At the turn of the twentieth century, many American cities were struggling to find their place in the world. One such city was Chicago, Illinois, the focal point of Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, a nonfiction ode to history about the events that took place during the World’s Columbian Exposition. In 1893, Chicago was home to more than the World’s Fair; it was also the home of America’s very own Jack the Ripper, Dr. Henry H. Holmes. While a team of the most brilliant architects of the age led by Daniel Burnham raced against time to produce a World’s Fair that could outshine Paris’ Exposition Universelle, H. H. Holmes took his time in methodically building his hotel of horrors where he murdered dozens of people.
Upon completion, the fair drew scores of people to its grounds on Jackson Park, just blocks from Holmes’ hotel. Larson captures the legacies of Burnham and Holmes in The Devil in the White City, showing that madness can be exhibited as brilliance, and that darkness does not have to extinguish light. The end of the nineteenth century was a time when society progressed as a whole and many people came together to achieve common goals.
Examples of this progression include leaps forward in addressing health concerns in metropolises, the development of new technology and innovations that still affect the world today, and improvement in the criminal justice system. Many obstacles stood in the way of the Columbian Exposition, some of which posed a threat to the health of its visitors. Trash, rats, and the corpses of cats, dogs, and horses were commonplace in the streets of Chicago. They polluted the Chicago River, Lake Michigan, and the city’s water supply, flooding the waterways with bacteria.
Burnham and his engineers were well aware of this, and took precautions to prevent any outbreaks of disease from tarnishing the reputation of the fair. These precautions included “[building] a water sterilization plant on the fairgrounds”, and offering two other safe drinking water options: “lake water purified with Pasteur filters… or naturally pure water [from springs in Wisconsin]” (Larson 138). Burnham’s knowledge of and solutions for water-borne illnesses were a result of societal influence, but they also had the potential to influence society.
When Burnham’s techniques for disease prevention and the low rate of malady occurrence were revealed in the fair records, the public could see his success and replicate it for themselves. This would prevent outbreaks like the one of cholera that killed ten percent of the population of Chicago less than a decade prior to the fair. Such rapid advancements in the field of public health were monumental, especially considering the time period. Burham’s precautions not only saved the exposition but also had the potential to be applied to urban centers across the world, to the benefit of their inhabitants.
Technological innovations were rife throughout America during the late 19th century, and many were exhibited at the Chicago World’s Fair. Inventors and entrepreneurs from around the country and around the world came to the Columbian Exposition to show off their goods. Visitors could feast their eyes on “the first zipper, the first-ever all electric kitchen, which included an automatic dishwasher… a new, oddly flavored gum called Juicy Fruit, and caramel-coated popcorn called Cracker Jack” (Larson 247).
Many- if not all- of these products are still commonly seen today, which is proof of the success of the innovators at the fair. Forward-thinking innovators provided 19th century Americans with commodities made available today to 21st century Americans, despite the initial disbelief of the visitors to the fair that any of the products would be successful. Consequently, this shows that the public became open to the developments and new opportunities found in their rapidly changing world, and even embraced them.
One other amazing opportunity made available to the public was that visitors were able to experience “the most elaborate demonstration of electric illumination ever attempted and the first large scale of alternating current,” the same type of electric current that soon would be integrated the homes of the spectators (Larson 254). The world was transforming from one of oil lamps and candlelight to one of lightbulbs and convenience. Citizens could be safer at night and at home with brighter streetlamps and lightbulbs that were less of a fire risk than oil lamps.
People were realizing the enormous potential that electricity had to change their lives. Like automated dishwashers, the alternating current remains in all modern buildings, powering society in the past, present, and future. A final example of how society progressed in the late 1800s can be seen in the criminal justice system and . During the summer of 1895, America was held captive by the search for a family of children believed to be kidnapped at best and murdered at worst by H. H. Holmes. At the time of the search, Holmes was sitting in jail in Philadelphia waiting for his trial for the murder of the children’s father, Benjamin Pitezel.
Hardworking and driven detective Fred Geyer was assigned to the case, and over the course of the season he followed nine hundred leads all across the Midwest. Finally, in September, “a Philadelphia grand jury voted to indict Holmes for the murder of Benjamin Pitezel… Indiana [for] Howard Pitezel…. Toronto [for] Alice and Nellie” (Larson 369). The locations of the murders of Benjamin, Howard, and Alice and Nellie (Philadelphia, Indiana, and Toronto, respectively) are all hundreds of miles apart, and following the trail of a genius criminal between them was no easy feat.
Detective Geyer was able to pursue crimes across the continent, exhibiting widespread determination; not only did Geyer never give up, but the Philadelphia Police Department never withdrew him from the field. Everyone involved in Holmes’ case believed that he had to be incarcerated, and as a result no one let the case drop. The nineteenth century was a time when disappearances were of the least concern and cases often went cold if pursued if all. However, the entire nation was entranced by the H. H. Holmes case and the fates of his victims.
Never before had such interest been shown in an investigation from people not directly involved in it. Society was invested in bringing justice to the Pitezel family, and they cared for the children that Holmes had taken advantage of. Many citizens had begun to care about more than just themselves and those close to them, and to feel sympathy for people they did not even know. Holmes’ ultimate execution showed the advancing ability of the criminal justice system to apprehend criminals, and the growing compassion of the American people.
One could argue that the fact that Holmes’ crimes went unchecked for so long tarnished the reputation of the criminal justice system. However, no one had ever encountered a criminal like H. H. Holmes. There had never been a serial killer in America, let alone one that was a psychopath. The police had never had experience with the kind of person that Holmes was, and their ability to bring Holmes to justice was a victory on their behalf. The arguments for both the progression and decline of American society at the end of the nineteenth century can be found in Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City.
Larson plays heavily off of the contrasts between the brilliance of the Chicago World’s Fair and the darkness of Holmes’ murder spree in his retelling of the events of 1893, leaving readers debating if Chicago in 1893 was to be revered or feared. For someone trying to formulate an argument, there is overwhelming evidence that society progressed rather than declined at the turn of the century. The Columbian exposition provided a meeting place for the best and brightest minds of the era, where they could debut all of the newest inventions and ideas.
Knowledge about water-borne diseases led to groundbreaking new techniques in sanitation and the preservation of public health. Last but not least, many people worked together to discover H. H. Holmes’ murders and convict him of his crimes. These events all relate because they show that society collaborated and bettered itself in the late 1800s, and though the majority of these events occurred in the midwestern United States, their effect can be seen around the world both in modern and past times.