Building a Murder House

The other side of the story told in Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City is that of H H Holmes, a man generally considered to be America’s first serial killer. Using the attraction of the Chicago World’s Fair, Holmes lured possibly hundreds of young women travelling to the city for the first time into his newly (and specially built) hotel in Englewood, Illinois where they inevitably met their deaths in the most gruesome fashion. Holmes exhibited clearly psychopathic tendencies, but fortunately for him, psychiatry was very much in its infancy and it simply wasn’t recognised until it was much too late for a great many victims..

But Holmes’ hotel wasn’t simply a hotel. I’m fairly convinced that a number of people stayed there and survived to tell the tale. But certain of the rooms had been specifically designed by Holmes (and built by itinerant immigrant labour, who were frequently fired and replaced to prevent them drawing conclusions) to be miniature gas chambers, or were soundproofed so that screams could not be heard, or contained incinerators suitable for use in a crematorium. For someone who trained as a pharmacist and doctor and with a decent side line in spurious cures for alcoholism and baldness, Holmes could have made a very successful career entirely legitimately. But something drove him to commit endless counts of fraud, bigamy and murder. Indeed, nobody will ever know how many people Holmes definitely killed, as official figures vary, but is generally considered to be hundreds.

How does one go about designing a facility specifically to kill people and dispose of the bodies? I suppose this wasn’t really a question considered seriously by anyone until the Nazis pondered the Final Solution, and came up with the death camp at Auschwitz. Holmes saw that the forthcoming World’s Fair, which would be very close to his establishment, would bring thousands of people, many of them young, vulnerable and away from home for the first time. Holmes owned a large plot of land on which he constructed a building with retail units on the ground floor, and apartments on the remaining two floors; the plans also included an airtight and soundproof vault with gas valve, a chute from the upper floors to the basement and sub compartments below the basement, incorporating the incinerator.

Holmes is contrasted with the other main character of the book, Daniel Burnham, in that he uses his architectural creations to cause harm to a great many people, rather than to give them pleasure and joy that they will remember for the rest of their lives. Interestingly, Holmes did use his medical skill to provide medical schools with skeletons (since many of them ask no questions as to how the skeletons were obtained). This aspect probably encouraged Holmes to continue killing, as it quickly became a profitable industry – Burke and Hare had a similar motivation. Ultimately, however, the law caught up with H H Holmes and he was found guilty of murder. Intriguingly, and perhaps knowing what people get up to with corpses, Holmes insisted that he was buried in cement, to ensure that his body cannot be sold to medical science.

So, if you ever get the urge to build a murder house? Don’t. Somewhere along the line, you’ll have an awful lot of explaining to do.