The Devil In The White City by Erik Larson is a historical account of the 1893 World’s Fair and the US’s first serial killer, H.H. Holmes.
In the same way, the U.S. built its industrial empire during the Gilded Age, Chicago built the “White City” with secret dark forces hiding just beneath its glory, which ultimately destroyed innocent lives. Author Erik Larson’s description of the weakness of Detective Geyer, the man who exposed Dr. H. H. Holms’ gruesome crimes, probably was true for most Americans during that time.
“His greatest weakness was his belief that evil had boundaries,” Larson wrote in The Devil In The White City. Americans and the American Government seemed to believe for the most part that progress was always a good thing. They also believed that nothing truly bad can happen in its pursuit. As time would tell, evil was always lurking just under the surface. Whether it was fraud, abuse, murder, or greed.
Construction Of The World’s Fair And Dr. Holmes’ Hotel
Just down the street from the massive construction site of the world’s fair in Chicago, unbeknownst to everyone except one man, a castle of horrors was being built at the same time. Erik Larson’s parallel between Dr. Holms’ hotel and the Columbian Exposition gave an interesting insight into the U.S. during that era. U.S. corporations were also growing and creating new opportunities for the expansion of the country. They employed hundreds of thousands of employees.
Most people, especially the U.S. government saw this as a good thing. They greatly encouraged and protected corporate interests and expansion. Unfortunately, though, the workers employed by these corporations felt differently. While everyone saw great advancements in mining and railroad expansion and building construction, many of the workers themselves suffered greatly. Workers were abused and forced to work in extremely harsh conditions. Sadly, many died and many more got severely injured on the job with no benefits.
The Success Of The White City
Architects Burnham and Root were very focused on creating the most beautiful city in the world with the Columbian Exposition. They wanted people to see a place they had never seen before. They wanted to create a place that showed what American cities could look like. After the White City was built, people flooded into Chicago. But none of them knew about the horror that going on at the same time. Young single naïve women were arriving in Chicago to visit the fair and others arrived to start new lives.
Dr. Holms had a hotel built to host many of these young women. Dozens of these young women started disappearing. Dr. H. H. Holms was able to easily hide his murders under all the excitement and glamour of the fair. Some people arrived in Chicago and left with an experience of a lifetime while others never saw their families again.
Exposing H.H. Holmes
It was not until the fair was completely over, did anyone ever suspect anything was wrong with Dr. Holms. He was accused of fraud; no one ever imagined he was guilty of such horrific crimes as the murder of dozens of people. Detective Geyer’s mission to expose Dr. Holms not only revealed who Holms really was. He exposed the underlining evil that existed just beneath all the glamour of the World’s Fair. People were shocked and horrified; no one imagined such a thing was going on during the fair. His actions revealed an underlining truth; no matter what we do, there always will be evil and it must be addressed.
Corporations In The Guilded Age Also Abused People
The beneficiaries of mining and railroad and building construction seemed unaware or did not care about the abuse the corporation owners were inflicting upon their employees. These large new rich corporations forced their employees to work long 12-hour days of hard labor. Children worked in the factories, and there was little time for breaks. The corporations were not evil in themselves, but the greed they possessed is what was destroying people. They put progress and profit above people and because of that thousands of people died a year on the job.
It was not until workers started forming unions to address the horrible working conditions did anything change. If no one ever spoke up all of the abuse would have continued. Their voice created massive change, it took years for it to happen, but it did happen. The government got involved too. Instead of only protecting the corporations, they started to force them to negotiate and create better working conditions.
Just as Dr. Holms took advantage of the vulnerabilities of young women, so did the corporations take advantage of uneducated and poor workers. In The Devil In The White City, the Gilded Age and the Columbian Exposition progress moved forward quickly. People loved it. Unfortunately, much of that progress was gained at the expense of the many lives that were destroyed by corporate greed. As well as one man’s desire for control in a world he could not. Not until a detective with a desire for truth and a government of the people decided to take a stand and start regulating corporations did things start to improve for all.