Leonardo DiCaprio Cast as Serial Killer Who Was Imprisoned and Executed in Philly

Variety reports that Leonardo DiCaprio will play the role of H.H. Holmes in Martin Scorsese’s upcoming film Devil In the White City. The film, based on the best-selling novel by Erik Larson, tells the story of Holmes, a murderer whose brutal killing spree came to a halt right here in Philadelphia.

Holmes is known as America’s first serial killer. It’s believed, Philly Mag writer Liz Spikol wrote in 2003, that he killed at least 100 people—though “popular estimates at the time placed the toll as high as 200.”

He lived in Philadelphia in the 1880s, where he worked as a keeper at the Norristown Asylum, now Norristown State Hospital. Later he moved to Chicago but came back to Philly and was imprisoned after being suspected of killing his personal assistant Benjamin Pitezel in Philadelphia. Spikol writes about his eventual confession of the murder:

In his confession, Holmes said he’d been planning to kill Pitezel from the moment he met him, and that everything he did with the man, for seven years, led up to that very moment. Such a long-term investment, wrote Holmes, “furnishes a very striking illustration of the vagaries in which the human mind will, under certain circumstances, indulge,” and compares the anticipation of Pitezel’s murder to “the seeking of buried treasure at the rainbow’s end.”

… Holmes wrote in his confession that he went to 1316 Callowhill and found Pitezel drunk and passed out, as he expected. (Holmes had earlier forged a series of hurtful letters from Pitezel’s wife, which caused Pitezel to start drinking—all part of the plan.) He bound Pitezel’s hands and feet, and then he wrote, “I proceeded to burn him alive by saturating his clothing and his face with benzine and igniting it with a match. So horrible was this torture that in writing of it I have been tempted to attribute his death to some humane means–not with a wish to spare myself, but because I fear that it will not be believed that one could be so heartless and depraved.”

He served time at Philadelphia’s Moyamensing Prison at 10th and Reed streets, “where he occupied a 9-by-14-foot cell.” He was executed there on May 7, 1896.

On the day Holmes died a huge crowd showed up for the execution. Spectators had to be driven back by lines of policemen. The Inquirer wrote, quite eloquently, “There was a good deal of fin de siecle brutality about the crowds. There was nothing that they could possibly see, but the high forbidding walls. There was nothing they could hear. Yet they all seemed drawn to the spot by some morbid fascination. Coarse jests were bandied from lip to lip as the crowd surged to and fro.”

It was pandemonium. A certain number of tickets were granted for the execution, but twice that got inside by sheer force.

When Holmes began to speak as he was standing on the gallows, the crowd went silent. He made a brief statement denying he’d killed Pitezel or his children. The executioner’s hands trembled, and Holmes reassured him by saying–charming as always–“Take your time, old man.”

It will be fascinating to watch this play out on the big screen, though, as Variety reports, the novel and film are “set against the backdrop of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, [where Holmes] used a hotel he built near the fairgrounds to lure his victims.” There’s no release date set for the film yet, but you can catch up on the Philly-centric side of his story by reading the rest of Spikol’s article here. (Just don’t read it when you’re home alone.)