The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City

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Modernity and Anonymity Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Sanity and Insanity Theme Icon
Modernity and Anonymity Theme Icon
Men and Women Theme Icon
Ego and Cooperation Theme Icon
Civic Pride and American Patriotism Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Devil in the White City, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Modernity and Anonymity Theme Icon

Early in The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson writes that it is easy to disappear in Chicago in the late 19th century. At the time of the World’s Fair, Chicago is modernizing at a rapid pace: the city limits keep increasing, workers build huge, technologically advanced structures like the Ferris Wheel, and trains connect far-away parts of the city to one another. One important consequence of the rapid modernization in Chicago is that people move to Chicago from across the country, and even the world. Some come looking for employment and success, some come to admire the World’s Fair, but both of these groups are responding to Chicago’s reputation as a “modern” city.

Because of the rapid influx of people, Chicago becomes bigger, more crowded, and more impersonal. The police can’t investigate all the women who go missing — amazingly, Holmes’s serial murders are only a drop in the bucket compared to all the crimes in the city he lives in. Also, people are less emotionally connected to one another; thus, when guests go missing from Holmes’s building, the other lodgers don’t do anything other than express a vague curiosity. Larson says this is because they don’t trust the police, but more broadly, it’s because the new inhabitants of Chicago don’t feel any deep connection with each other. As Chicago grows bigger, more prosperous, and more technologically advanced, it also grows more anonymous, and individual lives matter less and less. Larson suggests that anonymity may be an inescapable part of modern life.

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Modernity and Anonymity ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Modernity and Anonymity appears in each chapter of The Devil in the White City. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Modernity and Anonymity Quotes in The Devil in the White City

Below you will find the important quotes in The Devil in the White City related to the theme of Modernity and Anonymity.
Part 1, Chapter 1 Quotes

How easy it was to disappear. A thousand trains a day entered or left Chicago. Many of these trains brought single young women who had never seen a city but now hoped to make one of the biggest and toughest their home.

Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

In this early quote, Larson establishes the setting of his story: Chicago—and, in a more abstract sense, the contemporary metropolis. In the late 19th century, big cities (cities with tall steel buildings, light-rail systems, etc.) were still something of a novelty in the United States. The vast majority of people in America had never lived in a town of more than a few thousand people. As a result, when people moved from a small town to a big city, they continued to behave as if they were in a smaller, closer-knit community.

The new environment of the American metropolis posed a threat to many people, especially women coming from small towns. Accustomed to being safe and protected, women weren't prepared for the murderers, sexual predators, etc. who inhabited places like Chicago—and from their own anonymity in such a huge, unwelcoming city. One such criminal, Holmes, will be the focal point of the book. 


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Part 1, Chapter 2 Quotes

So far the year had been a fine one. Chicago’s population had toppled one million for the first time, making the city the second most populous in the nation after New York.

Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Larson establishes the setting of the book: Chicago. At the time when the book begins, Chicago is still an up-and-coming city: big and industrial, but not as culturally prestigious as New York City. From the perspective of America at the time, size matters: the quote presupposes that the bigger a city grows, the more businessmen, artists, inventors, and entrepreneurs move there, and the more impressive the city becomes. But as we've already seen, it's more complicated than that: big cities may be culturally prestigious, but they're also more dangerous, especially for young women. The same demographic forces that led Chicago to become one of the greatest cities in the Western hemisphere also led Holmes, a brutal murderer, to get away with despicable crimes for many years.

Part 1, Chapter 5 Quotes

There were rules about courtship. Although no one set them down on paper, every young woman knew them and knew instantly when they were being broken. Holmes broke them all … it frightened [Myrta], but she found quickly that she liked the heat and the risk.

Related Characters: H. H. Holmes, Myrta Belknap
Page Number: 63
Explanation and Analysis:

Holmes is a seductive man, and as the passage explains, he's seductive because he knows the unwritten rules of courtship in America, and then proceeds to break them. One of the basic rules of courtship between men and women is "no touching." Holmes breaks this rule constantly—but the women he flirts with seem to enjoy it.

One of the reasons that Holmes is such a fascinating figure is that he feels strangely modern to readers. While the other characters in the novel are overly trusting and formal in their behavior (i.e., they're basically 19th century people), Holmes is a 21st century man—at once more immediately understandable to modern readers, and also frighteningly impossible to understand. Holmes's violation of courtship rules is a great example of why he seems modern to us—while everyone else in the novel is caught up in old-fashioned rules, Holmes breaks the rules with ease. Holmes's behavior in the quote further ties him to Chicago itself: like Chicago, Holmes is hot, risky, and dangerous—and yet also completely alluring.

Part 1, Chapter 9 Quotes

The hair was sold for wigs, the clothing given to settlement houses. Like the Union Stock Yards, Chicago wasted nothing.

Page Number: 103
Explanation and Analysis:

In the end of the 19th century in Chicago, people began to be murdered in alarmingly high numbers. The Chicago police were ill-quipped to track down the murderers, and as a result, many went free. The quote describes how the corpses of murder victims were treated: the hair of the corpses was converted into wigs, while the clothes were sent to settlement houses (reform institutions).

The quote is interesting because it focuses on the sociopathic nature of law enforcers and of society itself, not of the serial killers like H. H. Holmes. Although one would think that people would treat dead bodies with some respect, this is not the case: the bodies are converted into wigs. In general, then, the quote suggests that Chicago's problem at the end of the 19th century was far broader than individual serial killers: the city itself was losing its moral grounding as people became increasingly dehumanized. Ordinary people—cops, civilians, etc.—felt a new coldness and brutality toward one another.

Part 3, Chapter 1 Quotes

As a crowd thundered, a man eased up beside a thin, pale woman with a bent neck. In the next instant Jane Addams realized her purse was gone. The great fair had begun.

Related Characters: Jane Addams
Page Number: 239
Explanation and Analysis:

In this amusing scene, Jane Addams, the Nobel Prize-winning community organizer and founder of Hull House, gets her purse stolen by an anonymous onlooker at the World's Fair of 1893. The scene is interesting for a number of reasons. First, note the contrast between Addams's fame and the thief's anonymity: it's precisely this clash between high and low, famous and obscure, that Larson is trying to convey in his account of the Fair (and more particularly through his initial description of Addams herself as just another anonymous woman). More generally, though, the passage suggests that the Chicago World's Fair was an extension of life in Chicago, not an escape from it: i.e., the World's Fair was messy, dirty, unpredictable, and crime-ridden. Finally, the passage foreshadows the murders committed by H. H. Holmes during the time of the Fair: like the pickpocket, Holmes would take advantage of the disorder and anonymity of the Fair, committing crimes that he knew the Chicago police would never get around to solving.

Part 3, Chapter 2 Quotes

As best anyone could tell, the owner also was a forgiving soul. [Holmes] did not seem at all concerned when now and then a guest checked out without advance notice, leaving her bills unpaid. That he often smelled vaguely of chemicals — that in fact the building as a whole often had a medicinal odor — bothered no one. He was, after all, a physician, and his building had a pharmacy on the ground floor.

Related Characters: H. H. Holmes
Page Number: 245
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Larson writes about Holmes ironically: he shows Holmes as he seemed to his unsuspecting guests, who had no idea that a serial killer was renting out rooms. From the reader's perspective, it's pretty obvious that Holmes is a devious man: his chemical smell, his willingness to rent to young women, and his guests who mysteriously disappear are all suspicious signs.

In general, the passage conveys how bizarre and unprecedented Holmes's murders were in 1893. Murder is always tragic, but in the 21st century there's at least some precedent for serial killers in the U.S.A. In 1893, Holmes was (or at least seemed to be) one of a kind: so bloodthirsty that his victims literally couldn't conceive of the crimes he committed.

Part 3, Chapter 11 Quotes

Visitors wore their best clothes, as if going to church, and were surprisingly well behaved. In six months of the fair the Columbian Guard made only 2,929 arrests.

Page Number: 283
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Larson notes that at the Chicago World's Fair, people were unusually well-behaved. For visitors, the Fair wasn't just a time for festivity: it was a near-religious experience, during which they'd be privileged enough to see the height of engineering, science, and art in the United States.

In a way, this quotation serves as a major vindication for Burnham, who masterminded the controversial neoclassical style of the Fair over the protests of Sullivan and Olmsted. Burnham wanted the Fair to be serious and monumental, while Olmsted wanted it to be fun. In the end, Burnham's approach may have been the wiser one: it fit with the scope and content of the Fair (a fun, laid-back atmosphere just wouldn't have been right, considering all the groundbreaking science and technology on display there).

But it's also important to keep in mind that Larson is being a little ironic. By this point in the book, we know very well that the most dangerous crimes committed at the World's Fair (Holmes's murders) were never even reported. So the fact that the police made less than 3,000 arrests doesn't mean much: there were definitely worse things going on beneath the Fair's glorious, innocent surface.

Part 4, Chapter 6 Quotes

The thing editors could not understand was how Holmes had been able to escape serious investigations by the Chicago police. The Chicago Inter Ocean said, “It is humiliating to think that had it not been for the exertions of the insurance companies which Holmes swindled, or attempted to swindle, he might yet be at large, preying upon society, so well did he cover up the traces of his crime.”

Related Characters: H. H. Holmes
Page Number: 370
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Chicago authorities point out something that's been apparent to readers for a long time now: it's bizarre and horrifying that Holmes was able to get away with mass murder for so many years. It's also humiliating that a simple technicality in an insurance claim was what led to his undoing, rather than the ingenuity of law enforcement.

The quotation reinforces what Larson has already had ample time to show: that Holmes benefited from a new, large-scale city (Chicago), in which the size of the migrant population and the physical complexities of the city's neighborhoods made police officers incompetent and overworked. In the quote, the Chicago Inter Ocean authorities try to cover their tracks somewhat, admitting that the police didn't do their job, but also insisting that Holmes did a fantastic job of "covering up" his own crimes. By modern standards, Holmes did not do a particularly stellar job of hiding his crimes from the public—rather, the American public was unaccustomed to serial killers, and so in spite of ample evidence that Holmes was a murderer, it was easier for civilians to think that he was an eccentric or an overworked doctor than it was for them to imagine that he killed dozens of people.