Long before there were nearly as many “true crime” podcasts as there are actual true crimes, there was a different form of mystery which aimed at the ear and the mind, and not the eye.
In the 1930s and 40s, families gathered ’round the Philco, RCA, or Atwater-Kent to follow the adventures of Superman or Dick Tracy or the Shadow.
Of course, those stories were not actually true, but they did combine voices, sound effects, and cliff-hanger segments to keep listeners on the edge of their seats.
Rick Kinnebrew, an Evanstonian and retired employee at the Evanston Public Library, does not recall those programs first- hand … he’s too young … but became a fan growing up.
“As a child,” Kinnebrew recalls, “I listend to 33 1/3 rpm recordings of old-time radio shows.”
And so, as an adult, Kinnebrew penned a radio mystery play of his own : “White City, An Audible Exhibition on H.H Holmes, Murderer.”
It’s the story of a man who Encyclopedia Britannica.com says is “widely considered the country’s first serial killer,” with, depending on whom you choose to believe, from 20 to 200 victims.
If H.H. Holmes, multiple murders and the “White City” seem a bit familiar, they were also the subject of a best-selling book in 2003, “The Devil in the White City,” the story of an evil man who moved to Chicago and during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (the “White City” fairgrounds) killed people in his torture-chamber-equipped hotel and incinerated the bodies.
Holmes, whose real name was Herman Mudgett, really was a doctor. But he was also a killer and a con man whose victims were often dispatched as part of an insurance fraud scam that put money in Holmes’ pocket.
Kinnebrew wrote his play in 1999-2000. But before he could get it produced, Erik Larson’s “White City” book was published.
“I thought, oh well, that killed my script,” Kinnebrew recalls.
“I just put it away in a drawer.”
But in 2019, Kinnebrew did what he calls a “major rewrite,” which ultimately ended up as a radio play, put on by Chicago’s “Theater in the Dark,” an audio performance company.
The show was recently broadcast live, and can now be downloaded.
A radio play, Kinnebrew says, “is the antidote to your visual world. Find a dark, cozy space, turn off your screen, and crank up your headphones.”
There’s a cast of nine voices, including a narrator who holds the show together, Holmes and Holmes’ associates and victims.
“Our shows combine the written word, human voices, rich sounscapes and original music,” says the Theater in the Dark website.
“You don’t have visuals,” Kinnebrew says, “except you do … in your mind.”
Sound, Kinnebrew notes, “can evoke pictures, say, of the morgue. The echo can help you visualize the stony walls of the place,” he adds.
Sound effects range from a ferris wheel at the Exposition to the creaking gallows where Holmes was hanged, in 1896, not in Chicago, but in Pennsylvania. Despite Holmes’ claims of multiple killings, and contemporary accounts of lots of bodies, he was only tried and convicted for one death, of a business associate and partner in swindling.
Kinnebrew is now moving on to other projects. He’s working on a screenplay about a train robber in post-Civil War Alabama, who was, like Holmes, “a real person.”
“History really sparks my imagination,” he says.
If you’d like to hear “White City, An Audible Exhibition on H.H. Holmes, Murderer,” you can do so by going to atheaterinthedark.com.
And because the production can be downloaded, you could say it too, is sort of a podcast.
It all comes full circle. Cue the sound effects!