We’ve all heard the story of H.H. Holmes, the opportunistic killer who stalked the grounds of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. We know he killed hundreds of guests of his hotel using secret passages to dispose of the bodies. We’ve heard of the elaborate traps and torture devices he had built into the walls and basement of his famous “murder castle”. We love Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City.
But author and Chicago historian Adam Selzer says pretty much everything we know about the notorious Holmes is fiction, calling is “effectively a new American tall tale – and, like all the best tall tales, (one that) sprang from a kernel of truth”.
In the opening chapter, Selzer lays out the depth of his research suggesting that most of what we “know” about Holmes comes from gossip, conjecture, exaggeration, and tabloid journalism. Selzer’s own research led across the eastern half of the United States, focusing on primary resources, including court documents, census reports, and newspaper articles specifically written in the cities where Holmes-related events occurred.
It’s a heavy book, much more academic than Larson’s blockbuster, but if you’re more interested in the truth of history than the legend, The True History of the White City Devil is for you. It’s still pretty grisly.