“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 sponsor beside the bed where I was ushered into the world, and he has been with me since.” – HH Holmes
When it comes to serial killers, fictional murderers Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger have a lot of film credits. But compared to real-life Victorian-era con man Henry Howard “HH” Holmes – America’s first recognized and perhaps most prolific serial killer – they’re rank amateurs.
Herman Webster Mudgett (aka HH Holmes) was born into an affluent New England family in 1860. Though obviously highly intelligent and a successful student, he was always in trouble as a boy. People later remembered him for his cruelty to animals and smaller children. While still in his teens, he changed his name to Henry Howard Holmes, married the daughter of a wealthy local farmer, and enrolled in medical school.
It was during his medical school years that he embarked upon his life of crime. Holmes came up with an ingenious insurance fraud scheme where he would steal cadavers from the laboratory and take out life insurance policies on them as “family members.” Next, he would disfigure the corpses and plant them in places to make it look as if they had died in an accident. Then, of course, he would collect on the insurance.
After his biggest score, he skipped town, abandoning his wife and infant son. His wife never saw him again – she didn’t know it at the time, but she was one of the lucky ones.
Holmes stayed off the radar for a few years, then turned up again in the Chicago area in 1885. He had gotten involved with another rich young woman and filed for divorce from his first wife. The divorce wasn’t final until 1891, but he didn’t let that stop him, and he bigamously married Myrtle Belknap, the daughter of a wealthy businessman.
Then, for unknown reasons, Holmes moved to Chicago alone, leaving Myrtle and their daughter alone out in the suburbs. She later discovered that Holmes had tried to swindle her father and believed Holmes had tried to poison him when he confronted him about it. Myrtle divorced Holmes in 1889; again, she didn’t know it yet, but she was one of the lucky ones. Meanwhile, Holmes continued his criminal career, lying, cheating, and stealing… but always managing to duck out before getting caught.
Next Holmes took his criminal enterprises to a whole new level. He moved to Englewood, Illinois (which at that time was just a quiet suburb of Chicago), where he took a job in a drugstore at the corner of 63rd and Wallace. The store was owned by an older woman, Mrs. Holden, who was delighted to have the handsome, charming young doctor take over some of her responsibilities. Not surprisingly, the old lady vanished without a trace in 1887. Holmes was such a convincing liar that no one questioned his story that she had sold him the business and moved “out west.”
A couple years later, Holmes began the project that would make him famous.
He probably couldn’t believe his luck when he heard about plans for the 1893 Columbian Exposition, a massive World’s Fair celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America. Six hundred acres filled with wonders and curiosities from every state and 47 countries from around the world in a time when foreign lands were mysterious and inaccessible to most middle-class people.
The Columbian Exposition was also a serial killer’s dream come true. Nearly 28 million people toured the fairgrounds over the course of its six-month run – an average of over 150,000 a day. The fair brought millions of people from all over the country and beyond to behold the amazing White City. People who might easily somehow get lost and never make it home. People who would be in need of a hotel room for a few nights, but who would end up becoming guests on a more permanent basis.
By the end of the Exposition, there were hundreds of missing persons for whom it was their last known destination, and at least 50 of them were definitively traced to Holmes’ “Murder Castle.”
Holmes was quite the master of multitasking – running the drugstore and adding a jewelry store, while also running insurance fraud schemes and juggling multiple mistresses (including the wives of his business partners). As his drugstore and other business ventures thrived, Holmes purchased the lot across the street, where he began building a huge house in 1890.
This massive building became the pet project where he primarily focused his attention. Holmes personally supervised construction of the building, hiring and firing work crews frequently, then refusing to pay for labor or materials. In addition to saving him a lot of money, it also made sure no one knew what was really going on in the building.
Holmes himself designed the structure, which consisted of three floors plus a basement as well as a number of “unusual” features that he no doubt preferred be kept secret.
The first floor consisted of shops and offices, with 35 rooms on the second floor as well as Holmes’ private suite and offices. But the rest of the rooms were reserved for “guests” who would disappear without a trace.
Many of the guest rooms had no windows. Some had the windows and walls covered with sheet iron. And there were a number of other interesting features not often seen in a hotel… trap doors, secret passages, dead-end hallways, hidden staircases, and chutes to the basement. All of these were designed specifically for the purposes of imprisoning, torturing, murdering, and disposing of unsuspecting victims.
Holmes kept a steady supply of victims filling his guest rooms with newspaper ads offering lodgings for out-of-towners visiting the wildly popular World’s Fair. He also lured in many of his female victims by placing classified ads for hotel jobs for young women. He was always careful to make sure they told no one where they were going so there would be no trail leading to his hotel when they went missing.
Another tactic he used to bring in female victims was advertising that he was a wealthy businessman looking for a suitable bride. Like the job applicants, he swore them to secrecy about their destination and tortured them until they turned over all their assets to him, later disposing of them when he was finished with them.
Somehow Holmes was able to keep this going for four years before he was caught. Though he confessed to only 28 murders, it’s generally believed that he may have had hundreds of victims, mostly women. He even had a few mistresses, some of whom were almost certainly accomplices in his criminal activities and perhaps the murders as well. But of course, they too outlived their usefulness and eventually vanished.
In the end, it was Holmes’ greed that was his downfall. He was ratted out by one of his associates whom he had cheated out of his cut in an insurance fraud scheme. When he was finally arrested, he was given the option of being extradited to Texas to stand trial for one of his scams, or to go on trial for insurance fraud for one of his faked-death insurance fraud schemes that resulted in the real death of one of his accomplices. But it wasn’t until investigators began searching the building at 63rd and Wallace that his house of horrors was discovered.
His trial in Philadelphia, like the OJ Simpson trial one hundred years later, was called “the Trial of the Century” – dramatic and sensational, with plenty of fodder for lurid newspaper headlines as the gruesome details of Holmes’ murder factory were gradually revealed.
Holmes also didn’t disappoint with his courtroom behavior, occasionally having meltdowns and eventually deciding to act as his own lawyer. He actually was said to have represented himself quite well, though matter-of-factly confessing to 28 murders (though it’s likely he committed many, many more) and providing full details of his incredible depravity.
It took no time at all for the jury to convict him, and he was sentenced to death by hanging. Holmes remained unrepentant to the end – though he met and prayed with Catholic priests before his execution, he never expressed an iota of remorse for his crimes.
He was hanged on May 7, 1896, and buried in Holy Cross Cemetery near Philadelphia. As per his request, he was interred under two tons of concrete; for some reason, America’s first known serial murderer was afraid someone might desecrate his own dead body.
So then what happened to the Murder Castle after its master was gone? The stories that emerged from the subsequent basement excavation and documentation of the crime scene continued to horrify the public and create lurid headlines over the months and years after Holmes’ trial.
Some of the rooms were equipped as airtight homemade gas chambers. Some were lined with iron plates and had blowtorch-like devices fitted into the walls. There were even chutes to the basement for convenient handling of bodies.
All of his “prison rooms” were wired to Holmes’ bedroom to alert him in case a guest tried to escape. It is believed that some of the women were kept as prisoners for months before he eventually disposed of them as well.
Perhaps the most gruesome discovery of all was hidden in the basement behind a false wall, where investigators found a blood-spattered dissecting table, a full array of shiny surgical instruments, and an acid vat and quicklime pits for convenient corpse disposal. Also found in the basement were many partially incinerated human bones, clothing, and jewelry traced back to his mistresses, as well as the bones of a child buried under the basement floor, believed to be the 8-year-old daughter of one of his mistresses.
While Holmes was in prison in Philadelphia awaiting his fate, the Murder Castle exploded and burned to the ground. Whether the arson was committed by an outraged citizen, an accomplice destroying evidence, or perhaps some other final judgment has never been determined.
The ruins of the Murder Castle and the lot it once stood on remained empty for many years, as it’s believed that the restless ghosts of Holmes’ victims still wander there. For many years, the locals avoided the cursed place, some reporting eerie sounds like crying and moaning coming from the grounds.
In 1938, a US Post Office was built on the lot, but the ghostly phenomena didn’t end there. To this day, residents report that their dogs don’t want to walk near the building, becoming agitated and pulling away, barking or whining at something there that their human companions can’t see.
On a last, ghoulish note, rumors had floated for years that Holmes, diabolically clever as he was, had cheated the hangman by escaping before his execution and living to a ripe old age.
Holmes descendants working with University of Pennsylvania researchers arranged to have the body exhumed for DNA testing to confirm once and for all if Holmes had faked his own death.
So what did they find? First, at the traditional 6 feet down, they found an empty pine box – perhaps a decoy to deter grave robbers?
Then at 10 feet down, they found the concrete sarcophagus and cracked it open. Inside was a very smelly, rotten corpse dressed in almost perfectly preserved clothing and with the brain still intact inside the skull. Holmes’ signature mustache was also still present!
No usable DNA could be collected due to the condition of the body, but they were able to make a definitive ID from the teeth, confirming that the moldy corpse was indeed HH Holmes/Great-Great-Grandpa Mudgett, still resting in peace. Which is still definitely better than he deserved.
If you want to read more about HH Holmes, his extremely busy life of crime, and his horrifying Murder Castle, check out Erik Larson’s spellbinding novel, The Devil in the White City.