H.H. Holmes: America’s First Serial Killer

“John Borowski's award-winning docudrama H.H. Holmes chronicles the life and crimes of America's First first serial killer. The opening narration takes place over a shot of Holmes' vast 63rd Street mansion: 'Torture chambers, secret passageways, vats of acid and deadly vaults...In 1895 Chicago police unearthed horrific evidence of torture and multiple murders at the sprawling castle of H.H. Holmes. Masquerading under the guise of caring doctor, kind husband and prominent business man, H.H. Holmes was a contemporary monster designing his building solely for the disposal of human bodies.'

His real name was Herman Webster Mudgett and he spent his early years in strict religious study. A high achiever, he became a medical student and then a doctor and con artist. He changed his name to avoid any of his old scams catching up with him. Eventually he pitched up in Chicago at more or less the same time as Jack the Ripper was carving up Whitechapel whores. Holmes set about the construction of what came to be known as his "Castle." He was actually building an abattoir in which he could practice murder. His 'scam' this time was to sell insurance policies to people, then murder them and collect on their behalf! The Holmes story has been told in print in Robert Bloch's novel American Gothic and Erik Larson's recent Bestseller The Devil in the White City.

Borowski uses creepy black and white reconstructions of the crimes accompanied by a doomy narration by Shakespearean actor Tony Jay. As with his ALbert FIsh documentary, Borowski was 'lucky' that Holmes was a compulsive letter-writer and diary-keeper. We also get the usual array of talking heads in the shape of historians and forensic experts who describe how easy it was for Holmes to get away with mass murder in these chaotic and often lawless days. In fact when the secrets of Holmes's "Castle" were eventually revealed, no proper estimate was made of the number of victims.

Most of Holmes' killings were done during the duration of Chicago's 1893 World's Fair. He rented out rooms to tourists and then bumped them off! His murderous method was simple. He ran hidden gas pipes into the rooms and just turned them on when the inhabitant was asleep. One could argue that Holmes was not a serial killer in the classic sense because most of his murders were done for profit rather than perverse sexual pleasure. Director Borowski doesn't offer up any great psychological insights here, but he had constructed a solid, absorbing documentary utilizing real-life photographs and stock footage of the time. Extras on the disc include a 20-minute 'Making Of' piece, outtakes, posters, biographies, and a commentary by director Borowski. Fascinating stuff for fans of true-life crime.”
- Saul Wright

The Dark Side Magazine
Issue #126 - April 2007