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Depraved Paperback – 1 Jul 1996
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Caleb Carrauthor of "The Alienist"Riveting....Brilliantly detailed....Amazing. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
About the Author
Harold Schechter is a professor at Queens College, the City University of New York, where he teaches courses in American literature and culture. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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There's a disappointing lack of substantial writing about the "Murder Castle" and the crimes that took place there. it's perhaps unfair to blame the author for this as Holmes wasn't put on trial for any of those events. Still, Schechter spends far too long on the Pitezel crimes and investigation, often doubling back and rehashing what has already been said.
I was most interested in Holmes' trial and was pleased at the depth of those chapters. It felt as though I were watching the scenes unfold and, in this case, I was happy for the insertion of emotion. Schechter relies heavily on the actual court documents for this and that's likely why it's so strong.
Despite some pretentious airs and sensationalist leanings, "Depraved" does provide a tantalising look at the enigmatic H. H. Holmes. Attempting to follow the lies and stories spun by "America's first serial killer" is enough to make anyone dizzy and, while there's room for improvement, Schechter handles the task sufficiently.
Holmes is largely forgotten but seems to be going through a bit of a renaissance lately with 2017's mad 'American Ripper' and disappointing 3 part documentary 'The Murder Castle' (actually so brief , abbreviated and cheaply made I imagined Holmes spinning in his grave if he hadn't already been dug up). Let's hope the Scorcese movie is better. This book would make for an excellent 2 or 3 season HBO (or Amazon) show.
Born Herman Webster Mudgett, the alias H.H. Holmes would become famous worldwide for being not only the architect of the infamous "Castle of Horror", but also as an evil genius, who posed amongst others as a doctor and an inventor. His macabre story is covered in mesmerising detail, and together with Schechter's writing style, will definetly keep you avidly turning the pages. Holmes, eventually, was brought to ground by an insurance scam that went awry, and the true horror of his dwelling abode and murderous career was revealed.
Praise must once again be bestowed on Harold Schechter, for his name not only represents pure quality, but guarantees it. Any true crime buff should have a copy of this book and also "Deranged" (Albert Fish) and Deviant (Ed Gein) amongst their collection.
And could the Victorians have imagined our salacious, dishonest media concentrating sex and horror in an ever-quickening race to stimulate the public's jaded appetite? Yes, because they had that kind of media too, all the way from sensationalist newspapers to quickie paperbacks brought out to cash in on a currently notorious trial.
Like the trial described in this book, that of Herman Webster Mudgett, alias Henry Howard Holmes, a Chicago doctor, chemist, and fraudster whom this book describes as America's first serial killer. First *known* serial killer, maybe, but disputes over his claim to priority aside, Holmes is certainly one of the most interesting entries in an ever-growing list, and this book, rarely in the true-crime genre, doesn't let an interesting subject go to waste. Brought down by a life-insurance scam that went wrong, Holmes became the center of world-wide attention when the true nature of his giant, jerry-built boarding-house in Chicago was uncovered by police searches. It had been a kind of killing factory, with concealed gas-pipes, peep-holes, trap-doors, and chutes guaranteeing Holmes a steady supply of victims for a sinister cellar complete with dissecting-table, surgical instruments, and furnace.
Or so the eager newspapers and publishers gave the world to believe, and although Holmes may not have been quite so energetic in his pursuit of nubile young female victims as their reports claimed, the house was certainly fitted out in the manner they described and young women had certainly disappeared after booking in there. Precisely what Holmes did with them before he killed them, and with older victims of both sexes, is still unknown, but he seems to have had a sexual motive beside the obvious mercenary one. Working with Holmes to profit from these victims and their jewellery and cash was a petty criminal called Pietzel, who eventually fell prey to Holmes in the life-insurance scam that brought Holmes down. Rather than go to the trouble of finding a substitute corpse after Pietzel's life had been insured, Holmes killed his confederate and then set about disposing of Pietzel's large family.
Schechter concentrates on this final period of Holmes' murderous career, as the suave, merciless fraudster tricks Pietzel's wife and children into travelling all over the United States (and Canada) in quest of a husband and father he has assured them is still alive. He separates some of the children from their mother and kills them, scheming to murder their mother and remaining siblings with a vial of nitroglycerine a little later. Meanwhile, however, the insurance company is catching up with him and detectives are slowly disentangling the threads of the tangled web he has been weaving all his adult life. It's a fascinating and sometimes moving story well-told and ending as the Victorians loved their morality tales to end: with the villain paying the price for his crimes at the end of a rope.
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