Prendergast and the Chicago World’s Fair

The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 represented a triumphant moment of success for the city of Chicago as well as for the entire nation. Yet, the grandeur of the fair was paralleled with an equally great amount of corruption and abuse. During this time known as the Gilded Age, America experienced many extremes—extreme wealth, extreme poverty, extreme greatness, and extreme horror. Inside the bubble of magnificent buildings and forward thinking ingenuity that was the fair, Americans escaped, at least for a moment, the dirt and filth of the outside world. Nearby, a man named Eugene Patrick Prendergast lived in his own sort of bubble—one that would eventually burst and lead to the murder of Chicago’s governor, Carter Harrison. As explained in Larson’s The Devil in the White City, the insanity tinted in both Prendergast’s delusional obsession and in the nation’s obsession with creating the World’s Fair ultimately led to the downfall of one and the triumph of the other.

Prendergast’s life was in many ways similar to the lifespan of the fair itself. As it is being built, many including those within Chicago, have serious doubts as to the plausibility of achieving such a difficult task. Yet, when the Fair opens, it becomes clear that Chicago has achieved something great. Those that attended feel as if they had entered a world that sees no poverty or hardship, but instead one of immense prosperity and opulence. This false sense of security and hope is the same feeling that Prendergast has during much of his adult life. Just as the Fair is a symbol of the country’s hope for the future, so is the idea of gaining office under Governor Harrison a symbol of hope for Prendergast. As he works miserably through his job in a newspaper distribution warehouse, it is his “grand hopes for the future, all of which rested on one man: Carter Henry Harrison,” that drive his ambition, just as the promise of renown and fame keeps the Fair from crumbling in its construction (Larson, 59). Ultimately, Prendergast’s insanity and delusion are no different from the insanity it takes to build the fair. It isn’t until the Fair’s success that such insane designs as the Ferris wheel and the massive Manufactures and Liberal Arts building become more then simply wild ambition. However misguided Prendergast is, his own ambition and initiative are not any crazier than the vision it took to build the Fair.

The Chicago World’s Fair was not simply a monument to man’s ability to create, but also a monument to an evolving American culture. Inside the fair, people escape from the stringent social standards of the time period. Young single women from all over the country travel by themselves to experience a world that seems to have no rules, where they too can become new people. Just as the fair allows people to live in a world of pretend, Prendergast’s imagination allowed him to invent his own altered sense of reality. Yet, at the end of the summer, the fair comes to a close, and with it, the magic of the strange “white city.” At the same time, Prendergast comes to the realization that Governor Harrison is never going to make him corporation counsel. This can be seen when he is asked why he shot the governor and replies, “Because he betrayed my confidence. I supported him through his campaign and he promised to appoint me corporation counsel. He didn’t live up to his word” (331). Prendergast’s ambition and imagination lied solely in the belief that one day he would be appointed corporation counsel. When he realized this would never happen, his world crumbled, just as the fair—despite its magnificence—eventually crumbled as well. In both cases, the incredible imaginativeness eventually came to an end.

Although the Fair was considered a huge success, it involved the overlooking of many less important disasters. Incidents like the death of workers from accidents during construction as well as careless mistakes in design were small prices to pay in the grand scheme of things. Yet, when Prendergast murdered Harrison, his crime was irrefutable. His execution on July 13, 1894 represented the nation and its moral stance in that people were looking not for answers, but for what they perceived as justice. In “Criminology,” Edward Burke explains that “They paid little attention to the report that he had suffered a sever head trauma as a child…or the fact that his grandfather had died in Ireland in a lunatic asylum” (Burke, 794). For the Fair, however, the shiny outside and wholesome appearance ultimately allowed the public to overlook all of the other issues within.

The difference between the failure of Prendergast and the success of the fair lay in the packaging; the Fair’s evils were hidden from sight, while Prendergast’s crime was clear and simple. People have long since believed that the line between genius and insanity is extremely thin. On one hand, the genius of the Fair was realized despite wild ambitions and numerous brushes with disaster. Yet on the other, similarly ambitious dreams of a man named Prendergast were marked as insane. Although one succeeded and one failed, the ingenuity of both lay not in the outcome, but in the ability to imagine something crazy and then pursue it.

The Downside of Achievement: Root in The Devil in the White City

Novels are often written to convey an inherent truth of life. However, when a nonfiction book is written and the inherent truth is still prevalent, one must take notice of the lesson to learn. This concept occurs in The Devil in the White City, a nonfiction work by Erik Larson describing the events leading up to and during the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago; it is arranged in a novelistic manner, and it is accompanied by a life lesson, just as in a traditional novel. One of the characters, John Root, and his role in the World’s Fair, illustrates the lesson that although one may work tirelessly, the realization of his dreams may never come.

In The Devil in the White City, Root is prevalent in the beginning of the novel as the architectural mastermind behind the construction of the Fair. His partner, Daniel Burnham, “believed Root possessed a genius for envisioning a structure quickly, in its entirety” (Larson 26). Throughout his presence in the book, he is portrayed as not particularly business-savvy, but instead extremely knowledgeable – he is the brains behind the Burnham and Root company. Unfortunately, he dies of pneumonia before the construction of the Fair begins. Even though he is the more hardworking and possibly the more intelligent of the two, Root dies and is unable to realize his dream of building the Fair, while Burnham, who handles more of the business side of the company’s operations, continues on to success. This illustrates that although it may seem fair and just for a situation to end in one way, one may end up getting the short end of the stick; although it may not be as drastic as death, as in Root’s case, Larson shows the reader that dreams are not always attainable.

Root, in history, is credited with overcoming many of the architectural struggles prevalent in Chicago due to the marshy soil. His main feat is developing the specific method of grilling iron rails that is necessary to hold up the weight of an entire building in the mushy Chicago ground. It was by creating this system that he and Burnham are able to build the Montauk Building; this structure was their “first important downtown building” (John). Root was an innovator, and his creative ideas often landed Burnham and himself jobs. Another of his many feats is the advancement of the Chicago School style of architecture. He, among other famous architects, is accredited with this development, which includes the mastery of steel in construction and the creation of the skyscraper (Rayfield). However, what would have been his most famous, and most lucrative, feat, is the World’s Fair. His previous achievements and advancements in the field of architecture, the very ones that handed him the opportunity to build the Fair, ultimately meant nothing to him, as his death erased the possibility of any achievements that may have stemmed from his aforementioned work. His situation shows that sometimes dreams, no matter how hard one works to achieve them, may never come true. Regardless of work, some things are out of one’s control.

Root’s career in architecture was not handed to him. He worked tirelessly in his adolescent years to reach his goals; his brother notes that he was extremely focused as a student: “John was in college… we always had a lot of drawing-boards in our bed-room on which were done all kinds of work: elaborate drawings of cathedrals (from his mind), palaces (in Spain), grand bridges… ”(Monroe 19). Root graduated from New York University with an undergraduate degree in science and civil engineering (18), neither of which helped him very much in architecture. His brother, however, depicted his home life during these young years and frantic; Root was constantly sketching and learning about architecture, pursuing his dream to the best that he could. After the Chicago Fire of 1871, he moved to Chicago to help rebuild the city, and, carrying only his portfolio of sketches, landed many jobs (23). This tedious work through his younger years shows dedication to the profession, and his work ethic proves him worthy of recognition. Unfortunately, these habits, created early in life, do not help him accomplish what he most wanted – to build the Fair – because death took him from the world before he was able to begin that part of his life.

Ironically, this book, and the Fair itself, are often seen as symbols of hope and achievement, but not everyone was able to enjoy these gifts. John Root was unable to achieve his dream, unable to reap the profit of his architectural finesse, due to death. In The Devil in the White City, as well as in Root’s life outside of the Fair, the inability of achievement is shown to be possible, even though one may work to no end to achieve his goal – a lesson very important if one aims to succeed in life.

Hiding Murder in Plain Sight

Some people do not realize what is really happening in front of them, no matter how obvious it seems to other people. In the case of H.H. Holmes, he is able to lie and charm his way into making people trust him so that he can get away with murder. In Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, the author presents his audience with the thoughts of both Holmes and his victims, clouding the light of perfection Holmes creates with the dark reality of his true intentions in order to let the readers see how his victims’ ignorance allows his evil ways to hide under the good that they fail to look past.

Larson gives his readers a glimpse into Holmes’ mind in order to allow them to contrast what he says and what he truly feels. In the first known murder presented in the novel, Larson tells his audience that Holmes “knew he possessed great power over Julia… [He] possessed [her] now as fully as if she were an antebellum slave, and he reveled in his possession” (146). The reader can tell that Holmes believes he dominates Julia, that she has no control of what he will do to her. This is frightening to the audience as they now see Holmes is quite crazy. Not only does Holmes possess these women, he sees them as objects. Larson entitles one of his chapters “Acquiring Minnie” (198) to tell of how Holmes seduced Minnie so he could kill her. He uses the same word “acquired” to describe how Holmes “acquired high-grade furnishings” (198) for his hotel. This directly compares Minnie to an inanimate piece of furniture, showing how Holmes sees these women as objects to be bought with charm and gifts and fake love. Larson hopes his audience will think poorly of Holmes because of the way he thinks of these women; he hopes they will be able to easily see past Holmes fake plays and discover his true psychopathic schemes. Larson also mentions a few very disturbing details about the murder of Julia. He tells us how Holmes finds it “singularly arousing” (148) when Julia begins to fight back, and how “the sensation, as always, was pleasant and induced in him a warm languor, like the feeling he got after sitting too long in front of a hot stove” (148-149). Larson allows his readers to see how Holmes gets this soothing sexual release from suffocating this poor woman who he faked out and lied to so he could murder her. He hopes to disgust the readers with this description and cause them to view Holmes in a negative light. This way when they see what these women are thinking, they realize the tricks that Holmes plays and how he clouds the truth with his charm, taking advantage of the fact that these women are too ignorant, mesmerized by Holmes, to see the dangerous truth.

Holmes’ victims are so charmed, they don’t realize how dangerous he really is, Larson lets his audience into the mind of a few of Holmes’ victims, one of them being Georgiana Yoke. The audience hears that “she had never met anyone like him. He was handsome, articulate, and clearly well off” (Larson 307). They are able to see what Georgiana truly believes that Holmes is a wonderful man. Because Larson reveals this point of view to the audience, they are able to contrast it with the view of Holmes and see how easily he tricked these women and got away with it. Another girl, Anna, was suspicious of Holmes until she met him and “his warmth and smile and obvious affection for Minnie caused [her] suspicions to quickly recede” (Larson 264). “Holmes was such a charming man. And now that Anna knew him, she saw that he really was quite handsome” (Larson 292). Something about him caused her, like many before her, to let her guard down and not question his actions, no matter how skeptical they appear to the reader. The audience, though, is able to realize that when Holmes invites her to his hotel, alone, something bad is going to happen. It is especially apparent that Holmes plans on murdering Ana when he asks her to step into his walk-in vault and “cheerfully, she [complies]” (294). She trusts Holmes so much; she is so fascinated by his perfection, that the thought of danger never crosses her mind. These women, so charmed by and trusting of Holmes, let their guard down and walk to their death, but they don’t see it that way. The only reason the audience can see the danger is because Larson reveals Holmes’ point of view to them. Since the audience is aware of Holmes’ tricks, these women appear to be to blame for their death because they should have seen it coming. It is not entirely their fault though, as Holmes charms them to gain their trust, causing them to be unaware of his true intentions. It is only so obvious to the reader because Larson allows his audience to see inside both Holmes and his victims’ minds, getting both views of the situations and always being aware of what is really about to happen while others remain innocent.

No matter what Holmes does, the people around him never suspect him of any sketchy business. He is so narcissistically confident, that when he hires Charles Chappell to make a murdered body into a skeleton, then man doesn’t think anything of the corpse on the table which “looked like that of a jack rabbit which had been skinned by splitting the skin down the face and rolling it back off the entire body” (Larson 151). Larson informs his audience that the body did not bother Chappell, “for [he] knew that Holmes was a physician” (151). The man was easily fooled into thinking Holmes was simply dissecting the body for research. Holmes, as convincing as he is, was able to let someone walk into his torture chamber, see a skinless dead body, and still have no suspicion of Holmes. Larson makes sure to include the details about the body so the audience sees just how obvious it was to us, knowing Holmes, that he murdered this person, and Chappell did not notice anything like his audience did. Larson also includes Chappell’s reasoning for not thinking anything of the dead body; Chappell knew Holmes was a physician so it was perfectly normal to have a dismantled dead body lying on a table in the basement of a hotel. The audience only realizes this is not right because Larson has given them a glimpse into the mind of Holmes; these bystanders are completely oblivious to the murders literally in front of them. Even to a victim, it is not apparent that she is about to be murdered. In the case of Anna, after Holmes locks her in the walk-in vault, she continues to not believe that he is a bad guy. She “guessed that [Holmes], unaware of her plight, had gone elsewhere in the building” (Larson 295). She figured that would “explain why he still had not come despite her pounding” (Larson 295). In this hypnotized frame of mind Holmes has put her in by use of his charm and sly seduction, she is unable to fathom what is really going on. The audience knows what is really about to happen because of the glimpse into Holmes’ mind. Had the audience not had a general idea of what goes on in Holmes’ mind, they might not have figured out that she was about to be killed. Since Larson gave them that opposite point of view, though, they are able to tell that this woman is about to be murdered. The audience sees how little this woman knows about Holmes, and realizes how, because she was so charmed by this man and didn’t suspect him of anything, he was able to get away with everything without a problem. After Anna’s panic finally starts to settle in, the readers get a glimpse of Holmes’ thoughts with Anna trapped and dying in the fault. They see Holmes deciding whether or not to “open the door and look in on Anna and give her a big smile – just to let her know that this was no accident – then close the door again, slam it, and return to his chair” (Larson 295). This clearly sadistic thought process is visible to the reader, as they are observing the situation from an outside point of view presented to them by Larson, but Anna was completely unable to see this coming. Larson hopes that by allowing his readers to see into both Holmes and his victims’ minds, they can see the difference between the fake utopian reality Anna is living in and the real mad reality that Holmes is killing her in.

Larson gives the readers a chance to see two sides of the same series of stories: Holmes’ view, and his victims’ views. They are first able to see what goes on in the mind of Holmes. Larson portrays him as a sadistic psychopath who gets off on torturing and murdering young women. On the other hand, Larson also reveals to his audience the thoughts of the women who become Holmes’ victims. They see him as a charming, handsome young man, and they trust him almost immediately. They suspect nothing of actions that the reader might be skeptical of. Because Larson portrays both points of view, the reader is able to see how Holmes might get away with these murders. He allows the audience to see how, as Holmes charms and seduces these young women, he is really making sure these women trust him, so he will have no problem taking their lives; he takes advantage of these women’s innocence in order to get away with murder.

The Making of a Murderer

The antagonist and an integral part of The Devil in the White City, H. H. Holmes is a character that is oftentimes difficult to fully understand. Attempting to grasp why Holmes committed such terrible crimes is a natural curiosity and is explored briefly by the author Erik Larson at the end of the book. From his childhood to his hanging in Philadelphia, it is majorly clear that Holmes was not an ordinary person by any stretch of the word. Taking into account internationally famous serial killers like Jack the Ripper, Holmes’ medical background and Holmes’ psychological issues, the motives for his killings are plenty and vary drastically.

In the late 1800s, coinciding with the time that Holmes’ was taking victims into his Murder Castle, Jack the Ripper committed his now infamous killings of an unknown amount of female prostitutes in London. This news entranced and obsessed millions in and out of England. Never before had there been a serial killer of this caliber and many Americans were obsessed. “Every Chicago resident who could read devoured these reports from abroad, but none with quite so much intensity as Dr. H. H. Holmes” (Larson 70). The unknown murderer could have brought something out in Holmes that was deeply hidden away, or could have added to a fire that was already burning. Jack the Ripper inspired hundreds of works of fiction, movies and television shows. Therefore, it is certainly not a stretch of the imagination to believe Holmes received the jump he needed to start killing after witnessing it from England’s most notorious criminal. It is also possible that Holmes was envious of the huge amount of press that Jack the Ripper received. As a young boy, Holmes was often bullied for being incredibly intelligent, leaving him isolated from his classmates. His father was also absent from his life, as he was a violent alcoholic. All in all, it is possible that Holmes developed a yearning for attention that he had never before experienced. Holmes’ obsession with the human body is another possible motive for his crimes. Growing up, he became fascinated with the human skeleton and began to dissect animals. This fed into his pursuit of profession in the medical field. He quickly became well-versed in using medicine and operating on bodies. As he mastered these skills, Holmes began to use them to commit insurance fraud and other crimes in order to make money. Ultimately, his admiration of human biology turned deadly. Holmes became obsessed with how to kill people and dismember them, oftentimes selling their expertly removed skeleton to a local medical school. Combined with the want for the massive attention received by Jack the Ripper and his natural infatuation with the human body, Holmes has potential to be a deadly criminal. Yet it is impossible to ignore another factor: psychological turmoil. Larson describes towards the end of the book that Holmes could very well have been afflicted with “’antisocial personality disorder’” (Larson 395). After being raised by a violent alcoholic father and shunned by his classmates, it is not a surprise that Holmes would have difficulty interacting with others. Throughout the novel, he trusts a very small number of people only to end up murdering them when he no longer needs them. Holmes has multiple wives, often more than one at a time, that he also eventually kills, perpetuating further that he has an absolute inability to maintain meaningful relationships. Nearly all of his murders were pre-meditated, as he built his hotel for the sole purpose of bringing young women to him. Therefore, Holmes’ killings were in no way a moment where he “snapped” – everything in his life was calculated to make him America’s first serial killer.

It is incredibly important to understand why Holmes’ committed the crimes he did. Human beings are created differently physically and emotionally, with an entire range of mentalities that many struggle to decipher. Millions of people live in fear of people like Holmes; those who can seem so kind-hearted and charming but have an incredibly dangerous side to them. Holmes is a prime example of a killer that is predictable yet hard to grasp. His ideal victim was a young, attractive, single woman on her own for the first time. Yet unlike Jack the Ripper, Holmes often chose to get to know who he was going to kill quite extensively. He took them into his hotel, got to know their families and bought them expensive jewelry. This seems like an aspect of Holmes’ possible personality disorder. The charming act he puts on draws in a multitude of victims and he demands their trust by purchasing them items and giving them attention. Holmes is dangerously manipulative, therefore necessary to try and comprehend. Combined with his upbringing and possible psychological disorders, if it is possible to understand why Holmes decided to murder over two hundred people, then it will become immensely easier for detectives and law enforcement to detect serial killers early on. Though every murderer is different, many stem from root causes mentally and in their pasts. If Holmes’ reasoning can be uncovered, this could pave the way for a better understand of serial killers throughout history.

The motives behind H. H. Holmes and his killings will perhaps never be revealed. Yet examples throughout The Devil in the White City are prevalent. Together, Jack the Ripper’s influence, Holmes’ fascination with the human body and Holmes’ mental instability all possibly contribute to how and why he committed his crimes. Understanding why a person chooses to commit murder can be helpful in several ways when it comes to comprehending emotional health in general. All in all, finding the motive behind any murder is vital, especially when it comes to America’s first serial killer.