Thursday, August 06, 2015

Mystery in the Windy City - Historical (Non-Fiction - Mostly)

Mention historical crime in Chicago and most people will think of Al Capone, the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, Eliot Ness and the Untouchables, More recent history brings us to serial killers Richard Speck and John Wayne Gacy, or the all-too-common gangland killings that keep today's death tolls high.

And then there is the notorious murderer H.H. Holmes, who terrorized women at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair - the Columbian Exposition, killing and disposing of his victims at his "terror castle."
Holmes had faded into obscurity until Erik Larson's brilliant book, THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY became a best seller.  (Images and blurbs from Barnes & Noble's

Two men, each handsome and unusually adept at his chosen work, embodied an element of the great dynamic that characterized America’s rush toward the twentieth century. The architect was Daniel Hudson Burnham, the fair’s brilliant director of works and the builder of many of the country’s most important structures, including the Flatiron Building in New York and Union Station in Washington, D.C. The murderer was Henry H. Holmes, a young doctor who, in a malign parody of the White City, built his “World’s Fair Hotel” just west of the fairgrounds—a torture palace complete with dissection table, gas chamber, and 3,000-degree crematorium. Burnham overcame tremendous obstacles and tragedies as he organized the talents of Frederick Law Olmsted, Charles McKim, Louis Sullivan, and others to transform swampy Jackson Park into the White City, while Holmes used the attraction of the great fair and his own satanic charms to lure scores of young women to their deaths. What makes the story all the more chilling is that Holmes really lived, walking the grounds of that dream city by the lake.

The Devil in the White City draws the reader into a time of magic and majesty, made all the more appealing by a supporting cast of real-life characters, including Buffalo Bill, Theodore Dreiser, Susan B. Anthony, Thomas Edison, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, and others. In this book the smoke, romance, and mystery of the Gilded Age come alive as never before.

Erik Larson’s gifts as a storyteller are magnificently displayed in this rich narrative of the master builder, the killer, and the great fair that obsessed them both.

To find outmore about this book, go to

An earlier book, Robert Bloch's AMERICAN GOTHIC, also focused on Holmes with his fictional murderer, G. Gordon Gregg::

The Castle: It looms over the streets of modern Chicago. Its stone walls conceal a maze of secret passageways and hidden rooms, private laboratories and concealed trapdoors.

The Castle is home to G. Gordon Gregg, physician- murderer. His victims are young, beautiful, wealthy women. His methods are swift, scientific, and painless, his crime perfect. Until a newspaper reporter becomes suspicious.

Investigating Dr. Dr. Gregg, Crystal finds herself falling in love with the charismatic surgeon, despite the danger. It is that love that seals her doom- for what G. Gordon Gregg loves, he kills.

Chicago's history is pretty riotous, and includes enough crime to fill a library. Here are some other books that dig into Chicago's criminal history and its mysteries.


Lurking below the Loop, behind the industry-driven energy of Chicago, lies the mysterious criminal underworld of the South Side. Recounting criminal exploits of legends like Alphonse Capone, as well as lesser-known stories like the Car Barn Bandies, Troy Taylor captures the intricacies of the most infamous stories of Chicago's South Side. From the gruesome murders committed by the unassuming H.H. Holmes to the mysterious death of Marshall Field Jr., join Taylor as he revisits the South Side's prosperous middle-class days and vividly depicts the strange and horrific crimes that have cast new light on the character of these too often overlooked neighborhoods.


Blazing from the West Side, the Great Chicago Fire left nothing but ashy remnants of the developing city leveling its landscape but certainly not its spirit. While the West Side was home to the infamous O'Leary Barn, it was also where the news of some of the city's most gruesome and horrific crime reverberated throughout the state and across the country. Read about the bloody end of Robert 'the Terrible' Toughy, who undoubtedly lived up to his name, met an ill-deserved fate. Troy Taylor also delves into the life of John Wayne Gacy the depraved man masked by the clown costume and yet again proves to be a master storyteller and historian of Chicago's criminal underworld.


From the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre to Lincoln Park’s “Lipstick Killer,” Troy Taylor recounts many of the horrific crimes perpetrated in Chicago’s North Side neighborhoods.

This next book segues into my next post, fictional crime in Chicago. I know this post is far from comprehensive, so please add any books I've missed in the comment section below.


Around the world, the name 'Chicago' conjures up images of the Roaring Twenties, speakeasies, cops and robbers, and 'Scarface' Al Capone. In Mystery Reader's Walking Guide: Chicago author Alzina Stone Dale brings all of this--and more--to life in 10 walking tours of Chicago's neighborhoods, as described in the works of Sara Paretsky, Craig Rice, and more than 70 other mystery writers.


Becke Davis said...

I left out a lot of books - probably need another post to rectify this. But I don't know how I managed to leave off Libby Fischer Hellmann and Michael Harvey!