In 1893 Chicago unveiled its massively impressive World’s Columbian Exposition, which had been organized under an extremely tight schedule by Daniel Burnham, and the impact of the idealized (white) urban setting, complete with newfangled electrical lighting, is difficult to overstate. The attractive power of Chicago and its fair, however, drew many thousands of unattached females to the city in search of clerical work, a startling percentage of which a medical doctor named H.H. Holmes would end up dismembering. Holmes’ totally creepy “Murder Castle” featured a gas chamber, a dissection table, and a crematorium to dispose of the cadavers.
Both sides of this story, the fair and the murderer, had become mostly forgotten until they were exhumed with great effectiveness by Erik Larson in his 2003 book The Devil in the White City, which rapidly became a bestseller and has become a fondly remembered staple of reading lists ever since. (As it happens, I reviewed The Devil in the White City for Publishers Weekly—you can read my review on the book’s Amazon page—and I’ve been joking ever since that I “made” the book.)
Diagram of the layout of Holmes’ “Murder Castle”
That word “exhumed” is an interesting one, because that’s what’s about to happen to Holmes’ body. One of the key points of Holmes’ life is that, in addition to his dozens of murders going unnoticed for quite a long time, there has arisen speculation that “he actually conned his way out of the death penalty and escaped to South America,” in the words of Stephen Gossett at Chicagoist.
Holmes has a plot at Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia. In order to put the scuttlebutt about his escape to bed, officials in Philadelphia and Holmes’ descendants have chosen to open up Holmes’ sepulcher and see what’s inside. If the official sources are to be believed, Holmes died in Moyamensing Prison in Philadelphia in 1896 at the age of 34.
The exhumation comes at the request of Holmes’ great-grandchildren John and Richard Mudgett, who hope that DNA tests will settle the controversy of the identity of the body. A Pennsylvania court has approved the request.
Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio have been said to have been working on adaptation of Larson’s book for several years, but that possibility is looking increasingly unlikely. Perhaps the exhumation is a last-ditch attempt to revive interest in the project?
Newspaper clippings: Illinois State Historical Library
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
When satanic serial killer Richard Ramirez terrorized Willis from ‘Diff’rent Strokes’