Autodidact: self-taught



by V. L. Craven

Depraved by Harold Schechter
-01- Of course, Mark Twain could never have imagined a place like the Castle. Theodore Dreiser couldn’t have either, in spite of his deep understanding of the city’s sordid underside. It would have taken a writer with a far different sort of imagination to conceive of such a place. It would have taken Edgar Allan Poe. When investigators finally broke into the Castle, they were stunned at what they found—a Gothic labyrinth of trapdoors, secret passageways, soundproof vaults, and torture chambers. And then there were the greased chutes—large enough to accommodate a human body—that led down from the living quarters to a cellar equipped with acid vats, a crematorium, a dissecting table, and cases full of gleaming surgical tools.
-02- Godliness is in league with riches …. Material prosperity is helping to make the national character sweeter, more joyous, more unselfish, more Christ-like …. In the long run, it is only to the man of morality that wealth comes. —Bishop William Lawrence, “The Relation of Wealth to Morals” (1901)
-03- Chapman had also been disemboweled. In a postmortem report published in the medical journal The Lancet, the examining surgeon, Dr. Bagster Phillips, graphically described the condition of the corpse: “The abdomen had been entirely laid open and the intestines severed from their mesenteric attachments which had been lifted out and placed on the shoulder of the corpse; whilst from the pelvis, the uterus and its appendages with the upper portions of the vagina and the posterior two-thirds of the bladder had been entirely removed. Obviously the work was that of an expert—or one, at least, who had such knowledge of anatomical or pathological examinations as to be enabled to secure the pelvic organs with one sweep of the knife.”
-04- Part of that kidney (with an inch of renal artery still attached) was enclosed in a parcel that arrived on October 16 at the home of George Lusk, head of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee, a group of local tradesmen who had organized to assist in the search for the killer. Accompanying this ghastly artifact was an equally appalling letter, addressed to Mr. Lusk: “Sir I send you half the kidne I took from one woman prasarved it for you tother piece I fried and ate it was very nise I may send you the bloody knif that I took it out if you only wate a whil longer. Signed Catch me when you can Mister Lusk.” The sender’s address on the upper-right-hand corner of the letter said simply: “From Hell.”
-05- The throat had been cut right across with a knife, nearly severing the head from the body. The abdomen had been partially ripped open, and both of the breasts had been cut from the body. The left arm, like the head, hung to the body by the skin only. The nose had been cut off, the forehead skinned, and the thighs, down to the feet, stripped of the flesh. The abdomen had been slashed with a knife across downwards, and the liver and entrails wrenched away. The entrails and other portions of the frame were missing, but the liver, etc., were found placed between the feet of this poor victim. The flesh from the thighs and legs, together with the breasts and nose, had been placed by the murderer on the table, and one of the hands of the dead woman had been pushed into her stomach.
-06- In later years, Holmes’s cool manipulativeness—his skill at spotting and exploiting the weak points of his victims—would generate a host of wild claims. Countless articles and pamphlets would depict him as a being of nearly supernatural power, possessed of the ability to mesmerize his victims with a single, piercing stare.
-07- In the old-fashioned meaning of the word—“one who is actuated by the will of another and is ready to do his bidding”—Benjamin Pitezel became H. H. Holmes’s creature.
-08- There was, for example, the enormous safe—as large as a walk-in bank vault—that Holmes purchased on credit before his building was half-completed. When the vault was delivered, Holmes installed it in a vacant area on the third floor of the building, then constructed a room to contain it, making sure that the doorway was so small that the safe couldn’t possibly pass through. When Holmes, in typical fashion, failed to meet any of his payments, the safe company dispatched a crew to repossess the vault. Holmes offered to let them remove it but warned that if they damaged his building in any way, he would slap the company with a ruinous lawsuit. The vault stayed where it was. Holmes employed a similar stratagem to acquire the other accoutrements he claimed to require as part of his pharmacological pursuits. These included a massive kiln fitted with a cast-iron door and a grate that slid in and out on rollers; a large zinc tank; an assortment of vats designed to store corrosives such as acid and quicklime; and enough asbestos-covered, sheet-iron plates to line the walls of several rooms.
-09- In addition to Holmes’s private office, with its curving bay window that overlooked Wallace Street, the third floor contained three dozen rooms. The majority of these were unexceptional. Comfortably furnished with beds, bureaus, rocking chairs, rugs, and wall mirrors, they were indistinguishable from the lodgings available in countless hostelries throughout the city. The guests who eventually stayed in these quarters, however, must have found it peculiarly frustrating to locate their rooms, which were strung along a tortuous network of narrow, weirdly angled hallways. Dimly lit by gas jets mounted on the walls at widely spaced intervals, these corridors took strange and unexpected turns, terminating in dead ends, stairways that seemed to lead nowhere, and perpetually locked doors to which only Holmes possessed the key. One of these closed-off rooms, adjacent to his office, contained the walk-in bank vault, whose interior had been modified by the addition of a gas pipe. The flow of gas through this conduit was controlled by a cut-off valve concealed inside a closet in Holmes’s sleeping chamber.
-10- The second floor of the building was even more mazelike than the third. Indeed, its floor plan was similar to the labyrinthine layout of a carnival funhouse, though the hidden surprises it contained were considerably more frightening. Fifty-one doors lined six shadowy corridors, which zigzagged at crazy angles. Behind the doors lay thirty-five rooms, a few fitted up—like the lodgings upstairs—as ordinary bedchambers.
-11- Some were airtight, lined from floor to ceiling with the asbestos-covered steel plates that Holmes had procured. Others had been soundproofed. Still others were so narrow and low-ceilinged that they were little more than closets. Most of the rooms had been rigged with gas pipes connected to the control panel in Holmes’s bedchamber. The doors to these rooms could be locked only from the outside and were equipped with special peepholes that permitted the landlord to keep a close eye on his guests. And then there were the other, equally sinister features of the second story—the secret passageways, concealed closets accessible through sliding panels, trapdoors opening up into darkness, and large, greased shafts that led straight to the cellar. Cavernous and dank, the brick-walled cellar had the aspect of a Gothic-horror dungeon—a resemblance reinforced by the grim paraphernalia it contained. It was here that Holmes kept his acid tank, quicklime vats, dissecting table, surgeon’s cabinet, and the other gruesome tools of his trade. In years to come, the basement would also house a grotesque contraption dubbed an “elasticity determinator.” According to its inventor—Dr. H. H. Holmes—the apparatus was a technological marvel, whose purpose was to produce “a race of giants” by stretching experimental subjects to twice their normal length.
-12- There, stretched out on a table, was a partially dissected cadaver. Chappell could tell that the corpse was that of a woman, though, to his eyes, it looked more “like a jackrabbit that had been skinned by splitting the skin down the face and rolling it back off the entire body,” as he later described it. “In some places,” Chappell went on to explain, “considerable flesh had been taken off.”
-13- According to Keeley, problem drinking was a disease produced by alcoholic poisoning of the nerve cells. The remedy consisted of a strict dietary regimen accompanied by regular injections of “bichloride of gold.” Though Keeley never revealed the contents of this dubious potion, experts in the history of alcoholism have surmised that it was concocted of gold salts and vegetable compounds.
-14- Vice may triumph for a time, crime may flaunt its victories in the face of honest toilers, but in the end the law will follow the wrong-doer to a bitter fate, and dishonor and punishment will be the portion of those who sin. —Allan Pinkerton
-15- Barring that natural expression of villainy which we all have, the man looked honest enough. —Mark Twain, “A Mysterious Visit”
-16- Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides. —Shakespeare, King Lear
-17- To parallel such a career one must go back to past ages and to the time of the Borgias or Brinvilliers, and even these were not such human monsters as Holmes seems to have been. He is a prodigy of wickedness, a human demon, a being so unthinkable that no novelist would dare to invent such a character. The story, too, tends to illustrate the end of the century. —The Chicago Times-Herald, May 8, 1896
-18- As the excavation of the Castle continued, the authorities realized that they were dealing with a frightening new phenomenon—so unique in their experience that they couldn’t put a name to it. A Chicago journalist came up with the term multimurderer. Nearly a hundred years would pass before criminologists coined the phrase serial killers to describe creatures like Holmes.
-19- “Mr. Holmes is a human being,” she exclaimed through her tears. “He is not supernatural!”
-20- in spite of Myrta’s insistence that her husband was “not supernatural”—the papers continued to characterize Holmes in precisely those terms, describing him as a “human monster,” “bloodthirsty fiend,” “murder-demon,” “ghoul,” and “ogre.”
-21- “The Trial of the Century,” as it was touted by the press, opened on a brilliant fall morning, Monday, October 28, 1895. For the six days of its duration, it held the nation in thrall. Only the murder trial of Lizzie Borden, two years earlier, had generated comparable excitement. America would not see the like again until 1924, when Clarence Darrow defended a pair of pampered, teenaged “thrill killers” named Leopold and Loeb.
-22- With his silky white hair, bushy black brows, and grave demeanor, the Honorable Michael Arnold was the very picture of judicial solemnity as he entered the courtroom—an impression heightened by his new, flowing black gown, a ritual vestment that the Philadelphia judiciary had only recently adopted. (Indeed, the proceedings were a minor milestone in this regard, marking the first time in the city’s history that a gowned judge presided at a murder trial.)
-23- one reporter remarked on the distinctive shape of his nose, “sharp and marked with those peculiar indentations that Dickens always ascribed to characters with cruel natures.”
-24- “Blackstone himself could not have handled the situation with more aplomb.”
-25- Though he had gone to the house “expecting to find a man blown to death,”
-26- The audience stirred briefly to life when Orinton M. Hanscom, deputy superintendent of the Boston police, approached the stand. Hanscom was something of a celebrity, having played a key role in the Lizzie Borden case as a detective for the defense.
-27- a face shaped like a hatchet, like one of those old-fashioned hatchets….
-28- The eyes are very big and wide open. They are blue. Great murderers, like great men in other walks of activity, have blue eyes.
-29- Of the murderer’s mouth not much can be seen, for the hair is as thick as the thickest fur. But one can see that the lips are very thin and the expression so cruel and cold as to be not human.

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