H. H. Holmes: Master of Illusion
The Art of Persuasion
To exonerate himself, Holmes, now 34, penned Holmes' Own Story, in which the Alleged Multimurderer and Arch Conspirator Tells of the Twenty-two Tragic Deaths and Disappearances in which he is Said to be Implicated. He included his supposed prison diary as an appendix (which Larson believes he invented rather than kept as a daily log). The diary is a boring rendition of his routine, probably intended to make him appear to be an ordinary Joe with an interest in books, and presented as a means for his "betterment." He viewed the whole as a "literary work," as befitted his narcissistic temperament, and claimed that he had written it with "mature deliberation," and against the protest of his attorney and acquaintances.
He claimed that the murders he had been accused of were a blatant attempt to ensure that his trial would not be fair and impartial. He wanted to formally and publicly deny them all. Thus, he set out to offer a narrative of his "entire life," including a full disclosure of his dealings with the Pitezel family. "My sole object in this publication is to vindicate my name from the horrible aspersions cast upon it," he wrote, "and to appeal to a fair-minded American public for a suspension of judgment."
In this memoir, which he got a journalist to assist him to publish, Holmes describes Gilmanton Academy, N.H., the town in which he grew up as Herman Webster Mudgett. He was born there in 1861 and claims to have experienced an ordinary life, with an ordinary set of parents and a normal schoolboy routine. Larson disputes this, having learned from experts that psychopathic children are generally involved in conduct disorders and juvenile delinquency, but this is not always the case. Generalizations offer poor ways to get at the truth of individual cases, and since there is no evidence either way, we cannot know what Holmes' childhood was really like.
He describes a turning point in his life as the day some older boys forced him into a village doctor's office and face-to-face with a skeleton. "It was a wicked and dangerous thing to do to a child of tender years and health," Holmes says, though he admits that the experience cured him of his fears. He attributes his desire to go into medicine to this memorable incident.
He also discusses his childhood lies and pranks and how his father punished him. It was in college, he says, where he did his first truly dishonest act: He represented a fraudulent book, earning money from it for his expenses. He received a medical school diploma, he says, from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and then opened a practice. He then attempted unsuccessfully to commit his first insurance fraud, helping someone to fake his own death with a purloined cadaver. From there, he served a stint as a doctor in an insane asylum, which haunted him for years. He changed his name to H.H. Holmes and posed as a pharmacist in Chicago. That was an ominous start to his career.