The Devil in the White City | Study Guide

Erik Larson

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The Devil in the White City | Part 2, Chapters 16–20 : An Awful Fight | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 16: The Angel from Dwight

Holmes pays for his assistant, Benjamin Pitezel, to take the Keeley cure for alcoholism in a clinic in Dwight, Illinois. When Pitezel returns he tells his boss about a lovely woman he met there, Emeline Cigrand, who works as a stenographer. Holmes invites Emeline Cigrand to Chicago as his personal secretary at double her salary. After she accepts, Holmes begins courting her and gives her a bicycle to ride around town. Holmes soon asks Emeline to marry him, and she accepts. He promises her a honeymoon in Europe and a visit to his father, supposedly a lord.

Chapter 17: Dedication Day

Olmsted continues to have serious health problems but continues to work on the fair through his surrogate, Harry Codman. He is frustrated because construction has been delayed and his work must be done mostly after the buildings are completed. He continues to argue that the Wooded Island should remain structure-free but finally agrees to the Japanese proposal to erect temples.

To speed up construction, Burnham "invoke[s] the 'czar' clause of his construction contracts," which allows him to arbitrarily increase the workforce. He turns down an "outlandish idea" from Pittsburgh architect George Ferris, who wishes to build a steel structure for the fair. Sudden windstorms in April destroy unfinished buildings and a pumping station. Fortunately the work is sped up by the architects' decision to paint all exteriors white. Francis Millet, an artist and painter employed by the fair, devises a way to apply paint with a hose, which also increases efficiency.

The Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building encompasses "the widest span of unobstructed interior space ever attempted." But another storm in June causes the building's north end to collapse. The contractor blames Burnham for rushing the job, but the architect continues to breathe down his neck, and the men work day and night, regardless of the weather. Three more workers die. Four other men die at other sites on the grounds, and many are injured.

Ferris resubmits his plans with detailed specifications, and this time Burnham approves them, but the Ways and Means Committee turns the project down. Other engineers agree Ferris's structure is not safe. He tries a third time, enlisting the help of Sol Bloom, the man in charge of the Midway. In September Olmsted returns to Chicago despite his illness. Dedication Day arrives. Although the park is not finished, the 32-acre floor of the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building impresses the people who show up to listen to the speakers. The stage alone holds 5,000 chairs.

Chapter 18: Prendergast

Prendergast is getting more and more deranged. He continues to address enigmatic postcards to various public men, including Alfred Trude, a criminal defense attorney. Trude dismisses the correspondence as coming from a crank, but he inexplicably keeps it.

Chapter 19: "I Want You at Once"

Ferris's plans are finally approved by the Ways and Means Committee, and his structure will be built on the Midway. He hires engineer Luther Rice to supervise construction. The moving wheel he envisions will carry 36 cars, each holding 60 people. Each car will have its own lunch counter. The wheel will rise higher than the crown of the Statue of Liberty. None of these details initially appear in his proposal.

Chapter 20: Chappell Redux

Emeline visits her friend and neighbor, Mrs. Lawrence, with an early Christmas gift, saying she is going home for Christmas and intimating she might be leaving for good. The narrator speculates that perhaps her eyes had been opened to Holmes's shady business dealings or perhaps he had taken her savings and made empty promises. But Emeline disappears without saying goodbye. When Mrs. Lawrence asks about her, Holmes claims Emeline left to get married and even shows Mrs. Lawrence a bogus wedding announcement apparently addressed by Emeline. Holmes likely conned Emeline into preparing the envelopes ahead of time—perhaps for Christmas cards. The newspaper in her hometown even reports on her supposed marriage.

Mrs. Lawrence later says two men in the building helped Holmes carry a trunk downstairs after Emeline disappeared and a wagon took it away. At that time Mrs. Lawrence suspected Holmes killed Emeline, but she did not report it. Emeline's parents receive her belongings but no further communication from her, yet they do not report her missing. The same thing happened when Julia Conner and her daughter, Pearl, disappeared—neither Julia's husband nor her parents reported their disappearance. In January Chappell receives the body of a woman in a trunk for articulation; again the body is unidentifiable because the upper body is stripped of flesh. A few weeks later a medical college receives a skeleton. The police will later discover a footprint on the door in the airtight vault, indicating a woman was locked inside.

Analysis

Holmes pays for Pitezel's alcoholism treatment, which seems odd, given how much energy he spends bilking people—including those who work for him—out of money. The narrator quotes Holmes as saying, "He was too valuable a man, even with his failings taken into consideration, for me to dispense with." Holmes may have wanted Pitezel to gather information about Keeley's cure, which was very popular and lucrative; Holmes later began marketing his own alcohol cure. This seems somewhat unlikely, however, given that Pitezel probably would not be a reliable data collector; the Keeley cure caused euphoria and temporary amnesia. It is more likely that Pitezel knew a lot about what Holmes was doing and actively participated in covering up his crimes, perhaps even helping him to kill people. Pitezel thus brings him intelligence of a beautiful young woman who works at the clinic, no doubt because he is well aware of Holmes's desire to acquire attractive women. Thus Pitezel is indirectly responsible for what happens to her. Another reason to think Pitezel was an active accomplice in his boss's crimes is that Holmes says, after he is apprehended, that he meant to kill Pitezel from the beginning. It is likely that killing Pitezel had the added benefit of sending a witness to his grave.

Sometime after Holmes begins working his charms on Emeline, Emeline tells Mrs. Lawrence she might be leaving for good, indicating she has become disillusioned with Holmes. She had come to Chicago with $800 in savings; perhaps Holmes took her money, or perhaps she refused to give it to him and then realized he was a con artist. She agrees to marry him but may have refused to sleep with him ahead of time. Holmes kills her in the vault, perhaps reserving for her a more prolonged death by asphyxiation. Mrs. Lawrence later says she thought he killed Emeline, but once again the bystander effect seems to have worked its magic because she does not report him to the police. Even Emeline's parents are not initially alarmed when her things turn up but they get no further word from her. Ned Conner also seems to be suffering from denial; he doesn't follow up with Julia's relatives. Why doesn't he at least follow up with Julia's relatives for the sake of his daughter, Pearl? Holmes seems to have had fortune on his side in the guise of people's ignorance, denial, and inertia. Chappell also goes to work on a body he receives in a trunk, again not seeing a need to ask questions.

Another madman, Prendergast, is also on the loose in Chicago. The narrator weaves the strands of Prendergast's story between those of his two protagonists but doesn't spend a lot of time developing Prendergast's character other than to remind the reader he is out there and suffering from delusions. In a bit of foreshadowing, lawyer Alfred Trude keeps Prendergast's crazy postcards, hinting that Trude will figure in some other act of violence.

At the fair, Burnham pushes hastily expands work crews, probably staffed with many inexperienced people, both day and night. He takes no responsibility for the deaths that occur as a result of increased pressure, nor does he slow the accelerated pace. The fair must be ready for Dedication Day and open on time the following year. According to one later appraisal, "the fair ... was a more dangerous place to work than a coal mine." By juxtaposing Burnham and Holmes, the book makes clear their many similarities. Both are charismatic men who easily attract followers, and both have a laser-like focus on reaching their goals; they will stop at nothing to get the job done. Burnham is a visionary, and Holmes is a madman, yet in a sense, there is only a fine line between them. One creates a thing of beauty for the benefit of multitudes; the other destroys beauty where he finds it, contributing nothing to society and using people and things for his own selfish but equally single-minded, purposes.

Burnham's plans appear to be gelling when it is decided to paint all the fairground building exteriors white, which will hopefully fix the fair "in the world's imagination as a thing of otherworldly beauty." Burnham gets his architectural marvel as well when the Ways and Means Committee approves Ferris's wheel, which promises to eclipse its competitor, the Eiffel Tower.

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