The Real American Horror Story: Hotel

devil in the white city


This is actually a reread for me. I originally read it shortly after it came out in paperback several years ago. Since then my tastes have changed a little and I’ve gotten myself a history degree and it’s really deepened my appreciation for this book. Larson’s research is meticulous and his writing is engaging and reads more like literary fiction than a historical text. Word has it that Leonardo Dicaprio has bought the film rights to this book and I am super excited.

The book tells the parallel stories of Daniel H. Burnham, the architect in charge of the 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair and Dr. H. H. Holmes, the serial killer who lured fair goers into his specially designed hotel (for you American Horror Story fans, Evan Peters’ character in the Hotel season is based on Holmes). Both Burnham and Holmes were ambitious men for whom the fair would make their reputations. Though it is Burnham’s accomplishments that are move visible in the modern city, it is Holmes’ name and grisly works that people remember today.

What’s striking from Burhman’s chapter is how difficult the building process was in the late 19th century. Today we watch buildings appear seemingly overnight but even the task Burnham and his associates took on was Herculean. From Holmes’ chapters, what’s stunning is how easily he seemed to be able to get away with not only cold-blooded murder but fraud for so long. In fact, it was an insurance fraud case that finally brought the actions of America’s first urban serial killer to light. If you haven’t already picked up this book, I encourage you to do so soon, so you can nitpick the film when it eventually comes out.

Nothing can save you. Justice is Lost. Justice is Raped. Justice is Gone.

lost girls cover


If a possibly unhealthy interest in true crime has taught me anything, it’s that the law does not function equally for all members of society. Many of the most prolific and longest working serial killers were those that preyed on prostitutes. The media don’t consider these victims compelling news, and the police often feel these women are at least partially to blame for their fates and put their cases on the back burner. In the 21st century, sites like craigslist and backpage have added even more anonymity to the process of connecting with a sex worker. All of these ingredients have combined to aid a killer in Long Island who has killed at least 4 and as many as 10 women and who is still at large as of today.

Lost Girls narrows its focus to 5 of these young women: Maureen Brainard-Barnes, Amber Lynn Costello, Megan Waterman, Melissa Barthelemy and Shannan Gilbert. It is Shannan, who placed a frantic 911 call before running off screaming into the night that brings attention and the subsequent discovery of the bodies of the other four girls into the news. The book begins by giving a brief outline of the short and difficult lives of the girls. Then Kolker covers the days leading up to their disappearances, the discovery of their bodies and the ensuing case which seems to have uncovered some suspicious characters, but no strong leads. Also complicating this is the fact that the community of Oak Beach, where the bodies were found, is peopled by well-off, private people that would like nothing more than this entire mess to go away.

This book is well written and researched but the subject matter is bleak. The title tells you going in the case is unsolved. I found it difficult reading about the girls childhoods filled with poverty and abuse knowing that there would be no justice in the end for them. If you follow this read up with the Making a Murderer and the Paradise Lost documentaries, you can solidify your disillusionment with the American Judicial System.

Lost Girls