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The Devil in the White City | Themes


Madman versus Visionary

As the narrator frequently notes, both Burnham and Holmes have compelling blue eyes and are seen as unusually handsome; both are terrific salesmen and can convince others of almost anything. Both are extremely intelligent and driven by a ruling passion.

In Burnham's case, he wants to build something beautiful that will make Chicago and his country proud, and he has a vision of a regal city that he brings into being. He does this through determination, grit, and a bit of ruthlessness: several people die building the White City as he rushes the construction to completion on an unforgiving timeline. Similarly Holmes also has a ruling passion, which is to dominate other people and ultimately express his domination by taking their lives. He also has a vision—of a murder castle where he can exercise his depraved passion. He builds that castle, which he then turns into the World's Fair Hotel. In this way he recruits a steady stream of victims.

Society calls Burnham a visionary because he created something beautiful and Holmes a madman because he destroyed life. But the madman and the visionary have many things in common, which Larson emphasizes as a way of understanding their odd connection in place, time, and history.

Potency of Civic Pride

After the Exposition Universelle of 1889, in which France unveiled the Eiffel Tower, Americans felt they had been "edged out ... for dominance in the realm of iron and steel, despite the ... undeniable accomplishments of American engineers." The United States had made a poor showing at the French exposition, and the prevailing mood was one of humiliation: "America's pride in its growing power and international stature had fanned patriotism to a new intensity ... the nation needed an opportunity to top the French." From these feelings grew the idea to host a commemoration of Columbus's first voyage to America. Within the United States there was also regional rivalry and civic pride. New York was the cultural capital of the country, while Chicago wanted to show itself to be more than just the "hog butcher of the world." For this reason the cultural elites of the city were overjoyed when Chicago was chosen to host the fair. Daniel Burnham and the men who surrounded him knew that they could not and must not fail, and thus they managed to build the magnificent White City in a very short space of time during a period in American history when the country was experiencing a depression. In the end the fair was a huge success for both Chicago and the United States.

Power of Denial

How is it that H.H. Holmes killed so many people with impunity for so long a time? The narrator says that there were too many disappearances all over the city for them to be thoroughly investigated. Patrolmen were "barely competent," and detectives were scarce. But what about the detectives that came to the murder castle, questioned Holmes, and never suspected him? What about the numerous people who later said they had suspicions but never thought to act on them? The power of denial was at work. It is difficult, and perhaps impossible, for a normal person to comprehend the mind of a psychopath—without a conscience and no ability to love or empathize. There is also something terrifying about imagining such a monster. For this reason people were disinclined to believe the worst about Holmes, especially since he was so good at presenting a pleasant façade to the world. Human nature is essentially optimistic, and people mostly imagine that things will turn out well and that other people are not dangerous. This attitude is a human survival strategy that blocks out the terror of admitting the possibility of random misfortune. Therefore the individuals around Holmes would not or could not believe he was a serial killer capable of the most heinous acts.

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