Back in February of 2019, Hulu announced that it would be teaming up with Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese to introduce the world to Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, the book that brought H. H. Holmes back into the limelight, via a television series. Back in 2003, DiCaprio bought the rights to make it into a movie, and he and Scorsese had been at some level of the production since 2015. I have to admit, I’d rather have a television series that I can enjoy than one single movie, but then I’m a smidge obsessed with Holmes.
Apparently, Tom Cruise was originally the first Hollywood hot shot to be interest, but that fell through, and within a year, DiCaprio picked it up. When he and Scorsese were planning the film version, the plan was for DiCaprio to play Holmes–and wouldn’t he be amazing in that role? His gentlemanly manner and charming smile certainly remind me of Holmes. However, now that Hulu is involved, it’s likely that they’ll come up with a different lead, but Hulu is not releasing any details. (And I’d looooove some details!)
Don’t forget, Larson’s book was not solely about Holmes. It has a broad appeal to non-fiction lovers since Holmes’ story is spliced into that of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. If you’re a history buff, a lover of architecture, or enamored with life in the late 19th century, there will be something for you in the book and the television series.
Though we don’t have H. H. Holmes’ “murder castle” to check out anymore (it sat where today’s Englewood post office sits), there are other locations that Holmes is connected to. Some are simply connections by way of the 1893 World’s Fair, like Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, but some are more, well, gruesome. One of those locations is a house in Irvington, Indiana, featured on this season’s first episode of Ghost Hunters. For you paranormal lovers, you can watch that here!
On October 5, 1894, Holmes rented the cute little cottage from J.C. Wands. He was seen on the premises with Howard Pitezel, the son of his right-hand man, Benjamin–whom he had already killed. Eventually, once Holmes’ number was up, Detective Frank Geyer investigated the Irvington house and discovered bones belonging to Howard Pitezel. Howard was just a child, and Howard seems to be one of the spirits haunting the house.
Read a first-hand (and beautifully-written) account of what living in the house is like by former resident Pepper Partin. Here’s an excerpt: “When America’s first serial killer, Dr. H.H. Holmes, turned the key to the rental house nestled on the outskirts of a beautiful little town six miles east of Indianapolis, did the threshold buckle with the weight of what would happen here? The trees, it seems, aren’t talking. But the lingering spirits share evocative vignettes.”
What do you think? Does little Howard Pitezel pine for a transition to the other side? Or is he destined to haunt his last home?
Who was H. H. Holmes? Many things. A physician. A brother. A master manipulator. Chicago’s first serial killer. The source of my unending curiosity for the past few years.
H. H. Holmes was born in Gilmanton, New Jersey, in 1861. Made infamous through Erik Larson’s non-fiction The Devil in the White City, Holmes has now been the feature of several documentaries and bus tours in Chicago that will take you by his killing grounds–including the former location of his Murder Castle.
Sound ominous? It should. The more I learn about him, the more intrigued/baffled I become. (So much so that I wrote a novel, published some short stories, and started this website and blog!)
Jeff Mudgett, Holmes’ great-great grandson and author ofBloodstains, was the driving force behind the History Channel’s American Ripper docuseries. One goal of the show was to determine if Holmes could have been London’s Jack the Ripper (there is documentation that he was in London at the time of the murders), and another was to determine if Holmes was actually the body in his grave. His really weird double-grave, encased in concrete. No, I’m not making this up.
In the end, the History Channel’s experts determined that the body in Holmes grave was a “conclusive link” to the real Holmes.
Jeff Mudgett disagrees, and I can’t say I blame him.
On a recent Facebook post, he outlines his reasons–based upon admissions of court-appointed anthropologists from the University of Pennsylvania:
The physical injuries that should occur upon hanging, like a broken hyoid bone, were not there.
The DNA did not match.
The skeleton size itself did not fit the descriptions of Holmes.
Holmes was a mastermind when it came to life insurance scams, stealing bodies, killing people, forging dental records, etc. Let’s not forget he was a doctor who was intimately aware of the human body, as he often stole bodies and killed people to make articulated skeletons that he could then sell to universities. Is it such a leap to think he could have managed to fake his death?
If you too are morbidly interested in this man, check out the rest of my website and short stories. And sign up for my email list. I have the H. H. Holmes Handbook coming out soon, and my subscribers will not only get a first look but get it for free!
Third in a series on serial killers! Did you miss number one on Ed Gein? How about number two on Henry Lee Lucas?
It used to surprise me that serial killers existed in the 1800s. H. H. Holmes, for example, shocked me with his continual insurance fraud. Apparently, it was all the rage. One of his contemporaries in Chicago, Belle Gunness, also discovered the lucrative business of insurance fraud, and used it repeatedly–on her husbands and even her own children. Read on, and you, too, will start thinking that Holmes and Gunness would have made a perfect pair.
In the 1800s, Norwegian immigrant Belle found her way to the Windy City. In 1893 (the year of the World’s Fair in Chicago), she and her husband, Mads Sorenson, opened a candy store. It would seem as though Belle and Mads had a run of bad luck, with a business and their home burning down and two children dying. It was luck, alright, devised by Belle to cash in on insurance policies. Yes, conventional wisdom says she administered strychnine to her own children.
Later on, Mads died. Surely the fact that he died on the day two insurance policies overlapped was mere coincidence. Surely.
Now a woman of some means, Belle took her remaining children to the small town of LaPorte, Indiana. There, she bought a 42 acre farm. Part of it burned down. I don’t need to tell you it was insured…
By 1902, she found a new beau, Peter Gunness. Gunness, who had two children already, sent one to live with relatives after the other mysteriously died in Belle’s care. It wasn’t long before Peter, too, was dead. There was some concern that Peter showed signs of strychnine poisoning, but the doctor ruled it heart failure.
Belle’s life was like that of Shakespeare’s Macbeth: her greed overtook her ambition. Rather than being content with the cash she already had, she continued on her murder-for-money spree. Now, however, she unknowingly borrowed from H. H. Holmes’ playbook: set up potential lovers. Belle’s version was to get men to “buy” shares of her farm. Once she had the money, the men disappeared. Rumor has it she burned them, buried them, and fed them to her pigs. Handy, those hog farms.
Belle’s fast-track train came to an end in 1908. A relative of one of her “investors” was suspicious and told Belle he was going to come check things out. Soon, the entire farm burned down. In it, Belle’s remaining three children perished, as did Belle.
Or so it seemed.
The missing man’s relative insisted they do a complete search. Eleven bodies were discovered on the farm property. The adult female body discovered in the fire? It likely wasn’t Belle.
Her farmhand, Ray Lamphere, was a prime suspect for arson and murder–that is, until he confessed that she faked her death. The woman’s body in the fire did not match up to Belle’s size.
Twenty years later, in 1931, a woman named Esther Carlson in California was tried for poisoning a man. In her possessions were photographs of children–children who looked very similar to Belle’s.
We know very little about Belle’s childhood. She grew up in a very poor town in Norway, but as to what trauma may have caused her willingness to kill, we’re left to our own devices to make suppositions. Or, perhaps worse, there was no trauma. Perhaps she, like Holmes, was likely born that way.
When I asked a few weeks back what YOU would like to see on this blog, some kind souls requested more from my work-in-progress, The Devil Inside Me. Allow me to introduce you to one of my favorite suspects, Elyse Baxter. Enjoy!
“And your name?” Davis, lost in thought, had barely looked up when the next person walked up to him.
He looked more closely once the silky voice hit his ears and saw a young woman with long, dark chestnut hair and fair skin, devoid of make-up, sitting down across from him. In Davis’ mind, she didn’t need the make-up. She didn’t need much of anything.
“And Ms. Baxter, what is it you do at the museum?”
“I’m a preparator. I’m the preparator for the Holmes’ exhibit.” Davis raised his head again when Ms. Baxter emphasized her “the.”
“What does that entail?”
“I handle and prepare all manner of artifacts for our exhibits. I coordinate with others to ensure proper and timely installation of our exhibits. And I was the lead preparator and project manager for this exhibit.”
“So you’re responsible for this display?”
“This exhibit,” she corrected. “Yes.”
“Uh huh.” Davis made a few scratches on his notepad. The preparator smoothed her knee-length skirt and uncrossed, then re-crossed, her legs.
“How long have you been working here?”
“I’ve been with the museum for three years now. Prior to that I worked at the Boston Museum of Science.”
“Are you from Boston?”
“Not too far from it.”
Davis looked up from his notes, waiting for her to explain. She didn’t.
Again, Davis paused, scratching at his two day scruff, allowing for further detail. She said nothing.
“Can you be more specific?”
Elyse Baxter sighed. “Philadelphia.”
“So you’re responsible for this display–how so? Start to finish?”
“While it is unusual, yes–I was responsible for the design and implementation for this–exhibit–from start to finish. I presented my concept drawing to Mr. Panetti two years ago, before the television hype and the movie deal. He sat on it for a year until he realized there was more than just a cult following.”
“There’s a movie deal?”
“Yes. Leonardo DiCaprio will be playing H. H. Holmes?” she asked with the same incredulity of Chapman.
Davis continued scratching down notes.
“So then what? He agreed?”
“Yes. I had two other designers who worked with me to build the concept model, and–” She waved her hand with a flourish. “This is the result.”
“And when did you last see the disp–exhibit?”
“About thirty minutes ago, when the docent explained what was going on.”
“Where were you prior to that?”
“I was working in our creative space–it’s on the lower level, where my office is.”
“And prior to that, when was the last time you saw the exhibit?”
“This morning, at 6am. I was giving everything one more look.”
“One more look?”
“Today was the opening day for this exhibit. Surely you heard it advertised, Detective. It’s on the side of eight CTA buses. This is a central piece to our museum, to Chicago.”
He nodded. She continued.
“It’s also our first PG-13 rated exhibit. That generated even more of an interest from the public.”
“So you were giving everything a once-over before it opened up?”
“Yes. I was responsible for its execution, so I had to ensure everything was perfect.”
Interesting choice of words, thought Davis.
“I don’t mean to be cold and unfeeling, Detective, but do you have any idea how long this…scene…will keep my exhibit closed? So many people were looking forward to it.”