How does the language in passages of the chapter titled "Modus Operandi" connect to broader themes in Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City about Holmes, about Chicago, or about the systems...

How does the language in passages of the chapter titled "Modus Operandi" connect to broader themes in Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City about Holmes, about Chicago, or about the systems that support them? 

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The chapter titled “Modus Operandi,” which is the fifth section of the third part of Erik Larson’s nonfiction account of the 1893 Chicago World’s Exposition and the serial killer who haunted it, The Devil in the White City, is very brief.  Many of the sections or chapters in Larson’s book are brief.  Each section, however, serves a purpose, helping to establish setting and atmosphere while transitioning back and forth between the parallel stories that describe Daniel Burnham’s herculean efforts at having the fair ready for its scheduled opening – including the deaths and injuries that effort involved – and the serial killer, Herman Webster Mudgett, aka H.H. Holmes’s methodical efforts at continuing his murderous activities without attracting undue suspicion.  Early in The Devil in the White City, Larson includes a chapter titled “The Black City.”  This chapter, perhaps more than any other, establishes the atmosphere against which his later chapter “Modus Operandi,” can be analyzed.  That chapter includes a lengthy but instructive passage regarding the city of Chicago in the latter years of the 19th Century:

“Anonymous death came early and often. Each of the thousand trains that entered and left the city did so at grade level. You could step from a curb and be killed by the Chicago Limited. Every day on average two people were destroyed at the citys rail crossings. Their injuries were grotesque. Pedestrians retrieved severed heads. There were other hazards. Streetcars fell from drawbridges. Horses bolted and dragged carriages into crowds. Fires took a dozen lives a day. In describing the fire dead, the term the newspapers most liked to use was roasted. There was diphtheria, typhus, cholera, influenza. And there was murder. In the time of the fair the rate at which men and women killed one another rose sharply throughout the nation but especially in Chicago . . . In the first six months of 1892 the city experienced nearly eight hundred violent deaths. . . Men shot women, women shot men, and children shot one another by accident. But all this could be understood. Nothing like the Whitechapel killings had occurred. Jack the Rippers five-murder spree in 1888 had defied explanation and captivated readers throughout America, who believed such a thing could not happen in their own hometowns.”

Which brings us to the section titled “Modus Operandi.”  Larson’s brief but trenchant descriptions relate directly back to those earlier passages that describe a city the population of which is essentially numb to the violence and filth that characterized Chicago.  The stench from the stockyards that defined the city made less noticeable the otherwise peculiar odors that permeated building owned by Holmes in which many of his murders were carried out, the bodies disposed of in quicklime or in the kiln Holmes built specifically for this purpose.  It is in this context that the following passage from this section of Larson’s book should be read:

“There were inquiries from family and friends. As always Holmes was sympathetic and helpful. The police still did not become involved. Apparently there was too much else for them to do, as wealthy visitors and foreign dignitaries began arriving in ever-greater numbers, shadowed by a swarm of pickpockets, thugs, and petty swindlers.”

Chicago had emerged as a major metropolis that, like others across the country and around the world, grew beyond the capacity of its keepers to contain the violence and pollution that characterized cities in the age of industrialization.  In the context of the difficult economic times Larson describes, the transient nature of the city – cities having emerged due in no small part to the success of the Industrial Revolution in transforming economies from agrarian to industrial, with the factories and consequent demand for workers that entailed – his comment regarding Holmes’ approach to the serial killer’s tendency, at least among some, to retain keepsakes or trophies taken from victims captures the transient nature of the city:

“Early on he had made it a rule not to retain trophies. 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.”

Holmes’ decision to eschew, consciously or not, the practice of keeping items associated with his victims is, in a way, a parallel to the city’s transient nature and the tendency among many humans to be constantly looking ahead for the next fad or trend.  To Larson, each of Holmes’ victims represented only an ephemeral quenching of his lust for murder.

Read the study guide:
The Devil in the White City

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