“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.”
—From Dr. H.H. Holmes’ confession in 1896, before he was hanged to death
He started off his medical and criminal career as a swindler and subsequently added “serial killer” to his resume. His birth name was Herman Webster Mudgett but he was better known by his alias, Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, or H.H. Holmes. At an early age, Mudgett expressed an interest in medicine and was said to have practiced surgery (some called it torture) on animals. He also expressed an utter fascination and obsession with death. Mudgett received his medical degree in 1884 from the University of Michigan Medical School. As a medical student, he utilized his skills as a swindler, a fraud, and a con artist. He devised an elaborate scam where he would collect money on false life insurance claims. Mudgett would steal cadavers from the university laboratory and dismember the bodies. But first he’d take out life insurance policies on each deceased person. He would claim that the people were accidently killed and then collected the insurance money. In other words, he would get life insurance for nonexistent people and then present the mutilated corpses to collect on their policies. Holmes actually financed his medical education this way.
After graduation from medical school, Mudgett moved to Chicago in 1886 and changed his last name to Holmes. He found work in a drugstore as a pharmacist. Shortly afterward, he purchased the pharmacy from the owner’s widow, Elizabeth Holton. Holmes had a customized 3-story, block-long mansion built on a lot he purchased, which was located across the street from the drugstore he now owned. People in the neighborhood referred to it as a “castle.” (After Holmes was captured and his story revealed, the nickname changed to “Murder Castle.”)
The structure was built specifically to accommodate torture, and with murder in mind. On the ground floor, Holmes set up his pharmacy and other various shops. However, the rest of his tailor-built house was very strange indeed. The second and third floors housed Holmes’ personal office plus a maze of over 100 rooms that had no windows. There were oddly angled hallways that created a labyrinth; doors that opened from the outside but did not open from inside; stairways that led to nowhere; secret tunnels and passageways; hidden crawl spaces, chambers, and rooms; doorways that led to brick walls; trapdoors; soundproof rooms; fake walls; and cleverly disguised chutes. The basement contained a laboratory that was equipped with medical instruments meant for dissection and included pits filled with acid, 2 large furnaces, bottles of various poisons, and even a medieval-style stretching rack! In addition, his basement contained gas pipes that connected to various rooms. Holmes’ bedroom had controls to the gas pipes so he could pump deadly gas to specific rooms whenever he chose to do so. During the construction of the building, Holmes frequently changed builders so that he was the only person who completely understood the design and all of its bizarre features. Once his house of horrors was completed, Holmes’ killing spree took off.
Most of Holmes’ victims were blonde women, but he did murder some men and children as well. He would lure women to his house with offers of employment. Most of the women had to take out a life insurance policy as a required condition of their employment. Holmes would pay the premiums, but he was also the beneficiary. Other women he killed were his lovers. He also had a knack for getting engaged, which enabled him to find further victims.
Methods of execution included asphyxiation administered by locking victims in soundproof bedrooms fitted with gas lines and then releasing the toxic vapors. Next to his office was a large bank vault; some victims were locked in and left to suffocate. The dead bodies were dropped down the secret chutes into the basement. Some bodies were cremated in his furnaces or placed in lime pits to disintegrate. But many of the victims’ bodies were meticulously dissected, stripped of their flesh, and crafted into skeletons. All the while, Holmes was making money off his murders. While in medical school he made a lot of connections, which he parlayed into selling his victims’ organs and skeletons to hospitals and medical colleges at a hefty profit.
His killing spree increased greatly in 1893, when the World’s Fair opened in nearby Chicago. Holmes opened part of his house as a hotel in order to lure women into his home. He rented rooms to young women from the area as well as to female tourists visiting the World’s Fair. Holmes was all set; at this point, he had a large pool of females he could choose from, which included his employees and hotel guests.
Holmes tortured some of his victims before killing them. Estimates of how many people he killed vary widely—anywhere from 20 to 100—and some estimates even run as high as 200. When police raided Murder Castle, they commented that some of the dead bodies they found in his basement were so badly dismembered that it was difficult to tell how many bodies there actually were scattered about.
After the Chicago World’s Fair closed, Holmes left Chicago and moved to Fort Worth, Texas because he had creditors crawling all over him; it seems Holmes never paid his bills. At that time, Holmes had befriended Benjamin Pitezel, an ex-convict whom he recruited to be his partner in crime. The duo traveled to different towns committing various frauds and scams as a team of flimflam men. However, in 1894, Holmes was arrested for horse theft and landed in a Texas jail. While in jail, Holmes met fellow inmate Marion Hedgepeth and convinced him to join forces with himself and Pitezel to continue their criminal activities. Now with 2 partners, Holmes returned to his roots and went back to his bread-and-butter life insurance scam, which eventually led to his undoing.
An elaborate scheme was to take place in Philadelphia. Holmes had Pitezel take out a life insurance policy and then fake his own death so Pitezel’s wife could collect the $10,000 insurance policy payout. The money was to be split among Holmes, Pitezel, and former cellmate Hedgepeth, who provided the name of an unscrupulous attorney who would prepare the fraudulent paperwork. The shady attorney changed Pitezel’s name to B.F. Perry and set him up with a new identity as an inventor, who was to be killed and disfigured in a lab explosion. Holmes was to randomly murder a man, mutilate the body, and present it to the insurance company as Pitezel, to cash in on the $10,000 policy payout. Holmes double-crossed Pitezel by murdering him in order to collect his cash by presenting a genuine corpse of Pitezel. Holmes also two-timed Hedgepeth and didn’t pay the man his fair share of the deal. Hedgepeth went to the authorities and ratted out Holmes for revenge.
Meanwhile, Holmes had convinced Pitezel’s widow that her husband was safe and hiding out in London. But he worried about Pitezel’s children being potential witnesses to the scam. The couple had 5 children. Holmes’ solution was to murder them. Holmes somehow conned Pitezel’s wife into bringing her children on a trip with him to Canada. In another bizarre and inexplicable twist, Holmes travelled with 3 of her children, separately from Mrs. Pitezel, who travelled with her baby and oldest daughter on simultaneous routes. Holmes would periodically touch base with Mrs. Pitezel all the way into Toronto!
The plot thickens: the Pinkerton National Detective Agency was tracking down Holmes off the lead they got from ex-con Hedgepeth. Holmes murdered 2 of Pitezel’s children in Toronto and then continued traveling until he was arrested in Boston on November 17, 1894. The arrest finally ended his murder spree. Holmes was initially charged with insurance fraud and jailed. Shortly afterward, he was charged with the murder of 3 children. The murder investigation uncovered the decomposed bodies of 2 Pitezel girls, which were buried in a cellar in Toronto, and Pitezel’s son’s remains were found in a cottage Holmes rented in Indianapolis; he had chopped up the boy’s body and then burned it. Pieces of the boy’s teeth and bits of his bone were discovered embedded in the chimney wall of the cottage.
While in custody, he confessed to killing 27 people in Chicago, Indianapolis, and Toronto. Holmes was hanged in Philadelphia on May 7, 1896. In his depravity, Dr. H.H. Holmes deserves to be ranked right up there with American serial killers such as Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy. Holmes’ life as a serial killer has been the subject of a documentary and several books, most notably, the 2003 best-seller The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson.
- The Devil in the White City. Random House website. https://www.randomhouse.com/crown/devilinthewhitecity/holmes.html.
- H.H. Holmes. Biography website. http://www.biography.com/print/profile/hh-holmes-307622.
- May 7, 1896: a serial killer is hanged. History website. http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/a-serial-killer-is-hanged.
- Placko D. Chilling tour inside serial killer H.H. Holmes` `Murder Castle.` My Fox Chicago website. Updated May 6, 2013. http://www.myfoxchicago.com/story/22111095/chilling-tour-inside-secret-tunnel-of-serial-killer-hh-holmes-murder-castle.
- Ramsland K. H. H. Holmes: master of illusion. Crime Library website. http://www.crimelibrary.com/serial_killers/history/holmes/index_1.html.