In August, 1886, a man who goes by the name H. H. Holmes arrives in Englewood, a suburb of Chicago. He is young, handsome, and well dressed, and his eyes are blue and hypnotic — a trait, a physician once pointed out, which many murderers, and great men in other fields, often share. Women look at Holmes as he walks through Chicago. He is attractive, and frequently breaks the unwritten rules of interaction with women: he stands too close to them and touches them too much. Women love him.
Holmes is attractive to others, particularly women, because of the way he implies both gentleness — those blue eyes — and impropriety — the way he touches women. In other words, he seems like the perfect balance of safe and dangerous — not unlike the city of Chicago itself. In general, Holmes is a master of appearances — his clothing and manner indicate that he is respectable and trustworthy.
Holmes goes to 63rd and Wallace, where he meets an elderly woman, Mrs. Holton, who owns a drug store and cares for her dying husband. He easily charms her, and offers to buy the store from her. Holton says she’ll have to think about it, but she is already leaning toward accepting Holmes’s offer.
In a few hours, Holmes convinces a woman to abandon a store she has owned for years — it is clear that she has already begun to make up her mind. Right away, we’re given proof of Holmes’s powers of persuasion.
Holmes is impressed with Chicago, even though almost nothing impresses him. His first impressions of the city are of the smells of slaughterhouses, which must have assured him that Chicago tolerates more unusual behaviors than his hometown of Gilmanton, New Hampshire.
Holmes enjoys what most people hate about Chicago — the smells — because they imply the freedom he will enjoy in his new home. In this sense, he is similar to the millions of others who move to Chicago in search of new freedoms at this time. This is an unsettling link between a murderer and “normal” people.
As a small child, Holmes claims, a group of older boys forced him to look at a skeleton in a doctor’s office. This story is probably a distortion of the truth — it’s more likely that the boys intended to scare Holmes, then found that he liked the sight of the skeleton.
Much of the information about Holmes that Larson uses for his book comes from Larson himself, and thus is not very reliable. This requires Larson to speculate and imagine on many aspects of Holmes’s life, such as the episode with the skeleton.
Growing up in Gilmanton, Holmes went by the name Herman Mudgett. He was often beaten by his father, a strict Methodist, and he feels closer to his mother. As an adult, he claims that he kept a treasure box with a photograph of his childhood sweetheart, but others guess that his box was probably full of animal bones. His only childhood friend was killed in a fall while they were playing alone.
Larson often leaves it up to the reader whether or not Holmes killed characters in the book. Thus, Holmes may have killed his childhood friend. Larson uses this tactic both because of his lack of authoritative information about Holmes and because the book is much more disturbing if the reader imagines what Holmes did instead of being told.
Holmes later claims that as a child, he saw a photographer remove his own leg, and was disturbed by the sight. But this story is probably false — Holmes wrote it while he was in prison, trying to make the public like him.
There is only so much we can learn from Holmes’s childhood, because Holmes himself distorted so much of the information. One consequence is that there’s only so much sympathy we can have for Holmes — Larson tells us to question his childhood, the most sympathetic part of his life.
Holmes married a young woman named Clara, who adored him, though she was simultaneously aroused and disturbed by his requests for sex. Holmes eventually abandoned Clara, though they remained married.
Holmes’s early behavior sets a pattern he’ll adhere to for the rest of his life. Women are attracted by the way he “breaks the rules,” but also disturbed by it. Holmes also has a habit of losing interest in women as soon as they’re devoted to him.
Holmes went to medical school in Michigan, where he was a mediocre student, and later took a job in New York as a school principal, then set up a medical practice. He left a trail of unusual events wherever he goes: in Michigan, he was rumored to have breached his promise to marry a young hairdresser, and in New York, he was the last person seen with a young boy who went missing. No investigation was ever conducted.
The lack of investigation after the boy disappears indicates the implicit trust people have for Holmes, but also the shoddy state of the police force in America at the time. As disturbing as Holmes is, it’s equally as disturbing that he lived in a society where he was able to get away with his crimes for years.
Holmes and his friend from medical school developed a complex scheme for collecting life insurance. The plan involved faking the deaths of a family of three, finding three corpses that resembled the family members, and then collecting the death benefits. Because it was enormously difficult at the time for doctors to find corpses, Holmes claims to have traveled to Chicago and Minneapolis to find bodies. On a train back to New York, he writes from prison, he decided that it was too risky to defraud insurance companies. But this is a lie — Holmes was convinced he could get away with his crimes.
Holmes tries to make himself seem more cautious than he really is. But his schemes get more and more elaborate as he grows older. It’s also worth noting that Holmes has a partner for his scheme to defraud the insurance company. As repulsive as Holmes may be, he seems to have no problem attracting admirers, friends, and helpers.
Holmes next went to Philadelphia, where he worked in a pharmacy. He left immediately after a child died taking drugs that had been purchased in his store, and went to Chicago, where he took up the name Holmes, which was highly respectable at the time.
Holmes’ commitment to keeping up the appearance of respectability is so great that he changes his own name to something that sounds more proper. This also points to people’s gullibility at the time — they were willing to trust others more simply because of a name that may or may not have been real.
At the time when Holmes arrives in Chicago, the city is changing rapidly. As large buildings continue to be built and the slaughterhouses continue to produce meat, the demand for a large workforce increases, leading people to travel from across the country to Chicago’s suburbs. In the suburb of Englewood, located outside Chicago at the time and named for a British forest, the streets are named after colleges, and lined with beautiful trees.
As Chicago becomes more crowded, dirty, and crime-ridden, its people become more nostalgic for nature and peaceful environments; thus, Englewood is named after an idyllic British area. In this way, the very peacefulness of Englewood is proof of the true grit and dirtiness of Chicago.
Holmes buys Mrs. Holton’s store, using his affectionate manner to convince her. Holton continues to live on the second floor, tending to her husband. Under Holmes’s supervision, the drug store becomes very profitable, partly because young women are attracted to Holmes. Mrs. Holton disappears, and Holmes claims that she has traveled to California, and then that she has decided to stay there.
It’s impossible to know whether or not Holmes killed Mrs. Holton, or how, but Holmes’s changed story suggests his involvement in her disappearance. Yet the strangeness of Holton’s absence doesn’t attract any unwanted attention; on the contrary, Holmes’s new store thrives because he is attractive.