I’m testing out a new feature here at The Pretty Good Gatsby. If you guys enjoy it (& I’m hoping you will!), you can definitely look forward to this becoming a regular feature.
History 101 combines my love of books with my love of history. I’m a total history nerd and although my studies focused on the American Civil War, so many other eras have a special place in my heart.
The gist is to ramble on a bit about a historical figure/event/whatever and then to share some books for further reading.
Ready? LET’S GO!
For the first History 101 piece, I wanted to discuss another first: America’s first serial killer, H. H. Holmes. Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, the alias of Herman Webster Mudgett, was born in May 1861 in New Hampshire. By the time of his execution in 1896, Holmes had amassed a staggering victim count. To this day an exact number is unknown, with estimates ranging from a few dozen to hundreds.
Holmes was a conman of legendary proportions. While attending medical school, he would steal bodies, only to later collect the insurance money. By the mid 1880s, Holmes found himself in Chicago (after having married multiple woman along the way) and it is there the story begins.
After a legitimate business failed, Holmes and his wife (whom he married while still married to other women across the country) settled in a Chicago suburb and Holmes found decent earnings as a drugstore clerk. Within a few years he bought out the owner and set to work building an enormous building across the street. This building was to become his infamous murder castle.
From the outside, the new building seemed completely normal: Holmes relocated the drugstore to the first floor and acted as a hotel for visiting guests to the Chicago World’s Fair. In reality, however, Holmes’s true intentions were far more sinister.
Investigators later discovered the true horrors of the ‘castle.’ A giant safe sealed the fate for some victims, while others succumbed to torture. Still more were locked in windowless bedrooms while gas was pumped in through lines that ran along the walls. Holmes also has large furnaces installed which he used to cremate bodies, thus destroying any evidence of his crimes and, through his school connections, he was able to sell off other bodies.
Finally in 1894, after years of swindling and killing, Holmes was caught and ultimately hanged in 1896. In just a few decades he perpetrated acts more gruesome – and numerous – than the country had seen committed by a single man as well as cheat scores of people and companies out of thousands of dollars, all the while playing a loving family man.
My choice of book belongs to Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, an absolutely FASCINATING non-fiction novel.
Larson tells the stories of two men: Daniel H. Burnham, the architect responsible for the fair’s construction, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer masquerading as a charming doctor.
Burnham’s challenge was immense. In a short period of time, he was forced to overcome the death of his partner and numerous other obstacles to construct the famous “White City” around which the fair was built. His efforts to complete the project, and the fair’s incredible success, are skillfully related along with entertaining appearances by such notables as Buffalo Bill Cody, Susan B. Anthony, and Thomas Edison.
The activities of the sinister Dr. Holmes, who is believed to be responsible for scores of murders around the time of the fair, are equally remarkable. He devised and erected the World’s Fair Hotel, complete with crematorium and gas chamber, near the fairgrounds and used the event as well as his own charismatic personality to lure victims.
I know people tend to shy away from non-fiction, claiming they’re too boring, too ‘textbook,’ whatever. Personally, I’m a huge fan of non-fic! &, trust me, Erik Larson’s writing is anything but boring. More often than not I completely forgot I wasn’t reading a fiction novel!
Devil in the White City intertwines Holmes’s story with the World’s Fair beautifully. Everything – and everyone – is brought to life and the details are perfect (I would have loved to have visited the fairgrounds; it sounds magical). Also, I had no idea the inventor of the Ferris Wheel (invented specifically for the fair!) hailed from Pittsburgh!
The painstaking detail given to Holmes is remarkable and, in the case of his crimes, downright nauseating. The lengths he went to for his murders is unbelievable and his smooth, easygoing way of conning people is astonishing.
& that wraps up the first History 101 post! Admittedly it’s a haphazard job with a LOT of rough edges that need to be polished, but this gives you a glimpse as to what’s in store. :) Thoughts?