Have you ever heard a terrible liar, and I mean Pinocchio terrible, try to worm their way out of a bad situation? The way they stumble over their lies until they can’t keep them straight anymore, struggling to weave together a story that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It’s painful to listen to and even more painful to read. I read this and asked myself, what the heck is this? Was infamous serial killer H.H. Holmes, master manipulator, on something when he wrote this laughable attempt at both a memoir and a self-defense statement or was there just no editor in the prison? Either way, he would’ve had better luck trying his hand at fiction because that’s basically what this is.

This isn’t the only book written by a criminal, a serial killer, and I doubt it’ll be the last. There is something about such a description, “a killer in their own words” that is impossible to resist. It allows people to get even closer, whilst keeping a safe distance, to men and women the world has perceived as evil and gives them the opportunity to potentially dissect just a fraction of their minds. H.H. Holmes, John Wayne Gacy, David Berkowitz, Jack Unterweger, etc. These are all convicted killers that have used literature to try and change public perception of them with various degrees of success. Jack Unterweger, convicted of murdering a prostitute in 1976 was actually triumphant when he wrote his autobiography titled Fegefeuer Oder Die Reise Ins Zuchthaus (Purgatory or the Trip to Jail – Report of a Guilty Man). In the book, Unterweger explains his actions with a sob story about an abusive mother. The story was so compelling that it actually managed to change the state’s mind and he was released on parole in 1990. Unfortunately for young women in that area, it didn’t take long for him to start dropping bodies and he was arrested again in 1994.

A counter to Unterweger is John Wayne Gacy who had much less luck with his memoir A Question of Doubt in 1993. Although both books feature the killer in question trying to prove their innocence they are very different in execution and style. Gacy’s method of defense was to try and create a conspiracy theory about his conviction and blamed his crimes on other killers that the police were not prosecuting. A Question of Doubt didn’t do anything other than become a morbid collector’s item for true crime devotees.

H.H. Holmes falls somewhere in the middle. Not in public perception but in the method at which he writes his own memoir/defense story and it is probably the most ridiculous, bewildering, nonsensical narrative that a man on trial for murder could ever create. It’s so bad that just confessing would have made him look better. Holmes: A Serial Killer in His Own Words makes absolutely no sense. It should be taught in schools on how NOT to write or to lie. It’s not that the explanations he gives don’t make sense, although most are far-fetched, but that they’re written as if he loses track of them within moments of writing them down. There is a part in the book where he admits to having a body stashed in his hotel room but it’s for the purpose of a life insurance scam that’s ruined when a cop busts in. He tricks the cop into leaving then convinces the other hotel residents that the cop was actually a robber. He then puts the body in a trunk and lugs it around for a few days. This is an actual scene in the book that quickly moves on to something else completely unrelated.

While I was reading this I was torn between laughing and reaching through the pages all the way through to Holmes’ prison cell and ripping that pen away from him. Maybe slap him around a bit.

Herman Webster Mudgett, better known as Dr. Henry Howard Holmes “H. H. Holmes,” was an American serial killer best-known for the so-called “Murder Castle” that he built in 1887 and had up and running during the World’s Columbian Exposition set in Chicago in 1893. Built to kill people, the Castle had soundproofed rooms and mazes of hallways, some of which seemed to go nowhere, and sections that were designed to be nothing but death traps. It is widely believed that he had killed hundreds of people in this building, but not only was Holmes a murderer, he was also big a fan of insurance fraud. This guy probably scammed more women and business owners than one person in history, often in the laziest of ways, and he actually uses his time as an insurance hustler as a crutch while making up his defense in A Serial Killer in His Own Words.

Erik Laron’s The Devil in the White City explores much of this in great detail if anyone is interested (great book).

When Holmes was arrested on November 17, 1894, he immediately started on the numerous contradictory claims that would dictate his post-arrest life. His time in prison was relatively short as he was put to death just two years later, but for a large portion of that time, he worked at trying to prove his innocence. He picked up a pen and started writing the “truth” only no two accounts matched. His confessions changed constantly and often made little sense. As time went on, his claims started to morph into something resembling self-damnation as he’d later change his stance on innocence, deciding that he was pure evil, a man possessed by the devil. He claimed to be so vile and demonic that he was starting to resemble Satan in the face.

Such statements would normally accompany feelings of remorse or fear of death as the accused realizes that they’re coming closer to their execution. However, that was not the case for Holmes. Despite the admission of guilt and saying that he was possessed against his will, he remained oddly calm upon his arrival at the gallows.

If I could call A Serial Killer in His Own Words anything, it would be a study on mental deterioration, compulsive liars, and the psychopathic process of emotions. Throughout the chapterless passages that run across Holmes’s childhood and youth, there is a vain attempt at mimicking emotion and sympathy. In the beginning, Holmes takes a moment to briefly describe his parents and childhood but it is rushed and empty. Everything else he takes his sweet time talking about, but the one section of time that most people always stop to reminiscence about, he speeds past with a fast “my parents were lovely people” comment and leaves it there. As he describes himself as a boy, everything feels a bit hollow because I believe that he’s trying to imagine what the readers will think is sympathetic, but is unable to put himself in that mindset.

Once rushing past boyhood, you can tell we’ve reached the point in his life that he is most proud of. His medical accomplishments, education, the way he easily charms women, we get so much of this that it’s almost unbearable. One by one, Holmes meets the future victims that he claims he either hardly knew or cared for deeply and had no idea what happened to them, and again, we get more of the mimicry. Minnie and Nannie Willaims are two women, victims, that Holmes claims to care for and even love to some extent. However, the way he writes them, you can tell he doesn’t. He can’t wait to get past their section and get back to himself, which he does very quickly. The story of the Williams sisters, which ended in tragedy in real life, ends without a proper conclusion in Holmes’s narrative. He jumps around them, moving them around in the story so that he can clear his name while also not waste time talking about them and the result is a whole lot of bad writing.

I know this man was a serial killer, a monster even by the worse of standards but honestly, after reading A Serial Killer in His Own Words the man has lost the ominous allure as a study topic. This book could be adapted into a spoof movie about serial killers. That’s how ridiculous it is. Before, the man known as H.H. Holmes was on par with something demonic. He built this murderous castle, killed people beyond anything that can be called impulsive or pleasurable but as if that was the only thing his hands knew how to do, and his presence on this Earth felt ominous. Even after his death, his hotel was rumored to be cursed, with those who knew him touched by evil. However, after reading this, he no longer seems as such. As weird as it sounds, this almost ruins the shadow he casts over the city he once haunted because now when I think of him, I can only think of a guy that was incapable of telling a series of lies well enough to make sense. Plus, the stories he made up tells me that he probably read whatever the equivalent of cheesy detective novels was back then.

2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)
About the Author

Rachel Roth is a writer who lives in South Florida. She has a degree in Writing Studies and a Certificate in Creative Writing, her work has appeared in several literary journals and anthologies. @WinterGreenRoth

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