The Devil in the White City
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 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.