In Erik Larson’s book, The Devil in the White City, Larson explores the late nineteenth century Chicago where he focuses on the Chicago World Fair and two similar, yet very different men. Each possesses extreme skill in their respected fields but one is an architect and the other a murderer. Throughout, Larson describes the events that take place between Daniel Burnham, the lead architect of the World’s Fair, and H. H. Holmes, a serial killer. Larson often draws on how the two men are interconnected, despite the fact that the protagonists never meet face to face. In “Evils Imminent,” Larson’s prefatory note, he writes that The Devil in the White City is “a story of ineluctable conflict between good and evil, day light and darkness, the White City and the Black” (xi). The best passage that illustrates this theme appears from the chapter “All the Weary Days” because the inevitable conflict between good and evil is evident; yet, both sides prevail.
Early in the chapter, Larson summarizes how Geyer’s investigation is progressing and notes that “[h]e had examined every lead, checked every hotel, visited every boarding house and real estate agent, and yet now he had to begin his search anew. Where? What path was left? The weather remained stifling, as if taunting him” (363). Luckily, Geyer finds something of value to his investigation when he and Chicago detectives explore the Englewood building that Holmes once occupied. In it contained evidence that could convict Holmes of many murders. Larson writes that “[t]he discoveries came quickly: a vat of acid with eight ribs and part of a skull settled at the bottom; mounds of quicklime; a large kiln; a dissection table stained with what seemed to be blood” (364). Because of these discoveries, the conflict between good and evil is inarguable. Good overcomes the dark by finally finding enough evidence that can indict Holmes. No longer can Holmes charm his way out of anymore trouble. It appears that Geyer’s arduous investigation is coming to an end and Holmes (the evil) will perish.
Even though good seems to have won with the discoveries made by Geyer and his team, the ineluctable conflict between the two continues to clash. The eighteen ribs from the torso of a child is discovered, which means that evil has triumphed. The finding of the bones reveals the dark side of Holmes who will stop at nothing to feed his thirst for killing. Not only did he kill one child, remains of other children were also found. Larson mentions that “[a]rticles of clothing emerged from walls and from pits of ash and quicklime, including a girl’s dress and bloodstained overalls” (364). When a child, or anyone for that matter is murdered and essentially dissected, then there is rarely, if any, good that accompanies the death. Holmes ended these young lives to satisfy his addiction; the dark overcomes the light.
Lastly, Carrie Pitezel is summoned to identify the bodies of her children. One can imagine that doing so is extremely difficult. Larson writes that she “[i]dentified Howard’s overcoat and his scarf pin, and a crochet needle that belonged to Alice” (368). Larson continues that “[f]inally the coroner showed her a toy that Geyer himself had found in the house. It consisted of a tin man mounted on a spinning top. She recognized it. How could she not? It was Howard’s most important possession” (368). Larson includes this to give readers the idea that though the investigation is over, Holmes has impacted and hurt so many people that the overall outcome of the investigation is irrelevant. When a parent loses a child, then what does finally bringing the killer to justice mean? The child is gone forever and the darkness of evil will forever envelope the light of the good. This idea further expands on the notion that the conflict between good and evil is unavoidable.
The chapter “All the Weary Days” is the best passage in the book to defend Larson’s claim that The Devil in the White City is “a story of the ineluctable conflict between good and evil, daylight and darkness, the White City and the Black” (xi). The theme is evident throughout, but this chapter especially illustrates the complexity of the conflict between good and evil. Light can overcome the dark, but the shadows that are lingering from evil continue making an impact which essentially undermines the work of the good, such as Frank Geyer’s discoveries. The struggle between the conflict is apparent throughout the book, but Larson presents this theme clearly in this chapter.
Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City. Vintage, 2004.