Way back in 1893 Chicago was set to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ finding of the Americas by hosting the World’s Fair. It was a way for the city to show that it had overcome the damage done by the Chicago fire that wiped out parts of the city as well as an exposition for inventors, music, and other entertainment. Thomas Edison was there along with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show and it was the debut of this weird new invention called the Ferris wheel. Other parts of the fair were like a real world Epcot with Native Americans, foreign animals, and indigenous people from all over the world being shipped in. Basically, it was a really big deal.
In 2003, historian Erick Larson wrote a now famous book called Devil In The White City that chronicles the fair and the events surrounding it. Larson weaves his novel between the lives of chief architect Daniel Burnham and serial killer H.H. Holmes, both worked in Chicago at the time of the world’s fair. It’s a story that reflects two different Americas, one of prestige and one that depicts the seedy underbelly of humanity.
Burnham’s story is informative, but the portrayal of Holmes is what keeps the book moving along. He was a con artist who made money by stealing bodies from labs and graves, then falsifying insurance claims on them. Holmes eventually got a job in a Chicago pharmacy, doling out medicine and making his name in the community. After the pharmacist Holmes worked for died, he was able to buy the pharmacy from the owner’s widow. She mysteriously disappeared after Holmes only made a few payments.
Leonardo DiCaprio (a small actor probably best known for his role as “Luke” on Growing Pains) bought the film rights to Devil In The White City in 2010 and is apparently set to play Holmes. Even after Shutter Island, this will be DiCaprio’s darkest role. If the movie doesn’t get caught in Hollywood limbo, he’ll play a man who is responsible from somewhere between 27 and 200 murders. Holmes was a charismatic individual and at times seemed to be in almost total control of other people’s perception of him. He married woman after woman (only once legally filing papers) and convinced them to sign over their inheritance or property rights over to him, only to later “disappear.”
While Burnham was turning the Windy City into the White City (the national nickname for the fair), Holmes was designing his infamous murder castle. Holmes (who’s real name was Herman Mudgett) was lucky in that the pharmacy he owned was in prime position for the upcoming World’s Fair, where millions of people from all over the world would soon want to visit. He turned his simple drugstore into a labyrinth of long hallways, dead ends, and hidden rooms. By constantly hiring and firing different contractors he was able to keep up the image of a hotel while the giant furnaces, soundproof bedrooms, chutes to the basement, and stretching rack stayed hidden.
There’s a whole litany of reports on how creepy the hotel was. Guests reported smelling gas, which made sense since Holmes’ preferred way of killing was to lock his victims in their room and pump gas through the vents. He sat outside the door and listened as they moaned, begged to be released, and eventually fell silent.
Since Holmes tortured and killed so many of his customers as well as employees, he always had vacancies and job openings to advertise. Young women from all over the country who were swept up in the excitement of the fair saw Holmes’ hotel and pharmacy as a perfect opportunity. Insurance companies eventually caught onto Holmes since he was cashing in on so many policies and he had to go on the lam. He ran away with two children of one of his associates.
Eventually he was busted in Texas on land he swindled from a pair of sisters he killed. After his arrest, Chicago police made their way into Holmes’ fortress and found impressions of footprints on doors, clear evidence of people trying to escape their fate.
The case was a massive news story before the turn of the century and cast a dark light on the fair which was initially seen as a complete success. Holmes was hanged in 1896, but Larson’s novel has sparked a new interest in the topic and DiCaprio’s film will almost certainly bring the story back into the national spotlight.