The Devil in the White City

by Erik Larson

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 In Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, Holmes pays his friend to strip Julia's body and send him back the skeleton. Certainly, the method in which Holmes disposes of Julia's body, using every part of her person for profit, is reminiscent of the "Chicago wasted nothing." I need to prove this quote with other parts, or other examples, in the book and get some suggestions to write a thesis on this theme.

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Erik Larson’s nonfiction account of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition – a type of world’s fair – and the serial killer who haunted it, The Devil in the White City, provides considerable detail regarding the history of Chicago, particularly its origins as a blue-collar Midwestern capital noted for its stockyards.  Among Chicago’s “attributes,” Larson suggests, was the economical approach it collectively took to exploiting every bit of material or resource rather than letting such matter go to waste.  In the section of his book titled “Vanishing Point,” the author describes the manner in which a relatively recent transplant to the city, Dr. Henry Holmes, insinuated himself into the lives of the young family that moved into the apartment building where Holmes resided and that was near the drug store owned by Holmes.  The wife of the man who had just moved to Chicago was named Julia, a “tall and felicitously proportioned” woman to whom Holmes conspicuously took an interest.  Larson next transitions, within this same brief section, to a discussion of the raft of disappearances that plagued the city and about which law enforcement could or would do little or nothing, depending upon the socioeconomic status of the now-deceased citizen.  Commenting on the inordinate number of unclaimed bodies, he writes:

“Found bodies went to the morgue; if unclaimed, they traveled next to the dissection amphitheater at Rush Medical College or perhaps Cook County Hospital and from there to the articulation laboratory for the delicate task of picking flesh and connective tissue from the bones and skull, washing all with bleach, and remounting same for the subsequent use of doctors, anatomy museums, and the occasional private collector of scientific novelties. The hair was sold for wigs, the clothing given to settlement houses. Like the Union Stock Yards, Chicago wasted nothing.”

Later, in the Part Two section titled “Remains of the Day,” Larson discusses the high level of demand among medical schools for human remains upon which to train aspiring physicians about human anatomy and surgical procedures:

“During his own medical education Holmes had seen firsthand how desperate schools were to acquire corpses, whether freshly dead or skeletonized. The serious, systematic study of medicine was intensifying, and to scientists the human body was like the polar icecap, something to be studied and explored. Skeletons hung in doctors offices where they served as visual encyclopedias. With demand outpacing supply, doctors established a custom of graciously and discreetly accepting any offered cadaver. They frowned on murder as a means of harvest; on the other hand, they made little effort to explore the provenance of any one body. Grave-robbing became an industry, albeit a small one requiring an exceptional degree of sang-froid. In periods of acute shortage doctors themselves helped mine the newly departed. It was obvious to Holmes that even now, in the 1890s, demand remained high.”

With this description of the demand for human remains for educational purposes, Larson reemphasizes the practical utility among Chicagoans to maximize the potential in every type of resource, including dead bodies.  Holmes, of course, has dismembered Julia’s corpse, having mastered the practice of vivisection by a former associate, Charles Chappell, who was expert in “the art of stripping the flesh from human bodies and reassembling, or articulating, the bones to form complete skeletons for display in doctors offices and laboratories.”  Again, Larson is illustrating the practice of exploiting “waste” for productive purposes, and recurring theme as he retraces Holmes’ steps.

Larson, however, does not limit his theme of maximizing the potential of apparent waste to the macabre practices of Dr. Holmes.  Indeed, the book’s central focus besides the serial killer, the efforts of Daniel Burnham to build, from the ground up, the enormous fair scheduled to take place, involves a detailed discussion of Burnham and his partner, John Root, to find a suitable location upon which to construct this massive park.  The site chosen, Jackson Park, is described as “a desolate, undeveloped waste on the lakeshore.”  Burnham is attracted to this wasteland by its view of a “spreading blue plain of Lake Michigan” in the background.  Giving further credence to the notion that Jackson Park was the most unsightly of potential areas for redevelopment, Larson notes,

“One writer called the park remote and repulsive; another, a sandy waste of unredeemed and desert land. It was ugly, a landscape of last resort. Olmsted himself had said of Jackson Park: If a search had been made for the least parklike ground within miles of the city, nothing better meeting the requirement could have been found.”

Burnham and Root select Jackson Park for reasons having less to do with conservation than with the shortage of viable options upon which to construct a venue as massive as a fairgrounds, as well as for the natural geographic attributes the site offered.  That said, their choice of Jackson Park represented another example of the propensity for Chicagoans to reclaim what otherwise would be written off as waste.  Burnham, the central figure in this half of Larson’s story, recognizes the need to be both expeditious and economical, while paying attention to every detail, no matter how small.  As Larson writes on this point:

“With a power of perception that far outpaced his era, Burnham recognized that the tiniest details would shape the way people judged the exposition. His vigilance extended even to the design of the fairs official seal.”

Preparing a thesis statement based on the theme of salvaging waste for practical purposes and applying an economical mindset to the task at hand, whether it be designing and constructing the World’s Fair, or methodically murdering and disposing of the corpses of multiple victims, efficiency is the key.  Both Holmes and Burnham were professionals dedicated to efficiency.  The former’s construction of a torture and murder chamber in the basement of his apartment building contrasts with the architect’s economical use of resources while paying careful attention to the construction of the fair.  That parallel could provide the basis of a thesis statement.

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