This is the story of a great city and the criminal mastermind who tried to take over the world. First published in 1911, Charles Lindbergh’s Devil in the White City is one of the earliest works of investigative non-fiction to examine the lives and crimes of the infamous Dr. Mudd and Judge Hand. The title of Lindbergh’s book alludes to H. H. Holmes, who took the title “the devil in the white city” after an 1895 visit to Chicago, Illinois. Holmes is best known as the “Master of Terror” who committed numerous heinous crimes, including the infamous “Murder Castle.”
Holmes And The “Murder Castle”
In 1891, Holmes moved to Chicago to join the legal firm of Robinson, Noble and Holmes. Once there, he began purchasing real estate, including a large house that he dubbed the “Murder Castle.” Holmes used the location to try out his new scientific innovations – particularly in the areas of forensic science, chemistry, and biology. He would often invite famous scientists to stay at his lavish home, which he furnished with the most modern scientific instrumentation. Some guests, like Dr. Henry S. Clarke, warned Holmes about the dangers of his experiments. Others, like Dr. Albert von Schussler, saw the scientific potential of Holmes’s work and became his avid supporters. They helped Holmes obtain a patent for an invention they believed would bring great benefit to society – a method of preserving human bodies for later examination. The patent was granted in 1897 and became known as the “Chemical Bonding Process.” It was this process that was responsible for preserving the body of the famous painter Edmond Xavier Picot for almost 100 years. The work was published in the American Journal of Forensic Science in 1899:
“A man in good health is not usually given to premonitions of death, but sometimes, the world being what it is and the mind being what it is, there are presentiments of evil which are not easily banished… There came a day in the late fall of 1896 when Mr. Holmes was seized with a paroxysm of coughing, which shook him in such a way that his hair turned white from the violence of the attack. Mr. Holmes told me that he felt sure he was not going to live through the night, and that he saw strange shapes in the darkness around him. He slept but little that evening, and when he did sleep, he had terrible dreams, in which he was pursued by a gigantic grey demon, with whom he struggled for his life. The paroxysm was accompanied by an inflammation of the lungs, which confined Mr. Holmes to his bed for nearly a week. It was then that I noticed the curious metallic lustre of his skin, as if he had been dusted with gold. At the same time, I observed that his hair had turned completely white, and, as he subsequently told me, this was the beginning of his gradual leopardskin.”
Holmes’s assistant and business partner, Richard S. Robinson, was the first to notice his boss’s odd behavior. One night, as he slept, Robinson observed a figure in a grey suit standing over his sleeping body. He jumped up, startled, and saw Holmes standing there with a finger raised in a mysterious salute. The doctor told Robinson he had been working on a “great chemical discovery” and, in order to prove it, needed to conduct some experiments. He asked Richard if he would mind standing by while he performed the trials. Later, Richard asked Holmes why he needed a room full of people for these tests, and was told by the great man that it was for insurance purposes, in case something went wrong. This is the last time that Robinson would see his friend, Dr. Mudd, alive.
Other suspicious deaths followed, and Holmes was charged with murder. He was found innocent in all but one of the cases, but the damage was already done. Holmes was ostracized from the legal community, and even Albert Von Schussler believed that he was a murderer. Von Schussler, along with colleague Dr. Carl Peterson, went to Holmes’s hotel room one night to talk sense into the scientist. They discovered Holmes’s body on the bed, with a syringe still in his arm. They also found a pile of bones, which Holmes called “a dog’s breakfast.” When the police interrogated Holmes, he was reported to have said, “I am a doctor, not a murderer. It is a common practice for me to experiment on the bodies of dead men.” The police believed that this statement from the great man was an admission of guilt, but could not prove it. After being charged with nine murders, Holmes went into seclusion, still trying to solve the mystery of life and death. In 1900, he published what would become his seminal work on the subject of forensic science, The Science of Legal Medicine. The next year, Holmes was arrested for the murder of Dr. Mudd and spent the rest of his life in prison. He died at the age of 73, on January 7, 1926.
The Strange Case Of The Phantom Train
In 1892, the Great Chicago Fire destroyed a huge swath of the city, leaving behind a chaotic mass of melted metal, cracked concrete, and dirt. One of the few survivors of the fire was a certain George Harvey. Harvey, who worked as a locomotive engineer for the New York and Harlem Railroad, had close links to the world of crime, bootlegging, and abortion. He was also a member of the secretive society whose members were called the “Phantom Rogues.” They were a group of men who rode the New York City Subway, dressed in black and wearing masks. They would board trains at night and commit random acts of violence against innocent civilians. One of their trademark crimes was to blow up trains, bridges, and tunnels, causing massive casualties. This is the world that the great Dr. Mudd had been brought up in, and it was against this backdrop that he committed his most infamous crime. After he was acquitted of the murder of George Harvey – a crime for which he had spent five years in prison – he resumed his life of crime, which had begun in earnest during his time in prison. One of his first targets was the New York and Harlem – the same railroad that Harvey worked for. On September 14, 1900, a group of the Phantom Rogues boarded a train bound for New York and rode it to the edge of a small, unsuspecting town called Van Wert, where they destroyed three more unsuspecting trains. The police finally caught up with Dr. Mudd just as he had finished a fateful journey on the fourth train. In all, the Phantom Rogues would go on to terrorize the residents of Van Wert for five years, with Dr. Mudd commanding the group’s activities, often traveling across state lines in order to do so. He was eventually captured and sentenced to death, but became the first con artist in American history to be granted executive clemency by President William McKinley.
The Rise Of John D. Rockefeller
The first significant event in the life of John D. Rockefeller was the American Civil War, which he volunteered for and served in with bravery and distinction. After the war, he settled down in Cleveland, Ohio, with his wife, Emma, whom he married in 1866. It was there that he began his great oil business – a business that would eventually make him one of the richest men in the world. In his autobiography, Rockefeller wrote:
“There was always much bustle and excitement in the offices of the Standard Oil Company over any case of arson or a train robbery. There were even times when we could not sleep for worrying about these fires and robberies. As my assistant, Mr. Richard S. Robinson, said, the only time he ever saw me take a real holiday was in the spring of 1906, when I went to Europe for a visit.”
Rockefeller began his philanthropic phase of his life in earnest around this time, as he became interested in alleviating the suffering of the poor. He began by establishing a private library for the poor in Cleveland. In 1909, he founded the Rockefeller Institute for Hospitality, an organization that would later become one of the largest private hospitals in the United States. By 1910, he was able to fund the rebuilding of almost the entire city of Cleveland. The following year, he presented the city with not one, but two massive philanthropic gifts – the Rockefeller Memorial (which became the Cleveland Museum of Art) and the Cleveland Metropolitian Orchestra (the latter would become the Cleveland Orchestra).