The Devil in the White City

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Part II: An Awful Fight (Chapters 16-21)

Summary Part II: An Awful Fight (Chapters 16-21)

The Dedication Ceremony occurs in the unfinished Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building. A 5,000-member choir sings the Hallelujah Chorus. The building is so large that they cannot hear the speaker and need a visual cue. Harriet Monroe reads her own poem, “Columbian Ode.”

Summary: Chapter 18: Prendergast

On November 28, 1892, Prendergast writes a nonsensical, rambling postcard to Alfred S. Trude, a criminal defense attorney in Chicago. Trude disregards the letter as crazy, but keeps it.

Summary: Chapter 19: “I Want You at Once”

The Pittsburgh engineer gathers a list of investors, a board, and proof of finance for his Eiffel-challenger. The Ways and Means Committee finally approves his structure in December. He asks Luther V. Rice, an engineer at the Union Depot & Tunnel Company, to supervise the construction.

He reveals that he will build a vertically revolving wheel, but neglects to mention it will carry 36 cars of people. The Pittsburgh engineer’s name is George Washington Gale Ferris.

Summary: Chapter 20: Chappell Redux

In December of 1892, Emeline Cigrand visits her friends, the Lawrences, in Holmes’ building. She says she will spend Christmas with her family in Indiana and may not return. Mrs. Lawrence notices that Emeline appears less enamored with Holmes. Then, Emeline’s visits stop without a real goodbye. Holmes claims Emeline married a man named Robert E. Phelps and produces a wedding announcement. Mrs. Lawrence finds this suspiciously out of character. She also remembers seeing Holmes and two neighbors carrying a trunk downstairs. She believes that Holmes has killed Emeline, but she does not tell the police.

Unbeknownst to the Cigrands and Lawrences, “Phelps” is an alias for Benjamin Pitezel. Holmes hires Charles Chappell to clean and assemble the skeleton of a woman sent to him in a trunk. A woman’s bare footprint appears engraved on the inside of the soundproof vault.

Summary: Chapter 21: “The Cold-Blooded Fact”

In January of 1893, ice covers Chicago and disrupts everything. Codman recovers from appendicitis surgery. Ferris begins constructing his wheel despite the frustrating frozen ground with quicksand underneath.

Harry Codman dies. Olmsted is heartbroken, and now must directly supervise the fairgrounds. He asks architect Charles Eliot for help. Eliot sees Olmsted is ill and places him with a doctor. In March, after hiring Eliot as a partner, Olmsted’s health and other work force him to leave Chicago. He reluctantly leaves Rudolf Ulrich in charge. He instructs Ulrich to make sure the Fair captures broad green scenery to counteract the white of the buildings.

Excessive snow collapses the glass roof on the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building. Of the whole Fair, only the Women’s Building nears completion.

Analysis: Chapters 16-21

These chapters introduce and expand on a handful of important characters. The first we encounter is Emeline Cigrand. She is described as bright and enthusiastic, and falls thoroughly in love with Holmes. Holmes is attracted to her because he recognizes that he can seduce her. We also meet Emeline’s second cousin, Dr. Cigrand, as well as her friends, the Lawrences, who live in Holmes’ building. They are significant because they grow suspicious of Holmes. Despite their intuition, Dr. Cigrand and the Lawrences never express their suspicions. This failure to act is a theme throughout these chapters. Another person who fails to act is Alfred Trude, who receives a nonsensical postcard from Patrick Prendergast, and something about it sparks Trude’s interest. Out of all the letters he receives as a criminal defense attorney, he recognizes it is just a little too crazy, and keeps it, marveling at how Chicago seems to be producing more and more mentally disturbed men.

In chapter seventeen, Larson expands on the mysterious “Pittsburgh engineer” that he briefly introduced in chapter fifteen. This engineer exemplifies the theme of persistence that we see throughout the book. He pitches his idea three times. Even after having it called a “monstrosity,” he doesn’t quit. He takes a huge risk in spending even more money and effort after being told no. Larson’s writing technique is intentional here. He does not reveal the engineer’s name until he succeeds, reflecting the building tension the engineer himself experiences. Another instance in which Larson’s writing style reflects the storyline is how he writes about Prendergast. Besides his initial introduction, Larson writes about him in short bursts. This keeps Prendergast popping into our minds, foreshadowing that something important will happen with his character. Other significant characters we meet in these chapters are Francis Millet (whom we know from the prologue), Charles Eliot (Codman’s replacement), and Rudolf Ulrich, who Olmsted reluctantly leaves in charge of day to day operations in his second absence.

William Pretyman is a fleeting character, but we gain significant insight from him. He had been picked to oversee the color of the buildings mostly because he was Root’s friend, and Burnham was trying to honor Root. But Pretyman is often cranky and difficult to work with. In contrast, one of the reasons that Burnham is a great leader is that he is a good man to work with, and that earns him respect. Harriet Monroe (the poet and Root’s sister-in-law) sums up why Burnham is such a unique leader: “His genius was betrayed by lofty and indomitable traits of character which could not yield or compromise. And so his life was a tragedy of inconsequence.” Basically, if a person cannot learn to respect and work with others, their talent may not make any difference in the world.

Bad weather symbolizes current and impending hardship. The storm on June 13th that severely damages the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building is almost ironic, as that building was intended to be the largest and grandest. The weather further delays all of Olmsted’s work. January’s harsh ice presents yet another obstacle to George Ferris. True to his persistency, he blows through the ice and quicksand underneath. When the weather again assaults the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building and the weight of snow causes the glass roof to break, it ensures that the building cannot be ready by Dedication Day. However, at the ceremony, the people of Chicago forgive the building’s incompleteness, as they are so distracted by and impressed with the building’s massiveness. This is a testament to the architects’ grand vision.

Health is another big concept to emerge in these chapters. The characters recognize they must address their mental and physical health for the sake of their success. Olmsted knows he is on the verge of collapsing in chapter seventeen. Even though it seems like the worst time to leave, he insists on “convalescing” in Europe. Even though he doesn’t truly recover, the time away from the Fair benefits him greatly. He visits the fairground from Paris’s World’s Fair in France, and this helps him cement his artistic ideas for Chicago’s Fair. Olmsted creates something meaningful and beautiful despite his severe depression.