H.H. Holmes: King of the Murder Castle

HH Holmes has been called the first American serial killer. Chicago History Museum / Getty Images

Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, also known as H.H. Holmes, was one of the nineteenth century's most prolific serial killers. His victims, numbering anywhere from the dozens to over 200, were killed in his property, the World's Fair Hotel, which came to be called Holmes' "Murder Castle."

Fast Facts: H.H. Holmes

  • Full Name: Herman Webster Mudgett
  • Also Known As: Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, H.H. Holmes, Alexander Bond, Henry Gordon, O.C. Pratt, and others
  • Born: May 16, 1861 in Gilmanton, New Hampshire
  • Died: May 7, 1896 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Known For: One of America's first documented serial killers. Confessed to murdering 27 people in his "Murder Castle," although only nine were ever confirmed.

Early Years

Born Herman Webster Mudgett in 1861, Holmes was the son of an old New England family, descended from early British settlers. His parents were devout Methodists. After graduating high school at age 16, Holmes took up teaching as an occupation, working in towns near his native Gilmanton, New Hampshire. He enrolled at the University of Vermont, but soon grew bored and dropped out.

The following year, he went to medical school and worked in the anatomy lab at the University of Michigan, completing the program in three years. While attending school, Holmes supplemented his income by using cadavers to perpetrate insurance scams. During this time he was briefly married to Clara Lovering, but their relationship was violent, and she left him in Michigan and returned to New Hampshire with their son Robert.

Holmes moved to New York State, and whispers began to spread that he'd been seen with a child who was later reported missing. He relocated to Philadelphia to work in a pharmacy, and rumors surfaced that a child had died after taking medication Holmes had blended. He then fled to Chicago, changing his name from Herman Webster Mudgett to Herman Henry Holmes. In 1886, he married Myrta Belknap, but never bothered to get a divorce from Clara. Eight years later, in 1894, Holmes went to Denver and married Georgiana Yoke, without divorcing Myrta first.

The World's Fair Hotel

The World's Fair Hotel was also known as Holmes' "murder castle.". Chicago History Museum / Getty Images

In Chicago, Holmes took a job in a drugstore that he eventually ended up purchasing. He then bought an empty lot across the street, and planned the construction of a two-story building which would include retail space on the ground floor and apartments above. Construction began in 1887. After a year of work, Holmes hadn't paid the architects or steel suppliers, so they took him to court. Construction resumed, and by 1892, Chicago was preparing for the World's Columbian Exposition. The Exposition, commonly called the 1893 World's Fair, would bring plenty of visitors to the city, so Holmes decided to add a third floor to his building and turn it into a hotel. The building, which he named the World's Fair Hotel, was never completed, and Holmes continued his history of running insurance scams and defaulting on bills.

He worked in his drugstore while the building was being constructed, and it is believed that his first victim was his mistress, Julia Smythe, who worked at the jewelry counter. Smythe was married; she and her husband lived in an apartment upstairs. Smythe and her daughter disappeared in December 1891 and their bodies were never found; Holmes later claimed she died following a botched abortion. Two other women who worked in the building, Emeline Cigrande and Edna Van Tassel, also disappeared over the next couple of years.

Holmes persuaded an actress named Minnie Williams to sign the deed to her Texas property over to him, using the alias Alexander Bond. The two of them began living together, and Williams' sister Nannie came to visit in July 1893; both sisters vanished and were never seen again. With insurance investigators closing in, suspecting Holmes of numerous fraudulent claims, he left Chicago and went to the Texas property he had conned from Williams. Once in Fort Worth, he attempted to replicate the building of his Chicago hotel, and continued to swindle investors, construction crews, and suppliers. He was finally arrested in 1894.

While in jail, Holmes struck up a friendship with Marion Hedgepeth, known as "The Debonair Bandit." Holmes planned to collect an insurance payout by faking his own death, and offered Hedgepeth $500 for the name of a lawyer who could be trusted to process the fraudulent paperwork. Hedgepeth later told investigators about Holmes' insurance fraud scheme.

Once back in Philadelphia, Holmes killed a carpenter named Benjamin Pitezel and filed the claim on himself, using Pitezel's corpse. Shortly afterwards, he killed Pitezel's daughters and buried them in the basement of his Toronto home. A detective investigating the case discovered the children's decomposing bodies, leading police back to Chicago, where they closed in on Holmes.

Investigation, Trial, and Conviction

Marion Hedgepeth, the Debonair Bandit, tipped police off to Holmes' whereabouts. Bettmann / Getty Images

When Chicago police searched Holmes' hotel, historians say they discovered,

soundproof rooms, secret passages and a disorienting maze of hallways and staircases. The rooms were also outfitted with trapdoors over chutes that dropped Holmes’ unsuspecting victims to the building’s basement.

Holmes was arrested for the murder of Pitezel and his children, and sentenced to death. Before his execution, he confessed to the murders of 27 people; that number has been disputed because several of the people he claimed to have killed were still alive. At one point, he claimed to have been possessed by Satan. While he was in prison, his hotel mysteriously caught fire and burned to the ground.

In May 1896, Holmes was hanged. Over a hundred years after his death, rumors spread that Holmes had faked his execution, and his body was exhumed in 2017 for testing. Dental records determined that it was in fact Holmes in the grave.

Sources

  • Editors, History.com. “Murder Castle.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 13 July 2017, www.history.com/topics/crime/murder-castle.
  • Hirschlag, Allison. “9 Things You Didn't Know About America's First Serial Killer, H.H. Holmes.” Mental Floss, 16 May 2017, mentalfloss.com/article/72642/9-things-you-didnt-know-about-americas-first-serial-killer-hh-holmes.
  • Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City - Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America. Vintage Books, 2004.
  • Pawlak, Debra. “American Gothic: The Strange Life of H.H. Holmes.” The Mediadrome - History - American Gothic: H.H. Holmes, web.archive.org/web/20080611011945/http://www.themediadrome.com/content/articles/history_articles/holmes.htm.