An Evil Wind from the Windy City

by Terry Hogan

It was an evil wind that blew from the Windy City. Chicago was hosting its World’s Fair. It was 1893. Times were changing. Innocent, that is unsuspecting, folks were leaving small towns and farms for the big city. Chicago was the city of opportunity, employment, and wealth that could not be found in rural Illinois. Many of these folks were young women, hoping to find work. These young women did not know and therefore did not fear the Evil that was lurking in big city life. But Evil was there. Evil was prepared like the fox for the rabbit. And it was a true Evil.

The Evil was in the form of a serial killer who specialized in young women. His name was Dr. H. H. Holmes. He killed and mutilated an uncertain number of innocent women, and at least three children. He was fully aware of his Evil. He stated, "I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more that the poet can help the inspiration to sing."

But Holmes was more than Evil. He was an intelligent, persuasive, attractive, and premeditated Evil. Like a spider constructing a web, Dr. Holmes constructed a hotel near the site of the 1893 World’s Fair. He used a series of construction workers so nobody understood all that he was constructing. The hotel, called the World’s Fair Hotel, had an evil heart. That heart was a gas-fired kiln that could convert his victims’ remains to ashes. Of course, this was only for those whose bodies he didn’t use for other purposes, such as skeleton remains that he sold to medical schools. Holmes opened the door of his hotel to young female guests. He turned away men, claiming that the hotel was full.

It is an evil, true tale, masterfully written by Erik Larson in his new book "The Devil in the White City" (Crown Publishers). The tale is woven into the fabric of the construction and running of the Chicago Worlds Fair of 1893. Like any good tale of evil, this ploy works well to build up tension, relieve tension, only to build it back up again. The book will probably become a movie. You will likely hear "It was a really good movie, but not as good as the book". It’s worth the read.

The story takes place mostly in Chicago and runs the span of years shortly before, during, and shortly after the Chicago World’s Fair. It is an insight into inherent Evil made all the more dangerous by a significant intelligence. Luckily, the grisly gut-wrenching gory details are not laid out before the readers. Like a good horror movie of years ago (when movies were in black and white), these details were left to the viewer’s mind to envision. For me, it made the book all the better. It will likely make any future movie fall into the trap of showing it all.

This true story, which I will leave to the much more talented Larson to weave, has some local connections. The Evil Dr. Holmes had an assistant who helped him in a number of ways. The assistant, Benjamin Pitezel, joined Holmes in 1889. Pitezel was married to Carrie Canning of Galva, Illinois and they had a number of children. Their oldest daughter, Dessie, was born "out of wedlock". Three of their children — Alice, Nellie, and Howard- would become part of the history of this Evil.

Benjamin Pitezel apparently came from religious parents. His father once wrote him, "Come with me and I will do the good is the Savior’s command. Will you go? I will take that wicked nature out of you, and I will wash from you all stains, and I will be a father to you and you shall be a son and an heir." From the reading of the story, it is clear that Benjamin Pitezel did not take his father up on the offer. During the trial of Dr. Holmes, a district attorney would describe Benjamin Pitezel as Holmes "tool" and "his [Holmes’] creature".

However, Benjamin Pitezel paid an even greater price for his association with Dr. Holmes. Holmes ultimately killed Pitezel as part of a life insurance scam. Additionally, Homes talked his way into taking three of Pitezel’s children — Alice, Nellie, and Howard — into his custody. The children vanished. No bodies were found until an extensive search was undertaken and the movements of Holmes and the children were tracked around the Midwest.

In 1895, Holmes was put on trial in Philadelphia for the murder of Benjamin Pitezel. Evidence at the trial included a wart removed from Pitezel’s corpse by Holmes and a wooden box that contained Pitezel’s skull. Pitezel’s widow testified at the trial. When asked to identify handwriting in letters written by her daughters who were killed by Holmes, she broke down. Holmes was reported to have shown no emotion then, or when she described seeing her dead children in a morgue in Toronto.

It was an evil wind that blew from Chicago. The White City of the World’s Fair promised a glimpse of the future. It stood in sharp contrast to the horrors performed by Dr. Holmes at the World’s Fair Hotel, located only a few blocks away. Evil knows no geographic limitation. Evil knows no rules.

It is an evil, true tale, well told by Erik Larson.

April 22, 2003