Years ago, Erik Larson, a non-fiction writer who tends to bring often obscure, yet interesting stories to light with a novelistic feel, authored a critically acclaimed book The Devil in the White City. So acclaimed it was, that Leonardo DiCaprio took interest and was able to purchase the film rights in 2010. Recently, it was also reported that golden boy Leonardo DiCaprio will be playing the main character, Doctor H.H. Holmes, in an upcoming film adaptation, while Martin Scorsese directs.
The story centers around one of America’s first well-known serial killers in the Chicago, in addition to the lead-up to the world fair, the drama surrounding the winning of the contract for the fair in addition to the lives of the lead architects. The story is just as interesting as it is horrifying. While H.H. Holmes was building his “castle” in downtown Chicago, as the locals nicknamed it, architects Daniel Turnham and John Root were busy slaving under an impossible deadline to turn poor-quality wasteland into a world-class attraction for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.
Little known to the public at the time, H.H. Holmes (real name Herman Mudget) was doing more than just renting rooms and shop space to the public. Within the “castle” he built, he also built in a myriad of rooms and hallways which led to nowhere, a blast furnace in the basement for the disposal of bodies, a gas chamber and an operating table where he cleaned the skeletons. He was suspected in the deaths of at least two hundred people, mostly women. Readers might wonder, why didn’t this arouse suspicions and how did he go uncaught for so long?
H.H. Holmes took advantage of the chaos of the times. All the ruckus caused by the exposition and the massive swell in population in the city was already making Chicago a difficult place to notice a person go missing, let alone a traveler from a faraway city. Police were overwhelmed and their resources were strained. Holmes was finally caught when he slipped up while in jail for a comparably minor offense. He told a fellow prisoner about the scam he was running and promised a cut of the money. Holmes never paid the money and was reported on by the prisoner. It was then that it was finally brought to light that people very close to him were inexplicably missing and that he may have been responsible.
The American public was extremely captivated by the case. The papers reported daily on the progress of the trial. During the trial Holmes dismissed his lawyers and cross-examined witnesses himself. By the end of the trial, it was a foregone conclusion that he would be found guilty. It was said that when he was finally hanged that the prison guards actually wept because they had grown so fond of him.
Although the H.H. Holmes story is fascinating in how outlandish it is, the story about the build up to, and the success of the exposition is equally as interesting. All sorts of colorful characters and the most important men and women of the world attended the fair. Everybody who
was anybody at the time was somehow connected to this great event. Holmes even walked through the turnstiles.
Although it’s anybody’s guess just how the film will portray the story, it will rest-assured be well done, perhaps in a Gangs of New York style, though it probably is too early to speculate.
Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City. Vintage Books. 2004.