Erik Larson

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In The Devil in the White City, how effectively does Larson prove his thesis and what evidence is most effective?

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In The Devil in the White City, Larson to a large extent proves his thesis that the two men he profiles are prototypes of good and evil for the twentieth century. He is most convincing about Burnham, however, and his most effective evidence is the legacy he shows to be traceable back to the fair, such as Disneyland, Columbus Day, and shredded wheat. He is less convincing in revealing a direct link between H. H. Holmes and twentieth-century serial killers.

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Larson's thesis is that the two men he focuses on in the book, Daniel Burnham, the driving force behind the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, and H. H. Holmes, a serial killer operating in Chicago at the same time, represent prototypes of good and evil that were influential on the twentieth century. Larson states his thesis as follows:

Each [man] embodied an element of the great dynamic that characterized the rush of America toward the twentieth century. One was an architect, the builder of many of America’s most important structures, among them the Flatiron Building in New York and Union Station in Washington, D.C.; the other was a murderer, one of the most prolific in history and harbinger of an American archetype, the urban serial killer.

Larson makes a convincing case that Burnham had a strong influence on the entrepreneurial vision of the twentieth-century United States. He is convincing in showing Burnham as a problem solver and visionary who was able to implement his ideas through his belief in a better future and his ability to deal with all sorts of people. However the most effective evidence of Burnham's vision's lasting impact comes not through what he or his contemporaries said at the time of the fair. What is most effective is the way Larson traces out Burnham's influence, for example, on Walt Disney, whose father, Elias, helped construct the fair. Larson sees Disney World as a direct descendant of Burnham's ability to dream big. Larson also notes that Columbus Day was made a national holiday as a direct result of the fair and that products such as shredded wheat, introduced at the fair, are still with us. He says that every carnival since 1893 has had a midway and a Ferris wheel, an invention first introduced at the fair. How important any of these developments were to the twentieth century is debatable, but that they are lasting legacies of this particular fair is not.

Less convincing is that H. H. Holmes had a direct influence on twentieth-century serial killers. He does represent a type, but the only serial killer Larson comes up with who was influenced by him was a doctor named Michael Swango, who read and responded favorably to a book about Holmes. However, there is no question that the anonymity and freedom offered in big cities that Larson discusses has contributed to the success of serial killers like Holmes in later times. In that sense, Larson does make a convincing case that urban density, if not a particular killer, led to conditions that allowed both for positive visions to be realized and horrible crimes to be committed.

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