Volume 1.15: 'White Castle, Black King'
Author's note: This is a true story of real crimes and a ghastly one at that. The details are pretty upsetting.
Whenever I can't sleep, I drink, but the drinking leads to thinking and then I spend the whole night turning the World's Fair Hotel over in my head, like just one more examination of the facts will make all the facts fit together neatly and the horror make sense. They don't though and they never will. Doctor Henry Howard Holmes is a foul enigma to me and will be forever, after his last dance with the hangman's noose.
You'd think that people couldn't go missing in 1893 without comment, but they did – forty years ago, but still basically the modern day, for Christ's sake! Young, beautiful women went missing all the time in Chicago and no-one noticed. If it hadn't been for a cheated cell mate, a suspicious insurance clerk and a tenacious detective, it might've taken years before Holmes was caught. To describe him as a slippery fish trivialises him. If he was a fish, he'd be the sort that lurks in dark abysses, waiting patiently with glinting eyes and razor teeth.
Except that the metaphor isn't right. He wasn't known to everyone as H H Holmes: you might have known him as Herman Webster Mudgett instead. He played a lot of very fluid games with his identity. By the end, a lot of different groups were investigating him and none of them liked what they found. There're no fish with as perfect a camouflage as Holmes. He was something unique and worse: a predatory human.
I didn't investigate his life insurance scams with the desecrated cadavers at the University of Michigan's medical school and I didn't investigate what he did to his confederate's five little children.
I drew the short straw: I investigated the World's Fair Hotel. I investigated his home that everyone just called 'the Castle'.
I was young and callow back then, excited by the World's Fair in my home town. I'd even taken a look at the White City they were building to house it all: all neat and gleaming white and immaculate. Everything was fresh and bright in my world too. I'd gotten engaged to Minnie, a beautiful and kind blonde woman I'd met out walking the white buildings one morning. I was as in love with her as a man could be and our future prospects were good too. She'd secured secretarial work for the company that was painting the World's Fair buildings white; I'd finished my police training a few months before and was looking forward to jailing some lawbreakers, but the station Captain hadn't let me out yet. He knew, and I didn't yet, that I was too zealous and inexperienced to be given my own beat, so he kept me in the station until I was frothing at the mouth with impatience. At Minnie's urging, I bit my tongue and learned. My turn would come.
When we raided the Castle, he needed everybody.
As strange coincidences go, I knew one of the guys who helped build it. We were childhood friends: I joined the police and he became a carpenter. I'm richer than him now but, along the way, I saw an awful lot of stuff you can't unsee: you don't stop sleeping thinking over hammering two bits of wood together.
In the months before the raid, I'd often dropped by the Castle to see Jack for a post-shift drink. It was a damn ugly hotel but, to be honest, most of the buildings springing up for the World's Fair were pretty bad, they were built that quick. He often complained about the strange plans they were trying to follow.
“Yet 'nother damn change,” Jack grumbled into his empty pint glass. “Rooms with five exits? Make sense to you?”
I said that it didn't. Half the work crew got laid off the next week and Jack was in a black mood the next time we drank together.
“Doors opening only one way? Staircases leading to brick walls? Have you ever heard anything like it?” he spat.
I said that I had not. The next week, Jack and the other half of the work crew got laid off. Holmes said their work was shoddy and refused to pay their wages. The day after, a whole new work crew was on site. At the time, it just seemed like the guy was a stickler for the little details, but it left only Holmes knowing the exact layout of his building.
I've tried drawing it, you know. I papered one wall of my study in white and drew it. I got the police reports, I got witness statements and I got every newspaper article referring to the Castle I could find and what I drew is still wrong. I've tried again and again – all three floors, but particularly the basement. Especially the basement. Whenever new information came my way, I changed my blueprint. Either I've made several serious mistakes somewhere or Holmes had a warped genius for building labyrinths.
I don't let Minnie into the study where she might see it. In our dotage, she has a nervous disposition and I worry that the labels might unsettle her. I still love her from head to toe and if that means keeping the truth about Holmes from her, so be it.
Sometimes I wonder if he could've been caught earlier. It's not fair to torture myself with that. I was a snot-nosed brat with the starch still in my new uniform – even if I'd known what he was doing, no-one would've believed me. I didn't know there were men like Holmes.
My mother was a Lutheran and believed, fervently, that the Devil walked the Earth. In my salad days I laughed, but now that all my green leaves are withered, I know that she was right and that evil does walk amongst us in a human shape. I think about it whenever I catch the eye of strangers on the street.
If Holmes'd not made an off-hand promise of $500 to a train robber staring down twenty-five years behind bars, we might never have known what he did. He'd run and swindled and run again and fate locked him in a cell with Marion Hedgepeth. Hell hath no fury like a jailbird swindled of cash. The second he knew Holmes wasn't gonna pay up, he sang to whoever would listen about the latest insurance scam Holmes was playing, but it figures that it was only the money men who listened.
This is all digression. I know it is. The rain's coming down pretty hard tonight and whisky isn't working the way it's supposed to. I can hear the purr of my wife snoring gently through the wall. She's exhausted from volunteering at a soup kitchen this evening. She's a much better person than me. Soon though, maybe in an hour, she'll wake up, knock on the study door and call me to bed. How can she understand? Do I explain?
This is all digression. I'm circling that day when we raided the Castle. I'm not going to be able to sleep until I live through it again, but I don't want to. More whisky; more courage. The burnt shell of that damn place was torn down last year. It's over. It's done. It's only still there in my head.
Let's just get right to it. The day in question. The raid on the Castle. No more beating around the bush.
Did you ever see a photo of Henry H Holmes? He had a sallow complexion and a thick, curling moustache, but it was the eyes that pulled you in: dark and brooding and unblinking. I heard that he tried to hypnotise the detectives who brought him in and, looking into eyes of the photo pinned on my wall, I'm surprised he didn't succeed. By all accounts, he could convince the birds in the sky to walk South instead. How else did he get his confederate, Benjamin Pitezel, to collaborate in all the grisly goings-on at the Castle? How did he convince Pitezel to fake his own death for the insurance money, putting himself, his wife and their five children entirely in Holmes' power?
Surely he must've realised it was unwise. Did he have time to reflect before Holmes knocked him out with chloroform? He certainly was in no state to realise once Holmes set his sleeping body ablaze. No need to fake the insurance claim with a corpse this time.
No more delays. The Castle. I've got to get through this before Minnie wakes up. More whisky.
It's the little details that I find most upsetting. Holmes was, for a while, in a relationship with a woman called Minnie too. This Minnie was a railroad heiress who agreed to work as his personal stenographer until the day he convinced her to transfer her properties deeds to an alias of his and then on again to this Pitezel creature. Then he asked poor Minnie to marry him and to fetch her sister to the Castle to celebrate.
Her sister died in Holmes' walk-in office vault: locked in and asphyxiated by specially constructed gas lines. We know this because of her footprint against the heavy vault door as she tried to kick her way out, choking to death. Minnie just vanished, except for one footprint.
In the basement.
Minnie, Minnie. How can I explain that to my wife, a woman who cries when she sees a bird with a broken wing? It's like all the innocence and gentleness that was torn out of me by what I saw in the Castle came to rest in her. Her warmth kept me alive in the days afterwards; for the longest time, I was a man frostbitten by horror.
We raided the Castle late in the story, after Pietzel was burned alive and three of his children disappeared. If Holmes hadn't been so fond of insurance scams, an insurance company would never have hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to find him. If he hadn't been arrested and questioned in Philadelphia, we might not have searched the Castle in Chicago.
Steady now. More courage man, more courage.
I got called in once the first secret passage was discovered in the walls of the Castle, once the true scale of the investigation revealed itself. By the time I and the other dregs at the station arrived on site, they'd already found the secret hanging chamber on the second floor and the room entirely lined in iron plate with blowtorches mounted behind them. Both had been hidden behind movable sections of wall and both were located conveniently close to where hotel staff and guests slept at night. While Captain Macready was briefing me and the other new arrivals about these discoveries, they found a trapdoor in the floor, which lead down to another room with all the exits bricked up.
There were quite a lot of scratches on the inside of that room.
As a rookie, I got sent to the second floor. It'd been thoroughly searched by that point, but there was always a need for fresh eyes to search for evidence: scuffs on walls, hairpins, that sort of thing. I'll admit that my head was spinning as I entered Holmes' hotel. The place was so big, towering over me. It reminded me of the museum my grandmother used to force me to whenever it rained and I couldn't play outside. It reminded me of the stuffed bear in one of the exhibit rooms, the bear that used to terrify me with its lethal, impersonal strength and its hostile, glassy stare. This hotel was that very creature, escaped from its box and transformed into a building. Yesterday, it had just been another hotel. Today, it was something worse.
The whole first floor was a precinct of small shops, all closed now, including Holmes' own pharmacy. It all looked so banal, so ordinary. Captain Macready climbed the stairs to the first floor and I followed. They creaked, every single one, under the great weight of that salt-and-pepper capped mountain, that titanic officer of the law.
The second floor was dingy and cramped and covered with a sickly yellow wallpaper. The Captain squeezed along the narrow corridors with difficulty. They wound this way and that, but always in an unexpected direction until I couldn't remember where the stairs had been. Gas lamps were spaced unevenly along the walls, burning dimly behind grimy frosted glass.
“Why would anyone choose to stay here?” I said loudly, but the look on Captain Macready's face as he turned silenced me. This was too serious for stupid comments.
He set me and this other officer to searching Holmes' private apartment rooms. More experienced officers had already been over them, but given the magnitude of the suspected crime, every single inch of the place had to be searched repeatedly for clues. The Captain had to navigate us there through the maze, and he muttered half to himself about the tip-off that'd led to this search; about the Pietzel children; about the hide-and-seek game in the trunk with a gas pipe peeking in and about a few sad, shallow graves in a basement in Toronto.
My head was reeling when I got into Holmes' bathroom. If I was sick in his toilet in a moment of weakness induced by disgust and the tension of it all, I'd never admit it, even now. I did, however, get a pressing need to wash out my mouth in the basin. I looked at myself for the longest time in the mirror and asked myself if I really wanted to be a cop. My hollow eyes, reflected, held no answer.
When I tried to leave, I tripped heavily over the bath mat, cracking my head hard against the wall The pain cleared my self-doubt for a while, but the noise of the collision boomed through walls that should not have been hollow.
My foot had lifted the mat, revealing a trapdoor beneath.
I felt then, like I feel now, that I was circling a hole to a very dark place. I levered up the trapdoor without calling the Captain – I'm still not sure why I did that – and the air that seeped out of the hole smelled of evil: that damp, bitter smell of things having gone wrong. I can smell it now, in my office, though Minnie keeps a meticulously clean house. It is the ghost of a smell that has never really left me.
Minnie taps at the door.
“Pete?” she whispers through the wood. “Are you coming to bed, Pete?”
“Soon, sweetheart,” I murmur softly, as if our children were still young and peacefully curled up in their nests. “I'm just sorting my papers.”
Her footsteps retreat, but she will be back soon. With the eye of the truly empathetic, she won't stop picking at a scab until she sees what's underneath. One day, she'll ask and, in a fit of weakness, I'll tell her about that day.
The Captain took me and whoever else he could grab at short notice and headed down the hidden staircase, which wound down back through the other floors, behind the walls. The staircase went down and down, every step crying out as it took our weight. The trembling light from our lanterns illuminated everything as we gradually descended into darkness, that awful smell of corruption constantly intensifying.
This memory is a tooth gone bad. I've drilled through the bright white façade and now we come to the rotten agony hidden at its heart.
One by one, we ducked through a low arch into a large basement, floored with brick and compacted dirt. I saw the table first, the straight steel edges glinting in the lantern light. It was similar to the sort of table you can see in hospital - shining steel, sterile and clean - but this was not one of those tables. This was stained rusty by blood and peppered with white fragment of off-cut bone. One of the other officers – I can't remember who – went closer to take a look but stumbled over something on the floor, knocking against the table. Bloody surgical instruments tinkled to the floor like a delighted laugh.
Captain Macready was a good man. I think that might've been his problem. I think good men have a limit for horror that fills up over their lives and, whatever the Captain's was, he reached it that day. He put in for early retirement the day after and, within weeks, there would be no more volcanic rumblings from the corner office. Not that I could tell at the time that this hell had broken him clean through. The Captain was a professional, always.
I'm avoiding thinking about what was in the basement again. My thoughts naturally slide around the memory, rather than descend into its Stygian embrace. Another clink of the bottle, another drink. There might – just – be enough whisky to get through this.
When I raised the lantern to see what the officer had stumbled over, I nearly vomited again. The floor was strewn with bones. They were shockingly white, so thoroughly had they been cleaned of their flesh. Different sorts of bones, carelessly thrown about - tibia, fibia, jawbones and ribs – so many that it looked like the floor of a forest after a terrible storm. Some of the furthest away were small. Child-sized.
Minnie and I have children. We love them both dearly, though they're both moved far away now. I didn't and still don't understand how people could hurt children. From the moment I saw Minnie in her wedding dress, I knew that we would have fine and gentle children and I loved her all the more for it. How could that black fiend hurt children though? How?
When I recoiled in shock, the Captain grabbed my elbow hard and stopped me.
“Careful,” he snapped and pointed down. The heels of my shoes were on the edge of a pit, filled with a dark viscous liquid. When I got home that evening, the soles of my boots had been badly corroded. I know now it was some sort of acid, made soupy with the mounds of flesh dissolved away in it.
“Just stand over there by the wall,” he said tensely as another officer called him away. They'd just found the two lime pits full of so many body parts that they'd spend weeks trying to put individuals back together again.
Over the years, all the horror and loathing that I feel for that man Holmes has tied together into one giant knot of despair at humanity's creation of that monster. My hatred contaminates me and makes me a worse person: I rejoiced when I heard it took fifteen minutes of slow asphyxiation for him to die at the gallows. Minnie would be ashamed of the bitterness I hold in my heart, but no-one knows – still! - how many he killed and dismembered. Some say it's as high as two hundred. Fifteen minutes of struggling at the end of a rope was too quick for what I saw in the basement.
It was as I retreated out of more experienced officers' way that my lantern illuminated a footprint on the bare dirt, inked out of something like engine oil. It looked like a woman's bare footprint, confidently planted, walking forwards. I followed it's direction into the dark. The floor turned to ash underfoot, rising with each footstep and staining my dark trousers. When I patted them down, greasy grey ingrained itself into my fingerprints. Everything got covered in ash. I stepped more carefully, more slowly, intent on examining the glints of steel my lantern was illuminating in the darkness.
Built into the far wall were two giant furnaces. The ashes created drifts ankle-high as I approached the nearest oven. Naively, I thought that maybe Holmes had been burning paper evidence. When I reached out my hand to the door, I saw blonde hairs stuck to the handle. They were glued there with burnt blood. When I gently pulled the door open, ash and burnt chunks of bone poured out in a ceaseless wave.
Something winked at me in the grey softness. A dainty watch on a chain, badly scorched. I picked it up in trembling fingers and opened it.
FOR MINNIE the engraving read inside the lid.
I can't sleep next to her tonight with that image in my mind. I won't. There's another bottle in my study somewhere. I'll sleep in my chair. Holmes is dead; the Castle burned and was torn down. The sickness that remains is all in my head. I shall not let it anywhere near her.