Devil in the White City Essay
November 14, 2012
Erik Larson’s, Devil in the White City is a nonfiction literary work that takes place in Chicago during the Gilded Age. Larson transports readers to a moment in American history that shows the splendor of imagination evident at the time, and the violence and poverty that surrounded it. This story is one of good and evil. Daniel Burnham, the brilliant architect responsible for the grandeur and construction of The World’s Fair nicknamed the White City, versus H.H. Holmes, the morally deprived serial killer who used the Black City image of Chicago as a playground for finding innocent victims.
Nineteenth century Chicago, referred to as the Black City due its ominous nature, was overcrowded, poverty stricken, and polluted. The city, lined with brothels, saloons, and nightclubs, provided a morally deteriorating backdrop for the madness that ensued outside the entrances to The World’s Fair. When compared to the stockyards Chicago was famous for, the Black City shared the same gruesome, unsanitary conditions made apparent with other literary works, such as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Frequent deaths due to train accidents, fire, disease, and of course the murder surrounding the city during this time, encouraged the idea that Chicago was menacing to say the least. Despite the lust, greed, and murder, Chicago was a prideful city. Regardless of hindrances, such as the Depression and the Fire of 1871, Chicago grew economically and socially and coveted the world recognition that it was an up and coming leader among large cities in America. During the late nineteenth century, Chicago’s population had exceeded one million for the first time. This increase in residents made the city the second most populated in the country, second only to New York City, and Chicagoans wanted everyone to know their city was on the rise. The growing population contributed to Chicago’s acquisition of enough votes needed by Congress to make Chicago the site of the World’s Columbian Exposition, a celebration to commemorate 400 years since Columbus landed in the New World, but Chicago pride was just as important in the decision. In Larson’s notes and sources he states "The thing that entranced me about Chicago in the Gilded Age was the city's willingness to take on the impossible in the name of civic honor, a concept so removed from the modern psyche that two wise readers of early drafts of this book wondered why Chicago was so avid to win the world's fair in the first place" [p. 393]. The fair was a chance for redemption. If successful in creating a larger, more exotic, more awe-inspiring event than the French recently created during Paris’ Exposition Universelle, Chicago would gain the worldwide recognition as a city of social and cultural refinement, and certainly worthy of worldwide praise. If the city of Chicago failed however, the humiliation would also receive recognition worldwide and prove the socialite predisposition that Chicago was a secondary city only good for butchering hogs. The creators of what later became known as Chicago’s World’s Fair determined from the start that no matter what the cost, they would build a fair larger and more glamorous than the Paris exposition.
With Chicago established as the site of the World’s Fair, the next question became who was qualified to oversee the construction of the fair. It would have to be a quality architect, one with business genius, as well as, public relation skills. Daniel Hudson Burnham was the man for the job. As a young man, with the encouragement of his father, Burnham took entry exams at both Harvard and Yale. Due to test anxiety, he failed both tests. He would never forget this failure. Burnham was determined to choose a career where he would be successful. “He had found his calling, he wrote in 1868, and told his parents he wanted to become the “greatest architect in the...