Monday, 25 August 2014

A Treasury of Victorian Murder: The Beast of Chicago Review (Rick Geary)

This is the case of H H Holmes, the "Beast of Chicago". Told succinctly but thoroughly and always clearly, despite the often complicated situations Holmes created, Geary has written a highly engaging book on the man labelled as "America's first serial killer". 

H H Holmes scammed insurance companies to raise enough money to build his own hotel labelled by locals, "the castle". He hired different companies to build different parts of his hotel with the overall scheme of the building known only to Holmes. 

This was due to the various rooms he wanted built: a hanging room, airtight rooms with gas injectors, secret rooms, a trapdoor in the bathroom leading to and from the basement, an enormous furnace, stairs that led to nowhere, rooms without windows, and a medieval style basement with stretching rack. 

He then opened the doors to visitors coming to Chicago's World Fair that summer. He targeted mainly young women and estimates on his murders reach triple figures though he only admitted to 27 after he was caught. His "castle" burned down shortly after he was executed. 

Geary doesn't try to explain Holmes' behaviour through speculation but only mentions the known facts, few as they are. Holmes was beaten by a drunken father as a child and was also locked in a doctor's room alone with a human skeleton. Some schoolmates also remember hearing that he used to dissect stray animals. Though these are signs of a fractured psyche it's no explanation for the pathological and psychotic killings that Holmes committed in his life. He remains a mystery. 

I'm interested in history but rarely to the extent of reading 700 page books on a particular case or person. It's useful then that Rick Geary's written/illustrated several 50 page graphic novels about fascinating and sometimes forgotten figures in history. This is one of Geary's best, and Holmes' case is a mesmerising read. Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City is also worth reading for the H H Holmes chapters.

The Beast of Chicago

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