H. H. Holmes
The infamous murderer “H. H. Holmes” was a third-generation English-American who was originally named Herman Webster Mudgett. He was born in Gilmanton, New Hampshire, on May 16th of 1861, to Levi and Theodate. They were highly devout Methodists and strict disciplinarians, who expected great things from their children. Thus, at the age of 16, Mudgett graduated from high school and took teaching jobs in Gilmanton and then in Alton. Then, on July 4th of 1878, he married Clara Lovering in Alton. Two years later, their son, Robert, was born on February 3rd of 1880, in Loudon, New Hampshire.
Herman Mudgett enrolled in the University of Vermont at age 18, but he was dissatisfied with the school and left after the first year. Then, in 1882, the young compulsive con artist entered the University of Michigan’s Department of Medicine and Surgery. He was a short little dandy of a fellow who always wore fine clothes and cologne. The thing was that he had cold blue eyes, but one of them was crooked just like him, so he never looked anyone square in the face otherwise his eyes would cross. Still, he managed to be a very charming and charismatic psychopath who operated more or less undetected.
While he was enrolled in medical school, Mudgett worked in the anatomy lab under Professor Herdman, the chief anatomist. Herman Mudgett also apprenticed in New Hampshire under Dr. Nahum Wight, a noted advocate of human dissection. All of this gave him extensive knowledge of the inner-workings of the human body. The was that Mudgett developed a morbid fascination with cadavers, and he took extreme delight in the uncanny aspects of dissection. The school’s janitor even introduced Mudgett to black-market corpse trafficking. So, he learned to think of corpses as commodities at a time when medical cadavers were frightfully scarce.
That’s when Herman Mudgett started robbing graves to pay his tuition up until he graduated in 1884. Thus, he went from being a horse-thief in New England to a body-snatcher in the Midwest all in the course of becoming a doctor. Mudgett then moved to Mooers Forks, New York, but not long after that, a rumor began to spread that he had been seen with a little boy who later disappeared. When he was confronted about it. Mudgett claimed that the boy went back to his home in Massachusetts. Although no investigation took place, Mudgett quickly left town anyway.
He later traveled to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where he got a job at Norristown State Hospital, but he quit after only a few days of work. He later took a position at a drugstore in Philadelphia, but while he was working there, a boy died after taking medicine that was purchased at that store. Mudgett denied any involvement in the child’s death but immediately left the city. Right before moving to Chicago, Mudgett changed his name to Henry Howard Holmes to avoid the possibility of being exposed by victims of his previous crimes and scams.
Above all else, Dr. H. H. Holmes was a pathological propagandist and an opportunistic capitalist. He swindled everyone he could, including himself. So, having acquired a medical degree, Holmes abruptly left his wife and child behind to fend for themselves. Following this, the young con artist with a medical degree wound up settling down in the Midwest in his mid-twenties. Holmes finally arrived in Chicago in August of 1886. As luck would have it, Holmes found his way into Mrs. Holton’s drugstore at the southwest corner of South Wallace Avenue and West 63rd Street in Englewood, on the south-side of Chicago.
Then, Holmes talked her into hiring him as a pharmacist, partly because her husband Dr. Holton was a fellow Michigan alumnus, so they trusted him to run their drugstore. Then Holmes immediately began to steal stocks from them. He sold those in order to chase the American Dream and amass a small fortune during the Gilded Age. Little did they know that Holmes was an overly ambitious psychopath who was directly tapped into the zeitgeist of the nation. He was the archetypal American businessman, only concerned with profit margins, even at the expense of people and their livelihoods.
In 1887, Holmes bought a lot across the street from the drugstore, with the intention of constructing a grand two-story mixed-use building with apartments on the second floor and retail spaces on the first floor. The building was designed by Charles Berger and Edward Cullen, and the levels were built in phases. The new establishment was meant to be 162 feet long and 50 feet wide, and Holmes employed dozens of contractors to build it. In the process, Holmes fired many of the contractors and never paid them for their work. The first floor was finished in the spring of 1887, and the second floor was completely the following year.
During this time, Holmes purchased a bank vault on credit, and he put it in while the building was under construction, so it was permanently put in place. Then, when he refused to pay for the vault and they wanted to come to repossess it, Holmes said that he would sue them if they damaged his building. Plus, when Holmes declined to pay the architects and the steel company they sued him in 1888. Things got so bad that Edward Moore became Holmes’ personal attorney on every case, earning them both tons of money. Holmes even routinely changed the name of the owner of the property to avoid paying back loans. His wife and mother-in-law were two of the people used in that way.
From the outside, the building was meant to fit in with the surroundings, so it needed to feature six columns in the same pattern seen in the Newman block at 63rd and Stewart. The outside was made of high red brick walls with windows of curving contour whose stained-glass of variegated colors made the place quite striking. The elaborate apothecary was a fancy pharmacy as well as a swanky jewelry store, plus there was a luxurious boarding house above. Inside there were solid wood shelves and counters with glass cases displaying all sorts of things in various colored shiny glass jars and bottles.
In total, the first floor was made up of 35 rooms, 51 doors, and 6 corridors. There were also three dozen rooms upstairs, many of which were very ostentatious. Holmes had designed everything to be as appealing as possible to the patrons. In this way, he was able to lease out five shops on the first floor and rent out offices and bedrooms on the second floor. So, there was a pharmacy, a jewelry store, a barbershop, a restaurant, and a blacksmith on site. Outside, the murder castle stood beside four railroad tracks leading south out of Chicago.
The thing is that everything in the “murder castle” was purchased on credit but never paid for. For instance, one day Holmes bought a bunch of furniture for the restaurant, but later that evening the dealer came around to collect the bill or remove the goods. However, Holmes set out a big spread of food and got him really drunk. By the end of the night, Holmes gave the man a cigar and sent him off laughing, fully reassured that he would have his money the following week. Then, a half an hour after he left, Holmes had wagons out front being loaded up with furniture that he never did pay for.
Holmes took advantage of everyone he could. During one of the building projects, every two or three days a whole new crew was brought in to work on drilling an artisan well. Not long after their work in the alley, a display card went up in the window. It advertised mineral water on tap for five cents a glass. Little did they know that it was really just the city tap water. Holmes claimed that his blue mineral water was a patent medicine that came from his well so he never paid his utility bill. Thus, he was scamming patrons and the water company.
In a much grander kind of scam, Holmes had a device that he claimed could turn a small amount of water into a large amount of gasoline. He had his fake generator secretly hooked up to a real gas generator into which he would pour water and seemingly produce gasoline. He made tens of thousands of dollars from eager investors, including the gas company itself. Holmes was the leading con artist in the world at that time.
As a sexual predator and serial killer, Holmes even put ads in small-town newspapers looking for women to employ, giving him a pool of female murder victims to choose from. Plus, he took out life insurance policies on his employees, naming himself as the beneficiary. In 1888 a girl named Lizzie worked as a waitress in the murder castle and she was suffocated in the vault, becoming his first victim in the building. So, while Jack the Ripper was killing prostitutes across the pond, here in America there was a different kind of killer on the loose.
Holmes used every man, woman, and child that he could. In the process, he had a daughter with his second wife Myrta Belknap, named Lucy Theodate Holmes. She was born inside the murder castle on July 4th of 1889, in Englewood, Chicago, Illinois, destined for a life of disaster. That same year, Julia Connor became a cashier after her family moved to Chicago. Dr. Holmes also leased out the jewelry store and drug store to her husband Ned Connor in 1890 but in 1891 a man named A. L. Jones took over the drugstore. More importantly, this all happened right before the dawn of forensic science.
In 1891, Robert Latimer bribed Holmes to give him money or he would expose all of his guilty secrets. So, Holmes chloroformed Latimer and stashed him away behind a wall where he starved to death. H. H. Holmes also poisoned a woman named Rasine Van Jassand with ferrocyanide of potassium, that same year. He killed Anna Betts by substituting a poisonous ingredient in a prescription that she had filled at the murder castle pharmacy. Holmes also poisoned Edna Van Tassel during this time. At one point, H. H. Holmes proposed to Ned Connor’s sister Gertrude, but when she refused him Holmes murdered her in his office.
Plus, Holmes was cheating on his wife with Ned’s wife. Julia even became pregnant, so on Christmas of 1891, Holmes attempted an abortion that killed Julia. Since Pearl was a witness he poisoned her, as well. Julia’s corpse was sold to a medical school. Her daughter’s remains were put in the incinerator and then Pearl’s bones were buried in the dirt floor of the cellar. After a while, a tenant asked about them but Holmes just shrugged it off. Eventually, he moved the Doyle family into their old apartment, but Julia and Pearl’s belongings were still there. This raised suspicions among the people staying in the building.
The ongoing construction of the murder castle was more or less complete in 1892. Holmes had finally decided to add a third floor to the building, telling investors and suppliers that he intended to use it as a highly profitable hotel during the upcoming World’s Fair. He wanted to make the perfect lodging for tourists. Plus, the building was really long, so by making it taller, the whole thing was proportioned better. In the process of construction, no one who helped build the murder castle really knew anything more than what they needed to know about what they were specifically doing.
In line with this, there were hinged walls, false partitions, and all sorts of creepy features to the murder castle. The whole thing was designed to torment people. The murder castle took on a life of its own. Holmes even got his new tenant Mr. Doyle to help in the shoddy construction with cheap lumber. The maze-like layout of the uppermost floor was purpose-built to disorient everyone, but it rarely got used for anything more than hiding furniture from repossession men. Although, Holmes did chase a few victims here and there from time to time in and around his third-floor office suite.
The murder castle was filled with all the latest inventions, including gas lights. So, every apartment was a potential killing chamber fitted with stopcocks outside that way the gas for the gaslights would flow into the bedrooms. The Beast of Chicago loved to listen to their screaming and gasping through the walls. More importantly, Holmes monitored everyone’s whereabouts. The doors and stairs were linked to an alarm system, so a buzzer would sound in his office when anyone was on the move.
Some doors could only be opened from one side, while some closets had a door on either side. This gave Holmes a great deal of control of the murder castle, which contained about 100 rooms in total, depending on what counted as a room. The point is that once they were inside the murder castle, guests were completely at Holmes’ mercy, which was a quality he didn’t possess. It’s hard to say how many people checked in but never checked out. H. H. Holmes could very well have been the first American serial killer, as well as the most prolific.
In his bizarre triple-decked house of horror, the only room on the third floor that was ever really used was the top floor office. Holmes had hired a man named Joe Owens to help him install a big asbestos-lined safe in the room which was heated by an over-sized potbellied oven. Oftentimes Holmes would use the safe to torture people that he couldn’t swindle, making them sign their name to something only to kill them afterward. In line with this, the whole place was set up to allow Holmes to move corpses without being seen all the way from the vault in his office to his dissection slab in the basement.
First, he would drag a body through the office suite to the bathroom. In that third-floor room, there was a trapdoor to drop the body into the second-floor bathroom below. From there, a corpse could be hauled to a dissection lab next door. At the far end of the lab was a bottomless closet. Below that, on the first floor, there was a corpse catchment platform. To get to the body on it, Holmes went back to the bathroom which had a secret stairway leading down to the platform. Then, he dropped the body down a chute into the basement. This network of rooms made up the central disposal chute in Holmes’ corpse producing factory.
To sell bodies, Holmes built himself a special tar-lined box, so blood wouldn’t leak out of it on the way to market. Holmes had even gotten a furniture mover named Wade Warner to pretend to be the inventor of a brand new kind of glass-blowing furnace. In this way, they were able to fool investors into funding the construction of a large oven in the basement that could generate a few thousand degrees of heat. So, never being one to leave any loose ends, Holmes murdered Warner and cremated him to test out his latest creation.
The basement was also where the mad doctor would butcher corpses to extract the bones from them. This was because medical schools would only pay about 25 dollars for a corpse, but they would pay 170 dollars for an articulated skeleton. That’s why Holmes installed two vats in the basement. One was filled with carbolic acid to dissolve the flesh from bones, and the other was filled with bleach to whiten them. He would then pay Charles Chappell 36 dollars to prepare each skeleton, and the rest was profit.
In 1892 the CPD had to set up a Missing Persons Bureau to trace hundreds of disappearances. In May of that same year, Emeline Cigrand was recruited by Holmes. She was the prettiest girl he ever hired, so they began an affair. Holmes often bought flowers for her and took her out to the evening theater. They always took their lunch together in his office. The couple eventually planned a December wedding together. However, on the 6th, Holmes killed Emeline by locking her in the giant safe and letting her suffocate. Holmes then sold her skeleton.
All the unspeakably vile things that took place in that building peaked in 1893 when countless visitors arrived in huge crowds gathering for the Great Chicago World’s Fair, for months on end. Countless people wound up going missing in the chaos. To make matters worse, hundreds of those incredibly unlucky people met a grisly fate at the hands of the most efficient serial killer of all time. Urbanization and industrialization helped Holmes become a killing machine working on a disassembly line in a factory of death.
Above all else though, Holmes was guilty of much more fraud than murder. He hid things from creditors so well in the murder castle that he could lead them around and open every door to every room, proving to them that their products simply were not there. However, in March of 1893, a laborer was able to tell them where their goods were being hidden. He was paid fifty dollars to take them to a room on the second floor whose door had been covered with wallpaper.
Behind that door, the men from the Toby Furniture Company found a large portion of their property. They continued searching the murder castle for more hidden rooms, finding nearly everything they were looking for. Holmes had managed to sell the rest. In the wake of this, creditors flooded into the murder castle. One company found a few hundred dollars worth of their crockery stashed in the ceiling above the kitchen in the restaurant.
Regardless, between May 1st and October 30th of 1893 millions of people visited the exposition’s main grounds, known as White City. There, at the Chicago’s World Fair, onlookers could see a moving sidewalk and an elevated train. They could also ride an enormous Ferris wheel, from atop which they could see the “World’s Fair Hotel”. Little did they know that the murder castle was owned by the notorious “White City Devil”.
Just three miles west of the Chicago’s World Fair, deep within the walls of the murder castle, a number of victims suffered agonizing deaths that easily rivaled the torture that was inflicted on people in medieval dungeons. Things got so busy in the abattoir that Holmes had to obtain chloroform up to ten times a week from Mr. Erickson at the pharmacy. Holmes was murdering so many people that he had a backlog of bodies. Still, Holmes continued being the scoundrel that he was.
In the end, after Holmes had previously taken out four different insurance policies on the murder castle, he set fire to the third floor. However, the agencies refused to pay and the police were called in to investigate for fraud. When the cops came to question him they saw all the packages of body parts waiting for shipment. However, Holmes had already fled the scene of the crime. He was later arrested for the murder of Benjamin Pitezel, his partner crime. Thus, H. H. Holmes was executed on May 7th of 1896, nine days before his 35th birthday.