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Generically speaking, Eric Larson’s book The Devil in the White City is a tale of architecture and a serial killer. The book reflects the society of the late 19th century, Chicago. In its own the work is a journey of the lives of the people of the great city and how they changed. It encompasses their hopes, their dreams and their treachery. In general where gender roles are concerned, it showcases how women, particularly those from the working class, shaped the city around them while sticking to their constricted roles.
The book revolves around two central characters i.e. the architect and the serial killer, however, it manages to not just account for their lives, but in doing so highlight great poverty, violence and depravity of the age and America as it were during that time. It follows through one social crisis after another throughout the vestiges of its pages. It shows the social diversity along with individualistic diversity of the era.
In order to understand the role of women during that time, we must first understand the dynamics of the society itself. In conclusion to the works, Larson pens in Notes and Sources “The thing that entranced me about Chicago in the Gilded Age was the city’s willingness to take on the impossible in the name of civic honor, a concept so removed from the modern psyche that two wise readers of early drafts of this book wondered why Chicago was so avid to win the world’s fair in the first place” [p. 393].
The world of that age was a combination of great achievement and burning desire to be better than everything else. To achieve that dream men weren’t the only one making the efforts. Women were also breaking out of their age of crafted roles. To win “first place”, the race had begun and the general population strived for the collateral dream.
The book talks about the two facets of reality and society. Good versus great evil. It highlights man’s desperation to be better, to achieve great heights. And on that journey man at times becomes irrevocably corrupt. As Larson states, “The juxtaposition of pride and unfathomed evil struck me as offering powerful insights into the nature of men and their ambitions” [p. 393].
After the great fire of 1871, Chicago came back with a new vengeance. Each day hordes of new people walked into the city looking for a future and new dreams. Many of these people were young single women who were oblivious to the peril and dangers of the big cities they hoped to make their homes. Jane Addams, founder of Chicago’s Hull House, wrote, “Never before in civilization have such numbers of young girls been suddenly released from the protection of the home and permitted to walk unattended upon the city streets and to work under alien roofs.” Her statement points to the status of women in America at the time. Women were going through a conversion; they were trying on new roles in their newly crafted world and leaving behind old ones.
They were sheltered and protected and treading on alien territory when they left their homes. Clearly this was not the life most women were used to living; venturing out into the world was not something that was generally accepted as normal behavior. But like all else, things were changing and in the name of progress women were changing too.
They found work as seamstresses, weavers, typewriters and what not. All jobs which had a man in charge or above them. Simply put they were to be the nurses, and not the doctors. The men who hired them were thought of, in that era, as noble characters. There were also those with less than noble intentions. During the summer of 1890, a warning was placed in the help-wanted section of the Chicago Tribune, cautioning female stenographers stating “our growing conviction that no thoroughly honorable business-man who is this side of dotage ever advertises for a lady stenographer who is a blonde, is good-looking, is quite alone in the city, or will transmit her photograph. All such advertisements upon their face bear the marks of vulgarity, nor do we regard it safe for any lady to answer such unseemly utterances.” The warning was placed in the Chicago Tribune by the First National Bank.
Stepping into new shoes
The women were now living lives designed for men. The city was not the same as it once had been. While there were good men keeping the honor of the city intact, there was no shortage of those who were ever ready to plunder it. There were large amounts of deaths, many of them were unknown men and women who were never identified and never saw their families again.
One did not have to be murdered in Chicago; the city itself killed many in multiple accidents, you could simply step off a curb and get hit by a car and die. And of course there were the homicides. During the first half of 1892 Chicago was witness to nearly eight hindered homicides. The once innocent city was being turned into a vicious place. Chicago was turning out to become one of the dangerous cities to come out the United States of America. The streets were no longer safe and amidst dreams of becoming the best in the world, the greatest, the city did quite the opposite.
Women now rose to a new status. They moved from being caregivers in the home, from being protected and sheltered, to being city girls making it on their own. And they then went from city girls to murdering harlots. Many incidences occurred where men killed women and women turned around to kill other men. Chicago was one big cesspool of criminal activity. The criminal activity rose around the entirety of the nation, but Chicago stood out in its numbers.
The 1888 killing spree courtesy of Jack the Ripper had the nation enthralled and addicted. None however, imagined something similar hitting their own cities. When men liked Holmes ravaged the youth of the city and went about murdering people, no one at the time thought it could be the work of a serial killer. People were too innocent, even with the crimes that shattered their lives each day, they refused to believe something that heinous could be taking place right next door.
A good example of this stint was the Broadway show titled ‘Chicago’ itself. It paints the story of Velma Kelly, a notorious criminal. In fact women were the only magnificent criminals in that show, while men played the part of protectors, lawyers, gullible husbands. The show was a satire on the state of things in the city. Woman has changed drastically, they were no longer thought of as naïve, innocent, noble creatures. They were scandalous entities.