Bringing Erik Larson’s The Devil In the White City to the screen has been a long journey for Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio. The adaptation of the book, which chronicles the intertwined tales of serial killer H.H. Holmes and architect Daniel H. Burnham during Chicago’s World’s Fair of 1893, has been in development since 2003. At first, the project was going to be a movie, with Tom Cruise and Kathryn Bigelow also attached at various points. Then, in 2015, we learned that Scorsese was set to direct the flick, with DiCaprio on board to play Holmes. Things have changed since then.
According to Variety, Scorsese and DiCaprio are now adapting the story as a series for Hulu. The pair will executive produce the show in collaboration with Paramount Studios. Whether or not DiCaprio is still playing the serial murderer remains to be seen. Personally, I’d love to see the actor lend his talents to a more long-form format. He hasn’t been in a TV show since Growing Pains — and he’s grown a lot since then.
Retelling stories of real-life atrocities is a tricky business. There’s always the risk of glamorizing horrible people, disrespecting the victims, and sensationalizing events for the sake of better entertainment. However, I trust in Scorsese, DiCaprio, and co. to be respectful to the people and events that this show will mine inspiration from.
Of course, true crime adaptations are popular at the moment. In that sense, there’s no better time to move forward with this series. Holmes is considered one of America’s earliest and most notorious killers, and his story will likely make for some dark, but nonetheless compelling, television.
Holmes was born Herman Webster Mudgett on May 16, 1861. He was raised by abusive Methodist parents and bullied at school. He also spent his childhood performing surgery on animals whenever he wasn’t being punished by his parents or peers. Torturing innocent creatures is a common trait among young psychopaths, but Holmes also had dreams of entering medicine someday.
Holmes’ medical interests, coupled with his troubled experiences as a kid, undoubtedly caused his violent compulsions. At the age of 11, he claimed his first human life when he killed his childhood friend and disguised the murder as an accident. There was no turning back from there.
Growing up, Holmes learned how to be a master liar and con artist. He even married into a wealthy family before entering medical school just so he could fund his tuition at the University of Michigan. Swindling wealthy women was one of his many awful habits; he persuaded them to make him a beneficiary of their assets and moved on when he acquired their fortunes. At one point, he was even married to three different women at the same time.
Holmes committed various crimes to make some extra money, though. In addition to fraud, his other seedy ventures included stealing cadavers from graves and morgues, which he either used for his own experiments or sold to medical schools. Back then, cadavers were in high demand for study purposes and those who really needed them didn’t inquire about how they were obtained.
The money that Holmes acquired from his various scams and misdeeds was eventually used to construct a hotel that also served as a torture chamber. To the naked eye, nothing seemed out of place. However, in the building’s basement and secret passageways, he performed gruesome experiments and mutilated people before killing them. Holmes’ house of horrors was subsequently dubbed ‘The Murder Castle’ by the local citizens after his atrocities came to light. More on that later, though.
The aforementioned Chicago World’s Fair Exposition was the perfect event for Holmes. With millions of tourists visiting from all around the world, he was able to lure the tourists to his chamber of death by offering them lodgings and work. The people Holmes hired to work for him who didn’t end up being slaughtered were fired before he was legally entitled to pay them for their labor. He was a monster and a cheap one at that.
In 1894, Holmes was arrested and charged with Conspiracy to Cheat and Defraud the Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance Company. His capture led to the discovery of his murder sanctuary, and he was charged with 27 counts of murder. The final death toll, however, is believed to be above 100. He was subsequently hanged, and his hotel was burned to the ground (presumably by angry citizens).
The Devil In the White City will also focus on Burnham, whose contributions to American history are much more positive than Holmes’. This dichotomy should make for some interesting viewing, and it’s good to know that there will be more to the show than crime and murder. Still, if you want to make a show about a real-world monster, Holmes is as morbidly intriguing as they come.