H.H. Holmes: America’s first serial killer

H.H. Holmes

The child who was born Herman Webster Mudgett grew up to became one of the evilest monsters the world has ever seen. Most people know the 19th-century serial killer by his famous alias, Dr. H.H. Holmes. He was intelligent, debonair, charming, funny, and a master of premeditated murder. When he built his “Castle” at 63rd and Wallace in Englewood, Chicago, he equipped it with gas vaults, multiple chambers with hidden chutes, and a basement filled with torture and surgical equipment. Although he loved money and often killed for it, it was his compulsion for murder that drove him to unspeakable depths of depravity.

But to think that I committed this and other crimes for the pleasure of killing my fellow beings, to hear their cries for mercy and pleas to be allowed even sufficient time to pray and prepare for death — all this is now too horrible for even me […].H.H. Holmes

The Early Life of H.H. Holmes

Mudgett was born into wealth in Gilmanton, New Hampshire, in 1860. His father was a well-respected postmaster for almost 25 years. During Mudgett’s adolescence, he got himself into trouble on more than one occasion. In spite of all of this, he was considered to be a student of some pedigree and did very well throughout his education.

In 1878, he began his studies in medicine and married Clara Lovering, the daughter of a successful farmer in New Hampshire. The following year, he transferred to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor where he became a doctor.

During his college years, he took the first step into a life of crime. Mudgett discovered a way to remove cadavers from the laboratory to disfigure. Then he would deposit one in a location in a way that suggested an accident had happened in order to collect an insurance policy he had taken out on these “relatives.” The most he earned from this scam was $12,500.

Holmes’ Life in Chicago

Marriage to Clara did not work out and she moved home. Mudgett moved from place to place scamming a number of people. After he took the alias Henry Howard Holmes to avoid detection, he arrived in Chicago in 1885. He found an office and file for divorce from Clara, but the divorce proceedings ultimately failed. Nonetheless, he married a local woman, Myrta Belknap.

In the Chicago suburb of Englewood, Mrs. D. Holden owned a shop. Holmes answered her employment ad and got the job as a clerk. Holden and the customers absolutely loved him with his sense of humor and radiant charm. It seemed as though he was even attracting new customers to the store. For this reason, when Holden vanished one day, everyone was surprised. Of course, folks questioned Mudgett. However, all he offered as an explanation was that he bought the store from her, and she retired and left the area with no forwarding address.

The World’s Fair Hotel

Some years after buying Holden out, Holmes brokered a deal to buy some land directly opposite his shop and began construction on a mixed-use building in 1887. This would eventually become Holmes’ “Murder Castle.”

The budding businessman appointed himself as the architect. With three floors and a basement, it was quite an imposing addition to the neighborhood. Inside the building, a bizarre layout that he took personal control over puzzled many of the carpenters. Contractors were hired and fired quickly without ever being paid for their work. Therefore, nobody ever became too suspicious of the incriminating building features.

Meanwhile, the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the New World was coming up in 1893. A huge celebration would take place at the Columbian Exposition World’s Fair just three miles from his new building. Twenty-seven million people from all over the world would flock to the city. Naturally, Holmes saw the potential to earn real money. He told people he would use his new building as a hotel because Chicago would become something of a boom town for the duration of the fair. Supposedly, Holmes would call his hotel “The World’s Fair Hotel.”

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

One of the stores he opened on the lower level of the building was a jewelry counter. Holmes hired a professional jeweler and watchmaker, Ned Connor, to help out with this new venture. Connor arrived with his lovely partner Julia and her daughter Pearl. Of course, Holmes noticed Julia. He quickly fired his current bookkeeper for no real reason and gave Julia the job. Connor walked out on Julia and she got custody of Pearl.

Curiously, Julia and her daughter disappeared in 1891. Mudgett said that Julia had died during an abortion.

Features of the Murder Castle

In total, Holmes’ castle had 60 rooms and 51 doors. Many features were cut into odd angles into walls. Some of the rooms did not have a window and others had concealed trap doors. A number of staircases were also hidden. One of them led to a sheer drop onto an alley that was at the back of the building. A chute fed directly into the basement where he kept acid vats and pits filled with quicklime next to a surgery table. Additionally, Holmes had an incinerator where he could cremate any remains.

However, not all of the building was designed to bamboozle or disorientate. The entire first floor was designed for stores and shops and other businesses. Ingeniously, one of those was a drug store with a pharmacy. Dr. Holmes had worked as a druggist in the past and knew exactly how certain drugs might come in handy. The rest of the space was dedicated to paying guests — many of whom would never be seen again.

The Macabre Hotel Layout

Holmes had converted one room upstairs into his office space. Additional macabre secret design features hid within the walls of the castle. Several of the guest rooms were “asphyxiation chambers” with gas vents, which Holmes controlled from the closet in his bedroom. Some rooms had iron plates and asbestos incorporated into the lining, and something similar to a blowtorch was included within some of the walls. Each room contained an alarm system that would alert the owner to any possible escape.

He also had a well-equipped surgery area equipped with the usual medical apparatus as well as several instruments of torture, such as the rack. Human fragments, including several complete skeletons, were discovered here and throughout the premises.

The hotel was ready for business in 1892 and Henry Holmes advertised his hotel in anticipation for the upcoming World’s Fair. Tourists needed somewhere to stay during their visit and a brand new 60 room hotel seemed ideal. At the conclusion of the fair, rumors surfaced that the disappearance of 50 people could be traced to the brand new hotel. However, this number is pure speculation. To this day, nobody knows for certain how many people from the missing list were on it due to H.H. Holmes. With such a large number in a short amount of time, foul play was likely.

Minnie Williams

It was 1893 that Holmes met a plain young lady by the name of Minnie Williams. She didn’t have the good looks that most of his previous romances possessed, but she had inherited a fortune in Texas real estate. Unfortunately, she was a simple and naive person with a rather child-like mind, and this made her the perfect victim. Holmes zoned in on this fact and hired Minnie as his personal secretary. Naturally, he wooed her and before she knew it, he had asked her to marry him. It wasn’t long before she was giving him large sums of money and signing her Texas property over to him.

The couple lived in an apartment together, where Holmes spent a great deal of time getting to know Minnie. He learned that she also had a sister who was an heiress to a large fortune and he urged Minnie to invite her sister for a visit.

Minnie’s Sister and Brother

In July 1893, the plans were in place for Nannie to visit Chicago and she had left her Southern home by train. Holmes went alone to the depot to pick her up. When she arrived, he told Nannie that Minnie was waiting for them at the Castle and promptly escorted her there. He used his perverse methods to get her to sign over her wealth, and then he quickly proceeded to kill her without a trace. Subsequently, he faked a letter to make Minnie think Nannie never left the South.

Later that same year, Holmes took Minnie to Momence, Illinois, where he killed her and buried her body in the basement of a house. After she was dead, he went through her belongings and discovered an insurance policy. Minnie’s brother had taken out life insurance and Minnie was the beneficiary. Out of his lust for money, Holmes traveled all the way to Leadville, Colorado, to shoot her brother. He then forged Minnie’s signature and collected the insurance.

(Note: There are conflicting stories about what happened to Nannie. This version originates from the confessions of Holmes in Holmes’ Own Story).

Ongoing Scams

In October of 1893, Holmes would carry out another scheme for a large sum of money. He had taken out four fire insurance policies worth $25,000 on his hotel. The fire destroyed the third level, but most of the second floor was still intact, and the ground floor businesses were unharmed. The investigation clearly pointed to arson. Therefore, the insurance companies suspected fraud and they refused to pay out.

The Pitezel Plan

Ben Pitezel was a long time employee and friend of Holmes and had been his wingman on a few scams in the past. Holmes hatched out another plan with Pitezel that would involve an insurance policy on Pitezel’s life. The beneficiary would be Carrie Pitezel, Ben’s wife. First, Holmes would take out a policy of $10,000. Then after some time, they would fake Pitezel’s death, substitute a cadaver for his, and split the proceeds. This time, Holmes had to use an out-of-town insurance company, due to his suspicious reputation in Englewood. Fidelity Mutual Life Association of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, happily sold the dapper doctor a policy. Now they had to wait.

Closing in on the Killer

Meanwhile, lenders were bearing down on Holmes. He owed nearly $50,000, and in light of the fire and an economic downturn, they wanted their money. Additionally, insurance companies were suspecting him of fraud, and rumors were spreading around town that made it hard for him to procure more insurance policies. In July 1894, H.H. Holmes, Pitezel, and Holmes’ current wife, Georgiana Yoke, left Chicago to Fort Worth Texas to liquidate the property he took from Minnie.

Things didn’t work out as planned with the property, however, they engaged in a number of other scams. When the two men stole Texas bloodline horses from some Texan ranchers, the authorities began their hunt. Authorities caught up with him in St. Louis, but Holmes posted bail almost immediately. However, during his time in jail, he had made a plan with his cellmate Marion Hedgepeth. This was a rough and mean outlaw who was doing 25 years for train robbery.

A Deadly Scam

H.H. Holmes intended to scam an insurance company out of $20,000 and needed the name of a corrupt lawyer to pull it off. Hedgepeth provided the name of attorney Jeptha Howe for a fee. When Holmes presented his ideas to Howe, the attorney considered it to be brilliant. Holmes planned to fake his own death and collect the money.

He took a cadaver to a beach in Rhode Island, lit it on fire, and left it on the beach until someone found it. Holmes had a full shave and altered his appearance before he returned to a hotel and registered with a new alias. When he heard the corpse had been discovered, he formally identified it as H.H. Holmes and tried to cash in the policy. The insurers suspected fraud and refused to pay out. So, he returned to Chicago and decided he would work on his Pitezel scheme.

Up in Flames for Money

Holmes drafted the assistance of both Ben Pitezel and Jeptha Howe. Pitezel and his wife, Carrie, traveled to Philadelphia and opened up a brand new shop that sold patents. This was done using the name B.F. Perry — a name that Holmes used on yet another new insurance policy. In Philadelphia, Pitezel would drink a potion designed to render himself unconscious. Holmes would apply makeup to him and convince an independent witness that this was a man that had died of severe burns. While the witness left to call for an ambulance, the pair would switch Pitezel out with a real corpse. Pitezel was offered a percentage of the payout for his part in this scam.

On September 4th neighbors near the patent office heard a loud explosion. Not long afterward, a local man arrived at the office and found the doors locked and the place dark. Immediately, he called the police. When they arrived at the scene, the first responders kicked down the door and discovered a badly burned man. They considered his death an accident, but the insurance company required identification of the body for them to pay out.

Collection of the Insurance

Benjamin Pitezel and the place of his murder. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Jeptha Howe, Pitezel’s 15-year-old daughter, and H.H. Holmes went to Pennsylvania together. The poor daughter identified some markings on Pitezel’s body and some of his teeth. Subsequently, the insurance company paid out the cash, and Howe kept $2500 of it. Holmes took the remainder and presented Carrie with just $500, which he promptly took back and promised to invest it for her. Neither Ben Pitezel nor Marion Hedgepeth got anything for their parts in the fraud. It was no surprise that Pitezel received nothing — as he was, in fact, the corpse that was found. In a remarkable double-cross, Holmes really did murder his own accomplice.

Hedgepeth’s Part

Holmes didn’t even bother to get in touch with Hedgepeth once the plan was complete. Naturally, Hedgepeth didn’t appreciate the snub — or the lack of payment. Hedgepeth sat on his inside knowledge for a short time before eventually opting to snitch on Holmes. Hedgepeth contacted local police officer Lawrence Harrigan. Then, Philadelphia police detective Frank Geyer entered the investigation.

Meanwhile, Holmes knew he needed to run. He fed Carrie a slew of lies and convinced her to head east with him and Georgiana where, as he told her, Carrie would meet up with Ben. Obviously, this never happened. They traveled from city to city until Holmes finally told Carrie to continue without him. He would head to Canada with three of her children while she went to meet Ben.

Murders of the Pitezel Children

In July 1895, Frank Geyer found the bodies of Alice and Nellie Pitezel buried in the basement of a house that Holmes had rented in Toronto, Canada. Later, the remains of the third child, 7-year-old Howard Pitezal turned up in a house in Irvington, Indiana. The monster of a man had cut up the boy’s poor body and stuffed and burned the parts in the stove.

Back in Philadelphia, Fidelity Mutual Insurance had hired the famous Pinkerton detective agency to track Holmes. He was aware that detectives were shadowing his every move. For two months, he avoided capture, but his luck ran out on November 17, 1894. Henry Holmes arrived in Boston at his parent’s house, where the Pinkertons promptly arrested him.

Bodies in the Murder Hotel

Detectives found a house of horrors at H.H. Holmes’ hotel. The basement contained blood splattered dissecting tables that sat alongside various torture paraphernalia and pristine surgical instruments. A crematorium contained ash and remnants of human bones. Additionally, Minnie Williams’ watch and other pieces of jewelry also lay within the confines of it. A pelvic bone belonging to a young child turned out to be that of Julia’s daughter, Pearl. Julia had evidently also perished in the hotel, as investigators found a bloody piece of her dress. Numerous ribs and part of a skull still bobbed in the vat of acid. More skeletons lay inside two pits in the floor, and an additional three skeletons under the dissecting table were waiting to be sold to one of the medical schools.

Goodbye to the Castle

On August 19th, shortly after midnight, a trio of explosions rocked the neighborhood. Within just an hour, the roof caved in and eventually brought the walls down too. Among the ruins was a discarded gas can. Witnessed claimed to have seen two men go into the building and, 30 minutes later, running out. The main satisfaction that people drew on was that the infamous Murder Castle had been razed to the ground.

Holmes’ Execution

Holmes confessed to 27 murders, but police could only confirm nine. Others estimated up to 200 killings. The trial began not long before Halloween in 1895 and lasted for less than a week. Supposedly, the jury only required two hours to find Chicago’s serial murderer guilty. Henry Webster Mudgett, also known as Henry Howard Holmes, received the death penalty and hung at Moyamensing Prison on May 7, 1896.

Subsequently, he was buried at the Holy Cross Cemetery in Landsdowne, PA, in the concrete casket he requested because he believed people would desecrate his grave. The bigamist left behind three spouses and two children, Robert Lovering Mudgett (son of Clara) and Lucy Theodate Holmes (daughter of Myrta).

Upcoming H.H. Holmes Movie

Rumor has it that Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese are currently working on a script for a movie called, “The Devil in the White City.” In 2010 DiCaprio acquired the film rights to Erik Larson’s book of the same name, which is a non-fictional account of the serial killer and his crimes. The movie’s release date is unknown.