“Come with me, if you will, to a tiny, quiet, New England village, nestling among the picturesquely rugged hills of New Hampshire.”
-H.H. Holmes, “Holmes’ Own Story," 1895
So begins, in his own words, the story of H.H. Holmes, America’s first known – and perhaps most prolific – serial killer. Born Herman Webster Mudgett in 1861 and raised by his parents against the bucolic backdrop of Gilmanton, New Hampshire, he had a privileged upbringing. A youth of high intelligence, Herman excelled in school. He exhibited a hallmark of many serial killers in their youths, the torture and killing of animals. Despite this, young Herman managed to stay out of trouble, though he was bullied by peers. During one such experience, his schoolmates dragged him inside the office of the town's doctor, knowing he was afraid of it. There he faced the doctor’s model skeleton. Though terrified at first, he later claimed the incident imbued in him a desire to learn about human anatomy.
DEVIL AS DOCTOR
Learn about anatomy he did. Mudgett enrolled at the medical school of the University of Michigan. It was there that he discovered a passion for dissecting cadavers. For Mudgett, medical school was an education in how to profit from acquiring and selling cadavers and skeletons. He learned that human skeletons were a commodity for which people paid handsomely. Additionally, he gleaned a trick of his lifelong career as a con artist: insurance fraud. Mudgett purchased claims on fictitious people and subsequently disfigured cadavers, using them to cash in on the policy of the “accident victims.” Not even a year after he began studying medicine, the school expelled Mudgett for stealing cadavers. He was readmitted that same year. Such was the life of this charismatic hustler: rarely was he unable to smooth talk people so that things went his way.
At age 23, Herman Mudgett graduated from medical school. After time spent drifting, he decided to move to Chicago. He also took on the name that would be recorded in the annals of criminal history: Henry Howard (H.H) Holmes.
Holmes arrived in Chicago in May of 1886. He settled in Englewood, then a commercially robust suburb on the city’s south side. There he began work as a pharmacist in a drugstore owned by the Holton family. Pharmacy owner Edward Holton died several months later, reportedly of cancer. Holmes convinced Holton’s widow to sell him the store. After an initial down payment, Holmes stalled any further payments to the widow, who eventually filed suit against him. Shortly afterward, she mysteriously disappeared, most likely dying by Holmes' hand.
World's Columbian Exposition (Chicago World's Fair), 1893
At that time, circumstances in late 1880s Chicago and the nefarious schemes and blood lust of Holmes joined to create a perfect storm for serial murder. Chicago was in a period of growth and renewal. The city was rebuilding after the great fire of 1871, which burnt most of its business district to ashes and left 100,000 residents homeless. Business and real estate development were welcomed. People seeking jobs flocked to the city. Soon, the World’s Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair, would bring 26 million visitors to the city.
THE MURDER CASTLE
Holmes snapped up a parcel of land on the street opposite the pharmacy, which he soon closed. He then drew up secret blueprints for a building that would later make him infamous worldwide. Homes kept the plans of the three-story structure under wraps by hiring men to construct sections of it and then firing them before they could understand how their work fit into the bigger picture. Holmes had good reason to conceal the design of the house, as it would have aroused suspicions about its designer. As it was, Englewood residents looked proudly upon the massive building being constructed, considering it a monument to the success of their community. They dubbed the structure “the castle.”
"The Castle" of H.H. Holmes | Image: Rick Geary / The Beast of Chicago
The ground floor of Holmes' twisted masterpiece was divided into ordinary retail spaces, including a jewelry store, pharmacy, blacksmith shop, barber and restaurant. The third floor consisted of apartments, offices and Holmes’ living quarters. It was the second floor and basement of the structure that belied his monstrous plans. The second floor was a labyrinthine puzzle of windowless rooms, stairs and doors that led nowhere, false partitions, trap doors and secret passageways. There was a greased chute that led directly to the basement. Some rooms were soundproof and had peepholes enabling Holmes to monitor their interiors. Pipes were built in that were connected to a gas line, the flow of which Holmes could control from his master suite. He asphyxiated victims with the gas. Holmes spent many a deranged hour in the basement. It was equipped with a crematorium, vats of acid, a dissection table, surgical implements and pits of quicklime capable of disintegrating a human body within hours. There was also a torture device that stretched live human bodies apart from both ends until death.
A man named Benjamin Pitezel arrived in Chicago to answer an ad Holmes placed in search of carpenters. Pitezel was a petty criminal and alcoholic who, to his credit, was devoted to his wife Carrie and five children enough to be constantly drifting in search of employment to support them. Holmes took a liking to Pitezel, eventually using him as an assistant in his fraudulent activities and cons.
Once construction on Holmes’ house of horrors was complete, he was able to become the efficient killing machine of his fantasies. Holmes killed countless victims, mostly women. Many were in his employ at the commercial spaces of the castle. Some were his mistresses. One such unlucky woman, Julia Conner, came to live and work in the castle with her husband and eight-year-old daughter Pearl. Julia began an affair with Holmes, and when her husband demanded that it stop, she refused and her husband left town. Holmes eventually killed Julia and Pearl when Julia became pregnant by him and demanded marriage. As Holmes often did with his kills, he cleaned Julia’s skeleton and sold it to a local medical school for $200.
To best take advantage of Chicago’s influx of tourists during the world’s fair, Holmes advertised in the paper. In these ads, he called the castle, which was only a few miles away from the fairgrounds, the “World’s Fair Hotel.” Holmes not only ensnared soon-to-be victims by newspaper ad, but he also attended the fair in the company of the Pitezel children. There, the impeccably dressed doctor would turn on the charm, luring wealthy women to his castle with the promise of a good night’s rest. These female fairgoers were perfect choices as prey. Usually from out of town and unnoticed in the huge fair crowds, they were impossible to trace once they vanished into the castle's dark recesses. Holmes kept killing, kept perpetrating frauds, kept selling skeletons and above all, he kept getting away with it.
Once the fair ended in the fall of 1893, business was no longer booming, and Chicago's bright financial picture dimmed. Additionally, a problem was developing for Holmes in the form of Benjamin Pitezel, whose alcoholism grew worse. Holmes was acutely aware that Pitezel knew far too much about his illegal activities. Deciding that Pitezel was no longer a benefit, he planned to kill him and devised a way to make money at the same time. Holmes told Pitezel and his wife that he needed their help to pull off an insurance fraud. The plan was for Pitezel to take out a large policy on his life, listing his wife as the beneficiary. Holmes would then produce a cadaver and claim that it was Pitezel’s body, and they would split the insurance payoff. Pitezel took out a policy with Fidelity Mutual Life Association in Philadelphia, and Holmes persuaded Pitezel to travel to Philadelphia with him to establish a presence there.
Because the body had to be identified by a family member for the insurance company to pay out, Holmes showed up on the scene with fifteen-year-old Alice Pitezel and they identified the body. The attorney that Hedgepeth recommended to Holmes in jail was also used in the transaction. The insurance company paid the money to Carrie Pitezel. Holmes met with her and was able to talk her out of most of the money and two more of her children, under the guise of later meeting up with their father. Holmes took off with Alice, Nellie, and Howard Pitezel, traveling for weeks.
Yet Holmes made the critical error of not sending Hedgepeth the $500 he had promised him in jail. As payback, Hedgepeth sent a letter to the insurance company, detailing Holmes’ scam. The insurance company hired the famously thorough Pinkerton Detective agency to track Holmes. On November 16, 1894, Holmes was caught in Boston and arrested, just before fleeing the country by ship. At first he was only charged with insurance fraud; later, he was charged with the murder of Benjamin Pitezel. Holmes was transferred to a prison in Philadelphia to stand trial. A bereft Carrie Pitezel was charged with conspiracy. Holmes told one lie after another when authorities demanded to know where her three children were. Eventually, investigator Frank Geyer, after a lengthy international search, was able to determine that Holmes had killed all three Pitezel children. The bodies of Nellie and Alice were found buried in the cellar of a home in Toronto, and Howard’s charred bone fragments were found in a stove in Indianapolis. After the fates of the murdered children were discovered and the authorities searched the castle, the level of Holmes' depravity was revealed.
After a trial in which he acted as his own attorney, Holmes was sentenced to death for the murder of Benjamin Pitezel. Though he was prosecuted for only one death, estimates of his murder count range from 20 to 200. Holmes was executed by hanging on May 7, 1896. Yet the horrific tale of the monster and his castle never died; it remains in popular culture as the subject of books, documentaries and an upcoming feature film.
"Yes I was born with the devil in me. I was born with the evil standing as my sponsor beside the bed where I was ushered into the world, and he has been with me since."
–From "Confession of H.H.Holmes," printed in Philadelphia North American, April 11, 1896