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H. H. Holmes: The story of America's forgotten serial killer

Colourised image of H. H. Holmes
Image: H. H. Holmes | Public Domain

Herman Webster Mudgett was born in 1861 in Gilmanton, New Hampshire, USA. Growing up he was a gifted student, but this led to bullying by other children. He developed a fascination for animal dissection and a morbid curiosity about death. Graduating from high school at the age of sixteen, Herman became a teacher, and was married to Clara Lovering soon after. The couple had a son, Robert Lovering Mudgett, in 1880.

At eighteen Holmes enrolled in the University of Vermont in Burlington but, unsatisfied with the school, left in 1881. In 1882, he entered the University of Michigan's Department of Medicine and Surgery. It was while training as a doctor that Mudgett's criminal career began. Stealing cadavers from the medical department, Herman inflicted terrible wounds upon them and then, claiming the people had died in accidents, attempted to collect insurance policies he had taken out in fabricated names. Despite all this, he graduated from University in 1884.

His marriage to Clara soon fell apart and Herman abandoned both her and his son to make his life elsewhere. He worked in various jobs and continued his scams. In Mooers Forks, New York people said they had seen him with a young boy just prior to the child going missing. Mudgett claimed that the boy had gone back to his home in Massachusetts, but quickly left town. Working in a drug-store in Philadelphia, Herman again skipped town after a boy died after taking medicine he had given to him. It was at this point that Mudgett assumed the name H. H. Holmes and shortly afterwards arrived in Illinois.

H. H. Holmes

In August 1886 Holmes gained employment at Elizabeth S. Holton's drug-store on the south-west corner of South Wallace Avenue and West 63rd Street, in the Englewood neighbourhood of Chicago. He proved to be a dedicated employee, no scandal emerged that forced him to skip town, and soon Holmes was settled enough to re-marry (despite having never divorced Clara Lovering).

He and Myrta Belknap were wed in 1887 and had a daughter, Lucy Theodate Holmes, in 1889. When Holton's husband died, Holmes bought the drug-store from her, raising the funds largely by borrowing money against the value of the fixtures and fittings of the business itself. Mrs. Holton was never seen or heard of after the sale went through however, Holmes claiming she had gone to live with family in California.

Holmes purchased a vacant lot opposite the drug-store at 601-603 West 63rd Street and began construction on a three-storey hotel. During the years it took to build the structure, dubbed "The Castle" by locals because of its size, Holmes systematically hired and fired a string of different contractors, allowing each to work on only a small section of the building. As a result, when The World's Fair Hotel opened its doors to the public in 1893, only H. H. Holmes himself knew the layout of the place which was later to become known as "The Murder Castle".

The Murder Castle

Amongst the many peculiarities in its structure, The World's Fair Hotel featured fifty-one doorways which opened onto blank brick walls, scores of windowless rooms, and staircases which led to nowhere. Yet these were the least of the horrors that Holmes had equipped the place with. Holmes made it a condition of employment that staff should take out a life insurance policy which he would pay the premium on, but also be a beneficiary of, but what he had in mind went far beyond a mere insurance scam.

Some of his victims were locked in sealed, soundproofed rooms and gassed to death, some taken to a room on the second floor which Holmes called his “secret hanging chamber”. Victims were sealed in an airtight bank-vault on the ground-floor and left to suffocate, or left to starve in a door-less, windowless room which could only be accessed via a trapdoor in the ceiling. Bodies were conveyed to the hotel's basement via specially installed chutes and dumb-waiters, and it was there that Holmes went about his grisly work.

In his basement laboratory beneath his ground level drug-store corpses were dissected, stripped of flesh, and crafted into skeleton models. Lime pits, acid pits, and two furnaces made the disposal of evidence and any unwanted parts easy and convenient. Between his medical school and pharmacy connections, Holmes had no trouble finding buyers for the fine, educational, skeletons and bones he produced. Some have estimated that as many as two-hundred people were murdered by Holmes in the nightmarish hotel.

One of his many victims was Julia Smythe, wife of one of Holmes' employees, whom he had been having an affair with. Smythe's husband found out about the affair and left, leaving Julia and their daughter living in the hotel. When Julia fell pregnant with Holmes' child, he agreed to marry her but said that he would carry out an abortion. Instead, on Christmas Eve 1891, he overdosed her on chloroform.

Soon he killed her daughter, Pearl, too and again simply told anyone asking that they had left town. Holmes hired a man named Charles Chappell to articulate Smythe's skeleton. Introducing himself to Chappell as "Henry Gordon" he took him to a second floor room and showed him her dead body. Apparently unphased by the obvious murder Chappell agreed to the work, and afterwards articulated the bodies of two more of Holmes' victims, although the third was never handed back to the killer owing to a lack of payment.

Holmes met a railroad heiress named Minnie Williams while on a business trip in Boston and again introduced himself as Hanery Gordon. Henry and Minnie exchanged love letters until, in 1893, she moved to Chicago. He offered her a job at the hotel as his personal stenographer, and she accepted. Holmes persuaded Williams to transfer the deed to her property in Fort Worth, Texas to a man named Alexander Bond - another alias of Holmes'. Soon Williams' sister came to live an work in the hotel too, and before long both were dead at the hands of Holmes.

The end of Holmes

The Panic of 1893, a serious economic depression, put an end to Holmes' business in Chicago. He travelled throughout the USA and Canada continuing his scams, and his murders until his eventual arrest in Boston on November the 17th, 1894, after being tracked there from Philadelphia by the detectives from the Pinkerton agency. Although the arrest was related to the faked death and subsequent murder of one of Holmes' long term associates, the police soon began to look into his former business in Chicago.

Interviewing ex-staff at the hotel, it was discovered that the second floor was completely out of bounds to cleaners and maintenance and this was enough to set alarm bells ringing. It took months for the full extent of the nightmare hotel's grisly secrets to be discovered by the investigators. Holmes personally confessed to 27 murders, only nine of which were able to be confirmed, but some estimate that he may have done away with as many as 200. While writing his confessions in prison, Holmes described his own appearance as "gruesome and taking a Satanical Cast". Convinced that after everything that he had done, he was beginning to resemble the Devil himself.

On 7th May 1896, Holmes was hanged at the Philadelphia County Prison. His neck did not snap; so he was strangled to death slowly by the rope, twitching for over fifteen minutes, and pronounced dead twenty minutes after the trap had been sprung. Holmes requested that his coffin be encased in concrete and buried ten feet deep, concerned that grave robbers would steal his body and use it for dissection.

6 facts about H. H. Holmes

We’ve heard about the grim story and background of Herman Webster Mudgett/Dr. Henry Howard Holmes. Now let’s explore some of the darker facts about the man and his twisted psyche and behaviour…

1. His obsession with cadavers and death stemmed from early trauma

We know, from his crimes, that H. H. Holmes was unafraid to kill. We also know that before he embarked on his killing spree, he ran a scam involving corpses. While a medical student at The University of Michigan, Holmes stole cadavers from the lab to tamper with and disfigure before claiming life insurance on the bodies.

There may be an incident from his childhood that accounts for this obsession with cadavers. At school, Holmes’ peers are said to have taunted and bullied him relentlessly. When they found out he was afraid of doctors, for instance, they made him stand in front of a human skeleton in a doctor's office and stare at it for hours. While he was initially quite terrified, the young H. H. Holmes subsequently stated that the experience rid him of his worries and fear of death.

2. H. H. Holmes was a bigamist

Holmes married numerous women at the same time without their knowledge. As part of his intricate schemes and crimes, he used his superficial charm and wide-ranging manipulative abilities to deceive and exploit people, including his several wives.

In 1878, Holmes married his first wife, Clara, when he was just 19 years of age. The couple had a son two years later, but Holmes later abandoned them both and married a woman called Myrta Belknap, in 1887. This was despite the fact that he had yet to divorce Clara. He filed for divorce a few weeks later, but the documents were never processed.

Finally, on 17th January 1894, he married Georgiana Yoke. So, theoretically, when he was executed in 1896, Holmes was still married to Clara, Myrta, and Georgiana.

3. The Murder Castle was a mystery to everyone but Holmes

Having a labyrinthine hotel complex designed and built that’s perfect for kidnapping, killing and body disposal is a tricky task. After all, an architect and team of builders working on the project would have grown suspicious fairly quickly.

The killer physician had no choice but to keep his contractors in the dark. Especially given that the blueprints included over 50 doorways that opened up to brick walls, more than 100 completely windowless rooms, multiple staircases that led to absolutely nowhere, a couple of large furnaces and chutes to a giant incinerator that was big enough to fit human bodies down.

Holmes hired and fired workers regularly. He siloed the job, meaning no one contractor or firm was able to see too much of the house. Those who got too familiar with the layout were quickly replaced.

4. What happened to the Murder Castle?

After H. H. Holmes' arrest, the building at 63rd and Wallace Streets in Chicago's Englewood neighbourhood was left unoccupied. A man called AM Clark soon purchased it with the intention of turning it into a gruesome tourist destination. His plan never came to fruition, though. Instead, the building was destroyed by a devastating fire in 1895, just before Holmes' trial. Some folk believed that the fire was lit on purpose, either to destroy evidence or to conceal the building's dark history. The cause of the fire was never discovered.

The property was later used for a variety of purposes, including as a general commercial space. The entire block was eventually razed and cleared, and a US Post Office facility was built on the site. There is no physical evidence of Holmes' infamous Murder Castle today because it was torn down a long time ago and the area has since been extensively renovated beyond any recognition.

5. He was buried encased in concrete

Holmes was obsessed with the concept of body exhumation and tampering after death, right to the end of his life. So much so that, before he died, he requested that he be buried in concrete so that his corpse could not be exhumed, dissected or studied. Not only did he ask to be set in concrete, he wanted to be buried ten feet deep too.

The serial killer’s strange requests were granted and he was buried in wet cement at a deeper than usual depth.

However, in 2017, H. H. Holmes’ grandson, Jeff Mudgett, led an exhumation of the grave to prove long-standing rumours that Holmes actually evaded execution and had his corpse swapped for another. The coffin was cracked open and a DNA test was run. Despite Mudgett’s theory that the corpse would not be that of the notorious killer, it was.

6. His story inspired one of the most famous serial killer books

Erik Larson's 2003 historical book The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America is a must-read for anyone interested in true crime, serial killers, history, Chicago and fascinating things in general. While it is a work of nonfiction, it tells the dual stories of Holmes and the World’s Fair architect Daniel Burnham.

Back in 2010, Leonardo DiCaprio purchased the rights to the book, with his long-time collaborator Martin Scorsese attached to direct the adaptation. But the project has been mired with issues and remains in 'development hell'.