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.
Sanity and Insanity ThemeTracker
Sanity and Insanity Quotes in The Devil in the White City
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.”
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.
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.
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.
[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 hammer.
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 …?