I know I’m late to the party that has been going on between the covers of The Devil in the White City. The hype is deserved and will no doubt grow once the movie adaptation makes waves on social media. I’m just glad I got to the book before the cover became a marketing tool for the movie. Yeah, I’m the sort of reader who hates reading a book in public that has a movie poster for a cover because I’m concerned you might think I’m reading the book because the movie’s coming out soon-ish. Well, you’re right, but the cover helps hide the fact that I am a tool of social media hype.
Even without the gruesome and shocking details about H.H. Holmes and his castle of death the book captures the excitement of seeing the future from an end of the century perspective and proves that the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago sparked the world into the technological age where tunnel-vision product is all that matters. You see, serial killer and proto-pickup artist Holmes was just as much a product of the fair as the Ferris Wheel or Pabst Blue Ribbon. The only difference is no one commissioned his work. Otherwise, and if you allow Holmes the loosely guesstimated 200+ murders, then you might say that Holmes was just as good at killing people for his own selfish needs as the construction of the fair killed workers while they built rich men’s dreams. No matter what improvements to life and liberty that came of the fair’s construction, like unions and the eight hour work day, the old white men in their finery were always concerned with one thing; showing off their genius. Once the fair was over none of the big wigs cared about the little people in the middle of economic crisis because it was time to move on to the next project using credentials from the fair to inflate their commission. Holmes’ actions were reminiscent of this attitude: seduce, use, kill, repeat. The only difference is that Holmes cleaned up his messes as best he could, while the savvy architects and politicians let Chicago go back to its filthy ways once they were done harvesting the fair’s proceeds.
But to say nothing good came of the fair is a gross error. The modern work week and hours were enforced, laborers unionized, health codes developed, and the rules broken in aesthetics and architecture paved new roads to a brighter future. Unfortunately, with such rapid development of dreams in society the 1893 World’s Fair seems to have solidified the trope of the anonymous man allowed to cultivate his darkest desires. Not only was Holmes killing women in a cycle, but another man by the name of Prendergast was left alone with his delusions of grandeur and the shocking end to his short story in The Devil in the White City shows that individuals who feel pushed to the anonymous margins of a society they wish to be a part of will react violently either in secret or openly. We know there were secret killers and openly violent men like Holmes and Prendergast before 1893 in the likes of Jack the Ripper and John Wilkes Booth, but it seems the World’s Fair and industrialization in general became the primordial ooze of sociopathic nurturing. More recent iterations of Holmes and Prendergast are found in “The Grim Sleeper” who stalked prostitutes in south L.A. earlier this decade and your pick of this week’s raging gunman. The painstaking amount of work to make both Holmes and Prendergast human to the reader in The Devil in the White City gets you to see their motives and understand, while the talking heads of today close their reports with “we’ll never know why, so let’s move on to arguing instead of doing.”
My take away from The Devil in the White City is that no matter how far we push civilization, and no matter how pretty it looks as a whole, if the people are forgotten and wasted in the process then we will reap a diseased and poisonous future despite its many glittering entertainments.