H. H. Holmes

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H. H. Holmes
H. H. Holmes.jpg
Herman Webster Mudgett aka H.H. Holmes
Born (1861-05-16)May 16, 1861
Gilmanton, New Hampshire, U.S.
Died May 7, 1896(1896-05-07) (aged 34)
Moyamensing Prison, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Cause of death Execution by hanging
Other names Henry W. Howard
Dr. Henry Howard Holmes
Criminal penalty Death
Motive Life insurance money, profit from selling corpses to medical schools
Conviction(s) 4 counts of murder in the first degree
6 counts of attempted murder
Victims 9–200+ (9 confirmed, 27 confessed, over 200 estimated)
Span of killings
Country U.S., Canada
Date apprehended
November 17, 1894, in Boston, Massachusetts, US

Herman Webster Mudgett (May 16, 1861 – May 7, 1896), better known under the name of Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, was one of the first documented serial killers in the modern sense of the term.[1][2] In Chicago at the time of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, Holmes opened a hotel which he had designed and built for himself specifically with murder in mind, and which was the location of many of his murders. While he confessed to 27 murders, of which nine were confirmed, his actual body count could be over 200.[3] He brought an unknown number of his victims to his World's Fair Hotel, located about 3 miles (4.8 km) west of the fair, which was held in Jackson Park.

The case was notorious in its time and received wide publicity through a series of articles in William Randolph Hearst's newspapers. Interest in Holmes's crimes was revived in 2003 by Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, a best-selling non-fiction book that juxtaposed an account of the planning and staging of the World's Fair with Holmes's story. His story had been previously chronicled in The Torture Doctor by David Franke (1975), Depraved: The Shocking True Story of America's First Serial Killer by Harold Schechter (1994), and Chapter VI "The Monster of Sixty-Third Street" of Gem of the Prairie: An Informal History of the Chicago Underworld by Herbert Asbury (1940, republished 1986).

Early life[edit]

Mudgett was born in Gilmanton, New Hampshire, on May 16, 1861, to Levi Horton Mudgett and Theodate Page Price, both of whom were descended from the first European settlers in the area. Mudgett was his parents' third-born child; he had an older sister Ellen, an older brother Arthur, and a younger brother Henry.[4][5] Mudgett's father was a farmer from a farming family, and his parents were devout Methodists.[6] According to the 2007 Most Evil profile on Holmes, his father was a violent alcoholic.[7] Mudgett claimed that, as a child, some of his classmates forced him into the doctor's office to stand face to face with a human skeleton after discovering his fear of the local doctor. The bullies initially took him there to scare him, but Erik Larson speculates that instead he was utterly fascinated, and he soon became obsessed with death.[8] On July 4, 1878, Mudgett married Clara Lovering in Alton, New Hampshire; their son, Robert Lovering Mudgett, was born on February 3, 1880, in Loudon, New Hampshire. (As an adult, Robert was to become a certified public accountant, and served as city manager of Orlando, Florida.)

In 1882, Mudgett entered the University of Michigan's Department of Medicine and Surgery[9] and graduated in June 1884 after passing his examinations.[10] While enrolled, he stole bodies from the laboratory, disfigured the bodies, and claimed that the people were killed accidentally in order to collect insurance money from policies he took out on each deceased person. He left his wife and daughter to move to Chicago and began a career in pharmaceuticals. It was also at this time that Mudgett began engaging in many shady businesses, real estate, and promotional deals under the name "H.H. Holmes."[8]

On January 28, 1887, while he was still married to Clara, Holmes married Myrta Belknap (b. October 1862 in Pennsylvania)[11] in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He filed for divorce from Clara a few weeks after marrying Myrta, but the divorce was never finalized.[12] Holmes had a daughter with Myrta, Lucy Theodate Holmes, who was born on July 4, 1889, in Englewood, Illinois[13] (as an adult, Lucy became a public schoolteacher). Holmes lived with Myrta and Lucy in Wilmette, Illinois, and spent most of his time in Chicago tending to business.

Holmes married Georgiana Yoke on January 17, 1894, in Denver, Colorado,[12][14] while still married to Clara and Myrta.[citation needed] He also had a relationship with Julia Smythe,[12] the wife of one of his former employees. Julia would later become one of Holmes's victims.[12]

Chicago and the "Murder Castle"[edit]

Holmes arrived in Chicago in August 1886 and came across Dr. Elizabeth S. Holton's drugstore at the northwest corner of S. Wallace Avenue and W. 63rd Street in the Englewood neighborhood.[15] Holton gave Holmes a job, and he proved himself to be a hardworking employee. After the death of Holton's husband, Holmes offered to buy the drugstore from Holton, and she agreed.[12] Holmes purchased the store mainly with funds obtained by mortgaging the store's fixtures and stock, the loan to be repaid in substantial monthly installments of one hundred dollars (worth $2,600 today).[16]

H. H. Holmes "castle"

Holmes purchased a lot across from the drugstore where he built his three-story, block-long "castle" as it was dubbed by those in the neighborhood. The address of the Castle was 601-603 W. 63rd St.[17] It was called the World's Fair Hotel and opened as a hostelry for the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, with part of the structure devoted to commercial space. The ground floor of the Castle contained Holmes' own relocated drugstore and various shops, while the upper two floors contained his personal office and a maze of over 100 windowless rooms with doorways opening to brick walls, oddly-angled hallways, stairways leading to nowhere, doors that can only be opened from the outside, and a host of other strange and labyrinthine constructions. Holmes was constantly firing and hiring different workers during the construction of the Castle, so that only he fully understood the design of the building.[3]

During the period of building construction in 1889, Holmes met Benjamin Pitezel, a carpenter with a past of lawbreaking, with whom Holmes became close friends. He used Pitezel as his right-hand man for his criminal schemes. A district attorney later described Pitezel as Holmes' "tool… his creature."[18]

After the completion of the hotel, Holmes selected mostly female victims from among his employees (many of whom were required as a condition of employment to take out life insurance policies, for which Holmes would pay the premiums but was also the beneficiary), as well as his lovers and hotel guests, whom he would later kill.[15] Some were locked in soundproof bedrooms fitted with gas lines that let him asphyxiate them at any time. Holmes would also lock his victims in a room where the walls were covered with iron plates and had blowtorches installed to incinerate them. Other victims were locked in a huge soundproof bank vault near his office, where they were left to suffocate.[8] The victims' bodies were dropped by a secret chute to the basement,[3] where some were meticulously dissected, stripped of flesh, crafted into skeleton models, and then sold to medical schools. Holmes also buried some of the bodies in lime pits for disposal. Holmes had two giant furnaces used to incinerate some of the bodies or evidence, as well as pits of acid, bottles of various poisons, and even a stretching rack.[3] Through the connections he had gained in medical school, he sold skeletons and organs with little difficulty.

One victim was lover Julia Smythe, who was the wife of Ned Conner who, after moving into Holmes' building, started working at his pharmacy's jewelry counter. In 1891, Julia became pregnant with Holmes' child. After finding out, Holmes agreed to marrying her, but told her that they couldn't have a child. She consented to have him perform an abortion. The abortion was planned for Christmas Eve. Holmes murdered Julia by overdosing her with chloroform and later killed her daughter Pearl. Holmes called a friend to help dispose of her body and when confronted by a tenant in the building questioning where Julia and her daughter were, Holmes said they left for Iowa for a family wedding.[6]

Another victim was Minnie Williams. Holmes rekindled a relationship with Minnie, allowing him to get close to another victim of his, her sister Anna. Holmes informed Anna that they were ready to go on their vacation, then locked her in the vault in the pharmacy where she cried for help. He listened as he filled the vault with gas and killed her.[6]

Capture and arrest[edit]

H. H. Holmes' mugshot, 1895

Following the World's Fair with creditors closing in and the economy in a general slump, Holmes left Chicago. He reappeared in Fort Worth, Texas, where he had inherited property from two railroad heiress sisters, to one of whom he had promised marriage and both of whom he murdered. There, he sought to construct another castle along the lines of his Chicago operation. However, he soon abandoned this project. He continued to move throughout the United States and Canada. The only murders verified during this period were those of his longtime associate Benjamin Pitezel and three of Pitezel's children.

In July 1894, Holmes was arrested and briefly incarcerated for the first time, for a horse swindle that ended in St. Louis. He was promptly bailed out, but while in jail, he struck up a conversation with a convicted train robber named Marion Hedgepeth, who was serving a 25-year sentence. Holmes had concocted a plan to swindle an insurance company out of $10,000 by taking out a policy on himself and then faking his death. Holmes promised Hedgepeth a $500 commission in exchange for the name of a lawyer who could be trusted. Holmes was directed to a young St. Louis attorney named Jeptha Howe. Jeptha Howe was in practice with his older brother, Alphonso Howe, who had no involvement with Holmes or Pitezel or their fraudulent activities. Jeptha Howe, however, found Holmes' scheme brilliant. Nevertheless, Holmes' plan to fake his own death failed when the insurance company became suspicious and refused to pay. Holmes did not press the claim; instead he concocted a similar plan with his associate, Benjamin Pitezel.

Benjamin Pitezel

Pitezel had agreed to fake his own death so that his wife could collect on a $10,000 life insurance policy, which she was to split with Holmes and the unscrupulous attorney, Jeptha Howe. The scheme, which was to take place in Philadelphia, was that Pitezel would set himself up as an inventor, under the name B.F. Perry, and then be killed and disfigured in a lab explosion. Holmes was to find an appropriate cadaver to play the role of Pitezel. Holmes instead killed Pitezel, and proceeded to collect the insurance payout on the basis of the genuine Pitezel corpse. Holmes then went on to manipulate Pitezel's unsuspecting wife into allowing three of her five children (Alice, Nellie, and Howard) to be in his custody. The eldest daughter and the baby remained with Mrs. Pitezel.

Forensic evidence presented at Holmes' later trial showed that chloroform had been administered after Pitezel's death, presumably to fake suicide that the insurance company was unaware of and that possibly could exonerate Holmes were he to be charged with murder.

Holmes and the three Pitezel children traveled throughout the northern United States and into Canada. Simultaneously, he escorted Mrs. Pitezel along a parallel route, all the while using various aliases and lying to Mrs. Pitezel concerning her husband's death (claiming that Pitezel was in hiding in London[19]), as well as lying to her about the true whereabouts of her three missing children. In Detroit, just prior to entering Canada, they were only separated by a few blocks.[20] In an even more audacious move, Holmes was staying at another location with his wife—who was ignorant of the whole affair.[21] A Philadelphia detective, Frank Geyer, had tracked Holmes, finding the decomposed bodies of the two Pitezel girls in Toronto buried in the cellar at 16 St. Vincent Street. He then followed Holmes to Indianapolis, where Holmes had rented a cottage. Holmes was reported to have visited a local pharmacy to purchase the drugs which he used to kill Howard Pitezel, and a repair shop to sharpen the knives he used to chop up the body before he burned it. The boy's teeth and bits of bone were discovered in the home's chimney.[22]

In 1894, the police were tipped off by Holmes' former cellmate, Marion Hedgepeth, whom Holmes had neglected to pay off as promised for his help in providing attorney Jeptha Howe.[citation needed] Holmes' murder spree finally ended when he was arrested in Boston on November 17, 1894, after being tracked there from Philadelphia by the Pinkertons. He was held on an outstanding warrant for horse theft in Texas, as the authorities had little more than suspicions at this point and Holmes appeared poised to flee the country, in the company of his unsuspecting third wife.[23]

After the custodian of the Castle, the police began interviewing the employees. A janitor named Pat Quinlan, informed police that he was never permitted to clean the upper floors. The police began a thorough investigation over the course of a month, uncovering Holmes' torture chambers and secret passageways on the upper floors, and then moving their investigation to the basement. The policemen found a collection of human skeletons, a dissection table covered with dry blood, and a pile of bloody women's clothes. One policeman looked underneath the staircase and found a large ball of women's hair carefully wrapped in a blanket.

The number of his victims had been estimated between 20 and 100, and even as high as 200,[3] based upon missing persons reports of the time as well as the testimony of Holmes' neighbors, who reported seeing him accompany unidentified young women into his hotel—young women whom they never saw exit. The discrepancy in numbers can perhaps best be attributed to the fact that a great many people came to Chicago to see the World's Fair but, for one reason or another, never returned home. The only verified number is 27,[24] although police had commented that some of the bodies in the basement were so badly dismembered and decomposed that it was difficult to tell how many bodies there actually were. Holmes' victims were mainly women (and primarily blonde), but included some men and children.

Trial, execution and aftermath[edit]

Holmes sat in prison in Philadelphia after confessing to the insurance scam, while sentencing was put off until after the trial of his co-conspirator in the insurance fraud, attorney Jeptha D. Howe. Meanwhile, Chicago police had begun an investigation of his operations in that city, as the Philadelphia police sought to unravel the Pitezel situation—in particular, the fate of the three missing Pitezel children, Alice, Nellie and Howard. Philadelphia detective Frank Geyer was tasked with finding answers. His quest for the children, like the search of Holmes' Castle in Chicago, received wide publicity. His eventual discovery of their remains essentially sealed Holmes' fate, at least in the public mind.

"I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing — I was born with the 'Evil One' standing as my sponsor beside the bed where I was ushered into the world, and he has been with me since."

– H. H. Holmes[25][26]

In October 1895, Holmes was put on trial for the murder of Benjamin Pitezel, was found guilty and sentenced to death. By then, it was evident that Holmes had also murdered the Pitezel children. Following his conviction for murdering Benjamin Pitezel, Holmes confessed to 30 murders in Chicago, Indianapolis and Toronto (though some he confessed to murdering were, in fact, still living), and six attempted murders. Holmes was paid US$7,500 (worth $212,610 today) by the Hearst Newspapers in exchange for his confession. Holmes gave various contradictory accounts of his life, initially claiming innocence and later that he was possessed by Satan. His faculty for lying has made it difficult for researchers to ascertain the truth on the basis of his statements.

On May 7, 1896, Holmes was hanged at Moyamensing Prison, also known as the Philadelphia County Prison, for the murder of Benjamin Pitezel.[27] Until the moment of his death, Holmes remained calm and amiable, showing very few signs of fear, anxiety or depression.[28] Although showing little signs of fear and anxiety, he asked for his coffin to be contained in cement and buried ten feet deep, the reason being because he was concerned grave robbers would steal his body and use it for dissection.[9] Holmes' neck did not snap; he instead was strangled to death slowly, twitching for over 15 minutes before being pronounced dead 20 minutes after the trap had been sprung.[27][29]

On New Year's Eve 1909, Marion Hedgepeth, who had been pardoned for informing on Holmes, was shot and killed by Edward Jaburek, a police officer, during a holdup at a Chicago saloon.[30] Then, on March 7, 1914, the Chicago Tribune reported that, with the death of the former caretaker of the Murder Castle, Pat Quinlan, "the mysteries of Holmes' Castle" would remain unexplained. Quinlan had committed suicide by taking strychnine.[31] Quinlan's surviving relatives claimed that he had been "haunted" for several months before his death and could not sleep.[12]

The Murder Castle was mysteriously gutted by fire in August 1895, and was finally razed in 1938. The site is currently occupied by the Englewood branch of the United States Postal Service.[32]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Index to births, early to 1900", Registrar of Vital Statistics, Concord, New Hampshire. FHL Microfilms: film number 1001018
  2. ^ Philadelphia (Pennsylvania). Board of Health. "Death registers, 1860–1903". Salt Lake City: Filmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah, 1962.
  3. ^ a b c d e Did Dr. Henry Holmes kill 200 people at a bizarre "castle" in 1890s Chicago? from The Straight Dope
  4. ^ Kerns, Rebecca; Lewis, Tiffany; McClure, Caitlin (2012). "Herman Webster Mudgett: 'Dr. H.H Holmes or Beast of Chicago'" (PDF). Department of Psychology, Radford University. Retrieved 22 May 2015. 
  5. ^ New Hampshire Registrar of Vital Statistics. "Index to births, early to 1900", Registrar of Vital Statistics, Concord, New Hampshire. FHL Microfilms: film number 1001018
  6. ^ a b c Erik Larson (30 September 2010). The Devil In The White City. Transworld. p. 54. ISBN 978-1-4090-4460-4. 
  7. ^ Presenter: Michael Stone (2007-09-30). "Masterminds". Most Evil. Season 2. Episode 8. Investigation Discovery. 
  8. ^ a b c Larson, Erik (2003). The Devil in the White City. Crown. ISBN 978-0-609-60844-9. 
  9. ^ a b Glenn, Alan (2013). "A double dose of the macabre". Ann Arbor: Michigan Today. 
  10. ^ Larson, Erik (30 September 2010). The Devil In The White City. Transworld. p. 57. ISBN 978-1-4090-4460-4. 
  11. ^ "Person Details for M B Holmes in household of Jno A Ripley, "United States Census, 1900"". FamilySearch.org. Retrieved 12 December 2014. 
  12. ^ a b c d e f Schechter, H. (1994). Depraved: The Shocking True Story of America's First Serial Killer. New York: Pocket Books
  13. ^ Lucy Theodate Holmes, passport application, U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: The Generations Network, Inc., 2007. Original data: Passport Applications, January 2, 1906–March 31, 1925; (National Archives Microfilm Publication M1490, 2740 rolls); General Records of the Department of State, Record Group 59; National Archives, Washington, D.C.
  14. ^ "Colorado Statewide Marriage Index, 1853-2006," index and images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/KNQH-NNX : accessed 16 December 2014), Henry M Howard and Georgiana Yoke, 17 January 1894, Denver, Colorado, United States; citing p. 16256, State Archives, Denver; FHL microfilm 1,690,090 .
  15. ^ a b "The Strange Life of H. H. Holmes". by Debra Pawlak. The Mediadrome. 2002. Archived from the original on 2008-06-11. Retrieved 2011-01-03. 
  16. ^ Larson, Erik, The Devil in the White City, Crown Publishers, 2003, p. 48
  17. ^ Stephan Benzkofer (2014-10-24). "Chicago's first serial killer". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 2014-10-26. 
  18. ^ Larson, Erik, "The Devil in the White City," Crown Publishers, 2003, p. 68, 70
  19. ^ The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
  20. ^ Geyer, Detective Frank P. "The Holmes-Pitezel case; a history of the Greatest Crime of the Century", Publishers' Union (1896), pg. 212
  21. ^ Geyer "The Holmes-Pitezel case", pg. 213
  22. ^ Lloyd, Christopher (October 24, 2008). "Grisly Indy". The Indianapolis Star. 
  23. ^ Holmes was thus simultaneously moving three groups of people across the country—each ignorant of the other two.
  24. ^ This number reached by Holmes' confession, for which The Philadelphia Enquirer paid him. Some of the names on the list turned out to be those of people still alive.
  25. ^ "H. H. Holmes". NNDB. Retrieved 30 October 2014. 
  26. ^ "the Mysterious Chicago blog: Did H.H. Holmes really say "I was born with the Devil in me?"". Adam Selzer's Mysterious Chicago blog. Retrieved 30 October 2014. 
  27. ^ a b Ramsland. "H. H. Holmes: Master of Illusion". Crime Library. Retrieved 2013-02-23. On May 7, 1896, H. H. Holmes went to the hangman's noose. His last meal was boiled eggs, dry toast, and coffee. Even at the noose, he changed his story. He claimed to have killed only two people and tried to say more but at 10:13 the trapdoor opened and he was hanged. Blundell says that it took him 15 minutes to strangle to death on the gallows. 
  28. ^ Franke, D. (1975). The Torture Doctor. New York: Avon. ISBN 0-8015-7832-9. 
  29. ^ "Holmes Cool to the End". The New York Times. 1896-05-09. Under the Noose He Says He Only Killed Two Women. He denies the Murder of Pitezel. Slept Soundly Through His Last Night on Earth and Was Calm on the Scaffold. Priests with him on the Gallows. Prayed with Him Before the Trap Was Sprung. Dead in Fifteen Minutes, but Neck Was Not Broken. Murderer Herman Mudgett, alias H. H. Holmes, was hanged this morning in the County Prison for the killing of Pitezel. The drop fell at 10:12 o'clock, and twenty minutes later he was pronounced dead. 
  30. ^ Marion Hedgespeth death certificate, Cook County Coroner, #31295 dated January 11, 1910.
  31. ^ Patrick B. Quinlan, death certificate, March 4, 1914, Portland, Ionia, Michigan. Digital image of death certificate
  32. ^ The Backyard Traveler. "Exploring Illinois by Rich Moreno: The Site of the Infamous Murder Castle". exploringillinois.blogspot.com. Retrieved 12 December 2014. 
  33. ^ Mike Mayo (1 February 2008). American Murder: Criminals, Crimes and the Media. Visible Ink Press. p. 242. ISBN 978-1-57859-256-2. 
  34. ^ "Slaughtered At The Murder Hotel". Five. Retrieved April 1, 2015. 

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