On November 24, 1896—114 years ago today—serial killer H.H. Holmes began writing his autobiography modestly titled “Holmes’s Own Story” in Moyamensing Prison in Philadelphia where he was awaiting trial for conspiracy to cheat and defraud an insurance company on a claim involving his partner, Benjamin Pitezel. Holmes claimed his partner’s death was a suicide, but the Pinkerton Agents who arrested him knew better. Later, additional charges of first-degree murder were added to the case, and by the time he was brought to court on October 28, 1895, Holmes was known as “the Fiend of 63rdStreet” and his case was “the Trial of the Century.”
The current fascination with H.H. Holmes began in 2003 when writer Erik Larson penned The Devil in the White City, a nifty double narrative about two sides to Chicago’s rise as an important metropolis. On the one hand, 1893 brought the World’s Fair to the city, with famed architect Daniel H. Burnham named as its Director of Works. The fairgrounds—eventually dubbed the White City—were jammed with magnificent, clean, new buildings that showcased those marvels of the modern age that helped make daily life easier, society more self-sufficient, and the populace more mobile. The other side of the coin was sociopath H.H. Holmes, who constructed a monstrosity of a building at 63rd and Washington in the Englewood neighborhood. Dubbed “the Castle” by neighbors, it housed several businesses on the first floor, rooms to rent on the third floor, murder rooms on the second floor, and a torture chamber in the basement. Holmes represents the dark side of the modern age—the proliferation of a criminal element who took advantage of the new mobility and the anonymity that went with it to prey upon members of a naïve public.
Recently, Holmes made the news again when Leonard DiCaprio’s production company, Appian Way Prods., announced its participation in the film version of The Devil in the White City. Shortly after the publication of the book, Tom Cruise’s company, Cruise-Wagner Prods., optioned the rights to The Devil in the White City, but they let them lapse in 2004. Three years later, Paramount picked them up at the request of Double Features Films, a distributor that works with Paramount. Earlier this month, Double Features teamed with Appian Way and announced that DiCaprio was planning to play Holmes. There is no major studio involved yet, but Warner Bros. has a first-look deal with Appian Way. WB would be crazy to pass. The film, which is not even in pre-production, is scheduled for 2013 (DiCaprio has to first complete the biopic of J. Edgar Hoover by Clint Eastwood.)
Long before The Devil in the White City, I read about Holmes in Bloodletters and Badmen, a three-volume history of crime by Chicago author J. Robert Nash, under the entry “Herman Webster Mudgett.” Mudgett was the serial killer’s real name, while “H.H. Holmes” was one of his many aliases. As a matter of fact, the killer’s autobiography was authored under the name Herman W. Mudgett. Nash’s account of Mudgett/Holmes frightened me with ghoulish anecdotes of hacked-off body parts, scorched hands that didn’t completely burn up in “the Castle’s” massive furnace, and the charred remains of little boys in stoves. My favorite anecdote by Nash concerns Mudgett/Holmes’s days as a medical student at the University of Michigan, where he seemed overly excited by the cadavers. One night he was caught by campus security dragging the dead body of a young woman out of the lab. The officer demanded, “My God, what are you doing there?” To which Holmes cracked, “Taking my girl for a walk, you idiot.”
Two decades later and just before the publication of Larson’s book, former Columbia College student John Borowski wrote and directed H.H. Holmes: America’s First Serial Killer. Available for purchase from Facets for $24.95, this History Channel-style documentary is filled with fascinating facts about Holmes’s entire life—from his childhood in New Hampshire to his death by hanging at Moyamensing Prison. Interviews with Holmes biographer Harold Schechter (Depraved), a forensics historian, and a criminal profiler offer rich details on the killer and the case against him. For example, I never knew why Eric Larson designated Holmes “the Devil” in the title The Devil in the White City, but it was because the killer claimed in his autobiography, “I was born with the Devil in me.” According to H.H.—and he was a practiced liar—his features began evolving into those of the Devil while he was penning his life story.
I learned a lot of other useful Chicago-centric details from Borowski’s documentary. For example, the next time some University of Chicago employee or student brags to me about all their lofty Nobel Prize-winners, their distinguished Rhodes Scholars, or their coveted U of C Press, I will remind them that one of the skeletons used in their medical school is likely that of Emeline Cigrand, Holmes’s mistress and secretary. It seems the school purchased a brand new skeleton from Holmes—no questions asked—two weeks after Cigrand disappeared. U of C had no more qualms or principles about where they got their skeletons and cadavers than measly little Hahnemann Medical College who likely bought another Holmes mistress, Julia, a few weeks earlier. Well, it’s best to let sleeping skeletons lie, I suppose. And, given that it’s been over 100 years, Emeline and Julia have probably bitten the dust, so to speak.
I have always found it amusing that Chicago residents lovingly embrace the city’s violent gangsters, dirty politicians, and cold-blooded mob bosses as folk heroes, while ignoring its past as a transportation hub (canals and rails), entertainment capital (film and vaudeville), or labor center (unions and leftist radicals like Emma Goldman). But, then again, delving into ghost stories, gangster lore, and serial killer mysteries can be a fascinating approach to learning history. That H.H. Holmes has been added to the list of colorful Windy City characters can be deduced by the inclusion of “The Devil and the White City Tour” among the excursions offered by Weird Chicago Tours. Even the Art Institute offered a White City tour after the name H.H. Holmes became so widely known, though I don’t know if the ‘Tute’s tour officially stops at “the Castle.”
My advice is to sign up for the next “The Devil and the White City Tour” before tickets sell out; the next tour is at the end of December. Or, check out H.H. Holmes: America’s First Serial Killer on the Facets’ DVD site so that you, too, can embrace the White City’s notorious past. It’s the Chicago way.