On the outside, H.H. Holmes,
His criminal career kicked into high gear in Englewood, Ill., just outside of Chicago, where he worked as a pharmacist and impressed people not only with his medical knowledge but with his power over women--who flocked to the store just to flirt with him. The proprietress of the drugstore sold it to Holmes after her husband died, but never saw any money from Holmes. When she filed a lawsuit, Holmes told people she'd gone to see family in California. She was never heard from again.
Though it's believed that Holmes killed people all over the country, the "Castle" he built in Englewood was the culmination of all his murderous desires--and a pleasure palace for the budding psychopath.
Holmes built the Castle in the vacant lot across from the drugstore in the fall of 1888, the same year Jack the Ripper started killing women in London. Holmes served as the architect, and when the building was finished two years later, he marketed it as a boarding house for young single women who were visiting Chicago or coming from neighboring towns to find a better life. As many as 50 of the women who came to the Castle during the World's Fair never left.
The Inquirer printed his confession, which mentioned only 27 victims but revealed some of his methods. Before he killed many of the victims, he asked them to write letters to relatives or friends explaining they'd gone away so their absences wouldn't be noticed. Two women, one of them pregnant, were told if they wrote the letters, they'd go free. But as soon as they signed the letters Holmes killed them.
In his confession, he wrote, "These were particularly sad deaths, both on account of the victims being exceptionally upright and virtuous women and because Mrs. Sarah Cook, had she lived, would have soon become a mother."
Because it was a boarding house, the Castle had a reception room, a waiting room and several rooms for residents. Aside from those and some hallways, the house was comprised of secret chambers, trap doors, hidden laboratories and rooms devoted to killing people.
One of them, which the media dubbed "the Vault," was a walk-in room with iron walls and gas jets that Holmes controlled from his bedroom. There was a dumbwaiter for lowering bodies and a "hanging chamber." He had a medieval torture rack in the basement, and a greased chute that went from the roof to the basement so he could dump bodies. He had a maze he sent his victims through and a terrifying "blind room."
Several rooms were airtight and without windows--one of them fitted with iron plates, another lined with asbestos. There was an asphyxiation chamber with gas jets that could be turned into blowtorches, perhaps to roast people alive.
When the police inspected the Castle after Holmes was in jail, they were horrified. It was beyond belief--for any century, but especially the 1800s.
There were claw marks on the walls of the Vault from people who'd tried to escape. In the basement there was a bloodstained dissecting table and surgical instruments. There was a vat of acid with human bones in it, and piles of quicklime, one of which yielded a girl's dress. There was an enormous stove to burn bodies in--and a stovepipe with human hair in it.
They found human skulls, a shoulder blade, ribs, a hip socket and countless other remains. They also found--perhaps more disturbingly--Holmes' victims' belongings: watches, buttons, photographs, half-burnt ladies' shoes.
The only comfort inspectors had as they traipsed through the building was that Holmes was already in custody at Philadelphia's Moyamensing Prison. But the story was far from over.
The tale of H.H. Holmes has been told before. It was told by Philly detective Frank Geyer in his book written immediately after the case. It was told in the trial transcript. It was the subject of the exhaustively researched true-crime book Depraved by Harold Schecter, and was featured in Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, which juxtaposes Holmes' Chicago crimes with the story of the Chicago World's Fair. It was told in the media at the time and is also told--though not to many--in John Borowski's documentary H.H. Holmes: America's First Serial Killer, which is awaiting distribution. Supposedly, both Tom Cruise and Leonardo DiCaprio are working on projects about Holmes.
Despite being America's first serial killer, Holmes is hardly a familiar name, and until now we haven't had any popular visual record of his crimes. But next month comes Rick Geary's graphic novel The Beast of Chicago: The Murderous Career of H.H. Holmes, the sixth in his series of graphic novels about 19th-century murders. Geary's Treasury of Victorian Murder series includes Lizzie Borden, Jack the Ripper and President Garfield's assassin.
Asked what got him started on these graphic novels, Geary says, "I've always been fascinated by true-crime cases and the Victorian period, and I first combined them in the early '80s with stories I did for National Lampoon and various graphic story anthologies. The first volume of Treasury of Victorian Murder, made up of three separate stories, came out in 1987."
Geary's style in Beast is simple and friendly, but it recreates in painstaking detail what the World's Columbian Exhibition looked like--the constructed "nations of the world" pavilion with an Egyptian temple, Moorish palace and Japanese bazaars. He has a keen eye for period specifics, like the hats the men wore and the high collars of women's dresses. Even the bottles in Holmes' pharmacy are period-perfect, marked "Mrs. Lymon's Blood Tonic for Ladies" or "Stomach Bitters."
Of such period details and historical markers, Geary says, "I aim, above all, for accuracy and clarity in the depiction of these cases, and I believe that the graphic story form is a perfect vehicle for achieving this. I'm especially drawn to the unsolved cases, and I love to make use of maps and overhead views in order to let the facts speak for themselves. For cases like Jack the Ripper and Lizzie Borden, I have no theories of my own to promote; I just enjoy the fact that they're mysteries. With someone like Holmes, as with any psychopath, the mystery is that of human motivation, and is more difficult to portray graphically."
Geary's visual portrait of Holmes has one distinguishing feature you won't get in the written accounts: eyes that betray a lingering sadness. On one page, Geary devotes a single panel to those haunting eyes--and you can't help but feel a little sympathy mixed in with the horror. It's a bold choice to make Holmes slightly vulnerable, and it belies Geary's merry narration and clean lines.
"Holmes was different from other killers I've depicted in that his particular character, that of a seductive con artist without a conscience, was the template for so many 20th-century killers."
PW's Taste of Philly 2014
Election Day 2014: Tues., Nov. 4