Review: Depraved

by Harold Schechter

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Depraved: The Shocking True Story of America's First Serial Killer / B0036QVPJ0

How is it that I live in Chicago and like learning about historical serial killers, but had never heard of H.H. Holmes until he was mentioned in a very terrible movie we watched while sick? Inconceivable, but Schechter is here to rectify my ignorance with "Depraved".

I say this every time but it bears repeating: I am a big fan of Harold Schechter's historical true crime books. While the questionable covers and book subtitles seem sometimes a little over-the-top, the actual contents of the books are top-notch in my opinion. Schechter writes in a very engaging style that is accessible to the audience, and handles the facts of the case in a chronological order as an easy-to-follow narrative. He is careful to cite his sources as he goes and is very clear when we encounter gaps in the record where we don't know what happened. Any speculation on his part is marked plainly and we are walked through the logical steps. I appreciate that in a crime author, as too many authors are willing to blur fact and fiction.

This book covers the life and death of H.H. Holmes, the first official serial killer of America. He was contemporary to Jack the Ripper (but not the same person) and you may have heard of him because he built a "castle" in Chicago that had all kinds of trapdoors and gas vents and acid pits until the city had to tear the thing down on account of it being (a) a notorious murder-pit and (b) so badly designed it was about to fall down anyway. They turned it into a post office, I think, which is kind of a delight to me: from about the worst possible building you can imagine to one of the most useful and good.

This book is fascinating for all the usual reasons a Schechter book is good: lots of historical detail and background and I learned a lot about the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, which I was not expecting to learn about. Very interesting stuff! But Holmes is also interesting from a serial killer perspective because he doesn't really fit the usual mold. A lot of his victims were close to him before their deaths, mostly mistresses and various business associates. His motives tended to be selfish ones that centered around money, either keeping it (from the mistresses) or making it (at least one business associate was murdered as part of a life insurance scam). He is a very different sort of serial killer from, say, Earle Nelson and the usual image of a stranger who picks out someone to die merely for personal gratification.

All the usual trigger warnings apply here: Holmes was a serial killer who targeted people who were close to him, especially women, and did not hesitate to kill children if he thought they would be a witness against him or a loose end. He additionally liked to make money off his victims by selling their skeletons to medical colleges, which was horrifying to read about. (If I understand correctly, all the skeletons were eventually recovered and given a proper burial when he was caught, which was a relief.) There's also discussion of alcoholism here, since Holmes' business associate struggled with alcohol abuse.

If you're interested in historical true crime and/or serial killers, you definitely want to read this book. There's a lot out there about Holmes but since he was a grandiose liar who liked to exaggerate his own misdeeds, the truthfulness is hard to gauge. Schechter does the hard work of sifting through the claims and presenting what is definitely true, what is completely false, and all the in-between claims and how likely they are.

~ Ana Mardoll


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