.H. Holmes, also known as Henry Howard Holmes, was born Hermann Webster Mudgett in 1861. He changed his name after graduating from high school and embarking on a medical career that provided him with the skills needed to conduct his twisted experiments and gruesome acts.
What H.H. Holmes did to his victims lives on in infamy, as he is credited with being one of the first serial slayers in America. Holmes built his murder castle – named for its specific purpose of providing him with a place to slay his targets – in Chicago, and opened its doors to tourists visiting the nearby World’s Fair in 1893. Some, if not all, of those tourists never made it home from the White City. What did the Devil in the White City do to them?
Holmes was detained by police in 1894 for insurance fraud, although the charges against him quickly expanded to include mass slaying. He received a capital sentence, and was hanged in May 1896. It’s believed that he took hundreds of lives, although he only confessed to ending 27. These H.H. Holmes facts are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
He Built a Hotel-Turned-Murder Castle
Holmes used the money that he received from committing insurance fraud to construct his “murder castle” in Chicago. It was technically a three-story hotel, complete with a uniquely constructed second and third floor. There were gas chambers, trap doors, hidden rooms, disorienting maze-like hallways, chutes leading down into the basement (perfect for dumping cadavers), and other horrific features. In some rooms, blowtorches would set people on fire, while another was dubbed “the hanging room.” He also had each floor set up so that if someone moved around on it, an alarm system would sound.
The structure was technically a hotel, but it quickly became used as a machine for ending lives.
He Made His Fiancée Vanish Without A Trace
Holmes met Minnie Williams while out of town on a business trip. Williams was a teacher in Texas, and she fell for him very fast. They entered into a relationship, and she moved to Chicago to be with him. Her sister Annie joined them, too. Holmes proposed to Minnie, and suggested that she give him ownership of her property in Fort Worth, Texas.
After the transfer went through, she disappeared without a trace. Only some of her belongings, including a distinctive gold chain, were ever found.
He Suffocated His Fiancée’s Sister In A Hotel Bank Vault
Annie Williams was the sister of his wealthy fiancée Minnie. Unlike Minnie, who vanished, Annie’s remains were later recovered from Holmes’s creepy hotel. His hotel had been designed with a bank vault, which he used to keep records, store valuables – and commit heinous acts.
He asked Annie to go into the vault and retrieve some files for him, and then he swung the door shut, sealing her inside. She perished of suffocation after slowly using up all of the oxygen in the vault. Investigators found scratches from her fingernails, showing that she had tried to claw her way out.
He Gassed A Friend And Set Him On Fire, Then Took His Children
The demise of Benjamin Pitezel was a tricky one, since he was one of Holmes’s co-conspirators, as well as one of his targets. He and Holmes arranged for Pitezel to fake his own passing so that Holmes could collect his life insurance money. Some of that money would then go to Pitezel himself.
However, the plan went awry when Holmes actually ended Pitezel. Holmes then ran off with several of Pitezel’s children.
He Took The Lives Of Three Of Pitezel’s Children
Holmes ended the Pitezel children’s father, Benjamin, in order to collect on his life insurance policy.
He then ran off with three of Pitezel’s children – Alice, Nellie, and Howard – and took them to Toronto, where he soon took their lives, as well.
He Asphyxiated His Victims With Gas Or Left Them To Perish In A Sealed Room
Holmes’s hotel was filled with all kinds of treacherous spaces. The rooms had well-sealed windows and doors that made it easy for Holmes to turn them into gas chambers. All that he had to do was lock the door and turn on the gas jets that he had built into the space.
There was also a room that had no windows or doors. The only access to it was via a trapdoor in the ceiling. Holmes would drop a person down there, seal up the trapdoor, and let them perish of thirst and starvation.
He Sold His Targets’ Organs And Bones To Medical Schools
After Holmes ended some of his targets, they wound up in his basement laboratory, where they were dissected and then sold to medical schools.
He sold their organs, their bones, and in some cases, their fully articulated skeletons. This made it tough to determine exactly how many lives he took.
He Had A Secret Hanging Chamber
One of the most disturbing rooms in the hotel was the hanging room.
Here, Holmes would end his targets by hanging them from the neck.
He Forced His Mistress To Overdose On Chloroform, Then Ended Her Daughter
Julia Smythe was one of Holmes’s mistresses. Smythe, one of his pharmacy employees, was married when the affair began. Her husband found out and ran off, leaving her and their daughter Pearl in Holmes’s clutches.
Smythe and her daughter eventually disappeared, with Holmes claiming that Smythe perished from a botched abortion attempt.
He Burned Some People Alive With Blowtorches Hidden In The Walls
During the World’s Fair in Chicago, Holmes offered rooms to out-of-town visitors. They paid to stay in his hotel, only to end up never leaving the city again.
Some rooms had blowtorches built into them. All Holmes had to do was pull a switch and the person in that space would burn alive.
He Made The Widow Who Owned His Building Disappear
H.H. Holmes began his life of villainy while still in medical school. He took out life insurance policies on the school cadavers, then mutilated them to look as though they had perished in a tragic accident. He would then collect the policy money.
While this helped him cover his expenses, he had to get a job after graduating and receiving his medical license. He started out working as a pharmacist in Chicago. The owner of the drugstore perished, and Holmes offered to buy the entire store from the owner’s widow. She agreed, and then vanished after the paperwork was signed and Holmes officially took possession of the store. She was never to be heard from again, although Holmes claimed she moved to California. It is believed that she was one of his first targets.
The Floor Plan Was Designed Just To Disorient And Trap Guests
Even the hallways and doors of the Murder Castle were designed to guide H. H. Holmes’s victims to their deaths. Some rooms had multiple doors, while others had none at all. With so many ways to get from one side of the hotel to another, only someone familiar with the design would really know the best way to get around quickly.
The south end of the hotel’s second floor, on the other hand, was a claustrophobic mess of narrow, doorless hallways set at odd angles. Holmes used this carefully planned layout to mislead, confuse, and ambush his guests, who never stood a chance of finding the right way out again.
His Perverse Interests Started With Childhood Bullying
Holmes’s father abused Holmes, who was unusually bright. Holmes was also often picked on by his classmates. One day, a group of schoolmates locked him in a doctor’s office with a human skeleton.
At first, Holmes was scared, but as he stood there, he found himself overcome with morbid fascination. Soon after, he became obsessed with lifeless bodies and began dissecting animals.
He Wanted To Make Sure His Body Would Never Be Dissected
Holmes received capital punishment on May 7, 1896. He reportedly acted extremely calm in the moments leading up to his passing, but he did have one unusual request. He asked that his coffin be encased in cement and buried 10 feet deep. Possibly, Holmes feared becoming the target of grave robbers like himself.
Holmes’s hanging was not a neat affair. The initial fall failed to break his neck, and instead he dangled from the rope until he perished from a slow asphyxiation almost 15 minutes later.
How HH Holmes Went From Troubled Youth To America’s First Serial Killer
By the time H. H. Holmes was hanged for murdering his business partner in 1896, he had already committed numerous atrocities in Chicago, IL, as well as various scams and frauds throughout the United States.
Holmes is thought to have killed at least nine people, although some research estimates his kill count is much higher, potentially in the hundreds as a result of his Murder Castle in Chicago during the World’s Fair in 1893.
H.H. Holmes’s origin story has been widely sensationalized by both curious readers and writers (2003’s The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson details Holmes’s murder spree in Chicago and was a National Book Award Finalist) as well as by Holmes himself.
Before his execution, Holmes wrote several lengthy confessions at the payment of Hearst, all of which made contradictory claims about his life and his participation in various murders. In the confessions, Holmes claimed to have killed 27 people, although many of those named were still alive when he wrote it.
No details about Holmes’s childhood (real or fabricated) can make sense of the horror he unleashed on the world as America’s first serial killer through his web of murder and deceit.
Holmes’s Parents (May Have Been) Physically And Mentally Abusive
H.H. Holmes was born Herman Webster Mudgett in the small town of Gilmanton, NH, in 1861. Both Holmes’s parents were intensely religious, and used their Methodist beliefs to parent with cold, strict discipline.
According to some sources, this mistreatment included forcing the children into long periods of isolation and making them go without food. There are also claims that Holmes’s father used rags dunked in kerosene to quiet the cries of his children.
However, other researchers believe such claims about Holmes’s parents are false, and by all accounts he had a regular upbringing. Holmes himself wrote:
That I was well trained by loving and religious parents, I know, and any deviations in my after life from the straight and narrow way of rectitude are not attributable to the want of a tender mother’s prayers or a father’s control, emphasized, when necessary, by the liberal use of the rod wielded by no sparing hand.
Known as a serial liar and fraudster, it’s difficult to know what to believe about Holmes’s childhood years.
His Fascination With Dead Bodies Started From Being Bullied
At school, Holmes was bullied for his intelligence and odd nature. The bullying climaxed in a traumatic episode wherein schoolmates ambushed Holmes and forced him into a doctor’s office where they placed the hands of a skeleton on his face. Holmes claimed the incident sparked his interest in anatomy and medicine:
It was a wicked and dangerous thing to do to a child of tender years and health… but it proved an heroic method of treatment, destined ultimately of curing me of my fears, and to inculcate in me, first, a strong feeling of curiosity, and, later a desire to learn, which resulted years afterwards in my adopting medicine as a profession.
Seeking respite from his home life, young Holmes often retreated into the forest around his family’s house where he started to experiment with the dissection of animals.
Holmes began by cutting up the bodies of small reptiles and other small creatures, then moved on to mammals, including rabbits and dogs. This type of behavior is said to have sparked Holmes’s interest in human anatomy. It also made him comfortable with dissection.
He May Have Killed His Childhood Best Friend
When Holmes was 11 years old, his childhood best friend Tom – who was older – fell from the landing of an abandoned home the two boys had been exploring.
Holmes said he saw Tom fall, but in hindsight, many believe that he could’ve been close enough to push Tom off the landing.
Holmes Won Over His First Wife By Threatening Other Suitors
Holmes (although he still went by Herman Webster Mudgett at the time) met his future first wife Clara Lovering when they were both teenagers. After he saw Lovering flirting with someone else at a church gathering, Holmes approached the couple and threatened the boy with violence if he didn’t leave.
Holmes then escorted the seemingly impressed Lovering home, officially beginning their courtship which quickly escalated into a marriage when they were both 17.
He May Have Beaten His First Wife, Clara Lovering
According to some sources, housemates from Clara Lovering’s short time living with Holmes at the University of Michigan remembered regular arguments between the two and seeing Lovering with bruises.
While it’s difficult to say if these events occurred – as no police report was filed – Lovering and the baby did eventually leave Holmes, and the two never reunited. They were, however, still formally married when Holmes died.
When He Was In College, He Began Using Dead Bodies To Commit Insurance Fraud
During his medical studies at the University of Michigan, Holmes began to steal bodies from the school’s laboratory then mangeling or burning the remains. By making the bodies unrecognizable, he collected money on life insurance policies after the bodies were found and deemed accidental deaths.
Holmes also stole bodies from graves and morgues to sell them to medical schools, or to use for his own research and dissection. This scam earned Holmes thousands of dollars.
His Landlord Found A Dead Baby Under His Bed
There are many stories recalling Holmes’s fascination with anatomy and the body during his childhood and subsequent years in medical school. One claim came from his landlady who recalled following a foul stench into Holmes’s room where she found a dead infant underneath his bed.
Allegedly, Holmes claimed the body was part of his homework. While this didn’t result in any legal action, he was told not to bring his work home with him again.
He Regularly Got Engaged To Steal Money From His Fianceés
Holmes married Clara Lovering, the daughter of a wealthy farmer, in 1878 and she gave birth to their son Robert Lovering Mudgett. Holmes then used a combination of Lovering’s money and the funds from various life insurance scams to pay for medical school at the University of Michigan.
This was not the last time Holmes preyed upon the women who loved him for financial gain. On his way to Chicago after medical school (while still legally married to Lovering), Holmes tied the knot with Myrta Belknap. Belknap’s parents were wealthy and provided Holmes with enough money to purchase the vacant lot where his Murder Castle was eventually built when he got to Chicago.
Holmes put the deed under the name of his new wife and her mother in order to keep the creditors from catching on.
He Fled To Chicago To Avoid A Mountain Of Debt
After Holmes graduated from medical school he worked a variety of odd jobs, including teaching school and working as a doctor in Mooers Forks, NY. Holmes wracked up a great deal of debt during this time, often making up excuses to default on rent.
Eventually Holmes left town in the middle of the night to avoid paying. He wound up in Chicago, IL, the city where he later built his Murder Castle and kill at least nine people, although some estimates reach up into the hundreds of victims.
He Changed His Name To H.H. Holmes
Contrary to popular belief, Holmes did not change his name to reflect or comment on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes in any way.The Great Detective Holmes didn’t appear in print until 1887, a year after real-life Holmes changed his name.
Instead, Herman Webster Mudgett changed his name to Harry Howard Holmes when he sat for his pharmaceutical licensure test in May of 1886, just after moving to Chicago to find work in a drug store.In doing so, Holmes kicked off his career as a serial killer that peaked during the 1893 World’s Fair.
He Was Quite The Womanizer
Holmes was notoriously charming and likeable. Apparently it was common practice for him to become engaged to a woman, ask her to sign over her property and wealth to him, then tell any suspicious people his beloved had left town suddenly.
This charm and ease served Holmes well when he employed and hosted young women in his Murder Castle in 1893 Chicago, IL. Preying upon women who were new in town, Holmes gained their trust before murdering them. He also reportedly got in trouble while in school for making a woman believe they were engaged.
He Was Constantly In Trouble With The Law, But Not For Murder
Even before his murder spree, H.H. Holmes was a notorious scammer and conman. He swindled money from various women, insurance companies, and landlords in multiple cities. Holmes also refused to pay bills, even on his Murder Castle. He told the builders he was not responsible or liable for their payment, as he’d put the building under his mother-in-law’s name.
Holmes was also known to buy items on credit and sell them for cash, and he was constantly the target of lawsuits. He even sold scam cures for various health problems at his pharmacy. In Erik Larson’s book The Devil in the White City, the author claims the Chicago chief of police had even represented Holmes in small “routine commercial lawsuits” before Holmes was brought in on murder charges.
Authorities Never Found The Bodies Of His First Victims
While accounts vary on who Holmes’s first victim was, it’s widely accepted that Julia Connor – Holmes’s lover – and her 8-year-old daughter Pearl were the first casualties of Holmes’s murder spree.
Holmes had been taking out debts in Connor’s name and listing her as a co-founder of multiple businesses. Connor and Pearl vanished on July 4, 1891, and their bodies were never found.
Not long after Connor’s disappearance, Holmes installed a basement furnace, and his secretary Emeline Cigrand also went missing. Around this time, many women in Holmes’s circle went missing.
Holmes Completed And Operated His Murder Castle
In 1887, Holmes purchased a vacant lot on the same street as the pharmacy where he worked and began construction on his Murder Castle, complete with hidden passageways and compartments, trapdoors, and secret staircases.
While estimates vary, some sources suggest Holmes may have killed hundreds of people while the Castle was in operation, mostly young women who were visiting or working in Chicago for the World’s Fair. Holmes confessed to 27 murders, however only nine have been plausibly attributed to him, and many of those he confessed to murdering were still alive.
Ultimately, it was the murder of his business partner Benjamin Pietzel (and allegedly Pietzel’s three children) that finally put Holmes behind bars and eventually on the gallows, effectively ending the first serial killing spree in America.
- 14 Horrifying Facts About H.H. Holmes And His Nightmarish Murder Castle, Ranker, 15 December 2019, by Amanda Sedlak-Hevener https://www.ranker.com/list/hh-holmes-castle/amandasedlakhevener?utm_source=sendgrid_newsletter&utm_medium=WeirdHistory&utm_campaign=Active
- How HH Holmes Went From Troubled Youth To America’s First Serial Killer, Ranker, 15 March 2019, by Hannah Gilham https://www.ranker.com/list/hh-holmes-origin-story/hannah-gilham?utm_source=sendgrid_newsletter&utm_medium=WeirdHistory&utm_campaign=Active