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DepravedThe Definitive True Story of H.H. Holmes, Whose Grotesque Crimes Shattered Turn-of-the-Century Chicago
By Harold Schechter
Pocket StarCopyright © 2004 Harold Schechter
All right reserved.
Among the human predators that exist in every period of history, a few become legends. From Giles de Rais (the original "Bluebeard") to Jack the Ripper to Ted Bundy, these beings assume the status of myth. That status derives partly from the hideous nature of their crimes, which seem less like the product of madness than the handiwork of some supernatural horror -- the doings of demons or ghouls.
But their mythic dimension stems from another source, too. These individuals fascinate because they seem to symbolize the darkest impulses of their times -- aristocratic depravity, the diseased sexuality spawned by Victorian taboos, the sociopathic appetites of our own "culture of narcissism." As much as any hero or celebrity, such monsters personify their day. In his book Representative Men, Ralph Waldo Emerson argues that the divine essence incarnates itself in remarkable figures - Plato, Shakespeare, Napoleon.
The deeds of creatures like de Rais, the Ripper, Bundy, and others suggest that primordial evil does, too.
In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, a fiend roamed through America.
His career coincided with a remarkable time in the life of our nation -- with that era of feverish enterprise and gaudy excess that Mark Twain dubbed "The Gilded Age." Titanic energies were afoot in the land. It was a period of sweeping social change, when our country was burgeoning into an industrial and commercial giant, and American technological wizardry -- Bell's telephone, Edison's lightbulb, Ford's "horseless carriage" -- was altering the very nature of modern life.
Most of all, it was an age when the almighty dollar held sway as never before and a "mania for money-getting" (in Mark Twain's words) gripped the soul of America. In place of the military idols of the Civil War, society now worshiped a new breed of hero -- the self-made millionaire, the captain of industry, the financial tycoon. P.T. Barnum publicized "The Rules of Success," Andrew Carnegie preached "The Gospel of Wealth," and Horatio Alger inspired the youth of America with his rags-to-riches dreams.
Hungry for their share of that dream, enormous tides of humanity swept into the cities, swelling their populations to unprecedented size. The United States, formerly a country of small towns, villages, and farms became the land of the metropolis -- New York, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit. But of all the sprawling cities, none epitomized the spirit of the age - the expansive growth, raw energy, and driving ambition - more completely than Chicago, the "gem of the prairie," the "most American of American cities," as one awestruck visitor described it.
Reduced to ashes by the great fire of 1871, Chicago soared back to life like a phoenix, becoming the world's first skyscraper city in 1885 and passing the million mark in population five years later. Booming with vigor, heady with pride, flush with opportunity -- "Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads, and freight Handler to the Nation" -- Chicago was a colossal magnet, drawing newcomers by the thousands.
Pouring out of the countryside in their quest for a brighter life, these hopefuls were brimming with spunk and ambition. "How shall one hymn, let alone suggest, a city as great as this in spirit" rhapsodized Theodore Dreisler, himself one of the legion of "life-hungry" dreamers who swarmed to Chicago. "The American of this time, native, for the most part, of endless backwoods communities, was ignorant and gauche. But how ambitious and courageous! Such bumptiousness! Such assurance!"
And there was another quality too, that these migrant throngs possessed. They were full of innocence. Fresh from the provinces, they knew little of the corruptions and perils of the big city, of its dark and brutal underside.
For along with the hardworking thousands, the city attracted a very different breed of dweller -- creatures lured to the metropolis not by its sparkling promise, but by its cloaking shadows, not by the availability of work but the abundance of prey, not by a hunger for success but by the smell of blood.
For a man of monstrous appetites, Chicago was a land of plenty. It is no wonder, then, that the city became the home to he most heinous criminal of the age. Having drifted westward from his birthplace in New England, he arrived in the metropolis in1886 and, finding it ideal for his purposes, settle in its outskirts.
To all outward appearances, he was a quintessential man of his day, possessed of the prodigious energies characteristic of that bustling era. Doctor, druggist, inventor, get-rich-quick schemer, he consecrated himself to the acquisition of wealth.
But greed was not what drove him. All the wealth of J.P. Morgan could never have gratified his darkest compulsion.
In a booming suburb of Chicago, he erected his stronghold, a place as imposing in its way as Marshall Field's dazzling emporium or the gleaming domes and spires of the Chicago world's Fair -- "the Great White City" that would arise on the shores of Lake Michigan within a few years of the monster's arrival. Massively built and bristling with battlements and turrets, the structure served as both business place and residence, though its appearance made it seem more like a medieval fortress. Appropriately, it came to be known as "the Castle."
To the neighborhood residents, the Castle was a source of pride, a symbol of the prominence and prosperity of their thriving suburb. Those who were enticed inside, however, and who glimpsed the castle's darkest secrets acquired a very different impression. But none of them lived to reveal what lay behind the splendid facade.
The discrepancy between its outward appearance and inner reality mirrored the nature of the owner himself. But in this sense, too, the lord of the Castle was a representative man of his day. After all, in characterizing his time not as golden but as a gilded age, Mark twain had meant to emphasize its specious quality.
Of course, Mark Twain could never have imagined a place like the Castle. Theodore Dreiser couldn't have either, in despite of his deep understanding of the city's sordid underside. It would have taken a writer with a far different sort of imagination to conceive of such a place. It would have taken Edgar Allen Poe.
When investigators finally broke into the Castle, they were stunned at what they found -- a Gothic labyrinth of trapdoors, secret passageways, soundproof vaults, and torture chambers. And then there were the greased chutes -- large enough to accommodate a human body -- that led down from the living quarters to a cellar equipped with acid vats, a crematorium, a dissecting table, and cases full of gleaming surgical tools.
As the true character of the Castle's owner came to light, the public struggled to make sense of him. Some saw in him the malignant consequences of Gilded Age rapacity, others diagnosed him as a case of "moral degeneracy," while there were those who spoke in terms of satanic possession. Unacquainted as yet with the language of sociopathology, the American public could only characterize him in the terminology of the day -- archfiend, monster, demon. They did not know how else to describe him, since the correct label hadn't yet been invented.
In appearance, manner, and enterprise, he was an epitome of his age. But in respect to his psychopathology, he was very much a man of our own. And for that reason, he is of some historic significance.
An early edition of The Guinness Book of World Records lists him as "the most prolific murderer known in recent criminal history." In the era of Henry Lee Lucas and John Wayne Gacy, that record has long since been broken. But he holds another distinction that time can never erase.
His name was Herman Mudgett, though the world knew him as H. H. Holmes -- and he was America's first serial killer.
Copyright 1994 by Harold Schechter
Excerpted from Depraved by Harold Schechter Copyright © 2004 by Harold Schechter.
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