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Tuesday, November 17, 2020

November 17, 2020: Serial Killer Studying: H.H. Holmes

[On November 17, 1894, infamous serial killer H.H. Holmes was arrested in Boston. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Holmes and four other murderous histories, leading up to a special weekend Guest Post on true crime from one of my favorite scholars!]

On two layers to the historic horror beyond the World’s Fair.

I wrote about H.H. Holmes and his connection to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in this October 2016 post on Erik Larson’s masterful book The Devil in the White City (2003); I said much of what I’d want to say about Holmes in that context there, and would ask you to check that post out if you would and then come on back for two new paragraphs. [I’ll add that my proposed next book, 1893: The Fair and Year that Changed America, will examine many of the other Exposition figures and histories that I address in that post’s final paragraph!]

Welcome back! While Holmes (born Herman Webster Mudgett) will forever be associated with the Exposition, and indeed was very much linked to the fair in his own era as well as through subsequent frames like that of Larson’s book, as with any historical figure and story there are nonetheless additional layers that can help us think about other AmericanStudies contexts. One that I find particularly interesting is Mudgett’s deep roots to the histories and power structures of Anglo American New England: his parents, Levi Horton Mudgett and Theodate Page Price, both traced their ancestry to the earliest English arrivals to their town of Gilmanton, New Hampshire; and young Herman carried that legacy forward in two of the most stereotypical New England WASP ways possible, attending the state’s historic and prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy and going on to attend medical school (from which he just barely graduated—talk about skating by on privilege!) and become a physician. A great deal has been written about how many serial killers seem to be white men, and often privileged white men at that, and H.H. Holmes does nothing to disprove that narrative—indeed, he embodies much of what white male privilege meant in that late 19th century period.

Holmes also features another layer of identity that might seem obvious in a murdering sociopath, but is nonetheless worth stressing: a history of abuse and violence toward the women in his life. Herman Mudgett eloped with and married Clara Lovering when he was just 17, and she moved with him to Ann Arbor when he began studying at the University of Michigan’s Department of Medicine and Surgery; but housemates described him as violent towards Clara, and she left him and moved back to New Hampshire (taking their young son Robert Lovering Mudgett with her). After he changed his name to H.H. Holmes (to escape multiple charges of fraud) and moved to Chicago, many of his murder victims were also women with whom he was romantically involved: that included his alleged first victim, his mistress Julia Smythe; a young woman who worked for him, Emeline Cigrande; and the actress Minnie Williams with whom he presented himself as husband and wife; none of those were his second and third wives, Myrta Belknap and Georgiana Yoke, who were lucky to escape the same fate yet to my mind undoubtedly faced Holmes’ domestic violence. I’m not saying that serial abusers are the same as serial killers—but I would certainly suggest that the two types are parallel, and their links embody one more violent and telling layer to the story of H.H. Holmes.

Next serial studying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other serial killer histories or stories you’d highlight?

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