In his prefatory note “Evil’s Imminent”, Erik Larson refers to his writing ultimately as, “a story of the ineluctable conflict between good and evil, daylight and darkness, the White City and the Black.” He establishes that the behaviors of good and evil are not exclusive because without one you can’t know the other, and in doing so establishes his writing as less of a historical recollection, and more as a recount and inquiry into the recesses of the human psyche. The prevailing question inspiring his writing was why would “some men choose to fill their brief allotment of time engaging the possible, others in the manufacture of sorrow.” Throughout Chicago at the time of the Gilded Age, there was a tangible sense of civic duty and honor so strong that those we felt it were willing to give the utmost sacrifice of their time and health in the pursuit of the impossible. And yet, hiding beneath it all was occurring an unimaginable atrocity of evil intention. The juxtaposition between the two extremes of human intention is what Erik Larson tells us fascinated him in the the book’s ending notes, and therefore this is what he sought to capitalize on in his writing.
The country’s population at the time of the World’s Columbian Exposition was only 65 million, and yet in the short 6 months it was open the fair recorded 27.5 million visits. It was one square mile of architectural geniusness and American exceptionalism. The greatest engineering feat until that time, the modern steel Ferris wheel, was unveiled at the fair and alone restored the country’s pride in the wake of the embarrassment left by the unveiling of Alexander Eiffel’s tower years earlier. In what was seemingly a pilgrimage to exceptionalism and geniuses, a notable lineup including foreign dignitaries like Archduke Francis Ferdinand, social activist Susan B Anthony, and inventors Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla were in attendance. American journalist Richard Harding Davis described the exposition as “the greatest event in the history of the country since the Civil War.” It was a bright time of progress and prosperity, and the enchantment and allure of the fair that would cause a great migration across this country and affect the direction of its progress for decades to come, earned itself the nickname of “The White City”. In mocking contrast to the architectural monument that was the exposition, a serial killer had used his deviously earned fortune and seductive charm to construct a block long mansion merely a few miles from the fair, into which dozens of naive, innocent girls were drawn and shown to an unspeakable demise, thereby earning it the title of “the Black”.
Drawing again on the contrast of two vastly different human psyches, Larson wrote this book from the viewpoints of “two men, both handsome, both blue-eyed, and both unusually adept at their chosen skills.” Two talented, smart men both of an impressively confident demeanor, and both applied their skills in completely opposite directions. One of them was Daniel Burnham, an architect not only responsible for the World’s Columbian Exposition but also accredited with some of “America’s most important structures” such as the “Flat Iron building in New York and Union Station in Washington, D.C.” The other was Dr. H.H. Holmes, the most prolific serial killer in American history. Potentially responsible for the murder of over 200 victims, Holmes committed unspeakable crimes and scientific inquiries on behalf of his victims, but he saw them as justified, even going so far as to say, “I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing.” At a younger age, Burnham was denied admittance to a formal education at both Yale and Harvard, so much of his genius as an architect was of a natural gift and self taught. Here are two men who from birth were both inclined one to be great at being “good” and one to be great at being “evil”. Burnham brought life and prosperity to the city of Chicago, Holmes brought death. The contrast between the two is the perfect display of the never ending fight between “good and evil” and between “daylight and darkness”.
The passage that most embodies and summarizes this constants struggle that Larson seeks to present to us is found on page 288-289. Here Larson describes again the civic pride felt by Chicago and elaborates on the sense of personal pride and ownership of the fair that the natives felt. He also describes the exposition as a light for Chicago “to hold against the gathering dark of economic calamity. All across the nation banks and railroads were failing and suicides were rising. Larson said that, “the fair was so perfect, it’s grace and beauty like an assurance that for as long as it lasted nothing truly bad could happen to anyone, anywhere.” We know this to not be true though, as even despite the fact that the light of the exposition protected them from the darkness of the surrounding country, beneath it lurking an even greater evil. The darkest part of a light is always at the center, as will always inevitably be true for the human natures of good and evil.
Larson, Erik. The Devil in the Whit City. Vintage, 2004.