At the end of the 19th century, single young women arrive in the city of Chicago every day. They work as typists, secretaries, seamstresses, and weavers, and enjoy the new freedom, and danger, of being able to walk the streets alone. While most of the people who hire these women are honest, newspapers express concern that some of the people who place job ads for women may be “vulgar.”
Chicago is exciting and dangerous at the end of the 19th century. The young women who come to the city are vulnerable to criminals. Interestingly, Larson doesn’t reveal what, exactly, these criminals want from their victims; instead, he leaves readers to imagine and project their own fears onto the story.
Women in Chicago have access to drink, sex, and gambling. They find something charming about knowing that Chicago has vices to offer its citizens. The political scientist and philosopher Max Weber compared the city to “a human being with his skin removed” — this analogy is more apt than Weber could have known.
Larson establishes the link between the pleasures and the dangers of Chicago, and, implicitly between the story of the WF and the story of the serial killer. He increases the suspense with the gruesome comparison to a skinless human, suggesting that there is something raw and unfinished about Chicago that perhaps reveals things about it—and cities in general, and people in general—that might otherwise be covered up.
Chicago also offers new forms of death. Cars and trains hit pedestrians, horses kill their passengers, and streetcars collapse. Fires claim many lives, and when the papers report the accidents, they use the word “roasted.” Diseases claim further lives, and the murder rate rises quickly. The Chicago police cannot stop the increase in violent deaths, often over fights or sexual arguments. Despite these deaths, the people of Chicago doubt that anything like Jack the Ripper’s murders in Whitechapel, London could take place in their city.
The rapid advances in technology in the 19th century, which we now take for granted, are greeted as dangerous at the time. As the word “roasted” suggests, newspapers seem to treat deaths as gaudy entertainment for consumption by their readers. Even with all these changes, Chicago still “innocently” believes that serial killers couldn’t come to their home.
There is a general feeling in the United States that morality is deteriorating. Influential politicians and writers argue for divorce and free love. In Massachusetts, Lizzie Borden is tried and acquitted of killing her parents with an axe — newspapers spread news of the case across the country.
For the first of many times in his book, Larson speaks in “indirect discourse” — in other words, he speaks in the voice of people other than himself; in this case, the typical 19th century moralist who links divorce (something that we take for granted today) with grisly murder.
A young doctor arrives in Chicago by train, and finds the chaos and smells of slaughterhouses, which make up the core of Chicago industry, enjoyable. Later, letters come from around the country to the doctor’s home on 63rd and Wallace, begging for information about the whereabouts of young women. But it is easy to disappear in Chicago in the years leading up to the World’s Fair.
The doctor’s love for the slaughterhouses immediately suggests his psychopathic nature. Though it is worthwhile too to know that the slaughterhouses were key to Chicago’s economy, that the wealth of the city was built on those slaughterhouses. This book never goes into it, but those slaughterhouses were also built on the exploitation of the poor and weak and immigrant, as represented in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. The futility of the letters proves that Chicago is a huge, chaotic city where order does not entirely hold sway.