One of the most important “links” between Holmes’s storyline in The Devil in the White City and Burnham’s storyline is the role of women in the lives of men. While it’s certainly true that Burnham himself has more love and respect for women than does Holmes, they are both products of their time and their culture: a culture that encourages men to be aggressive, and gives women few opportunities to assert themselves.
Larson notes at several points that the head designers of the World’s Fair are all male. While there are female architects who design buildings at the exhibition, they’re paid less and treated less seriously; indeed, when one of them has an argument with another organizer of the World’s Fair, Burnham has her sent to an asylum, where she falls into depression. The World’s Fair itself is successful in part because men are willing to pay money to disrespect women: they watch women “belly dance” and, according to the owner of a brothel at the time, hire prostitutes almost constantly.
Similarly, Holmes lives in a world where women, many of whom have just moved to Chicago, are weak and vulnerable, and must take jobs where they’re subservient to men. While many of Holmes’s victims stay in his building because they’re attracted to him, others are forced to stay because of their economic need. After Holmes impregnates Julia, for instance, he exerts total control over her due to the sexism and the stigma of pregnancy out of wedlock at the time.
In a sense, the real horror of The Devil in the White City is the city and culture that allows Holmes’s brutal murders to occur without any immediate repercussions — the same city and culture that allow tourists to patronize brothels. There is a frightening similarity between Holmes’s crimes and the World’s Fair’s success. Both involve treating women like mere objects. Rather than dismiss this information as history, readers should think about the close connection between voyeurism and crimes directed at women in their own societies.
Men and Women ThemeTracker
Men and Women Quotes in The Devil in the White City
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.