To the point where I listen to true crime podcasts while working in my office job, I am a huge fan of creepy things. The first American serial killer, H.H. Holmes, was recently discussed in a podcast I was listening to. If you’ve ever wondered how a man could be so utterly depraved, Holmes is the man for you. In 1893, H.H. Holmes killed at least 27 people during the Chicago World’s Fair, although it is widely believed that the death toll was closer to 200. With the help of his “Murder Castle,” a hotel designed with secret death chambers for Holmes to use on his victims, the detective was able to achieve this. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson is one of the best nonfiction books I’ve ever read on the subject (and one of the best nonfiction books I’ve ever read). The horrific murders committed by Sherlock Holmes are set against the backdrop of the construction of the Chicago World’s Fair in this book. It’s a fantastic book, in part because it’s terrifying and in part because it paints a vivid picture of life at the turn of the twentieth century.
Leonardo DiCaprio will star as H.H. Holmes in a film adaptation by Martin Scorsese, but what will we do while we wait for the movie to come out? You can only read The Devil in the White City so many times. If you’re looking for some old-fashioned thrills and chills, I’ve compiled this list of seven books. Take a look at them, but don’t get too caught up in the past.
The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allen Poe, and the Invention of Murder by Daniel Stashower
Mary Rogers, a 20-year-old New Yorker who became famous for selling cigars at a tobacconist’s shop that catered to people from all walks of life, lived in the city in 1841. Everyone seemed to adore her, so the discovery of her mutilated body floating in the Hudson was all the more heartbreaking. Public interest in the case was so great that the police were unable to keep up with the demand for information. Mary’s murder uncovered a seedy underbelly lurking in New York City that included gangs, brothels, and back-alley abortions at the time.
While many authors pondered what might have happened to her at the time, it was Edgar Allen Poe who gave the mystery genre its start by enlisting the help of his own fictional detective, C. Auguste Dupin, to crack the case in his work titled The Mystery of Marie Roget. This is one of those nonfiction books that reads like a thriller because it’s so well-written and engaging.
Triangle: The Fire that Changed America by David von Drehle
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Greenwich Village, New York, was destroyed by fire on March 25, 1911. The fire quickly spread to all three floors of the factory, suffocating the vast majority of the workforce. People on the street watched in horror as workers leapt to their deaths to escape the raging inferno at the top floors of the factory. A total of 136 people, including 123 women, lost their lives that day. The tragedy exposed the dangers of working in a factory to the general public. With Tammany Hall’s rampant corruption as a backdrop, von Drehle creates a stunning portrait of New York in the 1920s at its worst.
Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde by Jeff Guinn
There’s no better way to learn about old-school assassinations than by reading about Bonnie and Clyde. It would have been romantic if Bonnie and Clyde had not been bank robbers and criminals. Bonnie and Clyde were not master criminals, as Go Down Together proves. Despite the fact that these Dallas high school students risked everything for a few hours of fun, they were utterly incompetent. This book tells the complete story of Bonnie and Clyde, from their first meeting to the moment they were shot to death.
The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago by Douglas Perry
We’ll be returning to Chicago shortly. Murderesses are the rage in 1924. While working as a reporter for The Chronicle, Maurine Watkins, decided to make a few of the stories stand out. Back in the day, it was customary for female reporters to focus on topics deemed more delicate, such as recipes, social clubs, and fashion. “Stylish Belva” Gaertner and “Beautiful Beulah” Annan, two women who murdered their lovers, were the focus of Watkins’s investigation. Men sent them flowers in prison, newly freed women wrote letters to the local papers, and being listed on “Murderesses Row” quickly became a source of pride for the women. Eventually these stories would become the inspiration for the musical Chicago, but the level of fame these women enjoyed at the time seems unreal.
Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris by David King
Inconceivable, to put it mildly. As soon as the Nazis took control of Paris in World War II, the Seine River began to fill with the remains of people they had beheaded and dismembered. While working for the Gestapo in the Parisian Underworld, Commissaire Georges-Victor Massu was tasked with tracking down an evil serial killer. Dr. Marcel Petiot, a handsome and charismatic doctor known for providing free medical care to the underprivileged, enters the scene.’ Soon, he would be charged with 27 murders, but authorities believe that he was responsible for a much larger number. The story reads like one from a Hollywood blockbuster, but it’s all true.
Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer by James L. Swanson
Authorities launched a 12-day manhunt for John Wilkes Booth following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865. Union cavalry and detectives were pursued by the famous actor through the swamps of Maryland and eventually into Virginia. You’ll be on the edge of your seat as he recounts his hunt in detail.
Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America’s Soul by Karen Abbot
When it comes to cities, Chicago has something special. At the same time that New York City became known for its 24-hour culture, Chicago became known for its ability to sleep with anyone. The Everleigh Club, America’s most famous brothel and the scene of a cultural conflict that threatened to split Chicago in two, is the setting for the documentary Sin in the Second City. Ava and Minna Everleigh, two aristocratic sex workers, are the focus of this novel. “Everleigh Butterflies” wowed senators, artists, and literary legends with their stunning beauty. They were fed gourmet food, given top-notch medical care, and even given lessons in Balzac’s literature. However, the sisters’ attempts to open a high-end brothel were not well received. It was an attempt by rival madams to ruin the sisters’ reputations by framing them for murder, spreading rumors of white slavery, and igniting a vicious verbal battle that would have a lasting impact on American sexual culture for decades.