In The Devil in the White City, how does Erik Larson read Mudgett's story and his past differently than Mudgett wants him to? P.38-40

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It’s difficult to imagine that a serial killer could be offended by his depiction in a book detailing the history of his crimes, but Herman Webster Mudgett, soon to be known as H.H. Holmes, would probably qualify.  [In point of fact, many criminals whose crimes were so heinous as to warrant depictions in articles and books took umbrage at what they considered inaccurate portraits]  In his nonfiction account of a serial killer loose among the throngs of visitors to Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbia Expedition (also considered a World’s Fair), Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City takes frequent exception to Mudgett’s own account of his life – an account drawn from Mudgett/Holmes’ memoir, journal notes and trial transcripts.  Mudgett, were he alive today, would likely take issue with and be perhaps a little embarrassed by some of Larson’s refutations of Mudgett’s accounts of his life.  One example involved what Mudgett depicted as a potentially traumatic event involving a group of bullies seeking to frighten the young Herman.  To Larson, Mudgett’s account of this event is designed to conceal the full extent of the latter’s psychosis.  Referencing the scale of bloodshed, and its associated stench, that characterized Chicago of the 1890s, with the prevalence of slaughterhouses, Larson provides Mudgett’s description of the traumatizing effect of this environment on the boy who would grow up to be a psychopathic killer.  Mudgett describes being captured by two older children and forced into the doctor’s office he regularly had to pass and the thought of what went on inside of which cast a pallor over this innocent child.  As Mudgett wrote regarding this episode,

“Partly from its being associated in my mind as the source of all the nauseous mixtures that had been my childish terror (for this was before the day of childrens medicines), and partly because of vague rumors I had heard regarding its contents, this place was one of peculiar abhorrence to me.”

Larson, though, takes a slightly different perspective on this event in young Herman’s life:

“Two older children discovered Mudgetts fear and one day captured him and dragged him struggling and shrieking into the doctor’s office. Nor did they desist, Mudgett wrote, ‘until I had been brought face to face with one of its grinning skeletons, which, with arms outstretched, seemed ready in its turn to seize me. It was a wicked and dangerous thing to do to a child of tender years and health, he wrote, but it proved an heroic method of treatment, destined ultimately to cure me of my fears, and to inculcate in me, first, a strong feeling of curiosity, and, later, a desire to learn, which resulted years afterwards in my adopting medicine as a profession'."

To this, Larson suggests an alternative interpretation:

“The incident probably did occur, but with a different choreography. More likely the two older boys discovered that their five-year-old victim did not mind the excursion; that far from struggling and shrieking, he merely gazed at the skeleton with cool appreciation. When his eyes settled back upon his captors, it was they who fled.”

Larson would continue to take issue with some of Mudgett’s self-descriptions and recitations of history.  Mudgett was a fundamentally dishonest individual whose propensity for crime was well-established.  Larson includes in his account of Mudgett’s life the story of the latter’s decision to engage in insurance fraud, a description with which the author obviously takes issue:

“During his train journey to New York . . . he read two newspaper articles about insurance crime, ‘and for the first time I realized how well organized and well prepared the leading insurance companies were to detect and punish this kind of fraud.’ These articles, he claimed, caused him to abandon the plan and to jettison all hope of ever succeeding at such a scheme in the future. He was lying. In fact, Mudgett was convinced that the fundamentals of the approach had merit that by faking the deaths of others, he could indeed fleece life insurance companies.”

And, again, Larson suggests that Mudgett was less than forthcoming in his memoir regarding the details of his life.  Again, on the matter of scheming to commit insurance fraud, Larson refutes Mudgett’s suggestion that his criminal activities were grounded in a dire need for financial relief.  Whereas Mudgett would link his presumed financial situation to his decision to engage in fraudulent activities, Larson suggests otherwise:

“He was lying too about needing money. The owner of the house in Mooers Forks where he boarded, D. S. Hays, noticed Mudgett often displayed large sums of cash. Hays grew suspicious and watched Mudgett closely albeit not closely enough.”

If Mudgett were alive to read Erik Larson’s depiction of his life and crimes, he would be offended by the author’s refutations of some details regarding the former’s motivations.  Such a situation, though, would not be lacking in irony.  The mass murderer complaining that the recorder of his life was conveying inaccurate information regarding details from his past would serve merely to reinforce the notion that he was truly psychotic.  

Read the study guide:
The Devil in the White City

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