Devil in the White City

Serial killer H. H. Holmes

Devil in the White City

The White City, illuminated by electric lights, at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair
The White City, illuminated by electric lights, at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair

I was excited to see that Erik Larson’s book Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America is in development to be made into a motion picture starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

Larson’s book reads like a novel but is, in reality, a nonfiction piece. Every event that occurs in the book is factual.  Even the dialogue actually was spoken and is the result of Larson’s in-depth research.

The devil in the title refers to H. H. Holmes, the United States’ first documented serial killer. The White City refers to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair being constructed by famed architect Daniel Burnham.

The Devil

Serial killer H. H. Holmes
Serial killer H. H. Holmes

Dr. Henry Howard Holmes was one of the many aliases of Herman Webster Mudgett. Born in New Hampshire, he killed animals as a child. Later, he went to medical school where, to make easy money, he sold skeletons and made false insurance claims.

When he moved to Chicago, he assumed the H. H. Holmes alias and ingrained himself into the community.

He had built a structure with chambers specifically for torturing, killing and cremating victims that later was nicknamed the Murder Castle. Construction workers were routinely fired, so they would not learn the true nature of the building.

Holmes married three times, never divorcing any of the previous wives, and was engaged to a fourth woman; he had two children.

The Murder Castle

H. H. Holmes' Murder Castle
The Murder Castle

During the World’s Fair, Holmes opened his building to the public as the World’s Fair Hotel. Many hotel patrons, especially young women traveling alone, became his victims.

But it wasn’t the Murder Castle that got Holmes in trouble with the law. It was his persistent insurance schemes. After authorities were notified, Holmes fled Chicago and traveled throughout the U.S. and Canada. He eventually was arrested in Boston.

Holmes admitted to killing 27 people, although police only could prove nine. Historians estimate he may have killed as many as 200 people.

“I was born with the devil in me,” Holmes said. “I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing. I was born with the evil one standing as my sponsor beside the bed where I was ushered into the world, and he has been with me since.”

Holmes was executed in 1896.

Jack the Ripper?

The H. H. Holmes killings o on the front page of the Evening Star
The murders made headlines

Some, including his own great-great-grandson, believe Holmes also was Jack the Ripper.

In his book Bloodstains, Jeff Mudgett claims a handwriting expert examined notes written by Jack the Ripper and by Holmes and verified that the handwriting has a 98 percent probability of coming from the same person.

Holmes was in London during the killings in 1888, but there is little evidence of his whereabouts, and many researchers have disputed a connection.

Nevertheless, Mudgett won’t have his opinion swayed.

“I’m a believer,” Mudgett says. “I’d be willing to debate that Holmes was Jack the Ripper with anyone, anywhere, anytime.”

Devil in the White City Motion Picture

The film adaptation of Devil has been in development since 2010 when Leonardo DiCaprio purchased the film rights.  Martin Scorsese will direct, and DiCaprio will star as Holmes.

Scorsese has more than a dozen films in the development stage, and the film looks no closer to a release date than it did in 2010.

“Right now, there is a script being worked on,” Scorsese told The Toronto Sun in 2016.

That seems to be the last update on the film.  An IMDB page for the film lists it as a television series, but there are no episodes.



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Updated: 16 October 2020
Melina Druga
Most kids have an active imagination. My imagination has stayed strong into adulthood, and I’ve funneled that creativity into a successful writing career. I write history, both fiction and nonfiction, because although your school history classes may have been boring, the past is not. My goal is to bring the past to life in all its myriad of colors.
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