Diagnosis–murder!: Two about H.H. Holmes

Hey, kids. I’m waaay behind in my reviews, as well as in keeping up with all of your reviews and my favorite blogs and websites. But I’m catching up slowly. Here’s a two-fer-one.


Talk about extreme malpractice. Herman Webster Mudgett, a.k.a. Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, earned his medical degree in 1884 from the University of Michigan Medical School, but he must have skipped class the day they went over the Hippocratic oath because H.H. Holmes turned out to be one of the first documented serial killers in modern history, and possibly one of the worst. Do no harm? Do much harm.

Holmes was notorious for creating his famous “murder castle,” a hotel created to cash in on the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The huge, block-sized structure was the site of Holmes’s medical practice and pharmacy as well as being a hotel intended to house the droves of sight-seers attracted to the fair. Holmes designed the building himself and it is only in retrospect that the bizarre interior made sense. Trap doors, rooms with inexplicable gas jets, hidden rooms, secret passages. All the better to murder you with, my dear. It was not unexpected that many of the tenants of the hotel were pretty, young women, naïve and wide-eyed, on their first ventures to the modern metropolis of Chicago, seeing as how charming and handsome the landlord was. And it was no coincidence that many of the women disappeared after their stay in the hotel.

When authorities finally arrested Holmes and searched the hotel the remains of the victims made the building’s intent all too clear. Holmes was executed for his crimes in 1896, convicted of four counts of murder in the first degree and six attempted murders, but the actual body count is unknown and likely to be far higher, ranging from nine to a couple of hundred.

What I find so fascinating about H.H. Holmes is that he managed to get away with these crimes for so long. Even taking into account that law enforcement and forensic science in that age was nothing like it is today, Holmes was often described as being being irresistibly charming despite his cold, dead eyes. It seemed almost as if he was the Devil incarnate.


As far as Erik Larson is concerned, that’s a fitting comparison. In The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America Larson tells the story of the murderous H.H. Holmes in parallel with the story of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Holmes’ lurking evil contrasts chillingly with the optimism and spirit of the fair, supported well by Larson’s careful research. He paints an outstanding picture of the era and I sometimes forget how much a hundred-plus years can make. Clearly, 1890’s America was far more different from today than one would realize. There were many instances related by Larson that made me laugh out loud at how bizarre things then seem to a person of today’s era. (I only wish I could give examples. I had to turn the book back in to the library a while ago). The only frustrating bit about the book–and it’s not Larson’s fault–is that I wish there had been more about H.H. Holmes and what made him tick. But Larson’s narrative suffers from what every H.H. Holmes researcher would suffer from: Holmes was simply a cipher that probably no one would be able to fully understand. The Devil in the White City is an eloquent, entertaining and well-researched narrative of a veritable demon that walked among men. ★★★★✩


Another, more visual approach to the story of H.H. Holmes is Richard Geary’s The Beast of Chicago: The Murderous Career of H.H. Holmes, which tells the tale in sequential art format (ie., comic or graphic novel formal–but, of course, it is not a novel, nor is it comic). Geary’s black and white art perfectly lends an 1890s feel to the narrative and is a great companion piece to The Devil in the White City. Although there is no graphic gore or violence, the subject matter is of course rather ghastly and I find it amusing that my local library has it catalogued in the “young adult” section. This volume is one in a series, A Treasury of Victorian Murder, featuring other killers of the time and I’ll probably be checking them out also at some point. Richard “Rick” Geary is an American comics icon and The Beast of Chicago is a must-read for comics fans, true crime aficionados and H.H. Holmes historians alike. ★★★★✩

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