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Essay: The Devil in the White City

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  • Subject area(s): History essays Literature essays
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  • Published: 15 November 2019*
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  • Words: 1,408 (approx)
  • Number of pages: 6 (approx)

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The Devil in the White City is a compelling and absorbing piece of popular American history. The book, authored by Erik Larson, is a non-fictional story based on real events in the American society in the 19th Century. It is one of Larson’s bestselling pieces, succinctly taking its readers through a richly sophisticated period in the American culture and history, a period that would significantly amass together both the best and worst of the grandeur, Gilded Age, the triumph and advancement of man’s imagination, as well as the violence, depravity, and poverty that surrounded it. The masterfully crafted piece provides an in-depth analysis of America’s history through the incorporation of various critical themes with the most profound theme depicted vastly in the book being the distinct dichotomy of evil and good, and how prevalently both coexist in humanity.

​The piece primarily revolves around two most powerful and different figures, Daniel Burnham and Henry Holmes. While Burnham is depicted as a great and visionary architect, Holmes is largely manifested as a psychopathic killer. Burnham is unsurpassed, especially in his objective desire to transform and revolutionize America and the world at large, for the better. On the other hand, Holmes has an outpouring desire to become filthy rich and successful by all means. As such, these two characters in the story employ different methods and strategies to achieve their various goals. Burnham, a man of ideas and a great soul, did everything within his capacity to create a world exhibition in the City of Chicago, employing tools like honesty and sheer perseverance as his basic tools for the realization of his goals. Relatively, Homes employs other means to amass as much wealth as possible, using his swindling character and other methods like flatteries, good-naturedness, tactfulness and chivalry.

​By primarily focusing on these two characters, Erik Larson tactfully embodies the significantly opposing forces of the age, exemplifying the two sides of human society, good and evil. Burnham purposed on building the White City and overcame a host of crushing professional drawbacks as well as personal tragedies to make the World Fair magically momentous, and an incredibly inspiring event. Burnham brought together proficient architects and convinced them essentially why the Fair was pivotal. As such, he ultimately managed to get them to collaborate and work to achieve an incredible project within an astonishingly short period. In the shadow of White City, Henry Holmes simultaneously created his World Fair Hotel, typically aiming to siphon advantage of young and naïve women coming to Chicago from various surrounding areas and small towns. Holmes uses his mesmerizing charming character and uncanny potential to fend off the police authorities and creditors, consequently manipulating streams of victims with ease and orchestrating numerous murders in America.

​This apparent distinction between the two prominent figures in the story thus poses the critical subject of good and evil in society, or rather sanity vs insanity. The distinction between good and evil is, therefore, a profound theme depicted in the story manifested through the candid comparison between the two characters, Burnham and Holmes. As such, it categorically affirms that where there is good, there is equally evil and they will always coexist. The concept of these opposing forces has been a subject of great debate, and in the book, the author helps to delve in on how these two opposing forces shape society.

​The World’s Fair era brought immense grandeur and glory to Chicago City, with tremendous masses of people flocking in to see the famous White City. It did numerous good things for the city and country at large, significantly helping to show the world that Chicago was not a pig-slaughtering city. Additionally, it created the impression and ideal that individuals would come to expect of their cities, safe and clean. It also created many job opportunities in a time when the US economy was on its knees. Nonetheless, all these positive strides were equally neutralized by the forces of evil that marred the Exhibition. While the upsurge of tourists informed positive results in the US economy, it also came with its fair share of unexpected adverse ramifications. As such, hundreds of tourists who visited the city for the World Fair mysteriously disappeared. Since the very onset, Holmes was extremely excited about the fair being hosted in Jackson Park, which was only a short distance away from his Eaglewood building. This means that housing rates would rise sharply and turn his property into the equivalent of gold ore. “An idea came to him for a way to mine that ore and also satisfy his other desires” (Larson 74).

He thus planned on building the World Fair Hotel, a move that would not only maximize his wealth immensely but also help him quench his insatiable thirst for murders and blood. He built the murder castle that was disguised as a luxurious high-end hotel. “Comfortable and cheap enough to lure a certain kind of clientele” (Larson 85). The building, which he built by himself, ensured that gas chambers, as well as many other deadly aspects installed, were completely unnoticeable. It was also fitted with sound-proof vaults and specially designed furnaces that were purposely configured to eliminate odors. By the end of the World Fair, Holmes had many young and naïve women to occupy his hotel rooms, many of whom ended up disappearing mysteriously. He ultimately confessed to having killed twenty-seven individuals, although this number is an outright underestimation. Were it not for the sheer human traffic into Chicago that was primarily precipitated by the World Fair that was created with the best of intentions, perhaps Holmes would not have been able to orchestrate the murders he did.

While Burnham wanted sheer success at the World Fair and the general good of Chicago City and desired to prove that they had what it takes to host a world-class fair, Holmes used it as an opportunity to execute murders and other social injustices. Burnham’s whim and ultimate passion were for the betterment and well-being of the American populace while Holmes wanted all for himself. Burnham essentially made the society better by employing his ‘allotment of time’ whilst gaining massive recognition and respect of others. By so doing, he significantly changed the societal perceptions of Chicago city in a period that was utterly depressing whereby people had no hope. Thus, he is an exemplification of what good can do and serves as a perfect example of change for the betterment and progression of societies. Nevertheless, Holmes uses his good looks and charm to pursue his evil advances. He ‘manufactures sorrow’ essentially by killing people, perfecting his fake impression and identity as a charming young man to disguise his dark and demonic side. Thus, through their different intents, both Burnham and Holmes serve as extreme and exceptional examples of what humans are capable of doing.

Regardless of the aforementioned differences between these two personalities, their various similarities are also noteworthy. First, they were both successful in their respective fields and made a name for themselves, whereby Burnham was a successful architect while Holmes was a professional serial killer. Additionally, their charming characters made others feel comfortable around them. They were both ambitious, clever, and extremely wealthy. Both have made history, with Burnham designing the pioneering skyscrapers and Holmes becoming one of the first documented killers.

Conclusively, Larson uses his book titled The Devil in the White City to tactfully symbolize today’s condition of humanity, depicting many themes to underline critical issues in the progressive American society. One of the most profound and noteworthy themes is the coexistence between good and evil, an explosive subject even in contemporary society. Through Daniel Burnham and Holmes, who are the most powerful figures in the book, Erik Larson masterfully manifests that the ineluctable conflict between good and evil is never-ending. They had a striking comparison; while Burnham was a well-meaning and visionary man who goes down the annuls of history as being the driving force behind the famous World Fair of Chicago, Holmes is a serial killer who took advantage of the Exhibition to advance his evil thirst for blood and killing people. Even today, there are many people with great souls who are filled with unrelenting desire to transform society for the better, while others siphon any chance to spill blood and orchestrate other societal evils. As such, even when countries, societies and generations realize their highest potentials and dreams, evil is still afoot

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