way, do you believe this is what H. H. Holmes was looking for in order to begin his spree? Or did he have a dark past and this was just a lucky moment for him?
  • Why do many people that know serial killers perceive them as normal?
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