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