The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City

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Sanity and Insanity Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
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Sanity and Insanity Theme Icon

The Devil in the White City consists of two main storylines: one about the life of H.H. Holmes, the notorious serial killer, the other about the creation of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. The mere fact that these two stories are being told together encourages us to compare them and compare their characters. When we do so, we notice a few things. First, there is some overlap between the two storylines; for instance, Holmes profits from the World’s Fair, killing tourists who come to Chicago for the event and even naming his building the World’s Fair Hotel. Second, and more disturbingly, the author of the book, Erik Larson, suggests that there are similarities between Holmes, a murderous psychopath, and the men involved in building the World’s Fair, such as Daniel Burnham, Mayor Harrison, and Frederick Law Olmsted. (Larson even notes that Harrison and Holmes both have vivid blue eyes, another sign that we’re meant to compare the “guilty” and the “innocent” characters in his book.) Both Holmes and the builders of the World’s Fair are incredibly organized, efficient, and ambitious. They excel at persuading others, whether with flattery, bribery, or, at times, point-blank frankness.

The similarity that Larson notes between sanity and insanity has many implications. In Holmes’s case, it makes his actions seem especially terrifying. Larson writes, in a darkly humorous tone, that Holmes, like Chicago itself, wastes nothing: Chicago’s slaughterhouses, which are hugely important to the city’s economy, use every part of the animal, while Holmes, who loves the smell of the slaughterhouses, sells the dead bodies of his victims to medical schools for a huge profit. Larson’s observation is disturbing because we recognize that a serial killer’s behavior isn’t altogether different from behavior we see every day.

The connections that Larson makes between sanity and insanity also shows us that the ambitions of the people who design the World’s Fair, such as Burnham and Olmsted, border on insanity. Burnham’s plan to build an entire city in two years is seemingly impossible. At times, only his irrational, or even insane, determination allows him to proceed.

This doesn’t mean that Eric Larson is equating Burnham’s actions and Holmes’s — Burnham, after all, is a loving father and husband, who misses his family throughout his two years working on the World’s Fair. On the contrary, the comparisons Larson draws between Burnham and Holmes are unsettling because we know that these two men are unlike one another, and therefore, any similarities whatsoever come as a shock. Ultimately, Larson may be suggesting that there are no inherently sane or insane behaviors, only sane or insane desires. Burnham and Holmes are ambitious, driven, and intelligent, thus they approach their projects—one incredible, the other appalling—in much the same way.

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Sanity and Insanity 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 Sanity and Insanity.
Part 1, Chapter 3 Quotes

He had dark hair and striking blue eyes, once likened to the eyes of a Mesmerist. “The eyes are very big and wide open,” a physician named John L. Capen later observed. “They are blue. Great murderers, like great men in other walks of activity, have blue eyes.”

Related Characters: H. H. Holmes
Related Symbols: Blue Eyes
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

Holmes's appearance isn't what one usually associates with murderers: he's calm, innocent, and friendly-looking. As the quote makes clear, Holmes's blue eyes and innocent appearance made him "great" at what he did—namely, murdering innocent people.

The quotation further suggests that Holmes was able to murder so may innocent people because his appearance deceived his victims into viewing him as a friend. Holmes was able to establish trust between himself and his patrons at the hotel. In this way, he managed to gain access to people's money, family, and property; and when he'd succeeded in doing so, he would murder again and move on to a new prospect.

The quote about Holmes's blue eyes also brings up a connection implicitly made by the novel itself—the similarities between Holmes and the men designing the World's Fair. "Greatness" here has nothing to do with morality, and everything to do with skill, intelligence, and success. Thus Holmes and Burnham are both "great men" in this sense, even if one is a serial killer and one a family man and famous architect.


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Part 1, Chapter 4 Quotes

That Prendergast was a troubled young man was clear; that he might be dangerous seemed impossible. To anyone who met him, he appeared to be just another poor soul crushed by the din and filth of Chicago.

Related Characters: Patrick Prendergast
Page Number: 59
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we're introduced to a young man named Patrick Prendergast. Although we're not told so right away, Prendergast will go down as a legendary figure in Chicago history: he's the man who assassinated the mayor of the city at the end of the World's Fair.

For now, however, Prendergast is just another young, mentally-ill man living in Chicago. The quotation suggests that Patrick has been "crushed" by Chicago itself—in other words, the big city pressures people into committing horrible crimes, effectively creating new criminals. The passage is written from the perspective of the naive city-dwellers of the 1890s—people who are unfamiliar with political assassins, serial killers, etc. Effectively, Patrick isn't treated as a threat because there's no precedent for a city-dweller acting so murderously. Over the course of the book, however, Chicago will come to see how insane some of its residents have become.

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 2, Chapter 4 Quotes

Though sexual liaisons were common, society tolerated them only as long as their details remained secret. Packinghouse princes ran off with parlormaids and bank presidents seduced typewriters; when necessary, their attorneys arranged quiet solo voyages to Europe to the surgical suites of discreet but capable doctors. A public pregnancy without marriage meant disgrace and destitution. Holmes possessed Julia now as fully as if she were an antebellum slave, and he reveled in his possession.

Related Characters: H. H. Holmes, Julia Conner
Page Number: 146
Explanation and Analysis:

In the 19th century, having a baby outside of marriage was a truly shocking thing: it would ruin a woman's reputation for life. Women who'd had affairs that didn't end in marriage couldn't find employment, get married to someone else, etc. As the quotation explains, H. H. Holmes has struck up an affair with a young woman named Julia, and gotten her pregnant. Holmes knows full well that he now has complete control over Julia's actions, since he could ruin her life at any time by telling people about the affair or the pregnancy.

The quotation explains a lot about Holmes's psychology. Although Holmes seems to genuinely enjoy killing people, he gets the most pleasure from the sense of power he wields over women: he savors Julia's hopelessness and her desperation. Even more generally, though, the passage criticizes 19th century gender norms. It's important to remember that Holmes's reputation wouldn't be ruined if he were to disclose news of his affair; only Julia's. The gender biases of the era kept women dependent on men's discretion, not the other way around. One could even say that sexism is the real "villain" of this passage (and of the entire book) because it created vast numbers of desperate young victims for Holmes.

Part 3, Chapter 12 Quotes

Holmes was such a charming man. And now that Anna knew him, she saw that he really was quite handsome. When his marvelous blue eyes caught hers, they seemed to warm her entire body. Minnie had done well indeed.

Related Characters: Minnie R. Williams
Related Symbols: Blue Eyes
Page Number: 292
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Holmes works his seductive magic on Anna Williams, the naive sister of Minnie Williams—the woman whom Holmes has already seduced, with the aim of stealing her inheritance. The passage is written in "indirect discourse"—written in the third person, yet also from the limited perspective of one of the characters (in this case, Anna). By writing the scene indirectly, Larson allows readers to note the contrast between what we know about Holmes (namely, that he's a despicable murderer) and what Anna thinks she knows about Holmes (that he's a handsome, charming man). By this point in the novel, we know that Holmes's blue eyes are fearsome—a symbol of his cold, uncaring nature. Yet they're also attractive and alluring; here, for example, the last sentence clearly shows that Anna is infatuated with Holmes.

Part 3, Chapter 14 Quotes

The panic came, as it always did. Holmes imagined Anna crumpled in a corner. If he chose, he could rush to the door, throw it open, hold her in his arms, and weep with her at the tragedy just barely averted. He could do it at the last minute, in the last few seconds. He could do that.

Related Characters: H. H. Holmes, Anna Williams
Page Number: 295
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Holmes listens calmly as his latest victim, Anna, suffocates to death. He's locked her in a vacuum-sealed vault downstairs, and can hear her panicking.

Part of what makes the passage so striking (and frightening) is that it shows Anna's death from Holmes's point of view—we're told exactly what Holmes is thinking as Anna dies. Based on this and other similar passages, it's clear that Holmes enjoys murder in part because he enjoys the control he exerts over his victims, and particularly his female victims. There's something unmistakably sexual about Holmes's pleasure here; he seems to enjoy dominating Anna, savoring his own power.

The passages that are narrated from Holmes's perspective (like this one) are the most novelistic in Larson's book. Although he's writing about real historical events, he's often put in a position where he needs to imagine the psychology of real people. Thus, he gives Holmes psychological depth that makes him both more of a literary character and more of believable historical character. 

Part 3, Chapter 21 Quotes

[Pendergast] knew that revolvers of this particular model had a penchant for accidental discharge when bumped or dropped, so he loaded it with only five cartridges and kept the empty chamber under the hummer.

Related Characters: Patrick Prendergast
Page Number: 329
Explanation and Analysis:

Here we're shown how Patrick Prendergast, the assassin of the Mayor of Chicago, plans to carry out his murder. Prendergast is at once sane and insane: he's driven to murder the mayor for the most incomprehensible of reasons (he thinks he's been denied a government position). And yet he's also surprisingly rational and controlled about the act itself: here, for example, he makes a special effort to keep a backup bullet, proving that his crime is premeditated.

The fine line between sane and insane is a recurring theme in the book: most of the major characters behave logically and illogically at different points (especially Burnham and Holmes). Prendergast is an especially interesting case of sanity and insanity, however, because it's so easy for him to carry out his bizarre revenge plot: it's extremely easy for him to buy a gun, get access to a major politician, and fire. Prendergast's behavior, then, shows how wild and unpredictable Chicago becomes as it enters the 20th century.

Part 4, Chapter 1 Quotes

Why had Holmes gone to the trouble and expense of moving the children from city to city, hotel to hotel, if only to kill them? Why had he bought each of them a crystal pen and taken them to the zoo in Cincinnati …?

Related Characters: H. H. Holmes, Alice Pitezal, Nellie Pitezal, Detective Frank Geyer
Page Number: 348
Explanation and Analysis:

Detective Frank Geyer here wonders to himself why Holmes—now known to be a murderer and kidnapper—has treated his murder victims so well. Holmes has abducted children and spent months with them prior to killing them: indeed, he's been a charming and loving father figure to them, buying them toys and taking them on trips. It makes no logical sense that Holmes would treat children so well and then kill them—but of course, as we're well aware by now, Holmes isn't always a rational person.

It's important to note that the passage is phrased as a rhetorical question. Even if Geyer doesn't know the answer to his own question, we the readers do: Holmes's most recognizable trait is his desire for power and control. It's not enough for Holmes to murder his victims; he wants to dominate them completely, and make them love him before he kills them. Only when Holmes has achieved total control does he commit murder. The children whose deaths Geyer is trying to explain are only the latest in a long string of tragic examples of Holmes's sadism.