To wrap up this semester of Reading in Genre posts, I have to talk about an actual psycho killer. And there are many to choose from–though, apparently past classes seemed to only pick a few since our instructor had a list of those that were done to death–but being both a New Hampshire boy and a lover of history I had to talk about Herman Mudget a.k.a H. H. Holmes: America’s first serial killer.
Surprisingly, Holmes wasn’t caught because of is love of killing and torturing people–mainly young women–but for insurance fraud. While he may have killed up to 100 people in his “Murder Castle,” either by torture after knocking them out or by killing them with various means and then use his choice of quicklime pits, acid vats, or a supped up industrial furnace to dispose of the bodies–that is, if he didn’t decide to stripe the skeletons clean and sell them to doctors and medical schools–it was actually the death of his right hand man that unfurled the web of lies that Holmes was a master craftsman. With creditors doing everything to get back the money they loaned him, Holmes convinced Benjamin Pitezel that they would fake his death using a similar size cadaver and a staged accident. This is before fingerprints and dental records, so they had to get a cadaver that had similar body measurements. Pitezel, the loyal henchman he was, bought it and Holmes killed him with an overdose of chloroform. He got away with it and the money, so how did he get caught? He told his plan to another inmate when he was arrested earlier in hopes of finding a lawyer that could help him in the scam. When Holmes didn’t pay the criminal, he told law enforcement all about it.
In many ways that is what makes H. H. Holmes interesting as a killer. Here is a man who is very intelligent. Very few people that become serial killers finish college, yet finished medical school. Many believe that he was able to satiate his desires to dissect and mutilate bodies with the cadavers there. But his ability to lie and scam matched his ability to kill. So we have an intelligent, charismatic killer who devises a building to both keep up the appearance of the a steward of the neighborhood as well as create efficient means to capture, torture, and kill people and dispose of evidence. His ability to lie is also creates a hinderance and an opportunity for a writer. Even after he was captured for the death of Pitezel and law enforcement found the dark secret of his castle, Holmes had so many different versions of why he killed that no one really knows what his motivation was. Some writers might find that a challenge, they want that extra insight, but I like the idea of having the power to decide it. And I think sometime the scariest reason is to not have one. The exploration of that mindset can create an interesting story.