Creator of the infamous Murder Castle in Chicago during the World’s Fair in 1893, H. H. Holmes was a swindler, a murderer, and obsessed with dissection. Just when you think the twisting tale couldn’t get more bizarre, something else happens!
Thank you to Alleybeth for the amazing research on this one!
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1893 was the Chicago World’s Fair, commemorating the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s landing in the Caribbean. Electricity was used throughout the fair, showcasing the fluorescent light bulb. Many were able to ride the first Ferris wheel and try new foods and brands that would go on to become everyday staples.
Four times the size of the previous World’s Fair in Paris, Chicago went for broke, trying to recover from the economic and social downturn that resulted from the Great Chicago Fire just two decades before. The fair was spread out over 600 acres and included 200 buildings. It is estimated that as many as 27 million people flocked to the fair from May to October. Many in Chicago took advantage of this influx of visitors to set up hotels and lodgings to cash in on out-of-towners who would need places to stay. Many came and went with little to no issue; however, those that stayed at The Castle on 63rd and Wallace were rarely ever seen leaving. The building looked unassuming, with a drug store on the bottom floor and lodgings and living spaces above. But this building would soon be known as The Murder Castle and its owner, Dr. Henry H. Holmes, The Arch Fiend.
ORIGINS OF A FIEND
Herman Mudgett was born in Gilmanton, New Hampshire, on May 16, 1861. Many names of his down devisement would later call Herman, but H. H. Holmes would be his lasting legacy.
Young Holmes was raised in a strict household and was often regarded as a strange child. He was often bullied at school due to his “odd demeanor” and good grades. At home, his father used harsh discipline. His father did not spare the rod, would isolate Holmes and his siblings in their rooms, and deny them food. Some report that he would douse rags in kerosene and hold them over the children’s mouths to keep them quiet.
During these formative years, Holmes often took refuge in the forest, where he began to catch and dissect animals. In his “confession,” Holmes shares that one incident in particular, which he claimed helped him face his fear of death and sparked his interest in human anatomy. There was a doctor’s office on the way to school, and he often expressed fear of the office due to the skeleton. One day, some of his bullies forced him into the office and made him touch and stare at the skeleton. Holmes shared that he was initially terrified, but the longer he stared, the more fascinated he became.
We do not know when Holmes started killing; however, many stories in the Gilmanton area indicate that he may have graduated from animals to humans at a young age.
Even as a small child, Holmes was considered reclusive, but he had one friend, Tom, who he often spent time with. When he was 11, Holmes and Tom explored an abandoned house in the area. During their exploration, Tom fell from the landing and died. Witnessing his friend die would have been bad enough, but many believe he pushed Tom from the landing.
Additionally, there are rumors that Holmes may have killed two of his cousins. Both drowned, and Holmes was the only one with them. Records are not clear on whether these deaths happened, but there were other odd examples of children dying through the years that Holmes lived in Gilmanton. On the show American Ripper, investigators found unusual child deaths listed without a specific cause of death. Most of these accusations are steeped in local folklore, but some believe that Holmes started murdering as a child.
In 1878, H. H. Holmes married Clara Levering. At 19, he was still wrapping up his high school education and had aspirations to attend medical school so he could continue his exploration of anatomy.
Holmes and Clara had a son together, but Holmes would remain distant– something people attribute to the emotional distance that Holmes experienced from his father. It was more likely that Holmes’ distance was due to his ulterior motives for marrying Clara in the first place: her family money.
Holmes would leave his wife and child behind and first go to a small medical college in Vermont. He used his wife’s money throughout his education to pay for his tuition and other expenses. However, he rarely came home to see his wife and eventually ghosted her after completing his studies.
Holmes enrolled in the larger Univesity of Michigan medical school, where cadavers were plentiful. It was always noted that Holmes was intelligent but was often a mediocre student. When dissecting cadavers, he excelled.
During this time, Holmes began his criminal career as a fraudster and grave-robber. Medical schools needed cadavers to teach surgeries, anatomy, and other procedures. However, many decried the practice and put measures in place that limited access to bodies that could be used for medical science. As a result, grave robbing became a lucrative criminal enterprise. Grave robbers would watch for new burials, dig them up, and sell them to medical schools. Evidence suggests that Holmes began grave robbing on the side to provide himself with cadavers to work on and earn money. He vehemently denied this later.
H. H. Holmes also began committing insurance fraud. He would take out insurance policies for fictitious people. He would then take a cadaver, use different methods to disguise the body’s identity, and then claim they are the policy’s insuree. He did this throughout his medical school career, sometimes bringing others into his ventures. He also began using some of his myriad aliases while studying to become a doctor.
In 1884, Holmes took and passed his exams and officially became an accredited doctor. He then moves to Chicago and begins going by the name Dr. Henry H. Holmes.
THE MURDER CASTLE
Soon after arriving in Chicago, Holmes began working at a drugstore as a pharmacist and was quickly able to take over the drugstore. It was theorized that he may have killed the couple who owned the store and fraudulently obtained property ownership.
He continued to obtain properties around the city, usually through fraudulent means. He would take out loans for investments and would never pay back those loans. He was a swindler who used aliases to milk people for money. It’s not known if he was continuously in Chicago during this time. However, in 1889, Holmes obtained an empty lot and began building a drugstore and hotel that would come to be known as The Murder Castle. The building would span an entire city block.
Over the next few years, H. H. Holmes drew up plans for what was at first a two-story building but then expanded to three stories. He would hire crews to build for a time and then abruptly fire them just to hire another team. This revolving door of workers kept anyone from realizing the true intentions behind Holmes’ strange designs.
The first floor was a pretty simple set of storefronts. The second floor would eventually become the hotel. However, this floor is supposedly where things started to become strange. The hallways and corridors were maze-like, with stairwells that led to nowhere. Rooms would have multiple doors, some leading to brick walls. Hidden in the walls were peepholes and trapdoors on the floors leading to chutes leading to the basement. It is claimed that Holmes lived on the third floor and rented rooms out to those needing extended lodgings. These rooms were lined with asbestos and had pipes that would pump gas into the rooms, all controlled from Holmes’ office.
The basement was, apparently, the most disturbing part of the building. Chutes would lead into the basement. Vats of acid would be added, and large quantities of quick lime. By the time the World’s Fair made its debut in 1893, The Castle was already open and prepared for the onslaught of visitors.
THE VICTIMS of H. H. Holmes
We have no idea exactly how many people H. H. Holmes killed, nor are we sure when he began killing. Nine deaths were attributed to him. In his confession, Holmes admitted to 21 murders and then later 130. However, he does not name all his victims, nor does he even begin his account with his “first” murder, but rather his second. Some of the people he claimed to have murdered were found to be still alive, leading some to believe that he just wanted to pad his body count to sell his story. That being said, there is strong evidence to suggest who some of his victims may have been.
Many point to Julia and Pearl Conner as Holmes’ first victims. Sometime in 1890-91, Julia and her husband moved into one of the rooms Holmes was renting out with their young daughter, Pearl. Julia started bookkeeping for Holmes, and the two began an affair soon after. Upon learning of his wife’s infidelity, Julia’s husband left, leaving his wife and daughter in The Castle. Julia lived there until she and her daughter disappeared sometime in 1891. It is believed that Holmes may have killed Julia due to her exceptional bookkeeping, as she would have been able to pick up on the discrepancies that would be present due to his many scams. However, Holmes claimed that she died due to complications after an abortion.
Holmes murdered Emeline Cigrand in 1892. Holmes did have accomplices during this time, Benjamin Pitezel being one of note. Pitezel told Holmes about Emeline and convinced her to come work for Holmes in Chicago. Emeline begins working as his stenographer but soon becomes engaged to Holmes. He ends up strangling her on the day they were to marry. Likely to claim some sort of insurance. When her father reached after not hearing from her for a while, Holmes told him that she had left him for another man and was now “Mrs. Phelps.”
Holmes does more or less admit to killing Emeline in his confession, although it is inconsistent as he also claimed she died of yet another botched abortion. Another accomplice of Holmes was a man named Quinlin, who was a caretaker and often helped Holmes with the disposal and cleanup. It was said that the day after Emeline was last seen, the two men were seen carrying out a large trunk.
Minnie and Nannie Williams came from Fort Worth, TX, to stay at the hotel. They were from an affluent family, and Minnie had a property that had been left to her. Some sources say Holmes married Minnie (illegally, he was still married to Clara) and obtained the rights to the land that way. Other sources say that he drew up a fake deed that claimed that Minnie had sold him the property. Both women arrived sometime in 1893 and then, after a time, were not seen again.
Belongings and bones attributed to Emeline, Minnie, Nannie, and Pearl were later found in the furnace. However, there were far more remains that would never be identified.
Holmes reportedly made employees, lodgers, and potential wives take out life insurance policies. He would pay the premiums as long as they made sure to keep him as the sole beneficiary. It is believed that he would kill these people and later claim the insurance. He not only attracted people to his murder castle by offering lodgings, but he also advertised for employees and women interested in potentially marrying him.
The victims of Holmes were asphyxiated by gasses pumped into their rooms, poisoned, strangled, and subjected to all horrible ends. Evidence in the basement indicated that Holmes would dissect and perform experiments on the bodies before dismembering them and either burning them, dissolving them in acid, or burying them in quicklime.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
H. H. Holmes’ downfall was not due to his murderous actions but rather his penchant for fraud. By the end of 1893, creditors were closing in, and an astounding 60 lawsuits had been filed against Holmes by people who had been defrauded.
Holmes also made a mistake when he tried to burn the third floor of The Castle and make an insurance claim. The insurance company and police saw his scheme for what it was and began looking further into his dealings. Holmes was arrested for insurance fraud but released. That being said, he was not off the hook. He knew that if they poked around the building too much, they would find out what he had been up to for years. And so, with his business partner, Benjamin Pitezel, Holmes went on the run.
They first went to Denver, where they continued committing fraud. Holmes married Georgiana York illegally in 1894, and then Pitezel and Holmes split up. Pitezel went to Fort Worth and set everything up for the land that Holmes had stolen from Minnie Williams. He then went onto Philly, where he opened a fake patent office and started the process for an insurance scheme the two men had devised.
Once Pitezel settled the land ownership in Fort Worth, Holmes and his wife headed that way and made plans to build a home on the property. For Holmes, this was to be Castle number two. However, Holmes ends up stealing some horses and tries to sell them in St. Louis, ruining the plans he had laid out for another murder castle.
Holmes was caught and jailed in St. Louis for the stolen horses. While in jail, he met a man named Marion Hedgepeth, letting him in on his life insurance scheme with Pitezel. He tells Hedgepeth that when they go through with the plan, he could have part of the $10 000 if he could help him find a good “attorney.” Holmes got out of jail and joined Pitezel in Philly, where they were to move forward with the plan.
Holmes murders Pitezel soon after he joins him, something he seemed to have planned all along. However, as she was aware of the plan, Mrs. Pitezel was now an issue. He goes to Mrs. Pitezel and tells her that her husband is fine and the plan has been set in motion. He convinces her to let him take three of their five children with him under the ruse of taking them to be with their father. However, he takes the children to Toronto, where he murders them. It is thought that he does intend to kill the entire family to hide his tracks, and the three children were the first steps in that process.
Hedgepeth has yet to hear from Holmes and realizes that he has been duped, so he tells the authorities about the insurance fraud plot, and with that, the authorities are back on Holmes’ trail. As they close in on Holmes, the authorities realize that he has killed Pitezel and has three of the Pitezel children. Pinkerton Detectives managed to find and arrest him in Boston in November of 1894. Evidence suggests that Holmes was planning to flee the country with his third wife. Holmes did not have the children with him, so the authorities continued to backtrack his movements when they discovered burned remains of the three children, two in Toronto and the other in another town that Holmes had hidden out in. Back in Chicago, the police searched The Castle in July 1895 concerning the fraud case and the Pitezel murders when the full extent of Holmes’ treachery was revealed.
The strange layout of The Castle led them to search the basement, and this is where they found various belongings and remains of at least six people. They could attribute some to missing women, but as they were primarily burned remains, there was no way to be entirely sure. Before the murders were known, Holmes was already called the Arch Fiend in the newspapers as they tracked the case of a fraudster and the three children he kidnapped and murdered. The media entered a frenzy when they learned about the now infamous Murder Castle.
H. H. Holmes was brought to Philly, where he was charged with the Pitezel murders. He was tried in October 1895, found guilty, and sentenced to hanging.
While in prison, Holmes wrote his “confession,” which he sold to Hearst for $7,500. He confessed to twenty-seven murders and six attempted murders. However, much of this account is disputed as some of his murder victims were confirmed to be still alive. For instance, the couple that Holmes obtained the drugstore from was alive and well; they had not “disappeared.” His telling of events was also in contradiction to some of the facts. During this time, many speculated how many people Holmes had killed. Nine deaths were more or less connected to Holmes per the physical evidence, and aside from his confession, some estimated 100 to 200 people. However, there truly is no physical evidence to support this, which leaves experts to believe it is likely only the nine.
Famously, Holmes wrote in his confession: “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.”
Holmes was hanged on May 7, 1896. He was buried in an unmarked grave and, per his request, was buried more deeply than conventional and had concrete poured over his casket to prevent it from being opened by grave robbers.
Much of Holmes’ life has been heavily fictionalized, and much of what we think we know about this case is just a myth created by yellow journalism. As stated above, there is no evidence to suggest that Holmes killed hundreds of people. Additionally, the “floor plans” were just made up by journalists to print in the paper. For all we know, the Murder Castle could have been relatively normal, and it was just a laundry chute the media was obsessing over. In reality, the third floor was never finished and was primarily built on swindling more money from investors. As far as we know, no surviving blueprints represent the actual layout of the building. There had been plans to open Holmes’ home as a tourist attraction; however, arsons burned it in August of 1895, and the building was later torn down for a post office in 1938.
Holmes would be compared to The Benders, and later, when Belle Gunness’ crimes were revealed, she would be compared to H. H. Holmes. Many books, shows, and movies have been made about his life and crimes. Many more have references to him, although many are reliant on the mythos of H. H. Holmes and not the reality.
One myth about Holmes was the theory that he managed to escape his execution by buying off prison officials. This was laid to rest in 2017 when Holmes’ great-great-grandson had his body exhumed, and the body was confirmed to be Holmes.
This same grandson believes that Holmes may have also been Jack the Ripper. The series American Ripper is based on his search to prove that H. H. Holmes committed the Jack the Ripper murders in London. There was no good paper trail in Chicago during the time of the murders, so it is believed that Holmes went to London and committed the murders while there. There’s no physical evidence to prove this, nor can it be confirmed that Holmes was ever in London. However, this is a theory that many find compelling.
Holmes used people. When he had no more use for them, he either dropped from their lives or killed them. He was an exceedingly selfish man who had no empathy for others. Amidst his made-up confessions, he skirted taking responsibility for many of his actual crimes.
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Researched by Alley from The Squonk & The Hag