Close your eyes. WAIT! Forget I said that. If your eyes are closed, you won’t be able to keep reading. So, imagine the Chicago World’s Fair with your eyes wide open. The year is 1893. You’re looking forward to all the brand new sights and sounds at what is being called the Columbian Exhibition. Patriotism swells in your chest as you hear the Pledge of Allegiance recited for the first time by a group of school children. Your taste buds nearly explode as you sample Juicy Fruit gum, Vienna sausages, and Aunt Jemima pancake mix. Okay, so if you’re anything like me, your digestive system will explode after eating a Vienna sausage, but despite the fact that those questionable cylinders are nothing more than mystery meat, they’re still a novelty. And you’re the first person in your neighborhood to get a serious bout of Montezuma’s Revenge from the sodium-laden weenies. Check you out!
Something about Chicago resonated with you the day you arrived, and you gave up your room at the Sauganash Hotel and opted for a long term rental at a new building owned by H.H. Holmes. You’ll search for a job eventually. After all, you’re a responsible adult, but for now, why not enjoy the once-in-a-lifetime experience of the World’s Fair?
After a long day of sensory overload, you want nothing more than to crawl between the cool sheets of your hotel room bed and catch a solid seven to nine hours like the doctor recommends. You take the steps to your room, but when you reach to top, you freeze. A dead end. Something is not right with this picture. Stairs are supposed to lead somewhere. Or maybe you’re already in bed. Already dreaming. You pinch the flesh on your arm. Hard. No you’re definitely awake. A purple welt is rising on your arm to prove it. Have you fallen through the looking glass?
Unease prickles your skin. No, something is incredibly wrong. You descend the steps two at a time and run down the hall on your left, stomach twisting. Those little sausages won’t stay down much longer. The muscles between your shoulder blades knot and snarl. This has to be a dream. You pinch yourself again, hoping to wake up. Nope. Still in the creepy hallway. By this time, your breathing is ragged. There has to be a way out of here. Where is everyone? If only you could someone for directions out of this waking nightmare. But it’s too quiet. Like a crypt.
Numbers on the doors farther down the hall grab your attention. You take a step closer. ‘205.’ Slowly, your muscles untangle, and you pull your room key from your pocket. Your room number, ‘213,’ is stamped on the smooth brass. A breath you didn’t realize you were holding gushes from your lungs. Exhaustion has always had the habit of playing tricks on your brain.
You find your room, unlock the door, and open your carpetbag. Time for jammy-jams and dreamland. Once you dress for bed, you slip between the sheets. Your feet have been trapped in shoes and stockings all day, and the linen feels cold against your tired, swollen toes. Ahhh. You chuckle to yourself. How could you get so worked up just trying to find your room. What a ninny.
A low, metallic click echoes from the pipes in the wall. Maybe between now and the next World’s Fair some inventor will find a way to keep pipes from knocking. Wouldn’t that be nice? You sink deeper into the mattress, and the springs squeak. Wait a minute. Your eyelids snap open. That smell. You sniff the air, and terror’s cold, wart-covered hand sinks it’s fingernails into your chest. Gas. You try holding your breath, but the unmistakable fumes curl up your nostrils. You yank on the door knob, but it doesn’t budge. This can NOT be happening.
You run to the far wall and pull up on the sash, but your finger catches on a jagged nail poking through the wood frame.
Trapped. You ignore the pulse in your finger and run to the door.
If you don’t get out of here soon– No. Can’t let your mind go there. You bang on the door, but the silence that answers you leaves a two ton weight on your chest. Or is that feeling a by-product of the gas? As many visitors have flooded the White City for the Exhibition, surely, the room next to yours is occupied. You pound your fist on the wall and scream for help, but your cries end in an oxygen deprived gasp.
Black specks crawl at the corners of your vision, and a strange sense of calm wraps you in a warm blanket. The shadows cast on the wall by streetlights and the lace curtains fade. Everything goes black.
When investigators searched what had become known at the ‘Murder Castle,’ what they discovered would chill the blood in their veins. A trap door in the bathroom floor of Holmes’ private apartment lead to a chute that was used for a little more than laundry, if you catch my drift. One room was lined with gas fixtures. (Who knows. Holmes could have inspired some of Adolf Hitler’s grisly methods.) The walls were lined with metal to kill any sounds originating from inside the deadly chambers.
It wasn’t until officers descended into the basement that the full impact of Holmes’ dirty deeds manifested.
An operating table, bloody clothes, various surgical tools, homemade torture devices, and a crematory.
H.H. Holmes had attended medical school and developed an unsettling fascination with dead bodies. While studying in Michigan, he stole cadavers from the laboratory and took out insurance policies on the people whose bodies he purloined. Then, Holmes would burn or mutilate the bodies and plant them for police to find. Talk about a morbid insurance fraud tactic, but it worked. Though he settled in Chicago as a pharmacist (several of his customers died after taking pills he dispensed, btw), his curiosity for more . . . involved ‘medical’ procedures never waned.
After incapacitating his victims in the gas chamber or with the more hands-on method of holding a chloroform soaked rag over their faces, he’d dump them down the chute and dissected them in his basement research lab. Curiosity sated, he sold his victims’ organs on the black market and their skeletons to medical institutions.
It is estimated that he killed 200 people in his horror hotel between 1892 and 1894, but that number can’t be substantiated. Only 9 of those victims had a solid link to Holmes and his Murder Castle. Among these 9 were women who disappeared while working as his stenographers. When his employees vanished, it led the police to Holmes’ doorstep.
Still, during the course of the Chicago World’s Fair, thousands of people went missing, so speculation abounds as to the actual number of men and women who died at the hand of H. H. Holmes in his Horror Hotel.
While researching for this post, I discovered a fictional story based on the true events surrounding H.H. Holmes and the Chicago World’s Fair. Honestly, I can’t believe I haven’t read this yet, since I absolutely loved Grace Hitchcock’s book ‘The Gray Chamber.’ This one’s going on top of my TBR pile, and I’d like the chance to add it to yours. Comment below, and one participant will win an eBook copy!