America's First Serial Killer: H. H. Holmes (Herman Webster Mudgett)

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Based upon missing persons reports of the time as well as the eye witness testimony of Holmes' neighbors who reported seeing him accompany numerous unidentified young women into his hotel — young women whom they never saw exit--the number of his victims

Herman Webster Mudgett was born in 1861 in Gilmanton, New Hampshire, to an affluent family that was the first White settlers in the township.

Although Herman enjoyed a privileged childhood, he was ruled by a mother with strict religious ideologies and an authoritarian father who routinely administered harsh discipline.  And while Herman excelled in school--a boy of unusual intelligence, ambition, and drive--he was constantly bullied and abused by his classmates, causing him to spend his boyhood friendless, isolated, and alone.

Showing an interest in human anatomy from about the age of ten, Herman naturally gravitated toward the study of medicine after high school, and was accepted at the prestigious University of Michigan Medical school in 1882, the first university-owned hospital in America.

There he perfected two areas of study he would later need as he developed his dark and sinister side: chemistry and anatomy; the latter by operating on cadavers.  In his memoirs he would later write of taking pleasure in dissecting the bodies of the dead.  Bodies he stole so that he could dissect them in private. 


After graduating medical school in 1884, Herman further honed the skills he needed for his life of crime while serving as a drug store clerk, asylum attendant, teacher, and doctor.

Moving to Chicago in 1886, Herman then changed his name to Henry Howard Holmes (using H. H. Holmes as his moniker) to distance himself from his former self who had committed numerous petty crimes in recent years--and perhaps, even the murder of a close acquaintance. Holmes knew that if his master plan was to come to fruition, he would have to take on the persona of an upstanding community leader and respected businessman.

In the aftermath of the great Chicago fire, Holmes took advantage of the city’s drive to quickly rebuild; property was virtually free for the taking and banks were anxious to extend loans to upstanding citizens--which Holmes now appeared to be. (No one knew that in the darkness of his room at night, he was actually turning to the writing of Edgar Allan Poe for inspiration.) Taking a job as a pharmacist at a popular drugstore in the Englewood district, Holmes subsequently took over the business when the owner died and his wife mysteriously disappeared.

Now a prominent business owner with a booming, affluent clientele list, Holmes began buying and selling real estate to amass enough money to undertake his ultimate endeavor, the building of his house of torture. Additionally he invented several fraudulent health products, such as a miracle elixir, to make additional funds.

In 1888, Holmes secured a lease on the vacant lot across the street from his pharmacy, a massive corner lot perfect for fulfilling his horrific fantasies.  One of grandest and most ambitious constructions the community had ever seen, requiring hundreds of laborers working seven days a week to erect, Holmes’s massive structure was dubbed “the Castle.”  Fellow businessmen couldn't have been more supportive of the incredible undertaking.

As he would later disclose in letters he wrote while in prison, as he was making the final adjustments to the design of his blueprints in August of that year, Holmes watched with envy as Jack the Ripper made headlines in London, murdering and mutilating one prostitute after another.  All the while he was thinking, ‘If you all think that's something, wait ’til you get a load of me!’

What neighbors would only later discover was that while Holmes had designed the building to have legitimate businesses on the ground and third floors, the second floor was being constructed with dozens of secret passageways, mazes, laboratories, trap doors, dead-end staircases and doorways, and soundproof rooms (set inside vaults).

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In all, 35 rooms had been dedicated to torturing the victims he intended to lure there. Additionally, he’d modeled the basement like a Medieval dungeon (complete with Inquisition torture devices, acid vats, and two crematoriums) which was connected to the second floor by way of a metal shoot which allowed him to quickly dispose of bodies or send unconscious victims below to the torture chamber.

To keep his ultimate plan from being discovered, Holmes continually hired and fired workers as pivotal rooms were completed, so that no one person other than himself could follow the trail of construction.

In 1889, Holmes joined up with Benjamin Pitezel, a down-on-his-luck husband and father of five with a ten-year criminal record, who'd answered Holmes’ ad for a carpenter. Quickly becoming Holmes’s right-hand man and confidant, Holmes entrusted Pitezel with an increasingly more extensive list of responsibilities, while he himself took greater and greater interest in Pitezel’s family.

Taking advantage of the 1893 Columbian Exposition (known as the Chicago World’s Fair) which took place just a few miles away, Holmes opened up a floor of his home as a hotel to visitors.

Visiting the Exposition numerous times with Pitezel’s children in tow, Holmes invited wealthy elderly women to his hotel--often through seduction--an invitation many apparently accepted. These would become Holmes’s first victims. Unsuspecting guests of the Castle didn’t know that Holmes had installed copper lines into the guest rooms which allowed him to pump deadly gas in to asphyxiate them in their sleep.

With all seeming to be going just as planned, the unexpected occurred: numerous creditors whom he’d refused to pay began filing law suits. Forced to flee Chicago, Holmes took his operation on the road (including Pitezel and his family), subsequently marrying at least twice, while swindling numerous women out of their fortunes. In addition to killing numerous men and women (some estimates of 200), Holmes finally turned on Pitezel to keep his identity unknown, convincing Pitezel’s widow that her husband was still alive but had simply ran off. Then becoming concerned that the five Pitezel children might know enough to expose him, he disappeared with three of the children, eventually killing them.

In 1894, Holmes' various schemes caught up with him; he was arrested and charged with insurance fraud.  While in custody, he gave numerous accounts to police, admitting to murdering Pitezel and confessing to 27 murders in Chicago, Indianapolis, and Toronto, as well as six attempted murders.

While Holmes sat in prison in Philadelphia, not only did the Chicago police investigate his operations there, Philadelphia police began to unravel the Pitezel family involvement—in particular, the fate of the three missing children. Philadelphia detective Frank Geyer eventually discovered their remains, essentially sealing Holmes' fate--and celebrity.

During this same time, the custodian for the Castle informed police that he had never been allowed to clean the upper floors, prompting police to begin a thorough investigation over the course of the next month.  Subsequently, they discovered Holmes' efficient methods of killing his guests and then disposing of the bodies.  On August 19, 1895, however, a fire mysteriously consumed the building, effectively destroying any chance of ascertaining the true extent of his murder spree.

Convicted on multiple counts, Holmes appealed his case, but lost.

On May 7, 1896, Holmes was hanged at Moyamensing Prison in Philadelphia for the Pitezel murders. Until the moment of his death, Holmes is said to have remained calm and amiable, showing very few signs of fear, anxiety, or depression. He requested that he be buried in concrete so that no one could ever dig him up and dissect his body as he had done to so many others. This request was granted.

Based on missing persons reports of the time, as well as the eye-witness testimony by Holmes' neighbors who reported seeing him accompany numerous unidentified women into his hotel (whom they never saw leave), the number of his victims is typically been estimated between 20 and 200--in the Castle alone. The discrepancy is attributed largely to the fact that a great many people visited the Chicago World's Fair but, for one reason or another, never returned home.  Accordingly, the only verified number is 27, although police noted that some of the bodies in the basement were so badly decomposed that it was impossible to tell how many bodies there actually were. Holmes' victims were primarily women (and primarily blonde), but also included some men and children.


H. H. Holmes Film

The Murder Castle of H. H. Holmes

The Beast of Chicago: An Account of the Life and Crimes of Herman W. Mudgett, Known to the World as H. H. Holmes, R. Geary

Images via unless credited otherwise (with my appreciation)

Related Articles:

America’s First Insane Asylum

Edgar Allan Poe

Lizzie Borden


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