The Killer With Cachet
Documentary one of several recent projects on Chicago psychopath

May 15, 2003

CHICAGO - The blood-spattered biographies about H.H. Holmes keep coming.

Chicago's 19th-century swindler and murderer had sunk to secondary status in the annals of American crime until he figured prominently in author Erik Larson's recent best-seller, "The Devil in the White City," an account of the 1893 World's Fair on Lake Michigan that has caught Hollywood's attention.

Now comes independent Chicago filmmaker John Borowski's documentary, "H.H. Holmes: America's First Serial Killer," which focuses solely on the life and career of the seminal psychopath.

The wealth-obsessed Englewood pharmacist built a Gothic lair known as "The Castle," which purportedly included gas-rigged bedrooms, greased chutes, acid vats and a cellar crematorium.

Holmes did away with at least a half-dozen people there - maybe scores of others, including fair visitors who rented lodgings from him - before he was undone by an insurance-fraud scheme in Philadelphia and hanged in 1896.

"It's more fascinating for people to try and imagine that this one man could have killed hundreds of people," the 30-year-old Borowski said recently at his Chicago apartment and studio, "because look what he did by the time he was in his early 20s: Without a penny in his pocket, he came to Chicago and built this huge building. One man. Almost like what I did with this film - without a penny in my pocket."

Borowski leveraged his production's six-figure budget by using credit cards, loans from friends and family members and by bartering with colleagues, he said. Three years in the making, the Holmes documentary is finally slated for release on DVD next month through a Web site,

His "64-minute roller coaster ride," as he calls it, incorporates period photographs and illustrations as well as modern footage of the New Hampshire town where Holmes was born in 1861 and the Philadelphia courtroom where he was tried. The film also features atmospheric re-enactments in black and white that evoke Borowski's fondness for classic horror films and special effects that relied on imagination rather than lots of money.

By coincidence, his project comes on the heels of the "White City" book, which has brought Holmes' story to a wide audience and may result in a movie version (actors Tom Cruise and Leonardo DiCaprio reportedly are developing separate projects about the killer). Crowding the field even more is San Diego artist Rick Geary's graphic novel, "The Beast of Chicago," to be released in July as part of his series on infamous 19th-century crimes.

"At least it's something that people are thinking about," Geary said. "It just seems that a lot of things are coming together, and that can only help my project."
Previous studies on Holmes have included "Psycho" author Robert Bloch's fictional "American Gothic" in 1974, historian Allan Eckert's 1985 novel "The Scarlet Mansion" and Harold Schecter's detailed 1994 bio "Depraved," which inspired Borowski and is cited as a source by Larson.

"He wasn't a serial sex killer the way his contemporary Jack the Ripper was," says Schecter, explaining Holmes' relative obscurity today. "Crimes like that I think speak more directly to our own obsessions about them - the dangers of sex, extreme forms of violence. There was always something a little bit quaint about Holmes."

Holmes was more in the Jekyll-and-Hyde vein: charming on the outside, particularly to women, while scheming and ruthless on the inside.

His known murder victims were acquaintances who trusted him, including mistresses he had conned financially. Following his final scam, the Philadelphia ruse, he killed a loyal assistant and three of the man's children - crimes that earned him overnight notoriety and a date with the hangman.

"Everything that he saw was a potential dollar sign," Borowski said.

The centerpiece of the Holmes legend, his bizarrely constructed "castle of horrors" at 63rd and Wallace streets, was destroyed by a suspicious fire. Biographers, faced with numerous gaps in the killer's lifetime, also are at a loss to determine how many people Holmes murdered there.

He confessed to about 30 killings in his sensational jailhouse memoirs for publisher William Randolph Hearst, but some of his victims later turned up alive. Eckert thinks Holmes killed more than 100, but Schecter puts the tally at nine, including those he killed outside Chicago.

"Most of the stuff - if not all of it - about the horrors that occurred in the Englewood castle were fabrications," he said. "When you look at the pictures of the castle, it just looks like some ugly office building. It was probably constructed very, very amateurishly inside partly because Holmes kept running out of money."

(This last quote is one I personally disagree with. Holmes' intention was to fool people into believing he operated an upscale hotel, therefore it is my belief that the exterior and interior which people seen had to look decent. -John Borowski)