True Crime: Aileen Wuornos

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Fifth in a series on serial killers!

I have to admit, watching Charlize Theron play Aileen Wuornos in the movie Monster made me feel a strange sympathy for the serial killer. I felt something similar after reading about Henry Lee Lucas too. Maybe it’s a teacher’s job hazard to always see the hurt, traumatized child in the adult, for, as Dr. Phil would say, I don’t ask why Wuornos and Lucas killed, I ask why wouldn’t they, given their formative years? Wuornos was convicted of killing seven men between 1988 and 1989 at point-blank range. She claimed self-defense: the men she killed either attempted to rape her or did rape her while she was working as a prostitute.

A few snippets from Wuornos’ early life:

  • Her mom was 14 when she married her dad, who was 16. They had a boy a year later, and then Aileen, a year after that.
  • Her mom, aged 16, filed for divorce when Aileen was barely 2 months old.
  • She never met her father, as he was jailed when she was born and committed suicide in prison.
  • Her father was diagnosed with schizophrenia and charged with sex crimes against children.
  • Her mother abandoned Aileen and her brother when Aileen was just 4. Their maternal grandparents took them in.
  • Her grandfather was an alcoholic who beat and sexually abused Aileen. He made her take her clothes off before a beating.
  • She engaged in sexual behavior with her brother.
  • By age 11, she was performing sexual acts at school in exchange for food, drugs, and cigarettes. Age 11. Age 11!
  • At 14, she became pregnant and gave the child up for adoption. The father? One of her grandfather’s friends.
  • Shortly after the birth of the child, her grandmother died and Aileen dropped out of school.
  • At 15, her grandfather kicked her out of the house. She began prostituting and living in the woods.

Mix together and bake for 20 years. What would we expect from her?

Wuornos appealed her conviction, but stopped all attempts in 2001, saying, “I killed those men…robbed them as cold as ice. And I’d do it again, too.”

Well, then. At least she’s honest. She continued:

“I have hate crawling through my system…I am so sick of hearing this ‘she’s crazy’ stuff. I’ve been evaluated so many times. I’m competent, sane, and…one who seriously hates human life.”

Can you blame her, considering what her first fifteen years of life were like?

She was found sane, but over the course of the next year, became increasingly erratic in her behavior. She was executed in 2002. Her last words were “I would just like to say I’m sailing with the rock, and I’ll be back, like Independence Day, with Jesus. June 6, like the movie. Big mothership and all, I’ll be back. I’ll be back.”

I’m no psychiatrist, but that would make me question her sanity.

Why is it that some people can be exposed to horrific early-life trauma and come out on the other side, but others, like Wuornos and Lucas, can not? Let me know your thoughts after you read up on Ed Gein, Henry Lee Lucas, Belle Gunness, and Robert Hansen.

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True Crime: Robert Hansen

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Fourth in a series on serial killers! Did you miss number one on Ed Gein? How about number two on Henry Lee Lucas? Belle Gunness was number three.

In 1924, Richard Connell wrote “The Most Dangerous Game,” a short story that has spawned numerous movie versions about human beings hunting other human beings. I don’t know if Robert Hansen read or saw a version of Connell’s creepy concept, but it sure would appear he was inspired by it. So inspired he packed his bags, moved to Alaska, and, in the 1970s and 80s, began hunting quarried women in a remote part of the Alaskan landscape accessible only by boat or plane.

Robert Hansen is the perfectly stereotypical serial killer. You’d never suspect him, for he was the shy, introverted type. He was a baker by trade, passed down to him from his Danish father. Married with two children, Hansen lived a quiet life. So when a woman went to police indicating Hansen had attempted to kidnap her, no one could believe it.

And no one did.

Hansen was questioned by police and admitted to meeting the woman, but he said she was trying to extort him. He also had an alibi courtesy of a good friend. And Hansen went free.

However, police began finding bodies strewn about the Alaskan wilderness. They turned to the FBI for help with profiling the killer, even though profiling was in its infancy. The criminologists suggested a white male who was an experienced hunter, had low self-esteem, and a history of rejection. Oh, and probably a stutter.

Robert Hansen ticked off all the marks–plus, he had a plane that could get him to the remote areas of the deadly Alaskan wilderness.

People still could not believe it was Hansen, and if it weren’t for a map hidden in his bedroom–a map where “x” quite literally marked the spots–who knows if they’d have found him guilty of the crimes so incredible that they seem ripped from the pages of, say, a short story.

Hansen would kidnap a woman, fly her to the wilderness, then release her. That was when his “game” began. He’d track and hunt the woman down, often violating her before killing her.

His map correlated with the bodies police found and gave them direction for finding even more bodies.

Over the course of ten years, Hansen “hunted” at least 17 women. Some estimates are upwards of 30. So why did he do it?

Growing up, it seems Hansen had a normal home life, though his father was somewhat domineering. Schoolchildren, on the other hand, can be cruel. Hansen was a small, slight, shy boy who stuttered. Raging acne appeared with puberty, and you can just imagine. Think Stephen King’s Carrie without the telekinesis. Boys taunted him, girls shunned him, and he began plotting his revenge early on. Was his overbearing father the extra ingredient that pushed Hansen over the edge? Or was it simply the overload of bullying for too many years? We’ll likely never know, as Hansen died in 2014 without any explanation of why he created his own most dangerous game.

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True Crime: Belle Gunness

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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.

True Crime: Henry Lee Lucas

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Second in a series on serial killers! Did you miss number one on Ed Gein? Click here!

Henry Lee Lucas is often billed as the most prolific serial killer in the United States, but there is a reason he’s also known as the “Confession Killer.” Investigators have little doubt he killed, but they do doubt he was the prolific killer the media made him out to be. They also don’t doubt that Lucas contributed to that media frenzy.

Henry Lee Lucas killed for the first time at either 14 or 15 years old. His victim was a girl who fought back while he was trying to rape her–he says. For the next several years, he was in and out of prison on burglary charges. He then killed his own mother in an argument. Later, Lucas confessed to killing Becky Powell, a girl who had been his lover (allegedly consensual, but she was barely a teenager when they met). While people were still looking for Becky Powell, Lucas convinced another woman, Kate Rich, to help him search, and he killed her too. Both of the bodies were found with his help, so we know these two, coupled with his mother, are the three deaths we can attribute with certainty to Lucas.

However, to make things more difficult, Henry Lee Lucas hung out with, worked with, and lived with another killer, Ottis Toole (the uncle of Becky Powell). Whether or not they were in on these deeds together is unknown. Both confessed to numerous murders alone and together. (I’m not going to go into some of the things that Lucas did–just like with Ed Gein, if you really want to know, Google him, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

A television program interviewed Lucas years after he was imprisoned and retracted his confessions. He said that all of the media attention was “like being a movie star…they make you out that you’re the worst serial killer in the history of the United States, and that’s what I did.” Did Lucas confess simply for the attention and adoration (yes, adoration) he received?

Potentially.

The nature versus nurture argument is never more significant than when discussing mentally disturbed and traumatized individuals, and Henry Lee Lucas is a stellar example. He grew up with an alcoholic father who couldn’t work and made moonshine instead. They lived in a one room cabin with no heat and no running water. His mother, also an alcoholic, prostituted herself and made a young Henry watch, and at least one older sibling forced him into an incestuous relationship. His mother also made him dress up as a girl and send him to school with his hair curled.

But that was just the beginning.

While Lucas had to endure abuse from his father, his mother was much, much worse. He was beaten so badly on the head that he was comatose for three days. He also had an injured eye that went untreated. It became infected and had to be removed. His mother shot and killed a mule that an uncle gave to Lucas, and, once, when he accepted a teddy bear from a teacher at school, he was beaten for it upon his return home. All of this while Lucas was still in grade school.

That fight he got in with his mother before he killed her? It was because she was demanding he return home (as an adult) to care for her in her old age.

Given what kind of life he had as a child, I’m not surprised at all he became a killer, but he did recognize he had an issue. In fact, he even said this: “I have tried to get help for so long and no one will believe me. I have killed for the past ten years and no one will believe me. I cannot go on doing this. I also killed the only girl I ever loved.”

To suffer the physical, mental, and sexual abuse he did as a young child, well, that’s going to impact brain development. But why would he confess to crimes he didn’t commit? For once in his life, he was getting attention. Attention that didn’t hurt him physically or sexually. Attention that came while he was in a warm environment with adequate clothing, food, and water. Attention that meant he could travel from state to state with police to show him where he may have disposed of bodies, eating cheeseburgers and drinking milkshakes along the way. In short, Henry Lee Lucas’ life in prison was a thousand times better than it was on the outside.

Want to learn more about Henry Lee Lucas? Take a look at The Confessions of Henry Lee Lucas by Mike Cox and Henry Lee Lucas: The Shocking True Story of America’s Most Notorious Serial Killer by J. Norris.

Stay tuned for part three in the series: Belle Gunness.

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True Crime: Ed Gein

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First in a series about serial killers!

Stranger than fiction: there are definitely some true crime stories that are just so outlandish they’re barely believable. Such is the story of Ed Gein.

A student taught me all about Ed Gein after the culmination of American Horror Story. We were talking about H. H. Holmes’ portrayal as Mr. March in the Hotel series, and he said, “kind of like Ed Gein and Psycho.” 

“Like who?” I asked.

“Ed Gein.” He stared at me expectantly.

“Who?” I asked again.

“You don’t know who Ed Gein is?”

Nope. Sure didn’t. (Just one of many examples where my students teach me.)

Ed Gein, born in the early 1900s, lived in Plainfield, Wisconsin, and is the basis for Psycho’s Norman Bates. Norman, eerily brought back to life as of late by Freddie Highmore in Bates Motelhad a, shall we say, fixation, on his mother, just like Gein. When she died, Gein began robbing the graves of women who he thought resembled his mother. He created seat covers from their skin and bowls from their skulls–and those are not the most gruesome items he kept or manufactured. (Google if you are so inclined, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.) He committed numerous crimes before he was caught. He was found guilty of murdering Bernice Worden and was sentenced to life in a mental institution. Gein was also the “inspiration” behind Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dr. Thredson from American Horror Story, and Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs.

My morbid fascination with serial killers is not because of the death and destruction, but the why behind it all. I fully acknowledge that some people are just born damaged. For some, no matter what interventions took place, they would be the psycho- or sociopaths they are. However, the psychology of the early years, the imprint caregivers have on an infant, the indelible marks parents leave on children, those have always been of never-ending interest to me.

Ed Gein, well, I believe he falls into the latter category. Raised on a remote farm by an alcoholic father who was a poor provider, and indoctrinated by a mother who taught him all women were evil and prostitutes (and punished him when he tried to make friends), Ed Gein’s upbringing was a perfect storm of isolationism and conditioning with a dash of mommy and daddy issues.

Want to learn more about Ed Gein? Take a look at Harold Schlecter’s book Deviant and Paul Anthony Woods’ Psycho!

Stay tuned for part two in the series: Henry Lee Lucas.

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The Murderous Mystery Tour…

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The Murderous Mystery Tour is coming to take you away… (My apologies to Paul and John. I couldn’t help myself.)

If you’re simultaneously creeped out and fascinated by the likes of H.H. Holmes, take a trip to Chicago for two well-done tours of the good, er, bad doctor’s stomping grounds.

Weird Chicago’s bus tour takes you “on a journey back in time to not only the places where Holmes sought out and dispatched his victims, but also to take a look at the remnants of the spectacular fair” of 1893. I went on this tour in the summer of 2017, and it was phenomenal–and one of the reasons I began writing The Devil Inside Me. The tour guide was super animated and knowledgeable about all things Holmes. At the time I’m writing this, tickets are $35. Weird Chicago has other tours as well, including the Roaring 20s Speakeasy Tour (21 and up only!) and the Blood, Guns, and Valentine’s Tour.

Adam Selzer, author of H.H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil, runs a walking tour in the Windy City. Selzer’s tour differs from Weird Chicago’s in that he focuses on the not-so-known locations that Holmes would have visited. I took this tour in the fall of 2017, and it too was phenomenal. Selzer is not theatrical as the other tour’s guide was; rather, he provides the details of Holmes’ life that often get lost in the legend–and he distinguishes fact from the fiction that history tends to create. Tickets are currently $20 (for his other tours as well). Selzer runs the Mysterious Chicago podcast and website, and he was a consulting producer on the History channel’s series about Holmes, American Ripper.

If you’re in the Windy City, you don’t want to miss these tours. Let me know what your experiences are!

Good Book Alert!

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Good book alert! I recently finished Fiona Cummins’ book Rattle (The Bone Collector #1). I have been relatively lost in the world of H.H. Holmes, reading everything I can that’s within a certain time-frame to his life. I go to sleep dreaming about The Gangs of New York and wake up thinking about Alex Grecian’s The Yard. During the day, my mind wonders how Caleb Carr’s brain works. (Side note: If you haven’t read or watched The Alienist, what are you waiting for??)

I needed a break. Not from crime and mystery and the horrors of humanity, mind you, but from the 19th century. Enter Rattle. Set in modern-day England, it traces the story of missing children from various viewpoints–including the kidnapper, who is much more than a kidnapper. I didn’t read it in one sitting because I’m a teacher and need to be with-it during the day, but I did get it read in two nights. If you’re fascinated by the psychology behind why we do what we do, clear your schedule and pick up Rattle.

Here are two reviews that give a few more details…one from The Suspense is Thrilling Me (I gave them some props in February), and one from The Book Review Cafe.

Excerpt #2 from The Devil Inside Me

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Another excerpt from The Devil Inside Me! Meet Detective Davis Dunleavy, our protagonist, as he encounters the first crime scene. I’d love to hear your feedback via comments, and if you’d like to read more, sign up for my emailing list here!


Detective Davis Dunleavy slammed his car door shut and promptly pulled his coat collar up around his neck. Crime tape stretched across the revolving entry doors, where the Museum of Science and Industry placed a sign apologizing for the temporary closure. He flashed his badge at the rookie positioned at the door.

The cavernous lobby was eerily quiet. He saw a few patrons, witnesses detained by the museum’s security guard, sitting just outside of the gift shop, and a dozen or so museum employees hanging around the ticketing registers. A giant steam locomotive looked as if it were coming directly at him. He headed for the escalator.

“Supposed to be your day off, Davis?” The voice came from behind him. He turned to smile at Adele Murphy.

“How’d you know?”

“Wrinkled shirt.” She winked and jabbed him in the arm. “Just like college.”

He jabbed her back, careful to avoid her massive camera bag.

“I’m just a stand-in. Armstrong and Bucalo from Organized Crime are knee-deep investigating that bid-rigging business. The FBI has set up shop on the 7th floor. And, since my stalwart partner is out in Montana for bereavement leave, Bowers sent me.”

“That’s too bad about Jon’s mother,” Adele said. “Wait–you’re back-up for Organized Crime now?”

“I guess I am today. Any clue what this is about?”

“They didn’t tell you?” she said, incredulous.

Davis shook his head as he stepped off the escalator. They flashed their badges to another rookie and were waved to a corner of the first floor.

“Murder.”

A marvelous yet grotesque sight greeted them. This museum didn’t play: from three-story tornadoes to a full-size German u-boat, it was a place of learning and discovery for both children and adults, and it was enormous–one of the biggest in the world. The DNA and the Devil in the White City display alone was 3700 square feet in an octagonal space. Intended to be a supplement to the genetics exhibit (famous for its chicken hatchery), ten foot tall DNA helices stood on either side of the exhibit’s entrance, but the first thing visitors saw was H.H. Holmes’ now-familiar face gazing out from the wall furthest from the entrance–a full two-stories tall, eyes leering with the effect of watching a patron no matter where they stood. Along the bright white walls were explanations and hands-on activities relating to the collecting and extracting of DNA, and what genetic markers were and how they helped identify bodies and clear suspects. An infographic proclaimed, “Your genome is an instruction manual for how you grow throughout life. You get half your DNA from your father, and half from your mother. Did H.H. Holmes pass on a serial killing genome?” A replica of Holmes’ concrete-encased double-grave was at the center of it all.

Most of the police concentrated their attention along one of the side walls, titled “Identifying Murder Victims…and Their Murderers.” Davis nudged Adele and pointed.

“Fitting,” he said.

As they moved forward, a large, antique-looking steamer trunk at the foot of the display came into view, and in it was a body. At first glance, considering the macabre nature of the rest of the exhibit, it almost looked like it belonged–except it was freshly dead.

“Hey, Chapman.” Davis nodded in the direction of the officers standing guard. “Avery. You guys have been promoted from front door duty, I see?”

Avery grinned. “Yep. Only took six months.”

“How’s life, Dunleavy?” Chapman asked.

“Better than this poor soul’s.” Davis craned his neck at the crime scene as he pulled on latex gloves. Another infographic explained that DNA could have been collected from one of Holmes’ trunks to help identify both the victim and the killer if only the technology had been available–or if they still had one of the trunks because of trace DNA.

“Yeah, crazy, isn’t it? Never thought we’d get a call for a murder up here. Figured it’d be someone trying to steal something.”

“No kidding. What have you found so far? Fill me in.”

“Whatcha see is whatcha get,” Chapman said. “No one seems to know how this girl got here. And in the trunk no less.”

“M.E. on the way?” Davis asked.

“Yep.”

“Any guesses on the time of death?”

“Not ’til the M.E. gets here, but we know there was no body in the trunk as of 6am this morning,” Avery pointed out.

“Oh?” Davis replied, walking around the trunk. “How do you know that?”

Avery tossed his head across the room.

“The tall brunette over there. Says she was the last one in here–at least before the body arrived. That guy–” Avery nodded in the opposite direction. “He checked in on things at 8am and 8:45am, but only to make sure the lights were on. He couldn’t say if there was a body there or not.”

Davis raised an eyebrow. Avery spread his hands wide.

“I know. Said he was checking the lights.”

“Do they have security tapes?”

“Working on it.”

“Thanks, Ave.” A bright flash lit up the already very white display as Adele began to photograph the scene. Chapman shielded his eyes.

“Man. Whoever created this show really went for the White City theme,” Chapman said.

“Like Burnham did,” Avery replied.

“Burnham?” Davis asked.

“He had all of the Exposition buildings whitewashed so they looked like they were glowing.” Chapman stepped aside to make room for Adele. “Plus they used streetlights on the Midway.”

“Exposition?” Davis asked again.

“The Columbian Exposition of 1893? The World’s Fair?” Surprise was in Avery’s tone.

“Ah. The World’s Fair,” Davis replied.

“You didn’t know that?” Chapman asked, eyes wide with doubt.

“Sounds vaguely familiar. Don’t know much about this–” Davis waved his hand around the exhibit.

“You live under a rock, Dunleavy? You almost can’t miss this stuff these days,” Chapman said. “I mean, no offense, but it’s everywhere.”

“No offense taken.”

“This sounds like one for you. Like the Petoskey case,” Avery said. “Who the hell would do this?”

“Not for me, boys. The Chief called up Organized Crime, but they’re busy with the Feds.”

“Organized Crime? Geez.” Chapman screwed up his face and hesitated. “Say, Ave, this doesn’t seem like Organized Crime to me. You?”

Avery was shaking his head. He turned to Davis. “I know we’re rookies and all, Dunleavy, but when’s the last time you saw any type of gangster put a body all nice and neat like in a trunk–and then put it in a museum for everyone to see?”

“Can’t say as I have, Avery.” He snapped off his gloves.

Just Submit the Story Already!

pexels-photo-862115.jpegOn Twitter, I began participating in the #52stories52weeks challenge, which is just as it sounds: write a short story/flash fiction piece every week for a year. Now, let’s be honest– I stopped working on short stories to focus on finishing my WIP, The Devil Inside Me, but that challenge helped me in so many ways. In addition to connecting with fellow writers, I also explored my WIP’s characters through these short pieces. Each one had a background story to tell, from the protagonist to the murder victims to the H.H. Holmes tour guide.

The legend of H.H. Holmes, as you may know, is what prompted me to begin The Devil Inside Me. One of my short stories, “Downright Devilish,” is part of a series that re-imagines the childhood of Holmes, based partly on historical fact. I was hesitant to submit it anywhere because, well, I’m not a published author. But everyone has to start somewhere in order to become that published author, right? So I submitted. And submitted. And submitted. And got rejection. And rejection. And rejection. And…a yes!

Please enjoy “Downright Devilish” as it appears on Fourth and Sycamore’s online literary journal.

Writers, if you have a short story lying around, or some poetry tucked away in a notebook, submit it. That one “yes” will be worth the stack of rejections, I promise.

PS–If you want to read more of The Devil Inside Me, sign up HERE today!

An Excerpt from The Devil Inside Me

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Photo credit: Scott Smith

In honor of the blog being around for two months, an April publication date for a short story, and finally beginning the last third of The Devil Inside Me, here’s an excerpt, introducing Ephraim Trueworthy Webster, our antagonist (though he doesn’t see himself that way). I’d love to hear your feedback via comments, and if you’d like to read more, sign up for my emailing list here!


He was a tall man who looked even taller, cloaked as he was in a long, black duster. He dug in his heels as he took the last two steps to the top of the hill. It was a relaxing view, overlooking the long-abandoned Jilst Saw Mill, headstones dotting the land. The trees along the Suncook River had lost their leaves, allowing the water to come into view. His eyes honed onto a centuries-old carved headstone. He stood in the cold, the mist suspended mid-air. He gazed longingly at the grave, cementing, in his own dark mind, his own dark lineage.

This was it. His life. His liberation. His legacy.

From his stance on the hill, Ephraim Trueworthy Webster surveyed his surroundings. The Gilmanton cemetery was a repository for generations of his family, some of whom likely died at the hands of a blood relative. He could feel that blood running through his veins. He could feel his blood running through his veins. His legacy. And Ephraim Trueworthy Webster was going to revive that legacy for all to see.

#

The subterranean lobby of Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry was crowded on the free admission day in spite of the typical November weather: It was cold, it was damp, and a grey, overcast sky refused to belie the time of day. No, the weather was not the reason for the crowd. The Chicagoans had come out en masse for the opening day of the museum’s newest and edgiest exhibit: DNA and the Devil of the White City. Thanks to a recent docuseries, Dr. H.H. Holmes once again reigned supreme as Chicago’s favorite, and allegedly first, serial killer. Part science and part history–it was, after all, about the technology of DNA collection and examination–the exhibit was also part gruesomeness. The museum’s leadership had finally admitted that murder was fascinating to the public, and it was going to capitalize on this local media sensation by finally creating its first PG-13 exhibit, special ticketing and parent-permission required. Holmes’ mustachioed and unsmiling face stared down at patrons from one of the enormous posters (G-rated, of course) nearly the height of the lobby, with the words “Are you a descendant of this fiendish mastermind?” emblazoned upon it.

As the lobby clock ticked down the four minutes until the doors would open to the museum proper, a solitary man stood outside, pulled his duster closer around him, and leaned against one of the massive Ionic columns that had been architect Daniel Burnham’s legacy for Chicago during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. This, too, tightened the Museum’s connection to Holmes’ time: It was one of only two buildings from the Exposition that remained in the city, a building contemporary to the years Holmes made Chicago his hunting ground. The front facade with its enormous limestone steps was no longer used as a formal entrance, but the man remained. His coat collar stood turned up. A cigarette faltered between his fingertips. When the 9am clang of St. Thomas the Apostle’s bells rang out, he did not try to enter the museum. When he finally heard the screams, he still did not move, save to stamp out his cigarette.

#

The wind was so severe he could see miniature white caps forming on Lake Michigan from his eleventh-floor room at the Congress Plaza Hotel. Ephraim loved the Congress Plaza. Its views of Grant Park and the Buckingham Fountain only amplified the architectural detail inside and out, and, when restorations were done to the 1893 landmark, they were truly that: restorations. The Congress Plaza might change out its lobby chairs and bar stools now and then, but even when they did, the velvety ambiance evoked was still that of the early 1900s. Turning pages in an old leather-bound album at the tiger oak desk, his reverie was broken by the harsh sound of a nasally reporter on the television.

“The man who charmed his way into the lives of women he’d murder and money-lenders he’d cheat couldn’t charm his way out of death in 1896. And now that we know the monstrous H.H. Holmes is indeed lying in his grave–surrounded by cement, but lying in his grave–and without even a remnant of his Murder Castle left to be turned into a ghastly tourist attraction, Chicago’s first serial killer is likely to fall back into the quiet infamy from which he came.”

He rolled his eyes upward toward the crown molding, shaking his head. It wasn’t right. There was no “infamy” about H.H. Holmes: he was a mastermind of a murderer. Was it politically correct to say so? No. But that didn’t mean that credit wasn’t due. Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler–they were all ruthless despots, but no one could say that they weren’t brilliant and cunning strategists. The same went for Holmes. Why was it so hard for these television reporters to laud him for that? He continued listening, head shaking slightly in disagreement, but his mind was shifting. He was catching only pieces of sentences, then pieces of words, as his mind drifted toward a recent memory, and he could no longer register anything: the reporter’s mouth moved from words and sounds to shapes and silence. He no longer saw the reporter. His mind was firmly elsewhere–on a hill, in Gilmanton, New Hampshire.