Making the H. H. Holmes Murder Castle

I was first introduced to H. H. Holmes a couple of years ago when I read Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, a fascinating account of the serial killer's unbelievable career. Then a few months ago, one of my favorite podcasts, The Last Podcast on the Left, created a great 3-episode series covering the H. H. Holmes killings. It was while listening to these episodes that the thought of drawing the Murder Castle occurred to me. 

*NOTE: My new cartoon cutaway, Edgar Allan Poe's Macabre Mansion, is complete! Puzzles and prints for both H.H. Holmes and Edgar Allan Poe are available in the store



For those unfamiliar, H. H. Holmes was a charismatic young lady killer who constructed a hotel, timed perfectly for the Chicago Worlds Fair, which operated as a massive murder machine. He used it to systematically trap and kill young women, then clean and articulate their skeletons to be sold to universities. The hotel was riddled with trap doors and hidden rooms, where guests would be trapped and tortured before ultimately being thrown down the chute to the basement. To fully understand the drawing without reading the book, I encourage you to watch this short documentary which covers the basics quite well.

One thing I do wish to make clear is that I in no way intend to glorify what H. H. Holmes did by drawing the Murder Castle. In fact, I will go on record now as being profoundly anti-murder. However, one cannot deny the sheer brilliance it took to pull this off. I can only imagine what this man would have been capable of had he used his powers for good rather than evil. This illustration is intended to supplement books and podcasts on the topic and to help people visualize how the hotel that Holmes built might have looked and how it was used.

The Murder Hotel drawing started as what was supposed to be a quick project I could knock out between jobs and an excuse to take a whack at a 3D cutaway illustration, which I've always wanted to attempt. Naturally, I got a bit more into it than I had initially intended, but overall it took about a months work. My special gentleman friend, Andy, volunteered to help with the research and prepared several pages of notes and reference material. (Thanks, Andy!) I stuck them all to my desk and began sketching the framework of the building.

The most challenging part was plotting out the structure of the hotel and deciding how and where to cut away. I wanted it to be as accurate as possible, so I used the original blueprints and some excellent drawings by Rick Geary to guide me. 

Once I had the structure of the exterior of the building down, I placed a sheet of vellum over it and started breaking it down floor by floor, deciding where to cut away in order to show as much as possible. The chute and hidden staircase that ran through the heart of the hotel was to be a primary focus, so I put those in first and built the rest around it.


After lots of adjusting, erasing, and making a mess, the sketch was finished and ready to scan. I think it took about a week to get to this point.

I printed the sketch at a low opacity on a sheet of heavy Bristol and began the ink drawing. I don't normally print the sketch on the paper, usually I ink on a sheet of vellum placed over the sketch. However, in this case, the lines didn't have to be quite as sharp as some of the other drawings I've done (the Colorable zoo, for example), and I thought that some of the values of the sketch could show through and add help to some dimension to the finished picture. It worked out well, and I far prefer drawing on Bristol to vellum, so I'll definitely be using this method again.

In an attempt to keep my greasy finger prints off the paper, I started wearing this dumb fancy glove that I had lying around from my halloween costume. It is now my special fancy drawing glove and I use it all the time.

A major aspect of keeping the drawing organized was managing the line weight. If the lines were all the same width, it would be difficult to tell where the exterior ends and the interior begins. I kept a little guide with four key line weights that I would use to check my consistency as I worked.

By this point, I was making some pretty tough decisions about the level of detail. My instinct is to fill in every space with as much detail as possible, though I feared that it would be too muddy and confusing if I did that here. So I used restraint and kept the surface details to a minimum. I didn't realize how much color would help organize the picture, so I now wish I'd gone with my gut and detailed the crap out of it. Lesson learned.

One of the best things about drawings like this is it's hard to get bored. Whenever one area becomes tedious, I can just move to a different area and draw something else for a while. 

Weirdly, I experienced next to none of the existential dismay and panic that typically comes with a project like this. I think because it didn't seem arbitrary in any way, entirely founded in interesting fact. It was extremely enjoyable from start to finish.

It took about a week to finish inking the drawing.  

Once scanned, I spent a few hours in Photoshop cleaning up mistakes and minimizing any visible white out marks. Next I started blocking in color. Since the image is so complex, I knew the color palette must be pretty minimal. I used this image for color inspiration, sampling all my colors from it:

I separated the exterior and each floor into its own layer group to keep the file as organized as possible. I don't do an awful lot of coloring - to be honest, I tend to avoid color whenever possible - so I tried to use this as an excuse to learn.

Once all the flat color was done, my next challenge was to light the thing. It was tricky, because there were two lighting structures to consider: the lighting of each individual room, and the lighting of the entire cutaway building as an object. Plus, I haven't really done anything like this before, so it was a little intimidating. But wow, it was so much fun to go through and turn the lights on! 

Here is the finished piece and some detail shots. Definitely a lot of things I would change were I to do it again, but overall I'm really pleased with how it turned out. If you're interested in the H.H. Holmes case, I highly recommend reading The Devil in the White City. Also, Martin Scorsese is turning it into a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Holmes.

Update: My sister, Bethan, is an avid Sims player and built the Murder Castle for the game. Go here to download the house and the H. H. Holmes character!