Tagged: H.H. Holmes

Mike Gold: The Real Monster


h-h-holmes-imageI was going to write about comics again this week; I usually do, and I’ve got all sorts of notes on a topic that can wait a week or two. ComicMix purports to proselytize about geek culture – or, as my fellow wordsmith Ed Catto calls it, “Geek Culture” – for the broader comic book fan audience. Glenn Hauman calls us the pop culture Huffington Post. I call us the Huffington Post from hell.

There’s nothing geekier than monsters, and our culture has sported quite a few real monsters. In this regard, perhaps you think of Hitler. He’s our go-to real life monster, a paranoid drug addict who earned his place as the 20th Century’s greatest metaphor. Maybe you think of Stalin, who was quite the monster even before he sided with Hitler, which was before he opposed Hitler.

No, today I wish to talk about the Greatest American Monster, dubbed The Torture Doctor. In fact, David Franke wrote a book about the guy in 1975 and he called it The Torture DoctorOf course I’m referring to “Doctor” H.H. Holmes, often referred to as the first serial killer. That is not true; the first serial killer predeceased Holmes by a dozen millennia; his name roughly translates into Oog, and I’m sure his fellow homo habilises didn’t care much for him. But, I digress.

hh-holmes-murder-castle-1If a meticulous sequential mass murdering seducing charlatan swindler can be thought of as cool, Holmes was indeed that. Damn, his real name wasn’t even H.H. Holmes. It was Herman Webster Mudgett, but he was cool enough to understand that wasn’t the name for the ages. H.H. Holmes was much more cool.

Born at the onset of the Civil War, Mudgett graduated from the University of Michigan’s Department of Medicine and Surgery, acquiring skills that he would soon put to bad use. He moved to Chicago in 1886, adapted the more alliterative name and took a job as a pharmacist and errand boy at Elizabeth Holton’s drugstore at the corner of Wallace and West 63rd Street. When Holton’s husband died H.H. bought the operation from the widow, who then disappeared.

Three years later and three miles to the east, it was announced that Chicago had won the rights to the 1893 World’s Fair. They beat out New York; the term “the windy city,” applied locally since 1876, was immortalized by the distraught editor of the New York Sun, a one-time Chicagoan named Charles A. Dana. “Don’t pay any attention to the nonsensical claims of that windy city. Its people could not build a World’s Fair even if they won it.” Dana was mistaken. Not only did it build the truly dazzling World’s Fair, but it gave Holmes the idea of buying the block-long vacant lot across the street from his drug store and building a hotel. He called it the World’s Fair Hotel.

Clearly, he one of the most devious contractors in history. Holmes had an idea, a plan for the hotel. Only one person might have known the full plan – his subcontractors were limited to building various sections of the building with no one builder knowing the totality of the effort. Eventually the guy who acted as H.H.’s associate, Benjamin Pitezel, wound up prematurely deceased… as did his children.

tribune-holmes-300x341-8084818Dubbed “The Castle” due to its enormous size, it was later discovered the joint was littered with secret soundproofed airtight rooms, trapdoors, and chutes that led to the basement. The hotel mostly employed young women and mostly catered to young out-of-town women who were visitors to, or workers at, the Fair. There were secret gas lines, a special second floor hanging chamber, rooms for suffocation and starvation, and hidden passageways to the basement where many skeletons were preserved and sold to medical schools. The hotel had lots of modern conveniences, including two massive furnaces and handy pits of lime and corrosive acid.

H.H. Holmes was a man with a plan. Several plans, in fact, that seemed to address his sundry lusts, his desire for money, and a general distain for the fairer sex. He was also quite an experienced insurance swindler and, eventually, he and the three Pitezel children left town for Fort Worth, Indianapolis, Detroit, Toronto, Philadelphia and Boston. By then the Pinkertons had been hired by the insurance interests and they tracked the Torture Doctor down, where he was arrested and ultimately convicted of Pitezel’s murder.

Holmes confessed to 27 murders, although only nine were confirmed. It is generally believed he murdered upwards of 200 people, mostly women, mostly blonde. He married some of them, but that was just a formality – one we refer to as “bigamy.”

Holmes was hanged at the Philadelphia County Prison in May 1896, at the age of 34. Amusingly, execution witnesses said Holmes was hanged improperly and slowly strangled to death for 20 minutes. By this time The Castle had endured a massive fire; two men had been seen running away from the building just ahead of several explosions. The building was rehabbed and lived until 1938. Today, the site is home to the neighborhood post office and, in several weeks, a Whole Foods supermarket will be opening a block away.

Holmes’ story was immortalized in Erik Larson’s best-selling novel The Devil in the White City. Ostensibly, Leo DiCaprio will be playing Holmes in long-in-development motion picture. I gather Johnny Depp was unavailable.

The Castle endured for three decades, but here’s the real mystery. Pretty much ever since then, the Englewood neighborhood has been one of the most dangerous areas in Chicago – even today, with the city’s notoriously high murder rate, Englewood is one of two areas where most of these murders occur.

Doctor Holmes left quite a legacy. Doctor Holmes was a genuine monster.

Mike Gold: Do YOU Collect Comic Books?

Phil SeulingI endured another birthday last week. This is not a big deal, I’ve had a lot of them. Of course, I never get tired of my daughter fussing over me and preparing a dinner of unimaginable excellence, but there’s a point in our lives when such an occasion prompts a review of random elements of our past. Perhaps because my birthday is smackdab in the middle of the heaviest part of convention “season,” this year my thoughts turned to the evolution of the comic book store.

The comic book store evolved from those strange stores that sold old magazines and/or were “white elephant” shops. They hardly are of recent vintage: America’s first nationally-known serial killer, H.H. Holmes, murdered dozens if not hundreds of people in his specially-built World’s Fair Hotel that had secret passageways and trap doors and sealed ersatz gas chambers. One of the few shops on the ground floor of his palace was leased to a back-issue magazine store. This happened back in 1893; the hotel was conveniently located about a mile from the blockbuster World’s Columbian Exposition. Many future shops were located in less comfortable neighborhoods.

There weren’t any comic books in 1893, but the concept of back issue comic book retailing came onto its own in the post-Wertham late 1950s. These places paved the way to what we might think of as the “comic book store.”

I say “might think” because those original comic book stores only sold back-issue comics. There were few media chachkas. After a while several cut deals with their local independent magazine distributors to get new comics in through the back door, but if a local drug or candy store complained the new comics rack in the old comics store disappeared.

New York Comic Art Convention Program 1969Then Phil Seuling happened. Phil was the lynchpin to many very important events in the evolution of comic book fandom. He started selling old comics in 1958; ten years later he hosted the first New York Comic Art Convention. In those sainted days of yore, comicons offered fans guests, panels, some movies, and a large room full of people standing behind card tables with a mass of sometimes-organized old comics, filed in all sorts of file boxes that, at the time, were not specifically manufactured for that purpose. Today, those dealers look exactly the same as they did in 1968, only older.

People came to these shows to fill in the holes in their collections while socializing with similar addicts. Eventually some of them mated, but I digress. Long-box diving became a ballet, one that also played out in those comic book shops in the low-rent neighborhoods.

Then Phil Seuling happened again. In 1972, Phil made arrangements with the comic book publishers of the time (Marvel was a bit late to commit, but only a bit) to sell brand-new comics directly to comic book shops through his East Coast Seagate Distributing company. They started out in increments of 25 and Phil said they were selling to “comic book clubs” to avoid pissing off the legitimate retailers (ha!), but the comic book medium had forever changed.

Both publishers and product grew like Topsy, and eventually some smartass revealed the “true” cost to retailers in keeping, maintaining and selling back-issues. It was a very labor-intensive vocation, at least for most retailers, and before long they needed space to sell more profitable new comics, toys, tapes, costumes, prints, cards, and, of course, POGs.

World's Fair HotelSo old comics became harder to find. No problem; the publishers were thrilled to help those who actually wanted to read their wares by reprinting those stories in books – the kind with spines. These had the added advantage of being salable in “traditional” book stores (you know, like Borders) and on that new “Amazon” thing.

Today I walk through the convention floors – they used to be called “huckster rooms” – and through comic book stores and I see a vastly diminished presence of the back issues that put fans and fandom in business. I don’t necessarily miss them, no more than I miss those great old buggy whip factories. But it makes me wonder if fans still collect old comics for the purpose of reading.

Sure, graded and entombed comic books abound, but I have no doubt that someday somebody is going to disinter one of those vacuum-sealed copies of Action Comics #3 graded at 5.8 and valued into six figures and discover the guts of Planet Terry #7.

Yep. That screaming sound you just heard came out of the guts of a couple dozen of my good friends who possess innumerable sealed rarities.

Time marches on, and I’m okay with that as long as it swiftly marches across the backside of Donald Trump. But, yeah, there’s another habit that goes as we age. It’s called “Hey, kids, get off of my lawn!”