Mondays are Murder: H.H. Holmes

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.

40 thoughts on “Mondays are Murder: H.H. Holmes

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  1. Yikes! I’ve never heard of Holmes or the Murder Castle, but wow, talk about evil in the flesh. Wonder if he was related to Vlad the Impaler. And interesting tie to Jack the Ripper. I haven’t followed that story much either (too many interesting things to read about!), but interesting curveball in the theory.

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  2. He’s certainly slipped beneath my radar! Could he have been Jack the Ripper? I was always puzzled by the short orgy of killings that represented the Riper’s reign and the apparent lag between 1888 and Kosminski’s hospitalization. Closer study needed!

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    1. My money’s still on Kosminski, but I saw a show where someone analyzed the letters, and some of the phrasing was presumably more American than British. It does give one pause, doesn’t it? It’s kind of fun to think about—mostly because it’s long over and we’re in no danger.

      Closer study, indeed, Frederick! Thanks for weighing in.

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  3. They say truth is strange than fiction, and in this case, much more gruesome than anything my warped brain could concoct. I had heard about Holmes thoughnit in such detail. The Ripper connection is intriguing (especially considering I love the Ripper’s fascinating story, and he will indeed pop up in my new WIP soon). His death and his burial wishes are also intriguing. I wonder if he was trying to stop people digging him up… or demons from getting out of his coffin??
    Great post.

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    1. I’m fascinated by Jack the Ripper, too. Even wrote a short story based on it a while ago. The H.H. Holmes connection is intriguing. And his burial wishes are just creepy. The man’s whole life is interesting fodder for fiction. (I hate to dwell on the fact that it was real.)

      Truth is stranger than fiction. Thanks, Jess. BTW, can’t wait to hear about the Ripper tie-in to your WIP!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I read about Holmes a long time ago. Forgot some of the details, but ugh! You have to feel sorry for his victims. Not all serial killers are created the same. Holmes killed so many people, you’d think he’d have been caught way before he was.

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    1. I saw an episode of The Big Bang Theory once where Sheldon was talking about villains in graphic novels, and he marveled at how many were PhDs. I know that’s fiction, but there’s a kernel of truth to it. To get away with that many murders, you’d have to be smart. Sadistic, but smart.

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  5. I’m familiar with H.H.Holmes and his crimes, but I never heard about the conspiracy theory. Interesting. I also didn’t know his hanging was so gruesome. I wonder if he thought of any of his victims then.

    I picked up a copy of The Devil in the White City at a library sale last year but still haven’t read it. The setting, the World’s Fair and the historical aspect intrigue me, but I’m not sure I can stomach the rest. I can’t read true crime, so it’s still on my shelf waiting to be opened. I’m sure I’ll skim the gruesome parts.

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    1. Not all true crime is gruesome. (I just read one—review posts tomorrow—that wasn’t gory at all. Just terribly depressing.) But I know what you mean. It’s thrilling in fiction, but when you know it’s true…

      The Victorian era fascinates me, so this time period spoke to me, too.

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      1. I ADORE the Victorian era as well, which is why Devil in the White City drew me. I’m sure I’ll crack the cover on it eventually. And now you have me intrigued about your book review tomorrow!

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    1. When I think he may have been responsible for 200 deaths… That’s a scale I can’t even wrap my head around. The guy was just evil. I am intrigued by the Jack the Ripper possibility, though. The timeline fits, as does the brutality and the “medical” knowledge.

      Chilling thought, indeed. Thanks, Denise.

      Liked by 2 people

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