Study Guide

Dr. H. H. Holmes in The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America

By Erik Larson

Dr. H. H. Holmes

Meet H.H. The H's stand for "Henry Howard," but something like "Hideous Horrorshow " or "Hateful Hellspawn" might be more appropriate…because this guy is sort of like the great-grandpappy of Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy.

Yup: Holmes is one of the first known serial killers.

Born Herman Webster Mudgett, Holmes is twenty-six when he arrives in Chicago's Englewood. Handsome, rich, and with an operating table in his basement—he's quite the catch. Girls flock to his drugstore business in hordes, hoping to meet the young, single doctor with striking blue eyes "once likened to the eyes of a Mesmerist" (1.3.4).

Holmes has no awareness of personal space, standing too close, staring too hard, and touching too long. Yet chicks dig him. He's smooth and sly, a "social chameleon," as Detective Geyer will later call him (4.1.5).

So what's this guy's deal?

Early Life

Not much is known about Holmes' childhood. He liked to make stuff up, so we're not sure what's actually true. As Erik Larson notes:

Several books have been written about Holmes, but none tell quite the same story. (Notes).

We do know that he was born in New Hampshire's Gilmanton Academy, a farming village in remote lake country. He had a brother and a sister, and his parents who were devout Methodists.

Young Holmes liked to read tales by Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe. He also liked to invent things, as we'll later see when he designs and creates his castle in Englewood. He hid his treasures in a small box, something he'd continue to do into adulthood.

Oh, and supposedly his favorite possession was his own tooth. That's normal, right?

The kid was definitely bullied. In his own memoir, he claims he was afraid of the skeletons that hung in the village schoolhouse. When a group of older kids learned this, they dragged him "struggling and shrieking" (1.3.19) to the skeleton. It was all very traumatic, he claims.

But we have to wonder: if it's true, what impact did this incident have on him? Did it spark his interest in dead humans? We can only guess.

Early Adulthood

At age eighteen, he elopes with Clara A. Lovering. He supposedly has "a knack for making her feel good" (1.3.29). Their relationship is all passion at first. But it quickly cools off. Holmes leaves their home for long periods of time, then one day just leaves altogether. The two remain married with a legal contract, but he'll go on to marry at least three other women.

Holmes goes to medical school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and graduates in June 1884. He and a friend devise an elaborate life insurance fraud, but they never act upon it. Ironically, it will be life insurance fraud that lands Holmes in the hole nearly twelve years later.

Profile of a Killer

When Herman Mudgett moves to Chicago, he changes his name to Holmes after the popular fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes.

And like his namesake, Holmes is an observant dude:

Events and people captured his attention the way moving objects caught the notice of an amphibian: first a machinelike registration of proximity, next a calculation of worth, and last a decision to act or remain motionless. (1.3.15)

Chicago is the perfect place for his observations because he feels the city allows for a broader range of behavior than is tolerated elsewhere. Also the death and blood of Chicago's stockyards make him feel welcome. Yuck.

Fair Prospects

With the fair opening soon, Holmes sees opportunity. He purchases a plot of land a train ride away from fairgrounds and begins construction on his hotel immediately:

The building's broad design and its function had come to him all at once, like a blueprint pulled from a drawer. (1.5.16)

His hotel is just comfortable and cheap enough to "lure a certain kind of clientele" (1.7.1). And that's just what he does.

It's clear to his employee Ned, whose wife Julia he lures, that Holmes is a man who "liked women and whom women liked in return" (1.9.4). Holmes follows a particular pattern. He woos women, promises to marry them, then isolates them in his vault before killing them. What exactly he does remains a mystery, but it's not something you would wish upon even your worst enemies.

Unlike, say, Jack the Ripper, Holmes doesn't kill face-to-face. He prefers to listen to his victims panic and slowly run out of air. Holmes isn't physically strong, that much is clear. This is probably why he separates women and tries to get them alone. After all, his strengths lie in his abilities to be persuasive, charming, and cunning.

Caught in the Act

With Holmes in custody for insurance fraud, Geyer's search for the Pitezel children places him in the national spotlight. At first people describe Holmes' tendencies as "moral insanity." Later, people would adopt the term "psychopath."

The definition reads: Beside his own person and his own interests, nothing is sacred to the psychopath. (1.7.10)

And this definition fits Holmes to a T: he valued nothing other than his own quest for possession and dominance.

The spookiest thing? All this is 100% true. Bluebeard, Hannibal Lecter, and Patrick Bateman might be bone-chillingly evil…but at least they didn't actually walk the earth. H.H. Holmes, though, proves that truth is stranger—and way, way creepier—than fiction.