I can hear you: “Rebecca, you’ve spent three weeks talking about H. H. Holmes, but you haven’t mentioned his murder castle.” It’s the coolest part, right? Man gets his medical degree, moves to Chicago, and starts to build this mysterious three-story building with a “glass-bending oven” in the basement that was totally used to cremate his victims and all sorts of mysterious rooms where he can lock people in vaults or let gas inside. Plus some sort of chute to get people from the second to the first without heavy lifting. During the World’s Fair he killed hundreds of people, so why hasn’t this been mentioned yet?
If you knew about Holmes before – and especially if you’ve been eagerly anticipating the murder castle discussion – I’m guessing you learned about him from Erik Larson. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. Larson interweaves Holmes’ story with that of the Columbian Exposition, paralleling the construction of the Fair with the construction of Holmes’ murder castle. The story bounces back and forth until the Fair is over and Holmes can have the pages to himself on his final, strange, itinerant spree, but, during his time in Chicago, Larson depicts Holmes very much as the happy serial murderer, using his mysterious Castle as a human version of a roach motel.
In his notes, Larson explains that he did not use the internet during his research. Instead he used a lot of newspapers … and newspapers wanted to share the lurid, the outlandish, and the scandalous so they could sell. It makes a for a good story, sure, but the papers already did a ton of extrapolating and connecting the dots before Larson got to them and constructed his own narrative. It’s a good story, but if that’s your only source on Holmes, you’re missing a lot.
The counter to Larson is one I tell people not to read if they were so starry-eyed over Larson’s Holmes that they can’t picture him any other way. Adam Selzer’s H. H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil pulls back the curtain and explains that, well, the murder castle really wasn’t all you thought it was. He describes clerks from the shops on the first floor napping in those “secret” rooms and passageways, and argues that it really wasn’t used as a hotel, after all. When a fire broke out in the middle of the night during the World’s Fair, there weren’t nearly enough people on the street to argue that the third floor was actually being used that way. (Selzer also gives talks and tours, and you can catch him online, although I’d recommend acquainting yourself with the case first, either through his book or some of your own research – he can jump around a lot for people who come in with only the faintest idea of who Holmes is and what myths need to be debunked.)
So: what’s up with the so-called murder castle?
We know that Holmes had it built. We also know that, as a con man, he had a practice of hiring workers, refusing to pay them, and then hiring more. This wasn’t so that no single person would know the entire layout of the building, but so he simply didn’t have to pay them. We know there were shops on the first floor – and that one of his mistresses and likely victims was the wife of one of the men employed in said shops – and that much was made during the excavation of the basement. Newspapers reported in large headlines that bodies had been found … and then days later, in smaller print hidden somewhere other than the front page, that really it was maybe only a single body.
All of this suspicion and excavation happened while Holmes was in Philadelphia, making headlines because of the Pitezel case. Remember, at the beginning Holmes was wanted for a single murder: Benjamin Pitezel. But, the longer he sat in jail and the longer the police puzzled over his mysterious story, the mystery continued to grow. He was now suspected of murdering Alice, Nellie, and Howard Pitezel, too.
And so, Chicago asked itself, if the man had been living here before that … couldn’t we make something of it, too? Instead of writing postcards to the papers claiming to be the killer, Chicago reporters took what they had and let their imaginations run with it, increasing the myth of who Holmes was, what he had done, and how many he had killed.
Not, it seems, that Holmes minded, considering his confession of 27 murders and the fact that many of them were made up out of whole cloth. Holmes the con man would be thrilled to know that people think he killed 250 people or more – and got away with all of them until he slipped up with Benjamin Pitezel. As someone who participated in his own myth-making while he was alive, Holmes would be happy to know he’s still being discussed so long after his death.