The ghoulish saga of Dr. H.H. Holmes, the dapper devil who established himself as America's first serial killer 100 years ago.
Schechter (American Literature and Culture/Queens College, CUNY; Deranged) offers a disjointed opening before settling into his tale. He begins with a dramatic depiction of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. He then writes of a New Hampshire boy named Herman who is 11 years in 1871; Herman has a penchant for skinning and deboning live animals. The next time we see him, it is under the alias of Dr. H.H. Holmes, venturing into the Chicago suburb of Englewood to weasel a profitable drugstore from its dying patron and his overworked wife. Holmes then constructs a three-story castle containing such delights as a greased shaft that ends in a dark cellar filled with vats of chemical corrosives; this labyrinthine chamber of horrors becomes one of his murder devices. Under investigation by the government for financial irregularities, Holmes sets fire to the castle, flees Chicago, and launches a series of insurance scams. He murders his oafish assistant, Benjamin Pitezel, and forces one of Pitezel's four threadbare children to identify her father's decayed body so that he can collect a $10,000 life insurance policy. Eventually Holmes is discovered and several decomposed bodies are exhumed from under the remains of the castle. In custody, Holmes confesses bluntly, "I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing.'' With a total of 27 victims, Holmes was tried (the case became a public sensation). After his conviction for Pitezel's murder, Holmes confessed to 26 other killings--some for insurance money, some out of sexual jealousy, others for fear the victims would give him away. Rather than psychoanalyzing his psychotic subject, Schechter sticks firmly to the gory narrative of his crimes, in which the description of the murderous castle stands as a spectacular centerpiece.
An acerbic period sketch and a readable tale of pure Gothic horror straight from the heartland of America.