The corner of 63rd and Wallace belongs right up there with John Wayne Gacy’s bungalow among the top spots in Chicago–possibly anywhere–where atrocities have been committed by the truly twisted. Driving down 63rd Street we almost miss the intersection, but quickly pull into a busy Aldi supermarket lot. This lot is where Harold Schechter, an American literature professor visiting from Queens College in New York, thinks the Castle once stood.
On this corner in 1888 an ambitious businessman named H.H. Holmes began erecting a large, turreted three-story office building that was the pride of then-fashionable suburban Englewood. But within a few years the truth began coming out about the sinister things happening inside. The press dubbed it the “Castle of Horrors” and said it “loomed like a great dark fortress” over the neighborhood.
Today the building is gone, and there’s little to suggest that anything ever happened here. But spotting the RTA tracks along one side of the property, Schechter suddenly remembers that trains stopped not far from Holmes’s property.
Holmes’s name lacks the marquee value of, say, Ted Bundy or Richard Speck, but Schechter has tried to reestablish Holmes’s place in the pantheon of psychos with a book called Depraved: The Shocking True Story of America’s First Serial Killer. “Once you start getting immersed in the literature of famous American killers, of course you encounter Holmes’s name,” he says matter-of-factly. Jeffrey Dahmer may have snagged a People cover as America’s most notorious serial killer, but Holmes–called a “human monster,” “bloodthirsty fiend,” and “murder-demon” by the newspapers of his day–paved the way for him.
In a sensational published confession, which he later recanted, Holmes admitted to murdering 27 men, women, and children. Some reports put the number of his victims as high as a couple hundred, including perhaps 50 people who were his guests during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and never returned home. Most of his victims died from being asphyxiated, chloroformed, or slowly starved. He often sold their skeletons to a medical college for $25 to $45 each.
“When investigators finally broke into the Castle,” Schechter writes, “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.”
The press noted that Holmes’s crimes seemed to come straight out of the pages of “Bluebeard.” A Chicago journalist coined the term “multimurderer” to describe his unprecedented villainy. Sensational headlines (A CHAMBER OF HORRORS! CASTLE IS A TOMB! NO JEKYLL, ALL HYDE) and instant pulp books (Holmes, the Arch Fiend, or: A Carnival of Crime, and Sold to Satan, which was translated into Swedish and German) proliferated as his high-profile trial held the country rapt. Nearly 5,000 curious people filed through the Castle to view its macabre chambers. An entrepreneur wanted to turn the building into a “murder museum.” Holmes, considered “the most dastardly criminal of the age,” even attempted to cash in on the nation’s obsession with a tell-all tome of his own.
People were riveted even before bodies started turning up. “It had to do with his greed for money,” Schechter says, “with the way he was willing to sacrifice human life to achieve wealth, which was such a real issue at the time when the self-made millionaire had become this cultural ideal. But also at the same time there was a lot of–you know Twain’s book The Gilded Age?–a lot of discomfort and distress over the extent to which the religion of wealth had taken over the country.” The decade had been rocked by weakening economic conditions and labor violence, including the 1894 Pullman strike in Chicago.
Holmes moved to Chicago in 1886, when he was in his mid-20s. He found a job at a pharmacy on 63rd Street and took over the business when the owner inexplicably disappeared. Around the time Jack the Ripper was stalking the streets of London, Holmes began building his Castle across the street from the pharmacy, hiring and firing a succession of workers to ensure that he’d be the only one privy to the entire building plan. On the ground floor he put in several storefronts, one of which became his new pharmacy.
Born Herman Mudgett in New Hampshire, Holmes changed his name to accommodate his notorious philandering. He was married simultaneously to three women who didn’t know about each other. Many of his mistresses, often hired as employees, disappeared after a short time. A master schemer and manipulator, Holmes also tried to steal money from many of them. The Chicago Tribune called him “about the smoothest and best all-around swindler that ever struck this town.”
“If he hadn’t been a psychopath he probably would have been a really successful individual,” Schechter says. “All of them–Gacy and Bundy–they really go about these things very, very systematically, and it is very scary to think about. The terror of the serial killer is that he’s not like a raving madman. He’s somebody who’s able to function intelligently. He puts this high intelligence at the service of these incredible pathological appetites.”
Depraved is the third book in Schechter’s “D” trilogy of serial killers, which he classifies as “true horror.” First was Deviant, a biography of Ed Gein, the infamous Wisconsin killer whose crimes inspired both Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs, then Deranged, a profile of 1930s child killer Albert Fish.
When Schechter, a native of the Bronx, arrived in Chicago a cabdriver asked what brought him to town, then passed on a factoid he thought Schechter would appreciate. “He was reading the latest copy of India Today magazine or something,” says Schechter. “Some guy was just arrested over in India who killed 200 people.”
Such is the nature of small talk when you’ve carved out a niche doing serial-killer biographies. At cocktail parties people often ask Schechter why he writes the stuff. “If they’ve read my books sometimes they say, ‘Oh, you look so normal,'” says Schechter, a perfectly pleasant man. “I’m always surprised by their reaction, because it’s not as though the people who read or enjoy horror are strange. Stephen King got a $50 million advance for his books because he has this enormous audience. There aren’t enough psychos in the world to justify paying Stephen King that kind of money.”
Schechter’s still pondering the title of his next book, the tale of Earl Leonard Nelson, who killed 22 women beginning in the 1920s. “I was going to call it Bestial. It turns out that I’ve gotten associated with a gimmick, so there’s some pressure to write another book that begins with the letter D. Something like Degenerate. But Bestial fits very perfectly with the case I’m writing about. I might just go ahead with it.”
Schechter doesn’t choose his killers purely by body count. He looks for compelling stories and tries to find representatives from different decades as a way to write a “shadow history” of an era. “These are true-life figures whose cases somehow are like these nightmarish realizations of supernatural horror stories. These are almost like the ogres of myth and nightmare in folklore come to life. It’s not just a psycho killing a lot of people.”
Schechter got hooked on horror growing up in the 1950s, “the golden age of grade-B horror movies.” The escapism of horror and its cathartic power has always intrigued him. “It’s a safe way of taking a very, very dangerous trip to the outer edge of human behavior and the outer edge of your behavior,” he explains. “Obviously the major audience for horror and books about serial killers is law-abiding middle-class people. It’s not psychos lining up at the multiplex. People need that kind of stuff, but they need it in a socially acceptable guise. Stories which sort of show that crime never wins, that criminals get caught and executed. I think it’s a way of neutralizing these anxieties and desires and forbidden taboos that you’re not even aware you have. Freud talked about the way in which kids create games out of things they’re afraid of as a way of making them safe. Turning them into a story is a way of doing that.”
He says his rather conventional suburban life has never been haunted by the terrors he spends so much time considering. “Allowing my own shadow side imaginative free rein has never been a problem for me. When people ask me why I’m so fascinated by horror and bloodshed and gore I say it’s because I’m in touch with my inner child. Kids love horror. Fairy tales are rife with horror and atrocity and gore.” He says even The Silence of the Lambs suggests a fairy tale: “A young orphan girl has to rescue a princess who gets trapped in a dungeon of an ogre.”
Reading stories like Depraved has long been a guilty pleasure, he says. It’s like driving by a car accident: you don’t want to look, but you just can’t help yourself. Schechter, who often lectures in his literature classes about the folklore of horror, points to ballads, broadsides, early tabloids, and art both high and low. “You can’t get any more gruesome than Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus or any Elizabethan revenge tragedy. Women are raped and have their arms cut off and their tongues ripped out. And then the Grand Guignol in Paris, which was really no different than the most explicit of modern splatter movies.” Serial killers conjure up a fairy tale that’s very meaningful to Americans. “This is our monster,” Schechter says.
In researching Depraved Schechter read everything there was pertaining to Holmes, but the serial killer remained an elusive character. Psychological testing wasn’t available in the late 19th century, Schechter says, so it’s hard to say exactly what shaped his murderous bent. Greed seems to have predominated. He murdered one of his mistresses and her sister to get his hands on some property in Texas. He also set up a number of insurance payoffs. He double-crossed a colleague who agreed to fake his own death to receive $10,000 in insurance benefits, murdering the man and three of his children, asphyxiating two of the kids in a trunk with gas pumped through a small tube. This scheme eventually led to his capture by Pinkerton agents in 1894 and his subsequent trial. Two years later he was sent to the gallows.
“The whole notion of having a Gothic castle full of chemical vats and murdering people with chloroform–there’s something very Victorian about it,” Schechter says. “Whereas the Ripper, even though he was an exact contemporary of Holmes, really in a sense was ahead of his time. He points the way toward our own modern obsessions–that sexual-sadistic lust murder. It’s the kind of crime that speaks to our own contemporary preoccupations with sex and violence.” Which may be why Jack the Ripper became a legendary bogeyman and Holmes just a footnote.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.