Archive for February 1st, 2011


H.H. Holmes: The Devil in the White City

February 1, 2011

Here comes a film project I’ve been waiting to see for a long time: The Devil in the White City, an adaptation of Erik Larson’s amazing historical almost-novel. Produced by and starring Leonardio DiCaprio as early American serial killer H.H. Holmes, this is a look at a dark corner of Victorian Chicago, at a marvel of modern magic and a dark, twisted creature. No word yet on release date, but I’m happy to hear it’s finally a go after DiCaprio acquired the rights half a decade ago.

Some key points:

  • H.H. Holmes, whose real name was Herman Webster Mudgett, was also known by many other names. He was a pharmacist, a doctor, a landowner, a hotelier, a scientist and a businessman … without any education in any of those fields. He was also a con artist, thief, bigamist, kidnapper and one of the most heinous murderers the world has ever known. We still don’t know the extent of his crimes — but what we do know is horrific.
  • Larsen’s book describes Holmes’ Chicago reign of terror. During this period, he build a three-story block-long buildings, his “castle,” filed with trap doors, hidden passageways, secret rooms, crazy corridors and a basement lab set up with a limestone pit for dissolving his prey. Guests at his “hotel,” in the city for the Chicago World’s Fair, would be gassed in their rooms and dropped down chutes where Holmes would dissect them, often selling their skeletons to medical schools. It is unclear what he did with the other body parts.
  • He killed his wives, his lovers, his business rivals, all for profit. He was finally caught when an elaborate, and pretty stupid, scheme involving a life insurance claim ended with him murdering his business partner’s small children, two of whom were found buried in the cellar of a house in Toronto. All of this is detailed in Harold Schecter’s phenomenal exploration of the topic, Depraved.
  • While I wouldn’t pick Leonardo DiCaprio to play Holmes, I can see him in the role. The man has become a real chameleon in his work, and has grown from child star to teen idol to a classic leading man without classic leading man looks. My pick would have been Colin Farrell (seriously) but consider this: Tom Cruise owns a separate set of rights to the Holmes story, exclusive of Larson’s book, so we could see rival Holmes films, one of which would probably be poo.
  • Leonardo has played the lead in two film adaptations of two of my favourite topics: Gangs of New York (I have long been fascinated by New York history, particularly the Five Points era) and Catch Me If You Can (one of my favourite stories of all time). Both films came out at the same time, and displayed his ability to shift from eager kid to rough renegade. When he plays Holmes, he will have indulged three of my favourite historical interests. Clearly, he understands it’s really all about me.

Before this film comes out, read the book. You’ll love it. There’s also another book about Holmes, by a guy who also made a short film about him.