Who was H.H. Holmes? – His Life of Infamy and Ultimate Demise

In the annals of American crime, few figures are as chilling and enigmatic as Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, often referred to as H.H. Holmes.

Born as Herman Webster Mudgett in Gilmanton, New Hampshire, in 1861, Holmes would later earn infamy as one of our nation’s first documented serial killers.

Though the actual number of his victims remains disputed, his crimes are no less horrifying, made all the more sinister by his cunning, intelligence, and seeming respectability.

It can be said that Holmes represents a dark side of the American dream. A man who, on the surface, appeared successful, intelligent, and respectable, but beneath that facade lay a mind capable of unspeakable horrors. His story serves as a chilling reminder that sometimes the most dangerous monsters wear the mask of everyday people.

Was H.H. Holmes really America’s first serial killer, and how was he apprehended by the authorities?

Childhood and early signs of psychopathy

Herman Mudgett’s childhood and adolescence were relatively unremarkable. There were a few scattered reports of him being unusually interested in medical procedures on animals and possibly showing early signs of psychopathy. His journey into the world of crime began subtly: as a young man, he engaged in various fraud schemes, including insurance scams.

In an effort to elude the law and possibly to craft a new identity, Mudgett changed his name to Henry Howard Holmes after graduating from the University of Michigan’s Department of Medicine and Surgery in 1884.

His choice of the medical profession would later prove chillingly apt, as he used his knowledge to facilitate some of his most gruesome crimes.

Arrival in Chicago

In 1886, Holmes arrived in Chicago, a city bustling with activity and opportunities, particularly in light of the upcoming World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. It was here that Holmes saw an opportunity to manifest his dark desires on a grand scale. He took a job at a drugstore in Englewood, eventually buying the business (under suspicious circumstances, as the owner mysteriously disappeared) and began construction on a nearby plot of land. This edifice would later be dubbed the “Murder Castle.”

The Murder Castle

From the outside, the Murder Castle appeared to be a multi-story, mixed-use building, with retail spaces on the ground floor and apartments above. However, its interior held very dark secrets.

Holmes designed the building with a maze-like layout, including soundproof rooms, gas chambers, staircases leading to nowhere, and a basement equipped for dissections and cremations. The upper floors contained his living quarters and numerous rooms where he would torture and kill. He hired and fired multiple construction crews to ensure that no one but him knew the building’s full layout.

Taking advantage of the influx of visitors for the World’s Columbian Exposition, Holmes opened up his building as a hotel. Many guests checked in, but not all checked out. Those who did vanish were chalked up to the transient nature of a booming city, especially during a major event like the exposition.

Much of the lore attached to Holmes concerns the so-called “Murder Castle”, a three-story building he commissioned in Chicago.

Victims and Methods

Holmes had a modus operandi, but it wasn’t consistent. Some victims were seduced, conned, and then killed; others were employees, lovers, or even spouses. He is known to have proposed to several women, only to kill them for insurance money.

One of the most prominent stories is that of the Pitezel family. Benjamin Pitezel, a carpenter with a criminal history, became a close associate of Holmes. The two concocted a plan to fake Pitezel’s death for a $10,000 insurance payout. However, Holmes double-crossed Pitezel, actually killing him and then going on to kill three of his five children.

Holmes had various methods of disposing of his victims. Some he would gas in the chambers he had constructed, others he would lock in soundproof bedrooms, letting them die of hunger or thirst. Once dead, he often dissected the bodies, stripping them of flesh and selling the skeletons to medical schools. He also had two large furnaces, vats of corrosive acid, and pits of quicklime to aid in body disposal.

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Capture and Trial

Holmes’s reign of terror came to an end in 1894, but not for murder. Initially, he was arrested for horse theft in Texas, following a trail of cons and swindles across the U.S. While in custody, an insurance company launched an investigation into the Pitezel “accident”, suspecting fraud. The investigation quickly unveiled the series of murders, leading to Holmes’s extradition to Philadelphia for trial.

Newspaper account of H.H. Holmes’s confession, including hand-drawn illustrations of the judge overseeing Holmes’ trial and ten of his suspected victims.

During his imprisonment, he confessed to 27 murders. However, many of the people he claimed to have killed were found alive. The actual number of victims remains unknown, with estimates ranging from 20 to 200. He was found guilty for the murder of Pitezel and sentenced to death. On May 7, 1896, H.H. Holmes was hanged.

Can H.H. Holmes be tagged as a serial killer?

Some criminologists have opine that Holmes does not really fit the serial killer tag. This is because serial killers are typically defined not just by multiple murders, but by repeated, similar crimes over time, often driven by psychological compulsions rather than practical motives.

While H.H. Holmes undeniably killed several individuals, most of his confirmed murders had clear motives: silencing those who posed a threat to his fraudulent schemes.

Instead of killing purely for the thrill or due to a deep-seated urge, Holmes’ murders were primarily to safeguard his deceptive operations and maintain his lifestyle.

Therefore, it can be argued that Holmes’ motive differentiates him from the typical profile of a serial killer who kills primarily due to a pathological desire.

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Source of the inaccuracies surrounding Holmes’ story

While tales of his crimes have become legend, many accounts are believed to be embellished or entirely fabricated by sensationalist media of the era, with some claims suggesting he murdered over 100 victims.

The truth about his crimes is obscured by a combination of poor police work and the period’s sensational journalism.

Adding to the confusion, Holmes himself was a prolific liar. He changed his stories frequently, at times professing innocence, and at other moments, claiming demonic possession. His untruthful nature makes it challenging to discern fact from fiction.

For instance, Holmes alleged to have murdered Dr. Robert Leacock for insurance money in 1886. However, records show Dr. Leacock died in 1889 in Canada.

Who was the detective assigned to investigate H.H. Holmes and the three Pitezel children?

The detective assigned to investigate H.H. Holmes and the disappearance of the three Pitezel children was Frank Geyer. Geyer was a detective with the Philadelphia police department. His diligent work led to the discovery of the bodies of the Pitezel children and helped uncover the depth of Holmes’ crimes. Geyer followed a trail across North America to find out what had happened to the children, and his efforts played a significant role in bringing Holmes to justice.

The combination of dedicated detective work by Frank Geyer, tips from acquaintances like Hedgepeth, and the increasing suspicions of insurance companies ultimately led to the downfall of one of America’s earliest known serial killers. Holmes was put on trial in Philadelphia for the murder of Pitezel, found guilty, and hanged on May 7, 1896. Image: Detective Frank P. Geyer

Legacy

H.H. Holmes’s crimes left a big mark on American criminology. His meticulous planning, the construction of a building specifically for murder, and his ability to evade suspicion for so long made his crimes uniquely shocking.

In popular culture, Holmes’s story has been revisited many times, with books, documentaries, and series exploring his life and heinous acts. Perhaps the most notable account is Erik Larson’s 2003 film “The Devil in the White City,” which juxtaposes Holmes’s crimes with the grandeur and optimism of the 1893 World’s Fair.

Frequently asked questions about H.H. Holmes

What was his real name?

H.H. Holmes’ real name was Herman Webster Mudgett.

What was the “Murder Castle”?

The “Murder Castle” was a building in Chicago that Holmes designed and built. It had a labyrinthine design with trapdoors, secret chambers, soundproof rooms, and a basement for dissections and cremations. Holmes used it to torture, kill, and dispose of his victims.

How many people did Holmes kill?

Holmes confessed to 27 murders, but only nine were confirmed. Estimates of his actual victims range from 20 to 200.

How was Holmes caught?

Holmes was initially arrested for horse theft in Texas. Subsequent investigations into an insurance scam involving Benjamin Pitezel led to the discovery of multiple murders.

Where and when was Holmes executed?

H.H. Holmes was hanged on May 7, 1896, at the Moyamensing Prison in Philadelphia.

What happened to the “Murder Castle” after Holmes’s arrest?

The “Murder Castle” was mysteriously burned in a fire in 1895. The remaining structure was later demolished and the site is now occupied by a post office.

The site of Holmes’ Castle

Did H.H. Holmes have any connection to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago?

While Holmes’s activities coincided with the exposition, he wasn’t officially connected to the event. However, he capitalized on the influx of visitors by offering rooms at his “hotel.”

Was H.H. Holmes really America’s first serial killer?

Holmes is often dubbed “America’s first serial killer” because of the extensive documentation and media coverage of his crimes. However, there were likely other serial killers in the U.S. before him.

Has Holmes’s story been adapted into any films or books?

Yes, H.H. Holmes’s life and crimes have inspired numerous books, documentaries, and films. One of the most notable books is “The Devil in the White City” (2003) by American journalist and author Erik Larson.

Is there any truth to the rumors that Holmes faked his own death?

Some conspiracy theories suggest Holmes faked his execution and escaped. However, in 2017, Holmes’s body was exhumed and DNA testing confirmed that the remains were indeed his.

Why did Holmes commit his crimes?

Holmes’s motives are a matter of speculation. Some believe it was purely for financial gain, as he often committed insurance fraud. Others believe he killed for the pleasure of it, given the elaborate nature of some of his crimes.

Who are the descendants of H.H. Holmes?

Holmes was married multiple times (often bigamously) and had children. Some of his wives and children disappeared under mysterious circumstances, leading to suspicions that they became his victims.

In 1878, he wed Clara Lovering, with whom he had a son, Robert. Despite Robert’s later accomplishments as a certified public accountant and city manager of Orlando, his parents’ relationship was tumultuous.

Holmes’ violent behavior towards Clara resulted in her relocating to New Hampshire, essentially ending their relationship.

In a twisted series of events in 1886, while still married to Clara, Holmes took Myrta Belknap as his second wife. Soon after, he filed for divorce from Clara, citing infidelity, although the claims were unsubstantiated, and Clara likely remained unaware of the proceedings. The divorce was never completed.

Holmes and Myrta had a daughter, Lucy, who became a teacher. Despite being married to two women, Holmes added a third wife, Georgiana Yoke, in 1894, showcasing his audacity and manipulation.

H.H. Holmes: Fast Facts

Name at birth: Herman Webster Mudgett

Born: May 16, 1861

Place of birth: Gilmanton, New Hampshire, U.S.

Died: May 7, 1896; Moyamensing Prison, Pennsylvania, U.S.

Cause of death: Execution by hanging

Buried at: Holy Cross Cemetery, Pennsylvania

 

Years active: 1891 – 1894

Date apprehended: November 17, 1894

Parents: Levi Horton Mudgett and Theodate Page Price

Spouses: Georgiana Yoke, Minnie Williams, Myrta Belknap, Clara Lovering

Education: University of Michigan; University of Vermont

Other nicknames: America’s First Serial Killer; The Torture Doctor; The Beast of Chicago; Alexander Bond; The Arch Fiend

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