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Some people do not realize what is really happening in front of them, no matter how obvious it seems to other people. In the case of H.H. Holmes, he is able to lie and charm his way into making people trust him so that he can get away with murder. In Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, the author presents his audience with the thoughts of both Holmes and his victims, clouding the light of perfection Holmes creates with the dark reality of his true intentions in order to let the readers see how his victims’ ignorance allows his evil ways to hide under the good that they fail to look past.
Larson gives his readers a glimpse into Holmes’ mind in order to allow them to contrast what he says and what he truly feels. In the first known murder presented in the novel, Larson tells his audience that Holmes “knew he possessed great power over Julia… [He] possessed [her] now as fully as if she were an antebellum slave, and he reveled in his possession” (146). The reader can tell that Holmes believes he dominates Julia, that she has no control of what he will do to her. This is frightening to the audience as they now see Holmes is quite crazy. Not only does Holmes possess these women, he sees them as objects. Larson entitles one of his chapters “Acquiring Minnie” (198) to tell of how Holmes seduced Minnie so he could kill her. He uses the same word “acquired” to describe how Holmes “acquired high-grade furnishings” (198) for his hotel. This directly compares Minnie to an inanimate piece of furniture, showing how Holmes sees these women as objects to be bought with charm and gifts and fake love. Larson hopes his audience will think poorly of Holmes because of the way he thinks of these women; he hopes they will be able to easily see past Holmes fake plays and discover his true psychopathic schemes. Larson also mentions a few very disturbing details about the murder of Julia. He tells us how Holmes finds it “singularly arousing” (148) when Julia begins to fight back, and how “the sensation, as always, was pleasant and induced in him a warm languor, like the feeling he got after sitting too long in front of a hot stove” (148-149). Larson allows his readers to see how Holmes gets this soothing sexual release from suffocating this poor woman who he faked out and lied to so he could murder her. He hopes to disgust the readers with this description and cause them to view Holmes in a negative light. This way when they see what these women are thinking, they realize the tricks that Holmes plays and how he clouds the truth with his charm, taking advantage of the fact that these women are too ignorant, mesmerized by Holmes, to see the dangerous truth.
Holmes’ victims are so charmed, they don’t realize how dangerous he really is, Larson lets his audience into the mind of a few of Holmes’ victims, one of them being Georgiana Yoke. The audience hears that “she had never met anyone like him. He was handsome, articulate, and clearly well off” (Larson 307). They are able to see what Georgiana truly believes that Holmes is a wonderful man. Because Larson reveals this point of view to the audience, they are able to contrast it with the view of Holmes and see how easily he tricked these women and got away with it. Another girl, Anna, was suspicious of Holmes until she met him and “his warmth and smile and obvious affection for Minnie caused [her] suspicions to quickly recede” (Larson 264). “Holmes was such a charming man. And now that Anna knew him, she saw that he really was quite handsome” (Larson 292). Something about him caused her, like many before her, to let her guard down and not question his actions, no matter how skeptical they appear to the reader. The audience, though, is able to realize that when Holmes invites her to his hotel, alone, something bad is going to happen. It is especially apparent that Holmes plans on murdering Ana when he asks her to step into his walk-in vault and “cheerfully, she [complies]” (294). She trusts Holmes so much; she is so fascinated by his perfection, that the thought of danger never crosses her mind. These women, so charmed by and trusting of Holmes, let their guard down and walk to their death, but they don’t see it that way. The only reason the audience can see the danger is because Larson reveals Holmes’ point of view to them. Since the audience is aware of Holmes’ tricks, these women appear to be to blame for their death because they should have seen it coming. It is not entirely their fault though, as Holmes charms them to gain their trust, causing them to be unaware of his true intentions. It is only so obvious to the reader because Larson allows his audience to see inside both Holmes and his victims’ minds, getting both views of the situations and always being aware of what is really about to happen while others remain innocent.
No matter what Holmes does, the people around him never suspect him of any sketchy business. He is so narcissistically confident, that when he hires Charles Chappell to make a murdered body into a skeleton, then man doesn’t think anything of the corpse on the table which “looked like that of a jack rabbit which had been skinned by splitting the skin down the face and rolling it back off the entire body” (Larson 151). Larson informs his audience that the body did not bother Chappell, “for [he] knew that Holmes was a physician” (151). The man was easily fooled into thinking Holmes was simply dissecting the body for research. Holmes, as convincing as he is, was able to let someone walk into his torture chamber, see a skinless dead body, and still have no suspicion of Holmes. Larson makes sure to include the details about the body so the audience sees just how obvious it was to us, knowing Holmes, that he murdered this person, and Chappell did not notice anything like his audience did. Larson also includes Chappell’s reasoning for not thinking anything of the dead body; Chappell knew Holmes was a physician so it was perfectly normal to have a dismantled dead body lying on a table in the basement of a hotel. The audience only realizes this is not right because Larson has given them a glimpse into the mind of Holmes; these bystanders are completely oblivious to the murders literally in front of them. Even to a victim, it is not apparent that she is about to be murdered. In the case of Anna, after Holmes locks her in the walk-in vault, she continues to not believe that he is a bad guy. She “guessed that [Holmes], unaware of her plight, had gone elsewhere in the building” (Larson 295). She figured that would “explain why he still had not come despite her pounding” (Larson 295). In this hypnotized frame of mind Holmes has put her in by use of his charm and sly seduction, she is unable to fathom what is really going on. The audience knows what is really about to happen because of the glimpse into Holmes’ mind. Had the audience not had a general idea of what goes on in Holmes’ mind, they might not have figured out that she was about to be killed. Since Larson gave them that opposite point of view, though, they are able to tell that this woman is about to be murdered. The audience sees how little this woman knows about Holmes, and realizes how, because she was so charmed by this man and didn’t suspect him of anything, he was able to get away with everything without a problem. After Anna’s panic finally starts to settle in, the readers get a glimpse of Holmes’ thoughts with Anna trapped and dying in the fault. They see Holmes deciding whether or not to “open the door and look in on Anna and give her a big smile – just to let her know that this was no accident – then close the door again, slam it, and return to his chair” (Larson 295). This clearly sadistic thought process is visible to the reader, as they are observing the situation from an outside point of view presented to them by Larson, but Anna was completely unable to see this coming. Larson hopes that by allowing his readers to see into both Holmes and his victims’ minds, they can see the difference between the fake utopian reality Anna is living in and the real mad reality that Holmes is killing her in.
Larson gives the readers a chance to see two sides of the same series of stories: Holmes’ view, and his victims’ views. They are first able to see what goes on in the mind of Holmes. Larson portrays him as a sadistic psychopath who gets off on torturing and murdering young women. On the other hand, Larson also reveals to his audience the thoughts of the women who become Holmes’ victims. They see him as a charming, handsome young man, and they trust him almost immediately. They suspect nothing of actions that the reader might be skeptical of. Because Larson portrays both points of view, the reader is able to see how Holmes might get away with these murders. He allows the audience to see how, as Holmes charms and seduces these young women, he is really making sure these women trust him, so he will have no problem taking their lives; he takes advantage of these women’s innocence in order to get away with murder.
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