|Intro||American serial killer|
|A.K.A.||Herman Webster Mudgett, Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, Henry Howard Holmes|
|Was||Murderer Serial killer Fraudster Criminal Con artist Pharmacist Physician Hotel manager|
|From||United States of America|
|Field||Business Crime Healthcare|
|Birth||16 May 1861, Gilmanton, Belknap County, New Hampshire, USA|
|Death||7 May 1896, Moyamensing Prison, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, USA (aged 35 years)|
|Residence||Chicago, Cook County, Illinois, USA|
Herman Webster Mudgett (May 16, 1861 – May 7, 1896), better known as Dr. Henry Howard Holmes or H. H. Holmes, was an American con artist and serial killer active between 1891 and 1894. By the time of his execution in 1896, Holmes had engaged in a lengthy criminal career that included insurance fraud, forgery, swindling, three to four bigamous illegal marriages, horse theft and murder. His most notorious crimes took place in Chicago around the time of the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893.
Despite his confession of 27 murders, including some people who were verifiably still alive, Holmes was convicted and sentenced to death for only one murder, that of business partner and accomplice Benjamin Pitezel. It is believed he also killed three of Pitezel's children, as well as three mistresses, the child of one mistress and the sister of another. Holmes was hanged on May 7, 1896.
Much of the lore attached to Holmes concerns the so-called "Murder Castle", a three-story building he commissioned in Chicago. Details about the building, along with many of his alleged crimes, are considered exaggerated or fabricated for sensationalistic tabloid pieces—some accounts estimating his body count could be as high as 133 or even 200. Many of these inaccuracies have persisted due to the combination of ineffective police investigation and hyperbolic yellow journalism of the period, which are often cited as historical record. Holmes gave various contradictory accounts of his life, initially claiming innocence and later that he was possessed by Satan. His propensity for lying has made it difficult for researchers to ascertain the truth on the basis of his statements. For example: he claimed that Dr. Robert Leacock: a fellow medical school classmate, was one of his first murder victims in 1886 he killed for insurance money; when in fact, Dr. Leacock died on October 5, 1889, in Watford, Ontario, Canada.
Since the 1990s, Holmes has often been described as a serial killer. In his book about Holmes, author Adam Selzer writes: "Just killing several people isn't necessarily enough for most definitions [of a serial killer]. More often, it has to be a series of similar crimes, committed over a period of time, usually more to satisfy a psychological urge on the killer's part than any more practical motive." He added: "The murders we can connect [Holmes] to generally had a clear motive: someone knew too much, or was getting in his way, and couldn't be trusted. The murders weren't simply for love of bloodshed but a necessary part of furthering his swindling operations and protecting his lifestyle."
H. H. Holmes was born Herman Webster Mudgett on May 16, 1861, in Gilmanton, New Hampshire. He was the third-born child of Levi Horton Mudgett and Theodate Page Price, both of whom were descended from the first English settlers in the area. As an adolescent, Holmes attended Phillips Exeter Academy before graduating high school with honors from Gilmanton Academy when he was 16.
Holmes' parents were both devout Methodists. His father was from a farming family, and at times he worked as a farmer, trader and house painter. He was also reportedly a heavy drinker who cruelly mistreated his family. Holmes also faced bullying by classmates due to his outstanding academic capabilities. In one incident he was forced to stand in front of a human skeleton and put the skeleton's hands on his face in an effort to frighten him. Initially terrified, Holmes later discovered the experience to be intriguing and claimed that it helped him overcome his worries. Holmes subsequently developed an obsession with death as a result of the encounter, and later took up the pastime of dissecting animals.
On July 4, 1878, Holmes married Clara Lovering in Alton, New Hampshire. They had only one son, Robert Lovering Mudgett (February 3, 1880 – November 3, 1956), who was born in Loudon. Robert went on to become a certified public accountant and served as city manager of Orlando, Florida. Holmes eventually enrolled in the University of Vermont in Burlington at age 18 but was dissatisfied with the school and left after one year.
In 1882, Holmes entered the University of Michigan's Department of Medicine and Surgery and graduated in June 1884 after passing his exams. While enrolled, he worked in the anatomy lab under Professor William James Herdman, then the chief anatomy instructor, and the two were said to have been engaged in facilitating graverobbing to supply medical cadavers. Holmes had apprenticed in New Hampshire under Nahum Wight, a noted advocate of human dissection. Years later, when Holmes was suspected of murder and claimed to be nothing but an insurance fraudster, he admitted to using cadavers to defraud life insurance companies several times in college.
Housemates later recalled that Holmes was physically violent with Clara, and in 1884, before his graduation, she moved back to New Hampshire and knew little of him afterwards. After he moved to Mooers, New York, a rumor spread that Holmes had been seen with a little boy who later disappeared. Holmes claimed the boy went back to his home in Massachusetts. No investigation took place and Holmes quickly left town. He later traveled to Philadelphia and was hired as a keeper at Norristown State Hospital but quit after a few days. He then took a position at a drugstore in Philadelphia, but while he was working there a boy died after taking medicine that was purchased at the store. Holmes denied any involvement in the child's death and immediately left the city. Before moving to Chicago, he changed his name to "Henry Howard Holmes" to avoid the possibility of being exposed by victims of his previous scams.
In late-1886, while still legally married to Clara, Holmes married 24-year-old Myrta Belknap in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He filed for divorce from Clara a few weeks after marrying Myrta, alleging infidelity on her part. The claims could not be proven and the suit went nowhere. Surviving paperwork indicated that Clara probably was never even informed of the suit. In any case, the divorce was never finalized; it was dismissed on June 4, 1891, on the grounds of "want of prosecution." Holmes had one daughter with Myrta, Lucy Theodate Holmes (July 4, 1889 – December 29, 1956), who was born in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago. Lucy later became a public schoolteacher. Holmes lived with Myrta and Lucy in Wilmette, Illinois, and spent most of his time in Chicago tending to business. He married Georgiana Yoke on January 17, 1894, in Denver, Colorado, while still married to both Clara and Myrta.
Illinois and the Murder Castle
Holmes arrived in Chicago in August 1886, which is when he began using the pseudonym "H. H. Holmes". Soon after his arrival he came across a drugstore at the northwest corner of South Wallace Avenue and West 63rd Street in Englewood. The drugstore's owner, Elizabeth Holton, gave Holmes a job; he proved to be a hardworking employee, eventually buying the store. Contrary to several accounts Holmes did not kill Dr. E. S. Holton.Holmes purchased an empty lot across the street, where construction began in 1887 for a two-story mixed-use building, with apartments on the second floor and retail spaces, including a new drugstore, on the first. When Holmes declined to pay the architects or the steel company, Aetna Iron and Steel, they took him to court in 1888. In 1892, he added a third floor, telling investors and suppliers he intended to use it as a hotel during the upcoming World's Columbian Exposition.
Contemporary accounts report that Holmes built the hotel to lure in tourists visiting the Exposition in order to kill them and sell their skeletons to nearby medical schools. Although he did have a history of selling stolen cadavers to medical schools, Holmes had acquired these wares through graverobbing rather than murder. Likewise, there is no evidence that Holmes ever murdered Exposition-goers on the premises. The yellow press labeled the building as Holmes' "Murder Castle", claiming the structure contained secret torture chambers, trapdoors, gas chambers and a basement crematorium; none of these sensationalised claims were true. Other accounts stated that the hotel was made up of over a hundred rooms and laid out like a maze, with doors opening into brick walls, windowless rooms and dead-end staircases. In reality, the third-floor hotel was moderately sized, largely unremarkable and uncompleted due to Holmes' disputes with the builders. It did contain some hidden rooms, but they were used for hiding furniture Holmes bought on credit and did not intend to pay for.Holmes did not kill an alleged "Castle" victim Miss Kate Durkee-who turned out to be very much alive.In his confession Holmes usual murder method was by suffocation of his victims including: an overdose of chloroform; overexposure to lighting gas fumes; trapped in an airless vault to give some examples. Holmes also claimed to have used starvation and burning victims alive in his "castle"
Holmes' hotel was gutted by a fire started by an unknown arsonist shortly after his arrest, but was largely rebuilt and used as a post office until 1938. Besides his infamous "Murder Castle", Holmes also owned a one-story factory which he claimed was to be used for glass bending. It is unclear if the factory furnace was ever used for this purpose; it was speculated to have been used to destroy incriminating evidence of Holmes's crimes.
- Holmes' mistress, 31-year-old Julia Smythe, was the wife of Dr. Laurence Icilius "Ned" Conner, who had moved into Holmes' building and began working at his pharmacy's jewelry counter. After Conner found out about Smythe's affair with Holmes, he quit his job and moved away, leaving Smythe and their 5-year-old daughter Pearl Conner behind. Smythe gained custody of Pearl and remained at the hotel, continuing her relationship with Holmes. Julia and Pearl both disappeared on Christmas Eve of 1891. Holmes initially claimed to acquaintances that Julia had left unexpectedly to visit her dying sister, but then changed his story and said that she had fled her former husband. Ultimately, Holmes later claimed that Julia had actually died during an abortion. Despite his medical background, Holmes was unlikely to be experienced in carrying out abortions, and mortality from such a procedure was high at that time. Holmes then claimed to have poisoned Pearl, likely to hide the circumstances of her mother's death. A partial skeleton, possibly of a child around Pearl's age, was found when excavating Holmes' cellar. Pearl's father was a key witness at Holmes' trial in Chicago.
- 23-year-old Emeline Cigrand began working in Holmes' building in May 1892 and worked for him for six months. Holmes reportedly hired Cigrand as a secretary due to her connection to a doctor who peddled a "vaccine" that allegedly cured alcoholism. Those who saw Cigrand in the weeks before her disappearance noted that she appeared to have lost interest in Holmes and their relationship. Cigrand was last seen in December 1892. Her parents were informed that she had left to marry a man named "Robert Phelps". Authorities hypothesised that she had gotten pregnant by Holmes, possibly being a victim of another failed abortion that Holmes tried to cover up.
- In early-1893, a 24-year-old one-time actress named Wilhelmina "Minnie" Williams moved to Chicago. Holmes claimed to have met her in an employment office, though it is believed that he had actually met her in Boston several years earlier while he was then going by the alias "Harry Gordon". Holmes offered her a job at the hotel as his personal stenographer and she accepted. Holmes persuaded Williams to transfer the deed to her property in Fort Worth, Texas, to a man named "Alexander Bond" which was an alias of Holmes. In April 1893, Williams transferred the deed, with Holmes serving as the notary. Holmes later signed the deed over to Pitezel, giving him the alias "Benton T. Lyman". The following month, Holmes and Williams, presenting themselves as husband and wife, rented an apartment in Chicago's Lincoln Park. Minnie's younger sister, 18-year-old Anna "Nannie" Williams, came to visit, and on July 5, 1893, she wrote to her aunt that she planned to accompany "Brother Harry" to Europe. In it, she signed off with the message: "Brother Harry [Holmes] says you need never trouble any more about me, financially or otherwise. He and sister will see to me. I hope our hard days are over." Neither Minnie nor Nannie were ever seen alive again and Holmes would subsequently use Minnie's name in future scams.
- A 68-year-old creditor of Holmes named John DeBrueil died of apoplexy on April 17, 1891, in the "Castle" drugstore. DuBreuil collapsed and died shortly after Holmes poured a "black liquid" down his throat, according to a witness. Foul play was not suspected; in 1895, it was determined that DuBrueil's life had been insured, and that Holmes had profited from his death.
- In 1891, Emily Van Tassel disappeared after working at Holmes’ drugstore; Holmes spoke of her in his confession. In 1897, Tassel's name was cited in a list of suspected victims and Tassel's mother believed she was a possible victim.
- "Dr. Russler" had an office in the "Castle" and went missing in 1892; Holmes mentioned killing Russler in his confession.
- Kitty Kelly, a stenographer for Holmes, also went missing in 1892.
- John Davis of Greenville, Pennsylvania, went to visit the 1893 World's Fair and vanished. In 1920, he was declared legally dead.
- Harry Walker of Greensburg, Indiana, went missing in November 1893. He was alleged to have insured his life to Holmes for $20,000 and wrote to friends that he was working for Holmes in Chicago.
- Holmes and Pitezel took George Thomas out to a Mississippi swamp on the Tombigbee River in June 1894, killed him, and disposed of the body. Holmes confessed to the murder to his second wife.
- Milford Cole of Baltimore, Maryland, disappeared after receiving a telegram from Holmes to come to Chicago in July 1894.
- An additional possible victim was Lucy Burbank; her bankbook was found with human hair in a chimney flue at the "Castle" in 1895.
- Allegedly in his confession Holmes claimed to have killed two persons in Lake County, Illinois [1890s]-which was confirmed years later when the remains of an unknown man and an unknown woman were found on a farm in 1919-twenty-three years after his execution.
While working in the Chemical Bank building on Dearborn Street, Holmes met and became close friends with 38-year-old Benjamin Freelon Pitezel, a carpenter with a criminal past who was exhibiting, in the same building, a coal bin he had invented. Holmes used Pitezel as his right-hand man for several criminal schemes. A district attorney later described Pitezel as "Holmes's tool... his creature." With insurance companies pressing to prosecute him for arson, Holmes left Chicago in July 1894. He reappeared in Fort Worth, where he had inherited property from the Williams sisters, at the intersection of modern-day Commerce Street and 2nd Street. Here, he once again attempted to build an incomplete structure without paying his suppliers and contractors.
In July 1894, Holmes was arrested and briefly jailed for the first time, on the charge of selling mortgaged goods in St. Louis, Missouri. He was promptly bailed out, but while in jail he struck up a conversation with a convicted outlaw named Marion Hedgepeth, who was serving a 25-year sentence. Holmes had concocted a plan to swindle an insurance company out of $10,000 by taking out a policy on himself and then faking his death. Holmes promised Hedgepeth a $500 commission in exchange for the name of a lawyer who could be trusted. Holmes was directed to a young St. Louis attorney named Jeptha Howe. Howe thought Holmes' scheme was brilliant, and agreed to play a part. Nevertheless, Holmes' plan to fake his own death failed when the insurance company became suspicious and refused to pay. Holmes did not press the claim; instead, he concocted a similar plan with Pitezel.
Pitezel agreed to fake his own death so that his wife could collect on a $10,000 life insurance policy, which he was to split with Holmes and Howe. The scheme, which was to take place in Philadelphia, called for Pitezel to set himself up as an inventor under the name "B.F. Perry", and then be killed and disfigured in a lab explosion. Holmes was to find an appropriate cadaver to play the role of Pitezel. Instead, Holmes killed Pitezel on September 4, 1894, by knocking him unconscious with chloroform and setting his body on fire with the use of benzene. In his confession, Holmes implied Pitezel was still alive after he used the chloroform on him, before he set him on fire. However, forensic evidence presented at Holmes's later trial showed chloroform had been administered after Pitezel's death, a fact of which the insurance company was unaware, presumably to stage a suicide to exonerate Holmes should he be charged with murder.
Holmes collected the insurance payout on the basis of the genuine Pitezel corpse. Holmes then went on to manipulate Pitezel's unsuspecting wife, Carrie Alice Canning, into allowing three of her five children to be placed in his custody. The three children who were placed under Holmes' care were: 13-year-old Alice Pitezel, 9-year-old Nellie Pitezel and 7-year-old Howard Robert Pitezel. Holmes and the three Pitezel children traveled throughout the northern United States and into Canada. Simultaneously, he escorted Carrie along a parallel route, all the while using various aliases and lying to Carrie concerning her husband's death by claiming Pitezel was hiding in London, as well as lying to her about the true whereabouts of her three missing children. In Detroit, just before entering Canada, they were only separated by a few blocks.
In an even more audacious move, Holmes was staying at another location with his current wife, who was unaware of the whole affair. Holmes later confessed to murdering Alice and Nellie on October 25, 1894, by forcing them into a large trunk and locking them inside. He drilled a hole in the lid of the trunk and put one end of a hose through the hole, attaching the other end to a gas line to asphyxiate the girls. Holmes buried their nude bodies in the cellar of his rental house at 16 St. Vincent Street in Toronto.
Frank Geyer, a Philadelphia police detective assigned to investigate Holmes and find the three missing children, found the decomposed bodies of the two Pitezel girls in the cellar of the Toronto home. Detective Geyer wrote: "The deeper we dug, the more horrible the odor became, and when we reached the depth of three feet, we discovered what appeared to be the bone of the forearm of a human being." Geyer then went to Indianapolis, where Holmes had rented a cottage. Holmes was reported to have visited a local pharmacy to purchase the drugs which he had used to kill Howard Pitezel on October 10, 1894, and a repair shop to sharpen the knives he used to chop up the body before he burned it. The boy's teeth and bone were discovered in the home's chimney.
Capture and execution
Holmes' murder spree finally ended when he was arrested in Boston on November 17, 1894, after being tracked there from Philadelphia by the private Pinkerton National Detective Agency. He was held on an outstanding warrant for horse theft in Texas because the authorities had become more suspicious at this point and Holmes appeared poised to flee the country in the company of his unsuspecting third wife. In July 1895, following the discovery of Alice and Nellie's bodies, Chicago police and reporters began investigating Holmes's building in Englewood, now locally referred to as the "Castle". Though many sensational claims were made, no evidence was found which could have convicted Holmes in Chicago.as there was only very circumstansial physical evidence of the "Castle" victims- a piece of human bone possibly from Julia Conner; remains of a child-possibly Pearl Conner; a burned gold watch chain and burned dress buttons-apparently belonging to Minnie Williams; a tuft of human female hair found in a chimney flue.Thus Holmes would be tried for the murder of Petzel in Philadelphia which had the clearest case for murder
In October 1895, Holmes was put on trial for the murder of Benjamin Pitezel, and was found guilty and sentenced to death. By then, it was evident Holmes had also murdered the three missing Pitezel children. Following his conviction, Holmes confessed to twenty-seven murders in Chicago, Indianapolis, and Toronto, and six attempted murders. Holmes was paid $7,500 by the Hearst newspapers in exchange for his confession. While writing his confessions in prison, Holmes mentioned how drastically his facial appearance had changed since his imprisonment.
On May 7, 1896, Holmes was hanged at Moyamensing Prison for the murder of Pitezel. Until the moment of his death, Holmes remained calm and amiable, showing very few signs of fear, anxiety, or depression. Despite this, he asked for his coffin to be contained in concrete and buried ten feet deep, because he was concerned grave robbers would steal his body and use it for dissection. Holmes' neck did not break; he instead strangled to death slowly, twitching for over fifteen minutes before being pronounced dead.
Upon his execution, Holmes's body was interred in an unmarked grave at Holy Cross Cemetery, a Catholic cemetery in the Philadelphia Western suburb of Yeadon, Pennsylvania. On New Year's Eve 1909, Hedgepeth, who had been pardoned for informing on Holmes, was shot and killed by Police Officer Edward Jaburek during a hold-up at a Chicago bar. On March 7, 1914, the Chicago Tribune reported that, with the death of Patrick Quinlan, the former caretaker of the "Castle", "the mysteries of Holmes's castle" would remain unexplained. Quinlan had committed suicide by taking strychnine. His body was found in his bedroom with a note that read: "I couldn't sleep." Quinlan's surviving relatives claimed he had been "haunted" for several months and was suffering from hallucinations.
The castle itself was damaged by a fire in August 1895. Two men were seen entering the back of the building between at 9 p.m. About half an hour later, they were seen exiting the building and rapidly running away. Following several explosions, the castle went up in flames. Afterwards, investigators found a half-empty gas can underneath the back steps of the building. The building survived the fire and remained in use until it was torn down in 1938. The site is currently occupied by the Englewood branch of the United States Postal Service.
In 2017, during allegations Holmes had escaped execution, Holmes' body was exhumed for testing led by Janet Monge of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Due to his coffin being contained in concrete, his body was found to not have decomposed normally. His clothes were almost perfectly preserved and his moustache was found to be intact. The body was positively identified by his teeth as being that of Holmes. He was then reburied.
In popular culture
The case was notorious in its time and received wide publicity in the international press. Depraved: The Shocking True Story of America's First Serial Killer by Harold Schechter (1994), was the first major book on Holmes to characterize him as a serial killer.
The 1974 novel American Gothic by horror writer Robert Bloch was a fictionalized version of the story of H. H. Holmes.
Interest in Holmes's crimes was revived in 2003 by Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, a best-selling nonfiction book that juxtaposed an account of the planning and staging of the World's Fair with a fictionalized version of Holmes's story. His story had been chronicled in The Torture Doctor by David Franke (1975), The Scarlet Mansion by Allan W. Eckert (1985), as well as "The Monster of Sixty-Third Street" chapter in Gem of the Prairie: An Informal History of the Chicago Underworld by Herbert Asbury (1940, republished 1986).
The television series Supernatural featured Holmes in its second season episode "No Exit," in which his ghost murdered several women in the century following his death. Holmes's request to fill his coffin with concrete was a pivotal plot point in the episode.
In 2015, a film adaptation of The Devil in the White City, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Martin Scorsese, was to begin filming but never got off the ground. In 2019, Scorsese and DiCaprio were to be executive producers in a television version to have been released by Paramount TV and Hulu, but the effort is no longer progressing.
The video game The Dark Pictures Anthology: The Devil in Me, largely references and is inspired by H. H. Holmes and his "Murder Castle".