Study Guide

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America Quotes

  • Perseverance

    To build it Burnham had confronted a legion of obstacles, any of which could have—should have—killed it long before Opening Day. (Prologue.8)

    How to kill a fair? Let us count the ways: no money, no time, no architects, and no place to put it. There's also frozen soil and building fires. Oh, and a murderer on the loose. So yeah, lots of obstacles in Burnham's way. But through his own steady persistence, he pulls it off.

    Nowhere was civic pride a more powerful force than in Chicago, where men spoke of the "Chicago spirit" as if it were a tangible force and prided themselves on the speed with which they had rebuilt the city after the Great Fire of 1871. (1.2.11)

    Not only did the city of Chicago restore itself after the Great Fire, but it also transformed itself into the nation's leader in commerce, manufacturing, and architecture. The city literally pulled itself up by the bootstraps because it was determined to surpass its former glory.

    The burden of restoring the nation's pride and prominence in the wake of the Paris exposition had fallen upon Chicago. (1.2.70)

    Why is the fair a "burden" to Chicago? Does failure to pull it off mean the nation has failed?

    Together [Burnham and Root] had defeated gravity and conquered the soft gumbo of Chicago soil, to change forever the character of urban life; now, together, they would build the fair and change history. It could be done, because it had to be done, but the challenge was monstrous. (1.2.72)

    Architects take note: the soil in Chicago isn't the easiest to build on. But not even that could scare Burnham and his partner Root. Together, they had mastered this topographical obstacle (say that five times fast) and were determined to do it yet again in the construction of the fair.

    As if anyone needed extra pressure, the New York Times warmed: "the failure of the fair or anything short of a positive and pronounced success would be a discredit to the whole country, and not to Chicago alone." (2.3.84)

    Is it better to be motivated by fear or success? Well, for the guys working on the fair, it was both. While they wanted to pull off the greatest exposition in history, they were also terrified it could be a complete flop.

    The exposition was Chicago's great pride. Thanks mainly to Daniel Burnham the city had proved it could accomplish something marvelous against obstacles that by any measure should have humbled the builders. (3.11.29)

    You know how great it feels after a really hard workout or especially difficult assignment? That's how it feels after the fair ends. Though the whole thing was really challenging—and guys like Burnham definitely got a few more grey hairs—it was worth it in the end.

    The thing that entranced me about Chicago in the Gilded Age was the city's willingness to take on the impossible in the name of civic honor. (Notes, Erik Larson)

    Erik Larson seems pretty impressed by Chicago's persistence. Civic honor isn't something you see too much anymore, according to Larson, but as his book tell us, it can be a pretty powerful reason to persevere when a good challenge comes a-knockin'.

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    Together [Burnham] and his architects had conjured a dream city whose grandeur and beauty exceeded anything each singly could have imagined. (Prologue.8)

    Strength in numbers, right? When you put a bunch of really smart and creative people together, great things happen.

    But the fair did more than simply stoke pride. It gave Chicago a light to hold against the gathering dark of economic calamity. (3.11.30)

    Light; dark. Dreams; nightmares. See where we're going with this? The White City offered people and escape from the Black City clamoring outside its walls.

    The fair was so perfect, its grace and beauty like an assurance that for as long as it lasted nothing truly bad could happen to anyone, anywhere. (3.11.34)

    Visitors felt safe in the White City, as safe as they do in their own dreams. They felt protected from the evils lurking outside, and perhaps wished they could live in this dream forever.

    Better to have it vanish suddenly, in a blaze of glory, than fall into gradual disrepair and dilapidation. There is no more melancholy spectacle than a festal hall, the morning after the banquet, when the guests have departed and the lights are extinguished. (3.20.5)

    Why prolong the torture? Just end it. Rip it off like a Band-Aid.

    "Let it go; it has to go, so let it go. Let us put the torch to it and burn it down." (3.21.8)

    Mayor Harrison quotes Burnham in his speech on American Cities Day. He feels the way most do: it's really hard to face the reality that the dream is coming to a close. But even more painful would be seeing the White City lie abandoned and crumble to dust.

    "If we cannot preserve it for another year I would be in favor of putting a torch to it and burning it down and let it go up into the bright sky to eternal heaven." (3.21.8)

    In his American Cities Day speech, Mayor Harrison feels the way most do: it's really hard to face the reality that the dream is coming to a close. But even more painful would be seeing the White City lie abandoned for a year and crumble to dust.

    "We are turning our backs upon the fairest dream of civilization and are about to consign it to the dust. It is like the death of a dear friend." (3.21.31)

    We're talking about the White City here, right? Actually, this is Reverend Dr. J. H. Barrows' blessing at Harrison's funeral. Ironically, the lines were originally intended to be read at the grand Closing Ceremony.

    "It seems cruel, cruel, to give us such a vision; to let us dream and drift through heaven for six months, and then to take it out of our lives." (3.22.2)

    First you give us something pretty, and then you take it away? Well, that's just not very nice. Journalist Theresa Dean says what most are thinking at the end.

  • Women and Femininity

    Young women drawn to Chicago by the fair and by the prospect of living on their own had disappeared, last seen at the killer's block-long mansion, a parody of everything architects held dear. (Prologue.9)

    Chicago was a place women could go to live and work on their own, and Holmes' castle offered these very opportunities. Unfortunately, the dude had other motives, and some women checked in—but never checked out.

    Jane Addams, the urban reformer who founded Chicago's Hull House, wrote, "Never before in civilization have such numbers of young girls been suddenly released from the protection of the home and permitted to walk unattended upon the city streets and to work under alien roofs." (1.1.1)

    In this modern era, women sought jobs as typists, stenographers, and seamstresses. They were making a living for themselves and experiencing freedoms before the women's rights movement really got under way.

    It amused him that women as a class were so wonderfully vulnerable, as if they believed that the codes of conduct that applied in their safe little hometowns, like Alva, Clinton, and Percy, might actually still apply once they had left behind their dusty, kerosene-scented parlors and set out on their own. (1.5.1)

    Holmes definitely takes advantage of some women's naïveté. They're in the big leagues now, and cities aren't like small towns.

    Holmes knew he possessed great power over Julia. First there was the power that accrued to him naturally through his ability to bewitch men and women alike with false candor and warmth. (2.4.2)

    Holmes is the ultimate ladies' man. He's attractive, super rich, and has a neat display of torturous surgical tools. What more could a girl want?

    And this was Chicago. Things were different here, less rigid and formal. Everywhere [Minnie] went she found women her own age, unescorted, holding jobs, living their own lives. (2.12.18)

    While women like Minnie are attracted to the prospect of living and working alone, they're also drawn to the personal freedoms the city offers.

    Holmes was warm and charming and talkative and touched them with a familiarity that, while perhaps offensive back home, somehow seemed all right in this new world of Chicago—just another aspect of the great adventure on which these women had embarked. And what good was an adventure if it did not feel a little dangerous? (3.2.11)

    Is Holmes violating the rules of personal space? That's okay: this must be what people do in Chicago. It's normal here, right?

  • Madness

    The rational explanation laid blame on the forces of change that during this time had convulsed Chicago. Amid so much turmoil it was understandable that the work of a young and handsome doctor would go unnoticed. As time passed, however, even sober men and women began to think of him in less-than-rational terms. (Prologue.9)

    Can you rationalize madness? Some certainly claimed it was the great change that swept through Chicago that prompted Holmes' actions. But as the nation would later come to learn, no outside force could have made Holmes do what he did.

    "I was born with the devil in me," [Holmes] wrote. "I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing." (1.10.25)

    We get it Holmes; you're a little different. But saying you're the devil? That may be taking it a little far.

    He liked being near enough to hear the approach of death in the rising panic of his victims. This was when his quest for possession entered its most satisfying phase. (3.5.4)

    What about hearing his victims panic satisfies Holmes? We're gonna go ahead and say this isn't normal.

    The choice was his, a measure of his power. No matter what the approach, the act always left him in possession of a fresh supply of material, which he could then explore at will. (3.5.4-5)

    Holmes is a doctor after all, and during this time, doctors learned all about the wonders of the human body by studying cadavers. But seriously, buddy: there are other ways to go about getting cadavers.

    The possession he craved was a transient thing, like the scent of a fresh-cut hyacinth. Once it was gone, only another acquisition could restore it. (3.5.6)

    Welcome to the mind of a killer. At the time, people didn't know much about psychopaths—Holmes was one of the first known serial killers.

    The search delighted Holmes. It satisfied his profound need for attention and gave him a sense of power over the detective. He knew that Geyer's search would be in vain. (4.2.2)

    "Power" is a key word when it comes to Holmes. He desires power more than anything else…which is what leads him to kill.

    "I wish to say that I am but a very ordinary man, even below average in physical strength and mental ability, and to have planned and executed the stupendous amount of wrong-doing that has been attributed to me would have been wholly beyond my power." (4.6.2)

    Holmes is trying to pull a fast one here. Luckily, he wasn't able to weasel his way out of this.

    The Chicago Times-Herald wrote of Holmes, "He is a prodigy of wickedness, a human demon, a being so unthinkable that no novelist would dare to invent such a character." (4.6.6)

    Even Edgar Allan Poe couldn't have conceived of a character so wicked. Holmes is truly a breed of his own.

    "I am convinced that since my imprisonment I have changed woefully and gruesomely from what I was formerly in feature and figure…My head and face are gradually assuming an elongated shape. I believe fully that I am growing to resemble the devil—that the similitude is almost completed." (5.3.9)

    Right before he's executed, Holmes claims he's starting to look like the devil. Though prison guards would claim this wasn't in fact true (he looked the same as he always did), Holmes twisted mind had distorted his vision.

  • Change

    It was so easy to disappear, so easy to deny knowledge, so very easy in the smoke and in to mask that something dark had taken root. This was Chicago, on the eve of the greatest fair in history. (1.1.7-8)

    Danger accompanied some change. In the modern Chicago, during the time of the fair, it was easy to fly under the radar, assume anonymity, and hide within the city crowds.

    Holmes understood that powerful new forces were acting upon Chicago, causing a nearly miraculous expansion. The city was growing in all available directions. (1.3.48)

    A plot of land opens up across the street from Holmes' Englewood drugstore, and Holmes sees that Chicago's rapid changes will bring opportunity.

    The White City had drawn men and protected them; the Black City now welcomed them back, on the eve of winter, with filth, starvation, and violence. (3.20.11)

    Not all change lasted, as the Chicago that existed beyond the White City was still as bleak as it had been before the fair consumed the city. Unemployment was high, winters were harsh, and murder still shrouded.

    The fair's greatest impact lay in how it changed the way Americans perceived their cities and their architects. (5.1.2)

    Until the fair, cities were known for being industrial, dirty, and congested. It's amazing that the vision of Burnham and his architectural dream changed this perception. Cities could be both beautiful and functional.

  • Awe and Amazement

    By far the most exotic cargo, however, was human. (2.13.5)

    People from cultures all over the globe found their temporary home on the fairgrounds. After all, entire villages were transported to Chicago.

    There would be miracles at the fair—the chocolate Venus de Milo would not melt, the 22,000 pound cheese in the Wisconsin Pavilion would not mold—but the greatest miracle was the transformation of the grounds during the long soggy night that had preceded Cleveland's arrival. (3.1.5)

    People were amazed that the weather in Chicago cooperated for the fair. The frozen grounds had everybody worried for a bit, but amazingly enough, things turned out okay.

    If evening at the fair were seductive, the nights were ravishing. (3.4.32)

    For visitors, nights at the fair were like a vision of heaven. But for architects, night also masked some of the fair's flaws. As John Ingalls of Cosmopolitan wrote, "Night is the magician of the fair" (3.4.37).

    One of the delights of the fair was never knowing who might turn up beside you. (3.11.8)

    After all, VIPs like Franz Ferdinand and Houdini like to roam the grounds in disguise.

    Chance encounters led to magic. (3.11.12)

    Helen Keller meets the inventor of Braille printing plates and L. Frank Baum meets the inspiration for the Wonderful World of Oz. The fair was truly the place of awe and wonder, and anything could happen.

    "Beneath the stars the lake lay dark and somber, but on its shores gleamed and glowed in golden radiance the ivory city, beautiful as a poet's dream, silent as a city of the dead." (3.21.38)

    William Stead, the brother of Herbert Stead who wrote about the fair's opening, writes of the illumination of the fairgrounds on the final night. Even on the final day, the White City is still wonderful.

    The fair taught men and women steeped only in the necessary to see that cities did not have to be dark, soiled, unsafe bastions of the strictly pragmatic. They could also be beautiful. (5.1.2)

    Visitors were filled with awe to see for the first time that cities could be places of allure, charm, and elegance.