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H.H. Holmes is notoriously known as one of America's first serial killers who lured victims into his hotel dubbed the “Murder Castle” during the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. According to some claims, he killed up to 200 people inside his macabre hotel that was outfitted with trapdoors, gas chambers and a basement crematorium. But the actual story, while horrifying, may not be quite as sordid.
“There’s a total of about nine [people] that we can say with some confidence he probably killed,” says Adam Selzer, author of H.H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil. “He confessed to 27 at one point, but several of them were still alive at the time.”
The inflated numbers of up to 200 victims likely started, Selzer says, with a pulp book published in 1940, called Gem of the Prairie by Herbert Asbury.
“It had kind of a throwaway line that some people suggested it may have been as many as 200 people,” Selzer says. “Nobody had actually suggested that, in fact. But thereafter everybody else who [retold] the story threw in that same line until people started deciding that that was a real estimate or a real possibility.”
There’s also no evidence Holmes trapped strangers inside his hotel in an attempt to kill them. The nine people he likely killed were all people he already knew, and the building he owned wasn’t a hotel. The first floor consisted of storefronts, and the second floor had apartments for long-term rental.
“When he added a third floor onto his building in 1892, he told people it was going to be a hotel space, but it was never finished or furnished or open to the public,” Selzer says. “The whole idea was just a vehicle to swindle suppliers and investors and insurers.”
Fraud, Affairs and Cover Ups
Holmes was involved in a variety of fraud schemes, and it was actually his involvement in a horse swindle in Texas that led police to arrest him in Boston in 1894. Investigators soon began to suspect him of murdering his scammer associate Benjamin Pitezel in an insurance scheme, then murdering three of Pitezel’s children—who were roughly seven to 14 years old—in an attempt to cover it up.
After Holmes’ arrest, newspapers began printing lurid stories about his alleged Chicago “Murder Castle,” claiming he’d outfitted it with trap doors and secret rooms to torture and kill guests. According to Harold Schechter, author of Depraved: The Definitive True Story of H. H. Holmes, Whose Grotesque Crimes Shattered Turn-of-the-Century Chicago, these sensational details can be attributed to yellow journalism, the practice of exaggerating or simply making up news stories that flourished in the 1890s.
“It’s my belief that probably all those stories about all these visitors to the World’s Fair who were murdered in his quote-unquote ‘Castle’ were just complete sensationalistic fabrication by the yellow press,” he says. “By the time I reached the end of my book, I kind of realized even a lot of the stuff that I had written was probably exaggerated.” (His book was originally published in 1994 as Depraved: The Shocking True Story of America's First Serial Killer.)
Without any evidence, newspapers claimed Holmes used his building’s chute to transport bodies to the basement (the fact that he had a chute was not unusual, since many buildings had laundry chutes connected to the basement). These stories turned Holmes’ building into an elaborate torture dungeon outfitted with gas pipes to asphyxiate victims and soundproof rooms to hide their screams.
“All these myths—which to some extent I myself, I think, helped perpetuate a little bit—grew up around Holmes,” Schechter says.
The Real, Likely Victims of H.H. Holmes
These myths can obscure the stories of Holmes’ actual likely victims. Two of the earliest were Julia Connor and her six-year-old daughter, Pearl. They disappeared around Christmas of 1891, after Holmes had an affair with Julia and involved her in his business schemes. During his life, Holmes alternatively denied killing Julia and confessed to accidentally killing her while performing an abortion. It’s still unclear what happened to her and Pearl.
Over the next two years, Holmes may have murdered Emeline Cigrand, Minnie Williams and her sister Nannie Williams. Both Emeline and Minnie appear to have had personal and business relationships with Holmes when they disappeared. But as with Julia and Pearl, it’s difficult to say for sure what happened to Emeline, Minnie and Nannie.
The evidence for Holmes’ murders of Ben Pitezel and his young children Howard, Nellie and Alice in 1894 is more solid. Even so, investigators only tried and convicted him for Ben’s murder. Holmes received the death sentence in 1896, and died by hanging in Philadelphia, about a week before his 35th birthday.
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H.H. Holmes, byname of Herman Mudgett, (born May 16, 1861?, Gilmanton, New Hampshire, U.S.—died May 7, 1896, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), American swindler and confidence trickster who is widely considered the country’s first known serial killer.
Mudgett was born into a wealthy family and showed signs of high intelligence from an early age. Always interested in medicine, he allegedly trapped animals and performed surgery on them some accounts of his life even suggest that he killed a childhood playmate. Mudgett attended medical school at the University of Michigan, where he was a mediocre student. In 1884 he was nearly prevented from graduating when a widowed hairdresser accused him of making a false promise of marriage to her.
In 1886 Mudgett moved to Chicago and took a job as a pharmacist under the name “Dr. H.H. Holmes.” Soon afterward he apparently began killing people in order to steal their property. The house he built for himself, which would become known as “Murder Castle,” was equipped with secret passages, trapdoors, soundproof rooms, doors that could be locked from the outside, gas jets to asphyxiate victims, and a kiln to cremate the bodies. At the reputed peak of his career, during the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, he allegedly seduced and murdered a number of women, typically by becoming engaged to them and then killing them after securing control of their life savings. Mudgett also required his employees to carry life insurance policies naming him as beneficiary so that he could collect money after he killed them. He sold the bodies of many of his victims to local medical schools.
In 1893 Mudgett was arrested for insurance fraud after a fire at his home, but he was soon released. He then concocted a scheme with an associate, Ben Pitezel, to defraud an insurance company by faking Pitezel’s death. After Pitezel purchased a $10,000 life insurance policy, he and Mudgett traveled to Colorado, Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas, where they committed other acts of fraud (along the way, Mudgett also married). Returning to Missouri, Mudgett was arrested for fraud and briefly jailed in St. Louis. While in jail he met Marion Hedgepeth, a career criminal who agreed to help Mudgett in the insurance scheme with Pitezel. Meanwhile, Pitezel moved to Philadelphia and opened a fake patent office to swindle inventors. After his release from jail, Mudgett traveled to Philadelphia and killed Pitezel. He then convinced Pitezel’s widow, who had been aware of her husband’s involvement in the insurance scheme, that her husband was still alive, later giving her $500 of the money he collected. Worried that some of Pitezel’s five children might alert the authorities, Mudgett killed three of them. Insurance investigators were alerted to the fraud by Hedgepeth, and Mudgett was arrested in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1894. He was tried in Philadelphia for the murder of Pitezel and was sentenced to death by hanging.
Mudgett confessed to 27 murders (he later increased the total to more than 130), though some researchers have suggested that the real number exceeded 200. Mudgett sold his story to the Hearst Corporation for $10,000.
Descendant of H.H. Holmes Reveals What He Found at Serial Killer's Gravesite
By Katie Kim and Lisa Capitanini &bull Published July 17, 2017 &bull Updated on July 17, 2017 at 10:40 pm
For Jeff Mudgett, the fantasy of his great, great grandfather – known as America’s first serial killer – is an obsession.
“He is evil personified,” Mudgett said.
"He" is H.H. Holmes, the murderer believed to have terrorized Chicago during the 1893 World’s Fair.
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Holmes, who was born Herman Webster Mudgett, confessed to over two dozen murders, though some believe the body count is much higher.
What is undisputed is that Holmes operated a building at 63rd and Wallace. The so-called “murder castle” is said to have been equipped with gas chambers, hallways to nowhere, even a crematory.
When Holmes was finally arrested in Philadelphia, newspaper reports at the time indicated he may have pulled off one final swindle – escaping death by having someone else hanged and buried in his place.
Mudgett had to know for sure. He petitioned the courts to exhume the body in Holmes’ grave to match DNA samples of the remains to his own.
In late April, digging began at Philadelphia’s Holy Cross Cemetery.
“It actually brought tears to my eyes, and I was trying to figure out, ‘Why am I crying for this monster of a man?’” Mudgett said of finding the tomb for the first time.
Mudgett said archaeologists at the University of Pennsylvania first found a fake pine box, which may have been used as a decoy. But a few feet deeper, they discovered a cement sarcophagus.
Lore has it that Holmes requested his body be encased in cement.
“Cracking open the 125- to 130-year-old cement, as you can imagine, is tough work,” Mudgett said.
Inside the coffin, Mudgett said they found a man’s skeleton.
“Chills went up and down my spine. To see that skeleton and that skull with the brain still inside, which is a phenomenon that scientists still have not explained… scared the heck out of me,” Mudgett said.
The remains are still at UPenn, while anthropologists conduct tests. The results are pending.
Meantime, Mudgett hopes the grave dig inspires another one in Chicago.
Today, the site of Holmes’ alleged death factory is the Englewood Post Office. Holmes’ building and the federal building are said to overlap just four to five feet.
Mudgett said much of the land is undeveloped and untouched, and he believes evidence of Holmes’ fiendish crimes is buried underneath.
But some skeptics aren’t so sure.
Adam Selzer, author of the new “H.H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil,” said the land was excavated in 1895 and again in the 1930s during construction of the post office with no major discoveries.
“In 1895, the police and reporters spent a good three weeks digging up every inch of the basement,” Selzer said.
But he acknowledges, “I wouldn’t call it an archaeological investigation. It was more Keystone Cops than CSI.”
“Even if they found some bones, it would be very difficult to say this was definitely a Holmes victim.”
But Mudgett said it’s worth asking the federal government for permission to dig again.
“Excavating those grounds to identify those victims who, you know what? They deserve that,” Mudgett said.
Mudgett is currently co-hosting a series on The History Channel, investigating a theory that Holmes is in fact Jack the Ripper, the notorious, unidentified serial killer who brutally murdered women in London in the 1880s.
Holmes was a wanted man when he arrived in Chicago
By the time Holmes (real name Herman Webster Mudgett) arrived in Chicago in 1886, he was a wanted man. As a con artist and bigamist, he fled from one town to the next, avoiding prison time for various scams, including insurance fraud of a ghastly nature: Holmes was stealing and mutilating medical cadavers and pretending they were victims of accidents to collect money.
But Holmes had more monstrous ideas tinkering in his dark mind. Soon after arriving in Chicago, he found work as a pharmacist and quickly began plans on building a "Murder Castle," a three-story building that took up the entire block of 63rd and Wallace streets. Holmes called it the World&aposs Fair Hotel to accommodate tourists who were arriving in droves for the 1893 Columbian Exposition. His victims of choice? Young female drifters searching for a new exciting life in the big city.
View of the World&aposs Fair Hotel, also known as the &aposMurder Castle&apos after it&aposs actual purpose became known, Chicago, Illinois, mid 1890s.
Photo: Chicago History Museum/Getty Images
In an article written in 1937, the Chicago Tribune described Holmes&apos Murder Castle in this way: "O, what a queer house it was! In all America there was none other like it. Its chimneys stuck out where chimneys should never stick out. Its stairways ended nowhere in particular. Winding passages brought the uninitiated with a frightful jerk back to where they had started from. There were rooms that had no doors. There were doors that had no rooms. A mysterious house it was indeed — a crooked house, a reflex of the builder&aposs own distorted mind. In that house occurred dark and eerie deeds."
Watch American Ripper on A&E Crime Central
H. H. Holmes
The infamous murderer “H. H. Holmes” was a third-generation English-American who was originally named Herman Webster Mudgett. He was born in Gilmanton, New Hampshire, on May 16th of 1861, to Levi and Theodate. They were highly devout Methodists and strict disciplinarians, who expected great things from their children. Thus, at the age of 16, Mudgett graduated from high school and took teaching jobs in Gilmanton and then in Alton. Then, on July 4th of 1878, he married Clara Lovering in Alton. Two years later, their son, Robert, was born on February 3rd of 1880, in Loudon, New Hampshire.
He r man Mudgett enrolled in the University of Vermont at age 18, but he was dissatisfied with the school and left after the first year. Then, in 1882, the young compulsive con artist entered the University of Michigan’s Department of Medicine and Surgery. He was a short little dandy of a fellow who always wore fine clothes and cologne. The thing was that he had cold blue eyes, but one of them was crooked just like him, so he never looked anyone square in the face otherwise his eyes would cross. Still, he managed to be a very charming and charismatic psychopath who operated more or less undetected.
While he was enrolled in medical school, Mudgett worked in the anatomy lab under Professor Herdman, the chief anatomist. Herman Mudgett also apprenticed in New Hampshire under Dr. Nahum Wight, a noted advocate of human dissection. All of this gave him extensive knowledge of the inner-workings of the human body. The was that Mudgett developed a morbid fascination with cadavers, and he took extreme delight in the uncanny aspects of dissection. The school’s janitor even introduced Mudgett to black-market corpse trafficking. So, he learned to think of corpses as commodities at a time when medical cadavers were frightfully scarce.
That’s when Herman Mudgett started robbing graves to pay his tuition up until he graduated in 1884. Thus, he went from being a horse-thief in New England to a body-snatcher in the Midwest all in the course of becoming a doctor. Mudgett then moved to Mooers Forks, New York, but not long after that, a rumor began to spread that he had been seen with a little boy who later disappeared. When he was confronted about it. Mudgett claimed that the boy went back to his home in Massachusetts. Although no investigation took place, Mudgett quickly left town anyway.
He later traveled to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where he got a job at Norristown State Hospital, but he quit after only a few days of work. He later took a position at a drugstore in Philadelphia, but while he was working there, a boy died after taking medicine that was purchased at that store. Mudgett denied any involvement in the child’s death but immediately left the city. Right before moving to Chicago, Mudgett changed his name to Henry Howard Holmes to avoid the possibility of being exposed by victims of his previous crimes and scams.
Above all else, Dr. H. H. Holmes was a pathological propagandist and an opportunistic capitalist. He swindled everyone he could, including himself. So, having acquired a medical degree, Holmes abruptly left his wife and child behind to fend for themselves. Following this, the young con artist with a medical degree wound up settling down in the Midwest in his mid-twenties. Holmes finally arrived in Chicago in August of 1886. As luck would have it, Holmes found his way into Mrs. Holton’s drugstore at the southwest corner of South Wallace Avenue and West 63rd Street in Englewood, on the south-side of Chicago.
Then, Holmes talked her into hiring him as a pharmacist, partly because her husband Dr. Holton was a fellow Michigan alumnus, so they trusted him to run their drugstore. Then Holmes immediately began to steal stocks from them. He sold those in order to chase the American Dream and amass a small fortune during the Gilded Age. Little did they know that Holmes was an overly ambitious psychopath who was directly tapped into the zeitgeist of the nation. He was the archetypal American businessman, only concerned with profit margins, even at the expense of people and their livelihoods.
In 1887, Holmes bought a lot across the street from the drugstore, with the intention of constructing a grand two-story mixed-use building with apartments on the second floor and retail spaces on the first floor. The building was designed by Charles Berger and Edward Cullen, and the levels were built in phases. The new establishment was meant to be 162 feet long and 50 feet wide, and Holmes employed dozens of contractors to build it. In the process, Holmes fired many of the contractors and never paid them for their work. The first floor was finished in the spring of 1887, and the second floor was completely the following year.
During this time, Holmes purchased a bank vault on credit, and he put it in while the building was under construction, so it was permanently put in place. Then, when he refused to pay for the vault and they wanted to come to repossess it, Holmes said that he would sue them if they damaged his building. Plus, when Holmes declined to pay the architects and the steel company they sued him in 1888. Things got so bad that Edward Moore became Holmes’ personal attorney on every case, earning them both tons of money. Holmes even routinely changed the name of the owner of the property to avoid paying back loans. His wife and mother-in-law were two of the people used in that way.
From the outside, the building was meant to fit in with the surroundings, so it needed to feature six columns in the same pattern seen in the Newman block at 63rd and Stewart. The outside was made of high red brick walls with windows of curving contour whose stained-glass of variegated colors made the place quite striking. The elaborate apothecary was a fancy pharmacy as well as a swanky jewelry store, plus there was a luxurious boarding house above. Inside there were solid wood shelves and counters with glass cases displaying all sorts of things in various colored shiny glass jars and bottles.
In total, the first floor was made up of 35 rooms, 51 doors, and 6 corridors. There were also three dozen rooms upstairs, many of which were very ostentatious. Holmes had designed everything to be as appealing as possible to the patrons. In this way, he was able to lease out five shops on the first floor and rent out offices and bedrooms on the second floor. So, there was a pharmacy, a jewelry store, a barbershop, a restaurant, and a blacksmith on site. Outside, the murder castle stood beside four railroad tracks leading south out of Chicago.
The thing is that everything in the “murder castle” was purchased on credit but never paid for. For instance, one day Holmes bought a bunch of furniture for the restaurant, but later that evening the dealer came around to collect the bill or remove the goods. However, Holmes set out a big spread of food and got him really drunk. By the end of the night, Holmes gave the man a cigar and sent him off laughing, fully reassured that he would have his money the following week. Then, a half an hour after he left, Holmes had wagons out front being loaded up with furniture that he never did pay for.
Holmes took advantage of everyone he could. During one of the building projects, every two or three days a whole new crew was brought in to work on drilling an artisan well. Not long after their work in the alley, a display card went up in the window. It advertised mineral water on tap for five cents a glass. Little did they know that it was really just the city tap water. Holmes claimed that his blue mineral water was a patent medicine that came from his well so he never paid his utility bill. Thus, he was scamming patrons and the water company.
In a much grander kind of scam, Holmes had a device that he claimed could turn a small amount of water into a large amount of gasoline. He had his fake generator secretly hooked up to a real gas generator into which he would pour water and seemingly produce gasoline. He made tens of thousands of dollars from eager investors, including the gas company itself. Holmes was the leading con artist in the world at that time.
As a sexual predator and serial killer, Holmes even put ads in small-town newspapers looking for women to employ, giving him a pool of female murder victims to choose from. Plus, he took out life insurance policies on his employees, naming himself as the beneficiary. In 1888 a girl named Lizzie worked as a waitress in the murder castle and she was suffocated in the vault, becoming his first victim in the building. So, while Jack the Ripper was killing prostitutes across the pond, here in America there was a different kind of killer on the loose.
Holmes used every man, woman, and child that he could. In the process, he had a daughter with his second wife Myrta Belknap, named Lucy Theodate Holmes. She was born inside the murder castle on July 4th of 1889, in Englewood, Chicago, Illinois, destined for a life of disaster. That same year, Julia Connor became a cashier after her family moved to Chicago. Dr. Holmes also leased out the jewelry store and drug store to her husband Ned Connor in 1890 but in 1891 a man named A. L. Jones took over the drugstore. More importantly, this all happened right before the dawn of forensic science.
In 1891, Robert Latimer bribed Holmes to give him money or he would expose all of his guilty secrets. So, Holmes chloroformed Latimer and stashed him away behind a wall where he starved to death. H. H. Holmes also poisoned a woman named Rasine Van Jassand with ferrocyanide of potassium, that same year. He killed Anna Betts by substituting a poisonous ingredient in a prescription that she had filled at the murder castle pharmacy. Holmes also poisoned Edna Van Tassel during this time. At one point, H. H. Holmes proposed to Ned Connor’s sister Gertrude, but when she refused him Holmes murdered her in his office.
Plus, Holmes was cheating on his wife with Ned’s wife. Julia even became pregnant, so on Christmas of 1891, Holmes attempted an abortion that killed Julia. Since Pearl was a witness he poisoned her, as well. Julia’s corpse was sold to a medical school. Her daughter’s remains were put in the incinerator and then Pearl’s bones were buried in the dirt floor of the cellar. After a while, a tenant asked about them but Holmes just shrugged it off. Eventually, he moved the Doyle family into their old apartment, but Julia and Pearl’s belongings were still there. This raised suspicions among the people staying in the building.
The ongoing construction of the murder castle was more or less complete in 1892. Holmes had finally decided to add a third floor to the building, telling investors and suppliers that he intended to use it as a highly profitable hotel during the upcoming World’s Fair. He wanted to make the perfect lodging for tourists. Plus, the building was really long, so by making it taller, the whole thing was proportioned better. In the process of construction, no one who helped build the murder castle really knew anything more than what they needed to know about what they were specifically doing.
In line with this, there were hinged walls, false partitions, and all sorts of creepy features to the murder castle. The whole thing was designed to torment people. The murder castle took on a life of its own. Holmes even got his new tenant Mr. Doyle to help in the shoddy construction with cheap lumber. The maze-like layout of the uppermost floor was purpose-built to disorient everyone, but it rarely got used for anything more than hiding furniture from repossession men. Although, Holmes did chase a few victims here and there from time to time in and around his third-floor office suite.
The murder castle was filled with all the latest inventions, including gas lights. So, every apartment was a potential killing chamber fitted with stopcocks outside that way the gas for the gaslights would flow into the bedrooms. The Beast of Chicago loved to listen to their screaming and gasping through the walls. More importantly, Holmes monitored everyone’s whereabouts. The doors and stairs were linked to an alarm system, so a buzzer would sound in his office when anyone was on the move.
Some doors could only be opened from one side, while some closets had a door on either side. This gave Holmes a great deal of control of the murder castle, which contained about 100 rooms in total, depending on what counted as a room. The point is that once they were inside the murder castle, guests were completely at Holmes’ mercy, which was a quality he didn’t possess. It’s hard to say how many people checked in but never checked out. H. H. Holmes could very well have been the first American serial killer, as well as the most prolific.
In his bizarre triple-decked house of horror, the only room on the third floor that was ever really used was the top floor office. Holmes had hired a man named Joe Owens to help him install a big asbestos-lined safe in the room which was heated by an over-sized potbellied oven. Oftentimes Holmes would use the safe to torture people that he couldn’t swindle, making them sign their name to something only to kill them afterward. In line with this, the whole place was set up to allow Holmes to move corpses without being seen all the way from the vault in his office to his dissection slab in the basement.
First, he would drag a body through the office suite to the bathroom. In that third-floor room, there was a trapdoor to drop the body into the second-floor bathroom below. From there, a corpse could be hauled to a dissection lab next door. At the far end of the lab was a bottomless closet. Below that, on the first floor, there was a corpse catchment platform. To get to the body on it, Holmes went back to the bathroom which had a secret stairway leading down to the platform. Then, he dropped the body down a chute into the basement. This network of rooms made up the central disposal chute in Holmes’ corpse producing factory.
To sell bodies, Holmes built himself a special tar-lined box, so blood wouldn’t leak out of it on the way to market. Holmes had even gotten a furniture mover named Wade Warner to pretend to be the inventor of a brand new kind of glass-blowing furnace. In this way, they were able to fool investors into funding the construction of a large oven in the basement that could generate a few thousand degrees of heat. So, never being one to leave any loose ends, Holmes murdered Warner and cremated him to test out his latest creation.
The basement was also where the mad doctor would butcher corpses to extract the bones from them. This was because medical schools would only pay about 25 dollars for a corpse, but they would pay 170 dollars for an articulated skeleton. That’s why Holmes installed two vats in the basement. One was filled with carbolic acid to dissolve the flesh from bones, and the other was filled with bleach to whiten them. He would then pay Charles Chappell 36 dollars to prepare each skeleton, and the rest was profit.
In 1892 the CPD had to set up a Missing Persons Bureau to trace hundreds of disappearances. In May of that same year, Emeline Cigrand was recruited by Holmes. She was the prettiest girl he ever hired, so they began an affair. Holmes often bought flowers for her and took her out to the evening theater. They always took their lunch together in his office. The couple eventually planned a December wedding together. However, on the 6th, Holmes killed Emeline by locking her in the giant safe and letting her suffocate. Holmes then sold her skeleton.
All the unspeakably vile things that took place in that building peaked in 1893 when countless visitors arrived in huge crowds gathering for the Great Chicago World’s Fair, for months on end. Countless people wound up going missing in the chaos. To make matters worse, hundreds of those incredibly unlucky people met a grisly fate at the hands of the most efficient serial killer of all time. Urbanization and industrialization helped Holmes become a killing machine working on a disassembly line in a factory of death.
Above all else though, Holmes was guilty of much more fraud than murder. He hid things from creditors so well in the murder castle that he could lead them around and open every door to every room, proving to them that their products simply were not there. However, in March of 1893, a laborer was able to tell them where their goods were being hidden. He was paid fifty dollars to take them to a room on the second floor whose door had been covered with wallpaper.
Behind that door, the men from the Toby Furniture Company found a large portion of their property. They continued searching the murder castle for more hidden rooms, finding nearly everything they were looking for. Holmes had managed to sell the rest. In the wake of this, creditors flooded into the murder castle. One company found a few hundred dollars worth of their crockery stashed in the ceiling above the kitchen in the restaurant.
Regardless, between May 1st and October 30th of 1893 millions of people visited the exposition’s main grounds, known as White City. There, at the Chicago’s World Fair, onlookers could see a moving sidewalk and an elevated train. They could also ride an enormous Ferris wheel, from atop which they could see the “World’s Fair Hotel”. Little did they know that the murder castle was owned by the notorious “White City Devil”.
Just three miles west of the Chicago’s World Fair, deep within the walls of the murder castle, a number of victims suffered agonizing deaths that easily rivaled the torture that was inflicted on people in medieval dungeons. Things got so busy in the abattoir that Holmes had to obtain chloroform up to ten times a week from Mr. Erickson at the pharmacy. Holmes was murdering so many people that he had a backlog of bodies. Still, Holmes continued being the scoundrel that he was.
In the end, after Holmes had previously taken out four different insurance policies on the murder castle, he set fire to the third floor. However, the agencies refused to pay and the police were called in to investigate for fraud. When the cops came to question him they saw all the packages of body parts waiting for shipment. However, Holmes had already fled the scene of the crime. He was later arrested for the murder of Benjamin Pitezel, his partner crime. Thus, H. H. Holmes was executed on May 7th of 1896, nine days before his 35th birthday.
The “Murder Castle”
Suspicions about the building were raised before the fair started in March of 1893. A Chicago Tribune article details a tangled web of fraud, coverups, and scandals involving many local vendors who had sold or lent materials and goods to Holmes only to go unpaid. According to the article, one such vendor, the Tobey Furniture Company, took it upon themselves to try and repossess their goods in person and arrived at the building to retrieve their property. However, the furniture was nowhere in sight.
Holmes led the disgruntled group around himself, showing them the state of his remodel and the distinct lack of furniture. It was only later that a man came forward to admit that the furniture had been hidden in secret rooms that were built between floors and behind doors that had been covered by wallpaper.
The fair kicked off on May 1st, 1893, and it was then that the building was put through its paces.
According to a mix of sensationalist news reports and Holmes's own confessions, the building had been turned into a twisted construct designed to disorient victims and lead them to their deaths.
Reports started emerging of soundproof rooms and secret passages that were embedded within a disorienting layout that included dead ends, staircases to nowhere, and purposefully cramped hallways. The secret rooms also were purported to have chutes and trapdoors which allowed victims to be dumped into the basement or led into the sealed rooms that had been constructed between floors. In the basement, there was a crematorium, vats of acid, and quicklime which were designed to dissolve and burn the bodies.
Tales were told of people who were enticed to enter the building with sales, food, and other street-level gimmicks only to be sealed away in a soundproof room and tortured. Some people reported seeing bodies falling into pits and disappearing for good.
By the end of the fair, Holmes claimed to have killed 200 unsuspecting victims. With twenty-seven million strangers pouring through the city day after day, it is not hard to believe that he could have nabbed some people who vanished during the chaos of the fair.
If so many people were killed in such an odd way, how did such a grisly event get passed over by the history books?
The Murder Castle of H. H. Holmes, America's first serial killer.
May 8, 1896 Herman Webster Mudgett was hanged at Moyamensing Prison (now the Philadelphia County Prison). It was a slow death for Mudgett, as his neck failed to snap and he slowly strangled by the noose around his neck. For fifteen minutes he twitched before he was still. A horrible way to die but many believe it was no less than he deserved.
Mudgett was executed after been found guilty of 4 counts of murder in the first degree and 6 counts of attempted murder. However, his tally was higher than that. much higher. Mudgett confessed to 27 murders, but may have killed no less than 200 people. Herman Webster Mudgett, alias Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, was one of the first documented serial killers in America, and this is his story. Herman Webster Mudgett was born in New Hampshire, May 16, 1861, to a highly religious mother, and a violently sadistic, alcoholic father. Mudgett's early school years were not easy, as he was constantly bullied.
He had developed a fear of the local doctor. His fellow students discovered this and decided to make his life hell. They used to force Mudgett to spend some time in a dark room with the schools anatomical skeleton, which were real bone back in those days. Mudgett became fascinated with it and developed an obsession with death. In 1884 he developed his first scam while in medical school. He would steal the medical cadavers, and take out life insurance policies on them, before claiming they had been killed accidentally and making off with the money. Mudgett passed his exams, and started a career in the pharmaceuticals industry. It was about this time that Mudgett formed the alias Dr H. H. Holmes, which became the main name he used from thereon in. In 1886 Holmes moved to Chicago, where he took up employment in a drug store. His boss, a Dr E Holton, was suffering from cancer and when he died Holmes convinced the wife to sell him the drug store. A loan was drawn up, but soon after, Mrs Holton disappeared.
Dr H. H. Holmes had had his eye on a vacant lot of land across from the drug store, which he soon purchased. For a number of years locals watched as the 'castle' took on its form, a massive three storied block long building, that housed both Holmes new drug store, several other shops and the upper floors, serving as a hotel for the 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair. Dr H. H. Holmes had used several different contractors throughout the construction, changing builders and other tradesmen, so that only one person knew the full layout Dr H. H. Holmes himself. Dr H. H. Holmes would mainly only let out his hotel rooms to single, young, out of town women. The Hotel was located only a few miles out from the main fair grounds and with the cheap accommodation, Holmes had his pick of potential hotel guests. Dr Holmes also hired a staff of young women, but there was a strange quirk to the condition of their employment. The women had to take out life insurance, stating Holmes was the sole beneficiary and in exchange Holmes would pay the monthly premium. When a young lady Holmes liked opted to stay at his hotel (or one of his female employees chose to stay a night), he would choose whether or not they were going to leave. He had many methods with which he could murder his victims, and that was the hardest choice he had to make. When the hotel was constructed, it was built on the plans of a genius madman. The upper two floors contained a labyrinth of corridors and rooms that did not make sense. Stairways that led to nowhere, doors that opened to brick walls and hallways that took many twists and turns. There was also a series of secret rooms, passages and peep-holes.
Many of the hotel rooms themselves were kitted out with a range of macabre fittings. All the 'murder rooms' were soundproofed, as Dr H. H. Holmes liked his victims to suffer long, enduring deaths. Each of these rooms he could view from an adjacent secret room, and watch his victims suffer.
Some rooms were insulated with asbestos and contained gas pipes. He could flood the room with gas causing the victim a slow suffocation or he could ignite the gas and incinerate them alive. At other times, he entered the rooms through a secret passage as the women slept, and knocked them out with chloroform. These women were especially unlucky, as they would wake up on a homemade 'rack', a device which, through cranking, would stretch the victim slowly until they passed out from the pain and shock. If one of his victims managed to escape their room, they had little chance of making it out of the building. The nonsense layout of passageways was hard to navigate, plus Holmes had sliding walls installed to further confuse and trap a victim. Once his victims died, Holmes had several different methods of disposing the bodies.
Several greased chutes were located throughout the building, and these all lead to a double leveled basement, which was kitted out with vats of acid, an incinerator, a torture chamber and a fully equipped surgery. Holmes enjoyed dissecting his victims (it is suggested he also performed vivisect ions live dissections) stripping the flesh from their bones and turned into anatomical models which he sold to medical schools (as skeletons and separate organs). Other victims would be incinerated, or immersed in acid, to get rid of the remains. Once the Worlds Fair had finished, and not so many people came to stay in his hotel, Holmes began to struggle to pay his bills. He soon left Chicago for Texas, where he had inherited two large properties from women (sisters) who he had also murdered. Holmes sought to build another 'Murder Castle', but was soon moving again, attempting to better his fortunes further. Holmes was arrested in 1894 for a horse theft and spent a brief time in prison. It was here that he formed a new scam, faking his own death and collecting on the policy. However Holmes plan failed and the insurance company refused to pay.
Dr H. H. Holmes needed a new victim, and he knew just the fellow: Benjamin Pitezel. Holmes had met Pitezel during the construction of his Chicago 'Murder Castle'. Pitezel was a carpenter who had a somewhat colored history. Pitezel was to fake his own death, and his wife would collect the policy, splitting it with all the parties involved. Dr H. H. Holmes was to provide an appropriate cadaver. However, Holmes took an easier route: he burned Pitezel alive and collected on the insurance policy. Holmes would later visit Pitezel's grave where he took great pleasure in cutting into the corpse for 'microscopic analysis'. Pitezel's wife was a little perturbed by all this, however she was deeply embroiled in the scam and Holmes used that as leverage to take custody of three of the five Pitezel children, Alice, Nellie and Howard. Holmes needed to get rid of Mrs Pitezel and convinced her that her husband was not dead but was rather in hiding in South America. He had taken three of the children as it would be harder to identify her as being Pitezel's wife if she did not have a full complement of her children (in case the police tailed her). Dr H. H. Holmes and Mrs Pitezel travelled along parallel routes, but the children never saw their mother again. Holmes killed Alice and Nellie in Toronto and buried them in the cellar of a house he had rented there. They were so badly decayed, that when the bodies were recovered and Nellie was being lifted, her braid came away from her scalp. Holmes also killed young Howard Pitezel through strangulation, cut up the body and burned it on a stove.
Dr H. H. Holmes Arrested and Hanged:
Dr H. H. Holmes was finally arrested in Boston on November 17, 1894. He was charged with an outstanding warrant for horse theft while investigators gathered evidence in the case against him. The true use of Holmes’ Chicago Hotel (aka Murder Castle) was found out, after a caretaker came forward with information that he was never allowed to clean the rooms of the uppermost floor. It was there, as the investigators combed the hotel, that they discovered the remains and the method Holmes used to kill and dispose of his victims. During his trial, Holmes sold his story to the Hearst Newspapers for approximately $200,000 in today's money. He was convinced he was going to beat the case and the money would have allowed him to start afresh. However he was finally convicted of 4 counts of murder in the first degree and six attempted murders. On May 7, 1896 Herman Webster Mudgett aka Doctor Henry Howard Holmes had his last meal of boiled eggs, dry toast and a coffee. At 10:13 he was hanged and pronounced dead twenty minutes later. Dr H. H. Holmes requested that he be buried in a coffin filled with cement and buried in an unmarked grave (also filled with cement) at Southern Cross Cemetery near Philadelphia. Apparently he did not want body snatchers to take his body, as he had done so many times before. The Murder Castle became quite the attraction, but before a former police officer could open it to the public, it was mysteriously burned to the ground. Dr H. H. Holmes confessed to many more murders and some people believe the number could be as high as 200+. Many women disappeared at the time of the 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair and it is unknown how many of them fell prey to Holmes in his Murder Castle. As an interesting aside Holmes great-great-great-grandson believes his ancestor was in fact also Jack the Ripper. Dr H. H. Holmes had travelled to London in 1888 and his handwriting is a 98% match for the writing in the famous Jack the Ripper letters.
H.H. Holmes: A Man Of Myth And Mystery
Wikimedia Commons H.H. Holmes, whose “hotel” was said to have been an elaborate murder mansion where 25 to 200 people may have been killed.
Herman Webster Mudgett, who would rename himself “Henry Howard Holmes,” was a difficult man to truly know.
Whether it was insurance fraud, quack medicine, fake inventions, or elaborate schemes to hide cash from creditors, no con was beneath him so long as there was money in it.
He was a compulsive liar who rarely looked people in the eye, creating new names and backstories for himself to suit his purposes. Sometimes he was the son of an English Lord. Other times he had a wealthy uncle in Germany.
But what is mostly certain is that Holmes would kill nine people in a series of increasingly desperate tricks and manipulations in the first half of the 1890s. So, why do so many people believe the “real” body count to be anywhere between 25 and 200?
Wikimedia Commons. New York World’s 1895 Article on HH Holmes’ “murder castle”, originating many of the modern myths.
The picture of H.H. Holmes that has been rendered unto history, a picture recently revived in Erik Larson’s 2003 book The Devil in the White City, is the one that has existed since Holmes himself was alive.
Dubbed a “modern Bluebeard” by William Randolph Hearst’s New York World, Holmes had become a nationwide sensation by the time of his November 1894 arrest and 1895 trial — the first for insurance fraud, the latter for murder. He was America’s answer to Jack the Ripper, whose grisly murders across the Atlantic had left readers spellbound seven years earlier.
A modern, urban monster for a modernizing and increasingly urban age, Holmes was, according to Chicago police, a “new class of criminal,” a man so monomaniacal about manslaughter that he turned his own hotel into a “Murder Castle.”
An apparently perfect image of evil in human form — said to believe he was actually turning into a devil while incarcerated — Holmes is often described today as “America’s First Serial Killer,” an honorific taken from Harold Schechter’s book about his crimes, Depraved.
But, are this appellation and the story behind it accurate? And if not, where did they come from?
In his 2017 book, H.H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil, author Adam Selzer attempted to answer these questions by studying newly digitized court records, police files, newspaper reports, and interviews previously unavailable to other authors.
Ultimately, the details and discrepancies he uncovered raise serious questions about how much “truth” there is to the traditional tale of H.H. Holmes.
After examining the evidence, H.H. Holmes may still have been a monster, just not the devil we think we know.
Did Serial Killer H.H. Holmes Really Build a ‘Murder Castle’? - HISTORY
Joining host Phil Ponce to talk about the latest twist is Adam Selzer, author of the new book “H.H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil.”
Below, an excerpt from the book.
In March of 1893, when Carter Harrison was running for a fifth term as mayor of Chicago, the Chicago Evening Post warned that if Harrison were in charge of the city during the upcoming World’s Fair, every criminal in the world would be moving right to town.
“It is the business of crime to know what places are safe,” they wrote. “When a town or city is labeled ‘right,’ murderers, thieves, safe-blowers, highwaymen, pickpockets, and all species of criminals inquire no further. It goes down on their list as a place where they will be insured protection in the prosecution of any nefarious calling in which they may be engaged. For a month every train that entered Chicago has brought recruits. . . . ‘On to Chicago’ is the cry of the criminal army, and on to Chicago that army is marching. Part of it is here already, and if Carter Harrison should be elected Mayor, the city will be given over to plunder.”1
In one of those strange coincidences that can sometimes make history feel like quantum physics, Chicagoans reading the Tribune that morning had already been treated to the first major article about a South Side man who went by the name of H. H. Holmes.
Soon, he would be given titles such as “The Arch-Fiend of the Age” and “The Greatest Criminal of this Expiring Century”2 and would be described as “the most perfect incarnation of abysmal and abnormal wickedness to pass from history into the lurid vagueness of legend.”3 As of March of 1893, he was only thought of as an inventive swindler, but the elements of a story that could grow into a really ripping legend were all in place.
Buried among news about the World’s Fair (and the Tribune’s own condemnations of Harrison), the lengthy article said that Holmes was using hidden rooms and secret passages in his Englewood building to defraud his creditors:
Where Dealers Discover Their Missing Furniture
Mr. Holmes Purchases It, Takes It To His World’s Fair Hotel on Sixty- Third Street, and Neglects to Settle — A Search for the Property Leads to the Discovery of Apartments Between Floors and Ceilings In Which Some of the Goods Are Stowed.4
A little over thirty years old, Holmes had been in Chicago for six months, according to the Tribune (though it was really more than six years). A trained doctor and a pharmacist by trade, he would later be described as “a man of medium height, slight build, and a very nervous temperament. He has a habit of winding his fingers together while talking. He has a little black mustache and a pair of cold blue eyes, one of which, like his record, is not straight.”5 No one could possibly write a better description of a classic melodrama villain.
Soon, people would be calling his building “The Holmes Castle” and, decades later, “The Murder Castle.” Though later investigations there failed to turn up much that was particularly damning, an untrained and unqualified new police chief convinced himself—and the newspapers—that he’d discovered a building that would clear up every unsolved crime of the Harrison era. Newspapers went along for the ride, and eventually Holmes, by then awaiting execution for one single murder, did, too.
By the twenty-first century, Holmes had entered American folklore as the man who built a hotel full of torture chambers to prey on visitors who came to the World’s Fair and may have killed hundreds of people, making him our first and most prolific serial killer. Holmes had already been known as the “king of criminals” before he’d even been formally accused of murder, but now he was a veritable supervillain.
If you trace the story about Holmes day by day, then through the years, you can see how many of the most common tales about him simply grew out of idle gossip in newspapers and police propagating theories that would be promptly dismissed as nonsense. But no one did more to turn the gossip into legend than Holmes him- self. The man was, beyond doubt, a pathological liar. He lied to his various wives, to his friends, to his lawyers, to his employees, to detectives, to reporters, and to everyone else, right down to the census man. He lied in his diary.
Many of the stories of him and his “Castle” are pure fiction. The castle never for one day truly functioned as a hotel, and the actual number of World’s Fair tourists he’s suspected of killing there has remained the same since 1895—a single woman, Nannie Williams. The hidden rooms were almost certainly used more for hiding stolen furniture than for destroying bodies. The legend of The Devil in the White City is effectively a new American tall tale—and, like all the best tall tales, it sprang from a kernel of truth.
Holmes’s career and the 1895 investigation into his “castle” is one of the most fascinating chapters in the annals of Victorian crime. There was a diverse cast of characters assembled around Englewood in July and August of 1895. Apart from Holmes’s wife and employees, there were reporters, lawyers, amateur detectives, families of the missing, former castle residents, incompetent police chiefs, shady lawyers, and throngs of the curious. It was a real-life mystery, and everyone tried their hand at figuring out what Holmes had been up to in that building, and what had become of the people who had disappeared from the place.
In Philadelphia, where Holmes was awaiting trial, there were daring sleuths, vengeful insurance companies, a fiery district attorney, a rising legal star, mad scientists, and conniving reporters. There was even a bumbling attorney who successfully became Holmes’s lawyer by means of a cheap stunt—and found himself in way over his head.
Elsewhere around the country, there were more swindling victims, former cellmates, relatives of the missing, old classmates, and family members who all had something to say about the man.
And at the center of it all sat H. H. Holmes, a frail little man in a prison cell spinning yarns for the press and sending investigators on wild-goose chases.
His story took place during a wonderful transitional period of history, when society floated between the old world and the new. The generation who fought the Civil War was slowly drifting out of public life Holmes was of the generation right after, the Theodore Roosevelt generation that would lead America into the twentieth century. In 1886, when he arrived in suburban Englewood, Illinois, the gaslights were five years old, and electricity was just a few years away. Photographs were common, though the means of reproducing them were not—newspapers published drawings of photos instead of the actual shots. Moving pictures had been invented and would debut publicly while Holmes was in town, but they weren’t yet being used to document news—the first movies shot in Chicago wouldn’t be filmed until the year Holmes died. Sound could now be recorded and reproduced, but phonographs were still far beyond the means of most buyers. A number of businesses now listed a four-digit telephone number in their newspaper ads, but few citizens had phones with which to call them. Trains ran in and out of Englewood constantly, streetcars started operating in the neighborhood while Holmes was there, and he might have even seen an automobile go by on Sixty-Third Street every now and then, but horses were still essential to everyday transportation.
The sort of forensic analysis of human remains that could have convicted him in Chicago was only a couple of years off. Bones were found in Holmes’s cellar, but the current science couldn’t determine whose bones they were, or if they were even human. Yet by the end of the decade, scientists would have been able figure it out. Holmes’s career and crimes came in the last era of human history when they’d have to remain a mystery, subject to wild speculation and helpless against what the Philadelphia Press called “the lurid vagueness of legend.”
I began researching Holmes when a tour company I worked for asked me to start running tours of sites associated with him. Almost none of the buildings he can be traced to are still standing, and my first tours were simply based on the books about Holmes that were available at the time, most of which told the same basic story of a man who was “born with the devil in (him),” who’d built a castle to kill World’s Fair patrons and sell their skeletons to medical schools, and may have repeated the trick hundreds of times.
To give myself more to talk about between stops, I began poring through microfilm archives of Chicago newspapers, reading the firsthand accounts of investigations into the “Murder Castle” (a term that wouldn’t become common until decades after Holmes died). Right away, I discovered that a major part of the story I thought I knew was wrong: every article I’d read said that the castle burned to the ground in 1895. In truth, there was a fire there that year, but the building was still standing (with the top two floors rebuilt) for more than forty years before it was finally razed, and papers spoke of it frequently in the early twentieth century. An uncropped version of the most common photograph of it even showed a 1930s pickup truck near it.
Separating fact from fiction turned out to be a tremendous task—it soon became apparent that Holmes’s real story was very different from the story that had been told throughout the twentieth century. Nearly all of the Holmes legend as we know it can be traced to two or three tabloid and pulp articles, and thousands of firsthand accounts, articles, witness statements, and legal documents had been sitting unexamined, buried in microfilm reels and boxes of crumbling paperwork.
Sometimes it feels like a treasure hunt. I’ve spent many enjoyable afternoons at the court archives in Chicago, combing through the microfilms indexes and trying to find lawsuits that involved Holmes. It’s tricky, due to his tendency to use aliases he would often list names of other people as the titular owners of his property, so the data about him could be hidden in lawsuits in the names of peripheral characters in his life.
The Internet, of course, gave me an advantage over many previous Holmes researchers. I had access to full-text searches of books that would have been very hard to find in libraries, including some incredibly rare volumes that turned out to be full of solid primary data. Even after years of searching, it was only after I’d finished the first draft that I stumbled onto what may be the biggest find of Holmes data ever: criminologist Arthur MacDonald’s report on Holmes, which included more than thirty letters about Holmes from former associates, including several classmates, professors, and his first wife. Published using initials in place of proper names, and therefore hard to find, none of the letters have ever been cited before. These materials provided tremendous insight into Holmes’s background and character.
Much of the best information about Holmes was published in period news- papers, and those have formed the most important sources for everyone who’s written about Holmes, including me. But not every newspaper article is reliable indeed, no paper is a completely good source for Holmes. The story takes place in several different cities, and no paper had a reporter working in all of them. Hence, some Chicago papers were magnificent sources of info on the “castle” investigation, but terrible in their reports about the trial in Philadelphia. Papers in Philadelphia and New York spoke to Holmes in his cell and covered the trial better than the official transcript, but their reports on the castle are all second- or thirdhand. Boston papers sent reporters to interview his family and old neighbors around New England but provided little info of use on Holmes’s current situation.
I believe that it’s important to stick primarily with papers that had a reporter on the ground for the story they were reporting—Chicago papers for things that happened in Chicago, Philadelphia papers for things that happened there, etc. Out-of-town papers would often cover it when a story went around that a skeleton articulator said he’d purchased bodies from Holmes, but most didn’t bother to announce that Chicago reporters had found that the man’s story didn’t hold up. In any case, I have tried to include any data that I felt was of real value, as well as less reliable data that became an important part of the legend. Anytime I quote a source that I feel is questionable, I’ve flagged it.
The rise of digitization has made this research far easier, but being in Chicago was still essential to my research. Many of the best Chicago newspapers from the Holmes era have never been digitized and can only be accessed on microfilm. I couldn’t have found the boxes and boxes of crumbling old legal papers elsewhere, either.
I was able to access some rare and important materials in St. Louis and Washington, D.C., as well, but time and budget didn’t permit me to dig everywhere I would have liked. Probate and lawsuit records in Texas probably have some excellent information about a few of Holmes’s victims, and on his dealings in Fort Worth. Microfilmed papers in other cities are probably full of treasures, as well. There may even still be some “grewsome clews” (as newspapers of the day spelled those words) out there someplace.
For instance, what happened to the trunk full of bones and other relics that the Chicago police put into storage?
What about the evidence that the Philadelphia district attorney gathered? Or the stack of letters and artifacts that an amateur detective collected?
Or the letter Holmes wrote to the police chief in Chicago on the eve of his execution?
Or the other 170+ letters Dr. MacDonald claimed to have collected?
Or the photographs of Holmes and his victims that are once known to have existed but now survive only in the form of drawings of them made by newspapers?
Or the manuscript of his autobiography, which may have been wildly different from the printed version?
There’s a lot of mystery left to be solved here, and finishing this book doesn’t mark the end of my search. I’ll post any updates on my blog at MysteriousChicago.com.
Excerpt from “H.H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil” reprinted with permission.
May 10: Geoffrey Baer explores an eccentric architect’s wacky proposal for the World’s Fair.
April 24: A new film on HBO starring Oprah Winfrey tells the remarkable story of Henrietta Lacks. We revisit our conversation with the Chicago author who tells the story.
March 20: One of Steven Avery’s defense attorneys from Netflix’s “Making a Murderer” discusses his new book “Illusion of Justice.”
How Did the Serial Killer HH Holmes Shape Chicago's History?
Chicago is a city that should never have been built. For all intents and purposes, the shoreline on which the Windy City lies is a glorified swamp. But in the late 19th century, that swamp transformed into one of the fastest growing cities in America. It became the heart of the United States, the link between East and West, and a vital hub for trade and transportation. By 1888, the city’s population surpasses 1 million people.
People that, to Herman Mudgett, would become playthings. People that would serve his one purpose on this earth… to kill in the most imaginative ways possible.
The tale of Herman Webster Mudgett, who is more famously known by his pseudonym, H.H. Holmes, is grim. Though undoubtedly gruesome, the true legend of H.H. Holmes and his ‘Murder Castle’ impacted the great city of Chicago and shaped it into becoming the icon it is today.
Holmes was born in New Hampshire and led a seemingly normal life for many years. He attended the University of Michigan, married a nice girl named Clara, and remained under the radar. But if you put a magnifying glass up to Holmes’s early life, there are red flags that emerge. To begin with, he was obsessed with death. He routinely killed animals at a young age, and is also thought to be responsible for the mysterious death of his cousin.
But Holmes’s true infamy came thanks to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. When Chicago was granted the honor of hosting the World’s Fair, Holmes saw a life of opportunity ahead of him. The fair would bring in millions of visitors clambering to see the world’s most famous sights. They would certainly need a place to stay.
Holmes had built his hotel, later to be known as his Murder Castle, on the South Side of Chicago hiring and firing workmen on a regular basis so that no one would truly know what he was building. In a way, he was the genius that Chicago never saw coming. His Castle consisted of special, diabolical rooms that functioned as gas chambers and suffocation chambers. And with the World’s Fair on the horizon, Holmes was prepped and ready to become America’s First Serial Killer.
When the Fair arrived, Holmes began using his magnetic charm to lure victims in. He would post newspaper articles advertising himself as a single bachelor looking for marriage. After wedding the unlucky young lady, he would convince her to take out an insurance policy on herself. When she died (by his hand, of course), he cashed in. When deciding to shoot at smaller fish in the barrel, Holmes would also take in tenants or receptionists to satisfy his craving of murder. For them, he would cash in by cleaning their skeletons and selling them to medical colleges for $200 ($6,000-$7,000 in today’s money).
Overall, it is thought that Holmes could have killed upwards of 200 people, though he only admitted to 27 deaths.
In the wake of the World’s Fair, Chicago was left to dust up Holmes’s atrocities. A city, much like a person, can only take so much stress before cracking. However, even in the midst of discovering the grisly truth of Holmes, the city of Chicago remained steadfast. The swamp city had a choice to either fail, or come back strong. The resilience that Chicago showed after Holmes’s story was made known is a testament to the city’s citizens. Those people are like weeds pick them, they’ll grow back! Their will cannot be destroyed.
After the H.H. Holmes murders, law enforcement in Chicago became noteworthy. Doctors were more heavily vetted, and people took greater care in trusting recommendations, as well as letting loved ones know where they were. Those simple precautions took Chicago from a dangerous city to a safer haven.
It would not always remain safe, as Holmes did show a rising generation of criminals such as Capone and Dillinger that Chicago could bent, though never really broken.
Holmes is an echo in the city, one whose name is passed about during the spooky season of Halloween, but who is otherwise a ghost. His murder castle no longer lives on, and in its place stands a mundane post office. Chicago has erased him because, at the end of the day, Chicagoans are strong, proud, and a little bit stubborn. The city itself still gleams despite its past.