Ciao, amici! Today’s murder spotlight is on H.H. Holmes. Is the name familiar to you? It should be.
If not, maybe you’ve heard of the Murder Castle.
H.H. Holmes was a con man and serial killer. Born Herman Webster Mudgett, he changed his name to Henry Howard Holmes in an effort to avoid arrest for a slew of crimes (including grifting and insurance fraud). Holmes moved to Chicago before they hosted the World’s Fair in 1893, and he bought and remodeled a building—three stories tall and a block long—which he named the World’s Fair Hotel.
The public knew it as a new lodging facility for fair attendees. Holmes knew it as a playground for his sadistic proclivities.
Renovations were done by several different construction crews. Holmes claimed he was dissatisfied with the quality of work, so he kept hiring and firing contractors. In reality, he couldn’t have anyone see the real design of the facility.
It was a maze, with hallways and staircases that abruptly ended, doors that wouldn’t unlock from the inside, ventilation systems that pumped gases into rooms, and hidden chutes and elevators that enabled him to take his victims to the basement without being seen.
Once they were in the basement, the real horrors began. He experimented with several forms of murder—hanging, asphyxiation, starvation— then he would dissect the body to sell organs and bones to the medical community for study. The remains were disposed of in lime, acid, or a giant furnace.
When the fair was over, he returned to insurance fraud schemes (killing people so their beneficiaries could collect the insurance payout, then he’d kill them for the money). When he sensed the police were closing in, he traveled to Europe. Some wonder whether it’s a coincidence that Holmes was in London in 1888 (the summer of the Jack the Ripper killings).
Holmes returned to the United States and was arrested in 1894 for the murder of his associate, Benjamin Pitezel, and his three children. It was then the police found the Murder Castle. While few remains were discovered (due to the way he disposed of the bodies), they did find the bones of a child as well as a gold chain, a woman’s shoe, animal remains, and his dissection table.
Police eventually connected him to nine murders. Found guilty for killing the Pitezels, Holmes was sentenced to death. While incarcerated, he admitted to killing many more people, though some were later found alive. It is now thought that he was responsible for over two hundred murders.
He was hanged on May 7, 1896. His neck didn’t snap, and it took more than twenty minutes before he was pronounced dead. He requested his coffin be filled with cement and buried ten feet deep. His wishes were upheld. Holmes claimed he didn’t want to be dug up by another opportunist. Conspiracy theorists believed he didn’t die at all, but in fact tricked someone into taking his place on the gallows and didn’t want his scheme discovered.
In 2017, his descendants had the body exhumed to get answers once and for all. While DNA was too degraded for a positive ID, dental records suggest it was H.H. Holmes in the coffin.
People say serial killers are evil. Holmes certainly seemed to think he was. In his own words:
“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.”
I’ll always wonder how many people Holmes actually murdered. While the conspiracy theory of his escaping death seems to have been disproven, I can see it becoming an interesting plot device. The Murder Castle alone would make a compelling setting. What are your thoughts on the H.H. Holmes story—fact and possible fiction? Let’s talk about it.