Depraved ~ A Capsule Book Review

Depraved cover
Depraved
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~

Herman Webster Mudgett was born in a small town in New Hampshire in 1861. In young adulthood he became a doctor and changed his name to Henry Howard Holmes (or H. H. Holmes). He then embarked on a criminal career that included kidnapping, murder, arson, bigamy, insurance fraud, swindling, check forging, theft, grave-robbing, etcetera.

Because he was attractive, well-groomed, a stylish dresser and well-educated, he could easily ingratiate himself to people, men and women alike. The victims of his crimes never saw what was coming. Do you think he’d lock you in a bank vault and let you suffocate to death? No, he would never do that. His suit was too expensive, his mustache too neatly trimmed, his English too refined.

After moving to suburban Chicago, he purchased a drug store and became a druggist, but soon moved on to other business ventures. He built a block-long building nicknamed the Castle. It was a four-story mixed-use building, with apartments on the second floor and retail spaces, including a new drugstore. Reports by the sensationist press of the day called the building “Holmes’s Murder Castle,” claiming the structure contained secret torture chambers, trap doors, gas chambers and a basement crematorium. None of these claims turned out to be true. After he became well-known for his highly publicized crimes, much of what was written about him was untrue or exaggerated. Horrific, gruesome, bloody stories sold lots of newspapers.

By his own count, Dr. Holmes murdered twenty-seven people. Others claimed the number was much higher. He murdered a former college classmate in an insurance scheme. He inadvertently killed one of his girlfriends in a botched abortion. Because of his connection with the medical profession, he provided cadavers and skeletons to medical schools. Most of the people he murdered he did so to silence them. They knew too much about him or had become inconvenient to his plans.

What finally tripped him up was an insurance-fraud scheme. He and a “business partner,” Benjamin Pietzel, set out to defraud an insurance company of $10,000 (a fortune in the 1890s.) The plan was that Dr. Holmes would insure Benjamin Pietzel’s life, fake his death, collect on the policy and then the two of them split the profits. Dr. Holmes really did murder Pietzel, however, so he could keep all the insurance money for himself. He also murdered three of Pietzel’s five children to silence them.

He was tried and found guilty of the murder of Benjamin Pietzel. The police only needed to prove one of his murders to nab him. During his trial, he vehemently professed his innocence. He had done some bad things in his life, he said, but he never killed anybody. (His “confessions” about what he did or didn’t do might change daily.) He was hanged in Philadelphia in 1896, just short of his thirty-fifth birthday.

Depraved, by Harold Schechter, is the true-life story of Dr. H. H. Holmes, a man who became famous in the late nineteenth century for unspeakable murders and other crimes. He was, probably, what later would be called a sociopath or a psychopath. He himself said that, when he was born, Satan was there beside him and guided him through his life. At times he could sweetly profess shining innocence, but right at the end he admitted he was getting exactly what he deserved. Some people claimed he had supernatural abilities. After his death, several of the people who were instrumental in his capture and conviction met with unexplainable illnesses or had other misfortunes befall them.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

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