Devil in the White City

The Reviews

By  S. H. Pearson

This digestion was course-work that I submitted for graded credit in a required class.  Keep in mind that I was courting academic credit.

Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City captures the environs of booming late 19th Century Chicago amid galloping changes.  The rabid growth of cities, industrialization, social change, and racial attitudes all make up the cataclysm that hit America during this period.

The filth, smoke and squirming city streets fall from the pages of Larson’s book onto the reader’s lap.  The pages cannot turn fast enough as one becomes absorbed by the author’s craft at bringing history to life.  That Larson’s text is borne upon historical fact makes it all the more interesting.  The text vividly illustrates what was sweeping the country during the adrenaline shock wave of the Industrial Revolution.

Larson harnesses the correspondence and public records of those days to tell two stories that run abreast:  the sadistic crimes of Herman Webster Mudgett and the brilliant, inventive architecture of Daniel H. Burnham.  The biographical histories of these two men bring many things to light about the surroundings of their times and the trappings of their crafts.

In the life of Mudgett, there was the backdrop of early 1890’s Chicago with its squalor, clamor and teeming city crowds.  The reader learns of how fortuitous for Mudgett was the booming growth of the city.  Here he could prey upon young women with ease.  The anonymity of such a population made it convenient for Mudgett to murder women and dispose of their bodies seemingly without a trace.   Mudgett was a brilliant swindler and evader of debt.  The vastness of the burgeoning metropolis afforded him escape routes from his many creditors.  When they surrounded him for debt collection, he would dodge and parry with eloquence and charm.  With his affable, winning smiles, he sent debt collectors and lawyers on their ways convinced of his sincerity.  It is written that Satan is the father of all lies.  In reading about Herman Mudgett, one gets the feeling that he is a kinsman of Satan for his lies alone.

Mudgett too benefited from the large influx of young rural women who were lured by the city’s employment opportunities.  Many sought work in the clerical fields and textile industries.  Among them the serial killer saw an inexhaustible supply of victims to feed the fires of his lust.  To Mudgett, these young women were like sweets and 1890’s Chicago had become his candy store.

Shifting a gear into the life of Daniel Burnham, the reader is enveloped by the hungry ambition of America’s brilliant architects and engineers of the Gilded Age.  Burnham’s rejection from both Yale and HarvardUniversities only served to spur him harder into the headwind that would lift him into professional heights that nobody expected, least of all the rival city of New York.

To outshine Paris, France, in building the World’s Fair was Burnham’s need and to prove it to New York and the world was Chicago’s passion.  With the gale-force wind of Chicago’s support at his back, Burnham mounted the platform that had become his chance to shine.  He was out to prove something to himself, the Ivy League, New York City and the World.  With bog-defying grillage and mercurial focus, Burnham and his fleet of architects set about building the World’s Columbian Exposition.

The Columbian Exposition of 1893 was a showcase for Edison’s electric light en masse.  It was the largest display of its kind transforming the WhiteCity into a dazzling spectacle at night.  The fair was an exhibit for many new and lasting inventions.  Its architecture influenced such brilliant young minds as Frank Lloyd Wright.  This idea is upheld by Larson, “The Fair had a powerful and lasting impact on the nation’s psyche, in ways both large and small.” [1]

As Mark Twain dubbed this era of American history “The Gilded Age,” so fittingly can it be applied to the newly-made wealthy.  With the Industrial Revolution came a new breed of American.  These were previously common folks who suddenly found themselves up to their chins in money.  Railroads, steel and iron, coal and textiles, the meat-packing industry of Chicago and other extractable resources lent themselves as fortunes to be made by the astute and ambitious.  As is often attributed to such people, they seek to showcase their wealth.  Often this takes on any gaudy, outward display that comes to mind.  They spent money lavishly on outlandish things to show off their financial standing.  They adopted affectations and airs that they deemed befitting the upper classes.  However, sudden money does not an aristocrat make.  This is the premise of the term “The Gilded Age.”

The mindset of the Gilded Age can be seen in Daniel Burnham’s eccentric displays of new success as well.  He sent for the best of everything and took cruises on the White Star Line.  He wanted to prove to his neighbors that he had arrived in polite society.  He purchased a home in a more fragrant and fashionable address in the suburbs of Chicago.  The stench of the meat-packing district tainted the air of the city.  The wealthy could afford to move away from this fetid miasma, so that is what Daniel Burnham did.

Another sweeping change that was coming over not only America, but Great Britain and Europe, was the advance of medicine.  Doctors were boldly delving into human anatomy like never before.  In England, this took the form of grave-robbing in the extreme.  Medical students would acquire corpses through underhanded means.  Doctors would pay grave-robbers steep fees for producing the cadavers that their studies demanded.  This mania had spread to the United States during Mudgett’s time.  Fortuitously for Mudgett, this served two purposes:  first, it availed a means by which he could dispose of the bodies of his murder victims and secondly, it was a tidy source of income to defray from his indebtedness.

To illustrate Mudgett’s two-fold ingenuity, he had a formal medical background.  He was trained as a medical doctor.  Being an anatomist, he was adept at killing his victims with profit in mind.  He would be sure to kill them via poisonous gases so as not to mar their skeletons.  He used a method likened unto a killing jar for insects.  After he murdered his victims, he would have their skeletons articulated by one of the men in his employ.  To support this point, Larson writes:

Just after Christmas Holmes asked one of his associates, Charles Chappell, to come to his building.  Holmes had learned that Chappell was an “articulator,” meaning he had mastered the art of stripping the flesh from human bodies and reassembling, or articulating, the bones to form complete skeletons for display in doctors’ offices and laboratories.  He had acquired the necessary techniques while articulating cadavers for medical students at CookCountyHospital.[2]

The perfect skeleton would then be sold to local medical schools, hospitals and doctors’ offices.  This is how Mudgett’s brilliant blade sliced two ways:  it fed his twisted fetish for seducing and killing women and his crimes were handsomely rewarded with money.  He always needed money with so many creditors snapping at his heels.  If all this was not windfall enough, the method by which he marketed the remains of his victims also served as a means of covering the tracks of his crimes.  Amid the new medical mania that was sweeping the country, an investigator would be hard pressed to find the right skeleton with so many clanking about.

As for American racial attitudes of these times, there is no indication from Larson’s text that much had changed in the minds of leading Caucasian society in that respect.  According to class lecture, even the Irish immigrants were not considered to be among the white people.  The Native Americans had been pushed westward into the barren desert wastes.  The post-Civil War freedmen were still stigmatized for their skin color and had few rights and privileges.  This is painfully attested in the autobiography of Frederick Douglass.  The city of Chicago during this period is no exception to the way non-white people were treated in the United States.  Many of them found employment as unskilled laborers and in the slaughterhouses of Chicago.

Another hallmark of this period can be seen in the opulence afforded the upper classes aboard the White Star Line of steamships.  The Royal Mail Steamship Olympic was an example of this class of vessel.  This was the ship on which Daniel Burnham was voyaging at the beginning of Larson’s book.  The Olympic was the sister ship to the ill-fated and slightly longer R.M.S. Titanic.  Aboard the Olympic, the stellar architect could further celebrate his newly-acquired wealth, “Burnham had chosen this ship, the R.M.S. Olympic of the White Star Line, because it was new and glamorous and big.” [3]

Eerily, the R.M.S. Titanic was carrying one of Burnham’s dear friends heading in the opposite direction across the same ocean at the same time, Francis Millet.  One is compelled to weigh which death was the more clement that would soon befall these men.  Burnham was descending into the agonizing degeneration of diabetes, limping around the Olympic.  Millet would soon slip into the icy waters of the North Atlantic and die quickly of drowning, hypothermia or more mercifully, from both.

In conclusion, one can see how Larson’s book supports the upheaval of change that swelled over America in the late 19th Century.  The tying together of the lives of Daniel Burnham and Herman Mudgett can neatly be done at Chicago’s World’s Fair of 1893.  Here the two men converged.  For Burnham it was the pinnacle of his professional glory.  For Mudgett it was the climax of his killing spree.

[1] Erik Larson, Devil in the WhiteCity (New York:  Vintage Random House, 2003) 373.

[2] Erik Larson, Devil in the WhiteCity (New York:  Vintage Random House, 2003) 150.

[3] Erik Larson, Devil in the WhiteCity (New York:  Vintage Random House, 2003) 3.


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