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The Quirks in Our Roots

Chicago’s world fair is an event that stays unrecognized by much of the modern populace. Knowing the history behind the fair’s development, historian Erik Larson turned what was once a scarcely documented American event into the form of a novel, The Devil in the White City, bringing together two stories from opposite spectrums of the Colombian World Fair’s occurring appearances. One, a middle-aged architect who has acquired the responsibility of designing the fair; and the other, a young sociopath cheating his way into the life he desires. The two stories intertwine indirectly, but allow the other to flourish. Larson acknowledged the account’s lack of attention in today’s world, understanding the incredible happenings of the fair and taking what was once simply a tale in America’s history and turning it into a tangible, readable source of enlightenment.

Chicago’s world fair began as simply an idea—a way for the United States to respond to Paris’s world fair, which had been highly successful—though it ultimately became an event that would influence the dawn of the twentieth century. John Burnham, a customary man with high expectations for himself and who had received recognition by his influence on the newly thought of skyscrapers, was chosen to manage the fair’s architectural field. For Burnham, this was at first an apparent blessing—his promise to his parents as well as to himself was to become the world’s greatest architect—though it soon became much more of a strain than he’d intended. Time had been scant before planning had begun, and gathering a team of architects talented and willing enough became one of Burnham’s most intense struggles. Over the course of the story, however, Burnham manages to not only successfully design the fair, have it built in just three years, and receive a worthwhile reaction, but he opened the door for new ideas such as the telephone, Shredded Wheat cereal, Juicy Fruit, and the Ferris Wheel.

For H. H. Holmes, the world fair brought about the same recognition and eminence upon himself that, unlike Burnham, was neither expected nor desired. Holmes, whose birth name was Herman Webster Mudgett, moved to Chicago in an effort to finish off a plan he and a colleague from medical school had designed in which one of their deaths was to be faked, leaving behind life insurance money for the two of them to split. This arrangement was left unclosed and Holmes was left alone in an unfamiliar city, finding a way to conform to life in Chicago by getting a job at a pharmacy across the street from the lot that would soon be his only and final home. This ends in the start of an era in Holmes’s life dedicated to his own, complete expression and relief which he found easily through one process: gaining the trust and admiration of those around him, and then ending this process in murder.

Holmes saw the attention and business of Chicago due to the unrest that came with the world fair and, in an attempt to attract more prey, Holmes built his own hotel at the corner of S. Wallace and W 63rd and, though the bottom floor contained Holmes’s own legitimate drugstore and a variety of shops, the two upper floors contained a windowless maze of over one hundred rooms complete with gas vents, doors opening to brick walls, stairways to nowhere, and doors only able to open from the outside. To help manage the hotel, Holmes hires carpenter and father of three, Benjamin Pietzal, along with a collection of women who eventually meet their fate within the “castle”. A widower of four and a compulsive liar, Holmes remains busy throughout the Colombian World Fair, bringing into his hotel a variety of newly met women. Holmes is, within a few years, captured and tried after the long search for the three children of Benjamin Pietzel—the first in the Pietzel family to be killed by Holmes—Alice (15), Nellie (11), and Howard (8), who were all found dead.

Larson uses the idea of “The White City,” as many called the fair, to portray a sort of coating for Holmes’s obvious evil within an apparently good setting, conveying the idea that evil can be hidden even in the most unlikely places. Larson spends a great deal of the novel emphasizing this idea that the fair itself was a “dreamland,” reminding the reader of the fair’s excellence as a way to portray this grand, overall positive character. . “The Fair became so intensely compelling that one woman, Ms. Lucille Rodney of Gravestone, Texas, walked a thirteen hundred mile long railroad track to reach it. ‘Call it no more than the White City on the lake,’ wrote Sir Walter Besant, English historian and novelist in Cosmopolitan, ‘it is dreamland’” (282).

For Burnham, the intent of the fair was clear: to build a fair that creates a response worth the massive effort he put forth. The goal was reached and, by a huge margin, exceeded expectations. Burnham had introduced to the people an opportunity to glance into the twentieth century by the variety of new ideas and inventions brought forth by the fair. The architecture presented at the fair was a revolution of its own—the Liberal Arts building at the fair was, at the time, the largest enclosed building in the world—however inventions such as the elevator, the sewing machine, and for many people, electricity, were some of the factors that drove Chicago’s World Fair in the direction that it did. This, along with Burnham’s consistent struggles with the fair while staying true to his original goals were ways in which Larson highlights the fair as something that could not be demoted from its role. “…on its shores gleamed and glowed in the golden radiance the Ivory City, beautiful as a poet’s dream, silent as the city of the dead” (256). The White City’s position in the novel was to be the object of goodness that, if good enough, could hide evil at any strength.

Though H. H. Holmes was eventually captured for acts of identity fraud and as many as two hundred murders, it must be noted that the suspicions that Holmes could even be a suspect in these cases took almost nine years. Holmes, who after his arrest admitted himself to being the devil, managed to hide beneath the chaotic supremacy of the world fair, leeching onto its idea and using it as his own sort of equilibrium. “‘I was born with the devil in me,’ Holmes wrote. ‘I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing” (357). Holmes did not even find it necessary to alternate between places where the killings were being taken place. He used the fair to his own advantage, while people like Burnham saw only a place of happiness, innovation, and achievement.

Larson uses these two stories that, though they never completely connect, show true the fact that evil can exist even in the lightest of places. Even though Burnham had dedicated three years of his life into ensuring that the Chicago World Fair would be as impactful and triumphant as possible as well as keeping the promise he had made to both himself and his family, Holmes saw the fair in a completely different light. To him, the fair was no work of artistic achievement nor was it an American accomplishment, but simply it was a convenience that he could only manage to see through his own, narrow vision. This, however, brings about the question: if the world fair hadn’t been in occurrence, would Holmes have had a more difficult time executing his plans as swiftly as he did? Throughout the novel Larson answers this question subtly, making the theme apparent to the reader meanwhile. “It was so easy to disappear, so easy to deny knowledge, so very easy in the smoke to mask that something dark had taken root. This was Chicago, on the eve of the greatest fair in history” (14). This, above all, was the idea Holmes took most advantage of: the ability to—instead of stand out against the goodness surrounding an obvious evil—hide within it.

At the start of the novel, Holmes was a young medical student, more than willing to cheat his way up any scale. He had an undeniable need to forget the existing rules of society and to replace them with his own, just as legitimate set. “Mudgett was convinced that the fundamentals of the approach had merit—that by faking the deaths of others, he could indeed fleece life insurance companies” (43). Holmes, at the start, doesn’t seem unlike the man who he would eventually become. However if this story were to be looked at backwards, it is hard to believe that this serial killer of as many as two hundred people was ever a simple medical student whose biggest concern was an empty pocket. Originally there was something within Holmes enabling, and even encouraging, the blooming of Holmes’s true self. This ticking grenade embedded within Holmes’s makeup remains sensitive the entirety of his life, but it took very little suffering, such as money hardships and/or loneliness for it to finally go off.

The novel presents us with a variety of original, genuine characters, though only two ever become three-dimensional. John Burnham and H. H. Holmes both represent an opposing position, one evil and one good. The division between the characters is clear, however there is a common ground between the two men. Each is an example of a type of ambition that if the other were to examine is nothing but admirable. We as people sometimes forget that those who surround us are, as well, people, with quirks, ambitions, and sensitivities. We have a difficult time seeing the good in people when there seems to be nothing but negativity; Burnham would have probably not been pleased with Holmes’s actions when told the stories, without realizing how much he and Holmes actually had in common. Being human comes with a set of default mentalities that are rooted within us and, though there are quirks in the system, we’re a lot more similar than we think. Just because Sarah likes vanilla and Sally likes chocolate doesn’t make the two of them unlike each other; they both need to eat. Sally thinks Jojo is neat while Sarah likes Henry; they both need love. This idea has drifted from it’s foundation and created this sort of mess of scattered opinions that we use to judge each other. Just as Burnham needed to do something worthwhile with his life as well as needing to prove to himself that he could, H. H. Holmes was simply doing what made him happy, and though his actions were evidently inexcusable, shouldn’t be looked at with constricted views. Our minds have the ability to drift and to be influenced, yet the humanness rooted within us limits the boundaries of this. It seems as if cases like Holmes are simply faults in the structure, not to be blamed but to be acknowledged.

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