A Predator’s Game

Martin Hill: In my first novel, A Predatory Mind, I included a backstory about an interaction between the famed inventor Nikola Tesla and the multi-murderer, Dr. Henry H. Holmes. After completing the book, I realized that Tesla and Holmes were the most interesting aspect of the novel and I decided to write a sequel devoted entirely to a deadly battle of wits between the two with the conceit being that Holmes had escaped his May, 1896 hanging.

Manhattan in its gilded age became the backdrop.

I decided Tesla needed an ally. After playing with the idea of Mark Twain, a friend of the inventor, I happened upon another direction. Arthur Conan Doyle had visited New York in the mid-1890s (although not in 1896). Wouldn’t it be perfect to have Conan Doyle battle an evil Holmes? As I explored the possibilities I had a revelation: Tesla was Sherlock Holmes. Physically, they are virtual twins. Mentally, they were geniuses of the highest order. In personality, both were imperious and cerebral and had little interest in worldly distractions such as money or women or the matters which we mere mortals call life.

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Tesla vs. Sherlock Holmes

Nikola Tesla and Sherlock Holmes
Nikola Tesla (left) and Sherlock Holmes.

Nikola Tesla (left) was second only to Thomas Edison in fame as an inventor in the 1890s.
Sherlock Holmes was then, and is now, the most famous character in mysteries.

Let’s look at their descriptions.

“Birth” Year.
Sherlock Holmes. 1854 (age 60 in 1914, from His Last Bow).
Nikola Tesla. 1856.

Year Coming to Prominence.
Sherlock Holmes. 1887, publication of his first adventure.
Nikola Tesla. 1886, first patent. 1888, electric motor.

Color of Eyes.
Sherlock Holmes. “. . . he emerged that morning with a long foolscap document in his hand and a twinkle of amusement in his austere gray eyes.” The Adventure of the Three Garridebs, 1924.

Nikola Tesla. “Although many of his ancestors were dark eyed, his eyes were a gray-blue.” Prodigal Genius: The Life of Nikola Tesla by John J. O’Neill, page 15, 1943.

Height and Weight.
Sherlock Holmes. “In height he was rather over six feet, and so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller.” A Study in Scarlet, 1887.

Nikola Tesla. “He is very thin, is more than six feet tall and weighs less than a hundred and forty pounds.” Arthur Brisbane, New York World, Tesla interview, July 22, 1894.

Tesla’s Height, Controversy.
You will find sources that state Tesla was six-foot-six and others that place him at six-foot-two. Perhaps the confusion came from the first major biography written after his death.

“When he attained full growth he was exactly two meters, or six-feet-two and one-quarter inches tall.” Prodigal Genius: The Life of Nikola Tesla by John J. O’Neill, page 16, 1943.

Two meters is six-foot-six and one-half inches. 140 pounds is more compatible with six-foot-two and those photos of Tesla with others present show that he is taller, but not exceptionally so.

Here it is hard to find quotes that emphasize the parallels. As can be seen in Sidney Paget’s illustrations and Tesla’s photos, their faces are similar in that they have thin noses with a bit of a crook, tall foreheads, and triangular faces. The descriptions of Sherlock and Tesla both take poetic license.

Sherlock Holmes. “. . . his thin, hawk-like nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision. His chin, too, had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination.” A Study in Scarlet.

Nikola Tesla. “His face oval, broad at the temples, and strong at the lips and chin.” Julian Hawthorne as quoted in Tesla: Man Out of Time by Margaret Cheney, page 17, Simon & Schuster, 2011.

Sherlock Holmes. “. . .a nervous clasping and unclasping of his long thin hands.” The Five Orange Pips, 1891.

Nikola Tesla. “His hands however, and particularly his thumbs, seemed unusually long.” Prodigal Genius: The Life of Nikola Tesla by John J. O’Neill, page 16, 1943.


Sherlock Holmes and Nikola Tesla
Sherlock Holmes (left) and Nikola Tesla.

Sherlock Holmes (left) and Tesla.

A Predator’s Game

Chapter 1

The man in the bowler hat stepped off the horse-drawn trolley. Overdressed for the sultriness of June, he wore a dark gabardine topcoat, its perfect tailoring drawn snugly over the muscular block of his shoulders. His shoes beamed from a recent shining, and his polished cuff links winked in the midday sun. He clasped the whalebone grip of his walking cane, his thick-knuckled fingers clenching and unclenching in a strangling motion. Tipping his head back, he gazed skywards, beyond the valley of buildings, drinking in the sun until his eyes teared over. He then dipped his head down and surveyed the Eden Musée.

Built with continental pretensions, the three-story dime museum presented a French Gothic façade with statues of plump ladies serving as columns. A decorative arch displayed a carving of sea nymphs. Its steep roof sloped over its third floor, plunging down to meet an ornamental railing. Garish streamers hung slung from window to window. A banner screamed in three-foot-tall letters:

Open To All! Come Visit Our Chamber of Horrors

The pompous building summed up everything Dr. Henry Holmes loved and loathed about Manhattan: hypocrisy inflated to a grand scale, with the high-minded fused to the tawdry. While crossing the street in front of Lord and Taylor’s, society dames wearing feathered headdresses took dainty hops over lumps of horse manure. On Park Row and by City Hall, men in top hats bemoaned the plight of the poor while wringing every cent of change from the ragged newsies. Sulfurous clouds of coal dust drifted down from the belching steam engines of the elevated-above-it-all trains. Progress as the religion of heathens. Culture, yes, but as fake as a blush on a prostitute’s cheeks.

The doctor strolled into the lobby of the self-proclaimed “People’s Museum.” The wax sculpture of a portly policeman flanked the ticket seller’s booth, its glass eyes glistening. “Woe to ye pocket-pickers!” its placard read. “Our bluecoat is ever the vigilant.” Holmes handed over a dime.

A gypsy woman sat at the threshold of the entry hall, behind a narrow oak table. She wore a tent-like dress spacious enough to hide a nest of children. Her face was moon-round with large expressive eyes accentuated by bangles of sleeplessness. Her eyelids sparkled with blue glitter; her fake lashes flapped like the wings of a luna moth. Pancake make-up deadened the shine on her face. A parrot rested atop her suede shoulder patch, one of its legs was tethered by a lace to her wrist.


Access to a font of infinite knowledge proved impossible for Holmes to resist. He spun a five-cent piece on the tabletop.

The parrot hopped from the gypsy’s shoulder, landing on the rim of a glass bowl where it bobbed its head down, plucking up two strips of folded paper. After shaking one loose, it dropped the other in front of the customer.

Holmes unfolded his future, reading it aloud. “The challenges you will face may be overcome by determination.” He crumpled it, grinding it into the palm of his fist. “Guaranteed?” His voice was ice-cold.

“Yes,” said the gypsy. “If you can demonstrate this fortune did not come to pass you may return to collect a full dollar.”

Holmes rolled a second nickel her way, Liberty’s disembodied head tumbling chin over crown. With the gypsy’s palm splayed flat and pressing the table, the coin slipped between the spread of her fingers and bumped to a stop.

The parrot pounced into action, dipping again into the glass bowl and snatching up a second fortune, depositing it on the tabletop in front of Holmes.

The doctor snapped up the folded paper and split open its crease with his thumb. Without looking down, he announced, “It tells me, I will eat this fucking bird for my dinner tonight.” He smacked his lips. “Guaranteed.”

When the gypsy reached out to inspect the note, as quickly as a cobra strike, Holmes seized her wrist. His hand clamped down and twisted.

If she felt pain, she refused to show it. They locked eyes: his alive and predatory, hers defiant, declaring she was too troublesome a mouse to swallow.

She slipped her free hand into her bag, retrieved and set a silver dollar in front of Holmes. “The fortune speaks in error,” she said.

He let her go, broke a broad smile and inspected his earnings: a Morgan dollar, freshly minted, 1896. He seemed about to turn his shoulder when instead he quickly slapped his hand on the table, startling her. Lifting it, he revealed another nickel.

The gypsy trembled. As her parrot bobbed, preparing to leap, she pinched its leather chain. Then she inhaled slowly, deeply, tipping back her head, rolling up her eyes, leaving only the whites. A hiss leaked between her rotting teeth. In a flash, her pupils returned. “This is your fortune,” she declared. “You will kill again.” She covered his nickel and scooted it her way.

Holmes backed up, his eyebrows raised. He glanced to one side and then the other to see who else might have overheard. Satisfied that the exchange remained private, he nodded, offering a tip of his hat. “Which way to the Chamber of Horrors?” he asked.


A domed skylight illuminated the Center Hall. The Rulers of the World, a waxwork diorama of monarchs, emperors and sheiks, lined the path to the entrance to the lower floor where a wide swath of steps scrolled down into a dark cave.

Mounted to the wall above the entryway to the pit was an ornamental clock. Its face a glowering caricature of the man in the moon; it wore a bandit’s scarf as a mask. The clock hands appeared as two pistols pointed up, frozen at one minute to midnight. A sign beneath it warned entrants: “The Lord So Cometh as a Thief in the Night.”

Holmes ambled down the stairs. Daylight faded; gas lamps bloomed. At the bottom of the steps a noose dangled in front of a mirror, providing visitors with a vision of their execution. Holmes viewed his head and neck through its loop. He adjusted his necktie.

He considered his disfigured face. Months ago, as part of a scheme to escape the gallows, he clubbed his face beyond recognition. Now, as it healed, why did he hate it so much? This falseness, this new identity. The wiry rasp of his beard felt like a scouring pad sprouting from beneath his skin. The crumple of his shattered nose, the asymmetry of his cheekbones and ears, the prominence of his false front teeth: he snarled at his reflection. He had once been the handsome Dr. Jekyll. Now his features were those of the savage Mr. Hyde. A proper trimming: shave the beard, clip back the feral sideburns. Wash out the hair dye and plan a visit to a facial surgeon: he swore he would do everything he could to restore his previous looks. With the tip of his cane, he slapped the inside of the noose, setting it into motion with the sway of a pendulum

Upon entering the first crypt of the waxworks, Holmes found himself startled and infuriated. The Whitechapel Murders. The figure of a killer squatted over a victim, excavating her abdomen. A puddle of red wax spilled out over the fake cobblestones and dripped through a phony sewer grate. The placard declared: The Leather Apron Killer! Jack The Ripper! History’s Foremost Archfiend! Five Women Mercilessly Slaughtered!

Five? Holmes thought, seething. Only five murders places this “Ripper” at the fore? Holmes tried to think back to a year when he had killed only five.

And this so-called fiend butchered whores! Where was the sport in that? Left to their own devices they’d destroy themselves in due time with booze or needles.

Holmes had chosen as his victims, lovers, friends, associates and their children. In the desert of his emotionless life, his one great pleasure arose at the moment when his victims realized their betrayal, seeing Holmes for his true nature. Extinguishing the trustful expressions on their faces felt as soothing as a drink from a cool spring.

The next chamber displayed Holmes himself: The Monster in Human Form! A wax figure of the doctor arched over eight-year-old Howard Pitezel, choking the child with his hands.

I killed him with poison. Strangulation seems so… vulgar. Skin under the nails, the victim spitting, spindly arms and legs flailing like wildly flung rolling pins… and then all over so soon, no time to feast on the torment. And yet…

Mimicking the pose, adding his hands to those around the child’s neck, he felt a sensual satisfaction. Yes. He could imagine the joy of so intimate and quick a kill.

A pair of onlookers scurried past his bent figure.

The sculptor had given him brown eyes. Such shoddy attention to detail. His eyes had the blue-gray tremble of a mirage, the deception of an oasis. He stepped into the display and pressed his thumbs against the figure’s glass eyes, driving them back into the hollow of its head. Holmes stepped back to admire the gouged sockets.

Much improved.

The final chamber of the cellar was devoted to a display of the novel device, the electric chair, showing the execution of William Kemmler.Electronic execution, electro-cution, that’s what Edison named it.

Edison promoted the electric chair to aggravate his main rivals Westinghouse and Tesla—and to sell Edison’s direct current as the only safe form of electricity. To expose the danger of alternating current, Edison undertook demonstrations executing animals, great and small, shocking them to death. Edison and his group followed up these presentations by championing the electric chair as a means of painless execution.

The inaugural victim of this device was William Kemmler, the first human to be intentionally killed by electricity. Strapped down, soaked with salt water sponges to improve conduction, he was shocked and fried again and again in failed attempts to end his life. Westinghouse remarked that the execution would have gone more smoothly if they’d used an axe. And what had Tesla called the electric chair? A desecration of invention. A blasphemy.

Tesla. Holmes ruminated on his memories of the man. Gangly-tall, smug, a genius who understands nothing. Tesla, who worships at the temple of progress. Tesla, who maintains a faith in the innocence of science. Nothing is innocent. Holmes had used one of Tesla’s devices to aid in his escape and now Tesla alone knew he was still alive. Holmes had further use of that invention. He vowed to steal it and destroy its inventor.

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