The novel is unusual for the irreverent way that historical figures and fictional characters are woven into the narrative, making for surprising connections and linking different events and trains of thought about fame and success, on the one hand, and poverty and racism on the other. Harry Houdini plays a prominent yet incidental part, reflecting on success and mortality. Arch-capitalist financier J.P. Morgan, pursuing his complex delusions of grandeur, is delivered a plainly spoken comeuppance from down-to-earth Henry Ford. Socialite Evelyn Nesbit becomes involved with the slum family and is aided by the anarchist agitator Emma Goldman. The black moderate politician Booker T. Washington tries to negotiate with Coalhouse Walker, without success.
Other historical characters mentioned include the polar explorer Robert Peary and his black assistant Matthew Henson, the architect Stanford White, Nesbit's mentally unbalanced husband Harry Kendall Thaw who murdered White for allegedly having an affair with Nesbit when she was 15, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, Countess Sophie Chotek, Sigmund Freud, who rides the Tunnel of Love at Coney Island with Carl Jung, Theodore Dreiser, Jacob Riis and the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. Several real-life New York City officials also appear in the book - Manhattan District Attorney Charles S. Whitman and Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo.