Read this and tell me what’s wrong with it:
“Born in 1861 in Gilmanton, New Hampshire, H.H. Holmes was one of America’s first serial murderers. He took over a Chicago pharmacy and built it into an elaborate maze of death traps to which he lured numerous victims during the 1893 Columbian Exposition. He was eventually captured and hanged in 1896.” link
I have a thing for wanting to know things other people don’t know…I want to really know nonsense when I see it, especially if the crowds are stampeding in the other direction. Not sure why that is. It’s just how I think. I read The True History Of The White City Devil recently; and it got me thinking about this side of me again. I’ll get back to the Holmes thing in a bit. Stick with me.
A few years ago, after reading a book about the Ghost Ship: The Mysterious True Story Of The Mary Celeste And Her Missing Crew, I compiled a few rules for how modern myths develop, which I’ll share below. At the time, it struck me how so many of the “unsolved mysteries” I grew up fascinated by were probably benign and dull in fact, but made salacious by people with agendas and a need for good gossip to spread. In this Mary Celeste book, the traditional view is a ship’s crew disappeared with warm food on the table and no log explanation or damage to the ship. Gone – into thin air. Google it; and you’ll read about black holes and aliens and teleportation. I’m not sure you’d buy and read anything that just suggested fumes from burst barrels of alcohol drove people to the lifeboat and subsequently got them separated from the ship in a storm.
Arthur Machen’s introduction to his story “The Bowmen” captures this myth development process in its tracks. Go read that – it will blow your mind.
Have a look at the convoluted history of the Voynich Manuscript and see if you don’t agree this thing is just a hoax. People see what they want to see. The 2016-2017 political climate should make that point as loudly as anything I can tell you here.
Here are the rules I’ve distilled regarding myth development:
- The story needs a new or interesting hook to rise to critical mass in the first place
- Often, the story suits or in some way encapsulates its era, or symbolizes a way of life (like Jack the Ripper’s foggy London)
- Confirmation bias is the first sign of critical mass – contrary evidence starts getting ignored
- Major players involved in the story’s propagation have agendas (like selling books or their story to news outlets, career advancement)
- Details begin to accumulate and attach, which aren’t true but fit well with the original kernel
Back to the book about H. H. Holmes, the problem with the statement I provided above is it’s basically not true. The reviews for “The True History Of The White City Devil” said in a big way that the book is bland at times because it’s so well researched. In fact, I adored this book because of that. No junk here – the author cuts through the noise and has spent countless hours dredging through microfiche and dusty library stacks to bring us truth. It’s a lot less sexy of a story than the traditional view of a lusty villain in his murder hotel luring innocent visitors to the World’s Fair into their dooms. It’s the story of a pathological liar and con man who got himself stuck in his schemes and wound up doing away with a small handful of people to clean up the mess. In fact, no one at all may have even rented a room in what has come to history as the “Murder Castle”. Fascinating.
I put this myth development concern at the heart of my first novel, envisioning a mystic who manipulated myth development to guide history.
There’s a TV show on now presenting a relatively popular theory that Holmes was in fact also Jack The Ripper. It’s a theory being propounded by a great-great-grandson of Holmes himself. What’s presented as evidence is actually just crackpot talking heads in a lot of cases. Anything working against the theme is waved off as an obstruction to the truth. It’s absolute nonsense; and I’m not even going to give you a link to it.
Anyway, if you’re into truth and can appreciate a well-researched study done by someone who cares about cutting through the noise, pick up a copy. It’s worth your time.