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The Devil in the White City | Context


Factual Accuracy

In a preface to the notes and sources at the end of the book, the author explains he was "entranced" by Chicago because of the city's willingness to "take on the impossible"—that is, build the World's Fair of 1893—"in the name of civic honor." He then extensively catalogs the places where he mined information and notes he conducted his own primary research without using the Internet. He mentions books on Holmes he used in his research, along with many newspaper articles, which he vetted for inaccuracies and exaggerations. Larson recreated in detail two of the killings in his book using "threads of known detail to weave a plausible account." As with any retelling of a true-crime story written to thrill a reader, this interpretation leaves out certain facts in the interest of telling a good story. Moreover, Larson draws parallels between the lives of the two protagonists that another writer may not have seen when looking at the factual material.

The Devil in the White City was widely praised by critics for its powerful storytelling and its adherence to historical facts. Nonetheless, Larson has been faulted for not clearly indicating when he is speculating in the text. Some notes at the end of The Devil in the White City point out specific instances of speculation, such as the details of the two Holmes killings described in the book, but some critics argue these notes don't go far enough to make the distinction clear. Larson's account can be read not as pure history but rather as a sort of creative nonfiction with dense use of reported dialogue and descriptions that go beyond the realm of the provable.

The Gilded Age

The Gilded Age, a term coined by writers Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in the title of their novel by the same name, roughly covers the period after the Civil War until the turn of the century (1865–98). During this period of intense industrialization, captains of industry accumulated vast amounts of wealth. From 1877 to 1893, the national economy almost doubled in size. The dark side of this growth was rampant political corruption and exploitation of the American working class and immigrant laborers. People worked long hours for very little pay and often under dangerous conditions with no legal or medical protection. This was the case in factories as well as on construction sites. Not surprisingly America's first labor unions were born in this era, and one of the main protagonists of this narrative, Daniel Burnham, has run-ins with organized labor as he works under tremendous time constraints to build the World's Columbian Exposition.

The World's Columbian Exposition

Earmarks of the Gilded Age included consumer culture and arrogance. The United States wanted recognition on the world's stage as a power to be reckoned with. The World's Fair, formally known as the World's Columbian Exposition or World's Fair: Columbian Exposition, would be a perfect vehicle to both celebrate the country's achievements and brag about them. The fair's builders were determined to create a spectacle to eclipse the grandeur of the French Exposition Universelle, held in 1889 in Paris. The French exposition stunned the world with the Eiffel Tower, and some people in the United States felt that America had made a poor showing with its paltry exhibitions at the French fair. Moreover, Americans felt "edged out ... for dominance in the realm of iron and steel" and wanted to prove themselves superior to the French. This national desire to showcase American science and technology was an important factor in mounting the World's Fair in the United States.

Several major cities competed to host the event, and it came down to New York and Chicago. New York was the cultural capital of the country, but Chicago was an up-and-coming city that wanted to prove it was more than just the "hog butcher of the world." The elites of Chicago were, therefore, overjoyed when Chicago won the fair. And while some New York papers continued to doubt Chicago's ability to successfully pull off the fair, others good-naturedly conceded their loss and wished Chicago well.

The American fair did top the French fair in many people's estimation because of its size, grandeur, and beauty. People who came to the fair were not disappointed; Larson says many people left the fair with the feeling that "everything [else] will seem small and insignificant." The World's Columbian Exposition introduced new technology and products still in use today, including an early form of the zipper. Moreover, it showcased the Ferris Wheel, a marvel of moving steel with some 100,000 parts and an axle that weighed close to 90,000 pounds. A perfect icon of the Gilded Age, the Ferris Wheel visited the St. Louis World's Fair, too, but ended up as scrap metal less than two decades later. Nonetheless, its design endures in fairgrounds and amusement parks worldwide. However, attendance was not as high as expected because the country was going through a serious depression in 1893 and many did not have the resources to travel to the great exposition.

It also became the touchstone for the "City Beautiful" movement, as the ideas of the fair's designers spread to urban architecture and planning to create visually appealing cities. Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park, redesigned Chicago's Jackson Park for the fair, while classical buildings were constructed under the direction of architects Daniel Burnham and John Wellborn Root. (Root died in 1891, leaving the completion of the project to Burnham.)

H.H. Holmes, Serial Killer

The term serial killer was used by Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent Robert Ressler in the 1970s. However, such murderers have been documented for centuries. H.H. Holmes is one of the first documented serial killers in the United States. Born in 1861 into an affluent New Hampshire family as Herman Webster Mudgett, he appears to have been the product of a normal home but was likely a psychopath from birth. The police held Holmes accountable for 27 murders, but he probably murdered many more than that.

Mudgett first got the idea of using cadavers to stage insurance scams when he was in medical school, and he may have successfully carried out one or more of these frauds before he came to Chicago. He did finish medical school at the University of Michigan but found doctoring a poor trade for making money. In Chicago he took on the alias of Dr. Henry Howard Holmes so he could pretend to be a registered pharmacist, since he didn't take the licensing exam in Illinois. He also used many other aliases to pull off several scams in which he defrauded people of money or property.

Holmes likely began killing soon after he came to Chicago. When he first built his "murder castle," the crime site that later served as a hotel for visitors to the World's Fair, he hired many women who subsequently disappeared mysteriously. When the mansion was investigated much later, police found evidence of multiple murders as well as special murder rooms and technology (such as a cremating kiln) for destroying evidence. He used the mansion as a hotel during the Chicago World's Fair to have easier access to potential victims. His last heinous act was to kill his assistant, a man named Benjamin Pitezel, and three of Pitezel's children as part of an insurance scam and subsequent cover-up. After a long search to find him, he was finally hanged in 1896 in Philadelphia.

Chicago's Meatpacking Industry

Commercial butchering of animals arose with the growth of urban areas, and Chicago was the center of the U.S. meatpacking industry from the Civil War through the 1920s. The Union Stock Yard & Transit Co. was formed during the Civil War by meat packers and railroad magnates to keep the Union Army supplied with food. The Chicago stockyards soon became the country's central terminus for livestock that would be slaughtered in Chicago or sent to other places for the same purpose. The stockyards were accessible to all the railroads that came through the city, and animals were directly delivered along 15 miles of rail line. Pigs, cows, and sheep arrived mostly from the south central and midwestern states and were held in pens in the stockyard and then slaughtered in nearby packing houses in the area that came to be known as Packingtown.

Chicago's stockyards and slaughterhouses were even a tourist attraction for some, and Larson imagines Holmes taking two of his future victims, Nannie and Minnie Williams, there for a visit. The slaughtering of animals serves as a vivid parallel to Holmes's slaughter of humans.

Panic of 1893

The Panic of 1893 refers to an economic depression brought about by financial failures in the banking and railroad industries. Congress had passed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1890 to increase the amount of silver the government was required to buy. The act was meant to artificially cause inflation, which would help farmers pay their debts with dollars that were worth less. The act would also help silver miners. However, overproduction of silver caused a decline in its price, and people began cashing in their government notes for gold rather than silver since they had a choice of which metal to redeem. The Panic of 1893 refers to the run on the banks to redeem government notes and the subsequent depletion of gold reserves. After the panic began, President Grover Cleveland called on Congress to repeal the act, but the damage was already done. A series of bank and railroad failures followed, along with many other business bankruptcies and a rise in unemployment. During this period of uncertainty and economic downturn, Daniel Burnham and his associates had to convince people that the Chicago World's Fair was worth the price of admission.

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