Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

H. H. Holmes: Master of Illusion

Holmes: The Movie

While most high-profile serial killers have some type of visual medium devoted to them, whether a miniseries for Ted Bundy or a feature film for Aileen Wuornos, it's much more difficult to develop such presentation for historical figures. Larson's bestselling book, The Devil in the White City, brought considerable attention to H.H. Holmes, but until now there has never been a comprehensive documentary on the man. Though film rights for Larson's book have been optioned by Cruise/Wagner Productions, no movie plans have been announced. But there is a way to acquire some visuals of the Holmes case.

In 2003, Waterfront Productions offered an hour-long DVD about the life and crimes of H. H. Holmes. While producer John Borowski mistakenly bills Holmes as America's first serial killer, other facts of his fine production are accurate. For those who know the case, this documentary offers a way to see some of the historic newspaper photos and articles about Holmes' castle, his childhood home in New Hampshire, and his interviews with the press as he awaited his trial in Philadelphia. Wisely, Borowski does not try to over-embellish the legend. He even notes that there are various estimates of Holmes' final victim count, a number that no one really knows.  

Featured on the documentary (www.hhholmesthefilm.com) are crime historian Harold Schechter, noted for Depraved, his painstakingly researched book on the case, and Thomas Cronin, who bills himself as a criminal profiler. While Cronin overextends himself to assume things about the killer's ideas and behavior for which he has no real basis, Schechter balances this with a scholar's careful approach. Cronin has been a police officer for over 30 years and has training in criminal profiling from the FBI's BSU in Quantico, so some of his ideas are likely grounded in the statistical approach, generalized from other studies.

Antique scalpel set
Antique scalpel set

This documentary was made over the course of three years, completely at Borowski's expense, and sparked by an article about the infamous Holmes Castle in Chicago, once located on 63rd and Wallace. It was burned down before it could be made into a public amusement museum, but the horrors that occurred there nevertheless mark the spot with unquiet ghosts. In interviews, Borowski describes how he became fascinated with the man, a seemingly upstanding citizen and family man who killed indiscriminately, with no obvious victim type, and who dispatched victims not only for financial gain but also to entertain himself with torture devices of his own invention.

While the documentary offers nineteenth-century photos and maps, it also reconstructs some of the scenes, using genuine pieces from the 1980s, such as scalpels and a lantern. Borowski even acquired a copy of Holmes' birth certificate.

Lantern, circa 1880
Lantern, circa 1880

He apparently acquired his interest in killers like Holmes after he viewed photos that a friend's father, a police detective, had of some of Jeffrey Dahmer's dismembered victims. The images of body parts, heads, and a torso in a bathtub haunted him for years afterward. Eventually he made a short film while in college about Dahmer, and then got intrigued with other such crimes. Since no one else had produced anything about Holmes, he decided to do it himself. In addition to offering a DVD, Borowski has made a CD-Rom available that includes Holmes' original confession, published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the book by Detective Frank Geyer.        

In short, Borowski has done a service for fans and scholars of true crime alike. This is the first documentary of the case and it offers plenty of historic material. His company will also publish the contents as a book, which can otherwise only be accessed in their original form through Philadelphia or Library of Congress archives.

*****

In addition to making the first DVD about H.H. Holmes available to viewers, John Borowski has done a great service by also publishing the four principle works by and about Holmes during the time of his arrest, as he awaited trial. Previously, one had to go to a place like the newspaper archives in Philadelphia to get access to these papers. Now they're all in one bound volume, along with provocative illustrations of the case and the infamous Chicago castle. In addition to Holmes's various "confessions," the volume includes the book penned by Detective Frank Geyer, as well as Robert Corbitt's description of the castle before it was destroyed and the analysis of evidence there — including bones and fine hair found in the stove. Holmes was so clever, it seems, that he would hire and discharge workmen each day so that no one could see what he was up to. It's fortunate the Borowski has been so interested in the case as to produce both a DVD and a bound collection of 19th century publications. Despite the availability of two excellent books devoted to Holmes in recent times, it's always valuable to read the documents from the relevant era.

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