I will be upfront here. I decided to watch H.H. Holmes: America’s First Serial Killer today because it was one of the shortest movies available on my watch instantly queue at a whopping 64 minutes. There. I said it. Size does make a difference sometimes.
H.H. Holmes: America’s First Serial Killer is a documentary about Herman Mudgett, who is better known as Henry Howard Holmes, but let’s call him Hank (hey, you would change your name too if people always confused it with Herman Munster). A doctor and pharmacist by day, and a sociopathic serial killer by night; Hank was terribly busy.
He must have been well-organized because he found the time with his busy schedule to design and build a literal house of horrors—essentially his own personal killing “castle” complete with torture chambers, specially created murder rooms, and a crematorium in the basement (and I have problems being organized enough to clean out the refrigerator on a weekly basis).
Whether on purpose or merely coincidental, Hank built this slaughterhouse during the late 1800s in Chicago—just in time for the Chicago 1893 World’s Fair. He rented rooms to unsuspecting tourists, some of whom met an unfortunate end there. Due to the transient tourist population and the slow forms of communication, Holmes was able to murder people without arousing much suspicion. Holmes was an excellent con artist—allowing him both to charm and swindle people. Eventually, he was caught and tried for murdering an employee and his entire family (he didn’t have the best track record as a boss…). This led police to search his home, where they made a few gruesome discoveries.
While he was tried and convicted for the murder of a family, Holmes is believed to have committed anywhere between 9 to 50 murders (some even say as many as 100). Since the forensic technology at the time wasn’t very advanced—and because he moved around, often changing his name and hiding the bodies– there is no way to know for sure. Holmes, himself, often told conflicting stories about his spree; so this question, I imagine, will remain largely unanswered.
The documentary was somewhat disappointing and definitely mediocre. While I love to see the old photos and newspaper headlines from the time (trust me, this case was sensationalized by the media), it fell a little flat. First, I felt that the research was a bit sparse. Although I really found the discussion on 1800s forensics interesting (I am actually being serious here, I did. Remember, I am a geek), I thought the film glossed over several points. The Chicago Word’s Fair was a huge deal (both at the time and to historians today), but it received no more than a few lines in this film. A brief explanation on its significance would have helped set the stage for Holmes’ crimes.
Also, the title kind of irks me. Holmes was America’s FIRST serial killer? The first? I could be wrong, but I seriously doubt that. Maybe he was the first one that was sensationalized by the media (in part thanks to William Randolph Hearst), but it seems unlikely that he was the first. Catchy title though.
If this topic is at all of interest to you, I would recommend reading Devil in the White City by Erik Larson instead. It is much more entertaining and the research is clearly laid out. Also, Devil in the White City is structured by alternating between Holmes’ story and that of the Chicago World’s Fair. Read the book. You will feel smarter and have something to discuss at the dinner table (murderous crime sprees are always a delightful topic of conversation). It’s a quick read and is worth checking out. Of course, you don’t have to take my word for it. 😉
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