~ 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
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~
Caleb Carr’s 1996 novel, The Alienist, is set in New York City in 1896. It is about a fictitious serial killer, the hunt for him, and the people doing the hunting. Dr. Laszlo Kreizler is the unorthodox “alienist” (psychiatrist) who takes it upon himself to find the killer. (The police are not interested in pursuing the case, for whatever reasons.) Dr. Kreizler enlists the aid of long-time friend John Schuyler Moore, a fashionable police reporter and man about town. Helping them is feminist Sara Howard, one of the first women to be employed by the New York Police Department (on an experimental basis, of course). She proves herself more than capable of doing whatever the men can do. She doesn’t want any of them to think she is inferior in any way because she is a woman. Rounding out the group are the Isaacson brothers (Lucius and Marcus), a pair of detective-sergeants trained in all kinds of detection arts that the others in the group aren’t privy to. Also offering support whenever it is needed (such as a fast getaway) are Cyrus and Stevie, a couple of loyal servants of Dr. Kreizler’s that he rescued from his mental-health practice.
New York in 1896 was a city of contrasts. Rich people lived in glittering palaces on Fifth Avenue, while, just blocks away, the poor lived in rows of squalid tenements. The serial killer could be just about anybody. No matter who he is, though, he is a definitely troubled. He selects his victims from children, but not just any children: they are “boy prostitutes.” He tortures and mutilates each of his victims in a certain manner that the group of investigators must try to make sense of. They assemble a psychological profile of the killer, based on little bits of information they can glean about him as they proceed. After much work and diligent research, they emerge with the information they need to apprehend the fiend. It is a triumph of good over evil.
The Alienist is meticulously detailed, atmospheric, and well-researched. It is a story about time and place as much as anything else. If you pick up the book and hold it in your hands, probably the first thing you will notice is that it is five hundred pages long. It will keep you turning the pages, but while you are reading it, you may well think it will never end. A little too long and too detailed? You decide.
Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp
Men With Red Hair
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~
Gerta Fain awoke at nine o’clock with the sunlight streaming through the window and the birds singing their happy song. She rolled out of bed feeling good for a reason that for the moment escaped her and then it came to her: her mother was gone for the day and she had the house to herself. She had always liked being alone and it was going to be a good day. She would roll up her hair, paint her nails and bake an angel food cake. While she was doing these things she could listen to her music on the radio and watch soap operas on television and there would be no one to complain.
She went downstairs to the kitchen and was scouting around in the refrigerator for something to eat for breakfast when she saw a man in the back yard, painting the old garage. Her mother didn’t tell her she had engaged someone to paint the garage; it must have slipped her mind.
From the kitchen window she could see him quite well. He was about thirty-five, slender, dressed in white painter overalls. The best thing about him, though, was that he had red hair that glinted in the sun. She never knew a person with red hair that she didn’t like.
Wearing only her thin pajamas and no shoes, Gerta went out the back door and down the porch steps. “Hey, you!” she said as she approached him. “I saw you out the window of my kitchen! Here I was thinking I was all alone and then I look out the window and see you!”
“Yes, ma’am!” he said. “I’ll be finished up here before you know it!”
“This garage belongs to us. It’s an old rickety thing, isn’t it? There’s hornets’ nests inside there. I’d watch out if I was you.”
“It must have been my mother you talked to, but she didn’t tell me you were coming today. She’s gone today, though. All day. I have the house to myself and I can do whatever I want. I like it when she’s gone.”
“I sure do like your red hair! As soon as I saw you out the window, I noticed it. I bet you get a lot of compliments on your hair.”
“Not until now.”
“You don’t see that many men with red hair. I had a cousin with red hair, but he was shot and killed.”
“You’ll be here today and tomorrow?”
“That’s only two days. Where will you be after that?”
“I don’t know. Another painting job somewhere else.”
“Do you like being a painter?”
“Better than some things.”
“I don’t think I’ve seen you around before,” Gerta said. “Are you new in town?”
“I’ve only been here seventeen years.”
“If you do a good job on the garage, maybe my mother will have you paint the whole house.”
He looked up the slope of the yard to the house. “It’s a big house,” he said.
“Yeah, we’ve got nine rooms. I’ve never lived anywhere else.”
“Just you and your mother?”
“That’s right. I don’t have a husband. I’ve never been married. I’ll probably get married someday, but for now I like being single. You wouldn’t happen to have a cigarette, would you?”
“Well, I’m not supposed to smoke, either, but I do it anyway when my mother isn’t around. It’s not as if I’m a child or anything, but she doesn’t like smoking and gets awfully mad about it sometimes.”
“Well, I’d like to stand around and talk all day,” he said, “but I’ve got a lot of ground to cover in two days.”
“Oh, don’t mind me! I certainly don’t want to keep you from your work!”
“Would you like a drink of water? It must be awfully hot working out here in the sun.”
“I usually don’t take a drink until I’m finished working,” he said.
“Don’t you ever take a break?”
“No time to waste. Always in a hurry, I guess.”
“Oh, if it was me, I’d take a lot of breaks!”
“I don’t have a job,” Gerta said. “I had a job once but it was just temporary. I was a phantom shopper. Do you know what a phantom shopper is?”
“It’s sort of a department store spy. If they catch you spying, they’ll break both your legs. Another time I worked for a cleaning service, but I had to quit that job because the chemicals we used to clean with made me break out all over. The doctor said I had an allergic reaction. Have you been painting garages long?”
“About seven years. Seems like a lot longer.”
“Are you planning on doing that all the rest of your life?”
“No, when something better comes along, I’ll take it.”
“One of these days I’ll get me a job that lasts,” she said. “I wouldn’t mind doing what you do, but I guess there aren’t many women that do that, are there?”
“I haven’t known of any.”
“I think I’d like a job on TV,” she said. “I’d either like to be an actress on one of those soap operas or a news reporter. I could stand up in front of a map on the television screen and talk to people about what the weather is going to be like tomorrow. If they won’t let me do that, then I’d like to work behind a counter in a department store or as a supermarket checker. I’d be good at that.”
“I was going to go back inside the house, but it feels so good being out here in the sunlight and the air that I think I’ll just stay out here for a while.”
She sat down on the ground and put her knees up, forgetting for the moment that she was wearing only thin pajamas with nothing on underneath. She didn’t mind that the ground was a little bit soggy. She put her feet together and her hands on her ankles.
After a couple minutes of silence, she said, “Did I tell you that my mother is gone for the day? I like it when she’s gone. My father died a long time ago. He worked as a foreman in a factory and one day he just fell over dead. I think he was lucky in that respect. He had an easy death. I’d like to have an easy death, wouldn’t you? Do you mind if I ask you whether or not you have a girlfriend?”
“No, I don’t have a girlfriend,” he said, “but since the two of us don’t know each other at all, don’t you think it’s better not to ask personal questions?”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it. I just like to know about people, is all. Some people call it friendly and others call it nosy.”
“It’s all right. It’s just that I don’t have any time for talking.”
“I understand and I apologize.”
“You make me tired just by watching you,” Gerta said. “I guess I’m not much for working. My mother says I’m lazy. Well, if I’m lazy, she’s lazy too. She doesn’t do any more work than I do. I do all the housework and most of the laundry and most of the cooking. I like to cook, though, when my mother isn’t standing over me. She calls me an idiot and a dumbbell when I don’t do things the way she likes them. Is your mother dead?”
“No, but she lives far away and I never see her.”
“Families are funny things.”
“Yes, they are.”
“I prefer friends over family, but I don’t have that many friends, either. Sad to say. When I was in high school I had friends but that’s been years ago. The friends I had then have all drifted away. Some of them got married and some moved away. One or two of them are even in jail.” She laughed. “I wouldn’t like to be in jail, would you?”
“If they were going to lock me up for thirty years for a crime I committed, I think I would just prefer the death penalty, wouldn’t you?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“They just do the lethal injection thing now. I hear about it all the time on television. It probably doesn’t even hurt. I’m pretty sure it’s a painless death. They used to hang people by the neck or put them in front of a firing squad, but they had to stop doing that. People were complaining.”
“Are you sure you wouldn’t like to take a little break for a while? Aren’t you tired.”
“No, I’m not tired.”
“You must be hungry. Would you like a sandwich or something? You can come into the kitchen and sit at the table and I’ll fix you a baloney and cheese sandwich.”
“No, thanks. I’m not hungry and I’m not tired.”
“Well, if you want to take a break, let me know.”
“I know I’ve just about talked you to death. I don’t know what’s gotten into me. I don’t usually talk so much. You just seem like a sympathetic person that I can talk to.”
“People don’t usually notice me when I’m working.” he said. “They don’t even see me. They’re only interested in the finished job. They never think about the person doing the work.”
“Well, isn’t that just typical? Tomorrow you can meet my mother. And I promise I won’t talk so much.”
“That’s all right, ma’am.”
“You’re a real gentleman. You don’t meet many of those, anymore. I’ll go back inside now and leave you to your work. Before I go, though, I wonder if I could ask you one tiny favor?”
“What is it?”
“I have this old trunk upstairs in my bedroom. The lock is busted; the key won’t turn. There are some important papers in it that I need to get out. I’ve had a feeling ever since I first saw you that you would know how to get it opened, but I hated to ask.”
“Can you bring the trunk out here?”
“No, it’s too heavy.”
“Well, all right. I guess I can take a couple of minutes and go upstairs and take a look.”
Gerta took him into the house, through the kitchen, into the dining room, and down the hallway to the stairs. She held onto the banister as she went up ahead of him, wondering what he must be thinking.
When she came to the door of her bedroom, she paused for a moment for him to catch up. Then she opened the door and took him inside.
She was aware of how messy the room was. She hadn’t even made the bed. He’d think she had the manners of a pig.
The trunk was on the other side of the bed, beneath the window. She had to move some clothes and old blankets out of the way for him to get to it.
He knelt down. After a thorough examination of the lock, he asked her for a hammer and a screwdriver and when she produced them, he inserted the screwdriver into the lock and tapped lightly with the hammer until the lock opened.
She squealed and clapped her hands together with genuine delight. “I knew you could do it!” she said.
“It’s an old lock,” he said. “Needs some oil.”
“I want to give you something,” she said.
“Oh, no! It’s not necessary!”
“I don’t have any money, but I want to give you something!”
She opened the dresser drawer and rummaged around inside until she found a Fourth of July lapel pin that she had since she was eleven. It showed an American flag on a background of exploding shells.
“This isn’t much,” she said, “but it will help you remember that you did a good deed for a stranger and asked nothing in return.”
He stood still while she came very close and attached the pin to the front of his shirt.
“This isn’t necessary,” he said.
After she pinned the lapel pin to his shirt, they continued to stand very close to each other for a few seconds too long. Then he stepped away from her and they both realized at that moment that they weren’t alone in the room.
Gerta’s mother had returned earlier than expected. She stood in the doorway, hand on knob, glaring at Gerta and the painter.
“What’s going on here?” her mother asked. “Who is this man?”
“He’s nobody,” Gerta said. “He’s the man painting the garage.”
“What’s he doing in your bedroom?”
“We were talking and I asked him if he would take a look at the lock on my trunk.”
“Since when was there anything wrong with the lock on your trunk? That was just an excuse to get him up here, wasn’t it?”
“I’ll go,” he said.
“That’s right! You go! And if you ever come messing around my daughter again, I’ll have you arrested!”
She stood aside to let him pass. As he was going down the stairs, she called out after him, “And I’m going to have you fired for this! Don’t think I won’t!”
“You have to ruin everything, don’t you?” Gerta said.
“So I was right! You were about to take him to bed!”
“Of course not! I was going to give him something out of my dresser drawer.”
“Give him what?”
“None of your business!”
She tried to go out of the room but her mother grabbed her by the arm and pulled her back and started slapping her. When she put her arms up to fend off the blows, her mother stripped off her pajamas with a wrenching pull and knocked her to the floor.
“Just what I thought!” her mother screamed. “You’re a cheap whore! You’re trash through and through! I can’t leave you alone for just a few hours! You should be locked up!”
“I didn’t do anything!”
She tried to stand up, but her mother kept slapping and kicking her so that after a while she just lay still and didn’t offer any resistance.
When she awoke she was on the floor and it was after two in the morning. Her head hurt terribly and her wrist, she was sure, was broken. She felt too sick and demoralized to stand upright.
Then she thought of him and it all came back. He came to paint the garage. He had the prettiest red hair she ever saw. They started talking, except that she did most of the talking. He listened politely but she knew, deep down, that he wanted her to go away and stop bothering him. She persuaded him to go upstairs with her to take a look at a lock on her trunk. Her mother came back at that moment and found them alone together in the bedroom, but they weren’t doing anything. Nothing at all. It was all so innocent. Her mother, of course, would make it out to be infinitely worse than it was, like two pigs rutting in the mud.
They’d get somebody else to finish the garage. She’d never see him again. She hadn’t even thought to ask him his name. All she knew about him was that he painted garages and had red hair. It wasn’t much to go on.
Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp