DR H H HOLMES - BIOGRAPHY OF AMERICA'S FIRST SERIAL KILLER
“I was born with the evil one standing as my sponsor beside the bed where I was ushered into the world, and he has been with me since…”
- H.H. Holmes
“Heinous” H.H. Holmes wasn’t satisfied to simply dismember victims or watch them suffocate. He further profited off his victims by polishing their bones and selling them to medical schools. Holmes had no boundaries. He murdered women, he murdered children, he murdered his ‘friends’, he murdered strangers and he murdered coworkers. But Holmes’ real claim to lasting notoriety was his creation of a real life ‘Bates Motel’. Holmes built a large building with stores on the ground floor with the rest of the sizeable building made into an inn for travelers. But inside, he created false passages, trap doors, and peeping holes from which to prey on his guests. From their rooms he would spy on them and abduct chosen “guests” to his lair in the basement to perform grizzly kills.
The story of Dr H.H.Holmes began in 1861 in the idyllic town of Gilmanton New Hampshire. He was born Herman Webster Mudgett, a descendant of a prominent local family who had been the first white settlers to the area in 1761. He was brought up not unlike many other households of that time, with a mother devoted to scripture and her family, and a disciplinarian father.
Herman excelled at school but did not fare as well socially. Perhaps due to jealousy, or perhaps sensing that he was somehow not right, he was bullied in school. He records in his memoirs one episode in particular that was a turning point for him. His bullies dragged him one day to the town doctor's office and thrust him face to face with a hanging skeleton. He said of the experience: “this place, was one of peculiar abhorrence to me, and this becoming known to two of my older schoolmates they one day bore me struggling and shrieking beyond its awful portals, nor did they desist until I was brought face to face with one of its grinning skeletons which, with its arms outstretched, seemed ready in its turn to seize me. It was a wicked and dangerous thing to do to a child of tender years and health but it proved a heroic method of treatment destined ultimately to cure me of my fears and to inculcate in me a strong feeling of curiosity which resulted years after in my adopting medicine as a profession”.
In 1882, Herman was accepted to medical school at the University of Michigan. There he exhibited a morbid fascination with cadavers and dissection but also began to evolve as a master criminal. Herman stole cadavers, disfigured them, planted them as accidents, then claimed they were relatives to collect on insurance policies he had previously taken out on the fictitious identities.
In 1885, age 25, Herman turned up in Chicago. He changed his name to H.H. Holmes, perhaps to conceal himself from past misdeeds, and took a job as a pharmacy assistant at ES Holton, a prominent drug store in town run by an elderly couple. When the man died "of natural causes", Holmes assumed a managerial role. Then in 1887 the lady vanished after "moving out west" - but not before signing over the pharmacy to Holmes.
Holmes continued his compulsive criminal activity through the store e.g. he sold a brand of H.H.Holmes "mineral water" which was obtained from the ordinary city taps. But his ultimate use of the pharmacy was as a platform from which to finance the fiendish fantasy for which he has been immortalized: the “Murder Castle”.
Holmes at age 29, obtained a lease for a large empty lot across the street and began construction of a large commercial building. Locals called it the "Castle" as it grew, perhaps because of its size and the turrets at each corner of the three story building. The design like Holmes, appeared normal on the outside but hid a diabolical design on the inside. The ground floor was populated with a pharmacy, restaurant, blacksmith, and jewellery stores, and his personal office. But the second floor was a maze of stairways that went nowhere, thirty five rooms, some windowless and sound proofed with asbestos which locked from the outside, and airtight rooms connected to gas lines leading from Holmes' office downstairs. It was completed with a large greased service shoot, like those used for laundry, from which he could mail bodies to the basement.
The basement of Holmes' "Castle" resembled a medieval torture chamber replete with a torture rack, vats of acid, two cremation furnaces and a wooden dissection table saturated in blood with butchering implements nearby. Holmes obscured the true nature of his human abattoir during construction by hiring separate groups of men to construct the project in fractions, sometimes hiring and firing men on the same day. Many were never paid. He defrauded many suppliers too. For example, he bought a large walk-in safe on credit, then had walls constructed around it. When the safe purveyor called for their money, Holmes calmly refused to pay and threatened that if they damaged any of his structure during repossession that he would sue them for more than the safe was worth.
Holmes advertised in small town newspapers offering lodging and employment for women. They, and their money, would disappear. But in 1893 luck would fill the rooms of what in later years newspapers would call the "Murder Castle". That year brought the Chicago World Fair to Holmes' backyard. On display were many firsts and marvels of contemporary industry such as lighting provided by Westinghouse by means of twenty million bulbs. The fair was spread across two hundred buildings and covered about seven hundred 700 square kilometers. The mammoth project had participation from 47 countries and attracted twenty seven million visitors. Holmes actively recruited fresh guests for his castle from the sea of arrivals for his pleasure and profit.
Holmes was also an accomplished philanderer, at one point being married to three different women each of whom did not know of the existence of the other. In 1890 he courted Julia Connor. When she became pregnant she demanded to be married. Holmes agreed on the condition that she would permit him to perform an abortion on her. A week later a polished female skeleton was sold to the Hahnemann Medical College for $200 (about $5000 today). In 1892 he had another affair, this time with Emeline Cigrand, employed as his private secretary. It did not end well for her. He asked her to fetch some papers from his vault and shut the massive door behind her asphyxiating her to death. A few weeks later the University of Chicago bought an articulating female skeleton from Dr Holmes. Then in 1893, Nannie Williams came under his roving eye. Unfortunately, so did an inheritance of land worth $40 000 due to her in Texas (about $1million today). She and her younger sister disappeared - but not before conveniently bequeathing her inheritance to her lover, H.H.Holmes.
Benjamin Pitezel arrived in Chicago in 1889 desperate for work. He had a history as an itinerant petty criminal, drifter, and drunk, with five hungry children to care for. He met Holmes through an ad for carpenters needed for Holmes' construction. Pitezel looked older than his age, but unlike Holmes who was of slight build and harmless appearance, Pitezel was tall and imposing. With his shady past and financial vulnerability, he gradually surfaced as Holmes' right hand man, familiar with his dirty secrets. The two got along well enough that Holmes eventually became an extended part of Pitezel’s family invited over for suppers and wrote in his diary that he liked the children; some of them attended with him at the Chicago Fair helping Holmes to lure potential lodgers to his Castle.
When the Chicago Fair closed, the flow of visitors seeking a place to rest their heads abruptly ceased and Holmes found himself in a monetary squeeze. Workmen reported overhearing Holmes and his henchman, Pitezel heatedly arguing over money in his office, more than once. Pitezel descended into drunken spells. This alarmed Holmes that he might babble about their dark dealings while inebriated. Holmes devised a fiendish plan to end both financial problems, and his friend.
Holmes convinced Pitezel to take out a life insurance policy for $10 000 with a plan to fake his death, lie low, and have Holmes substitute a cadaver in exchange for a cut of the take. Pitezel fell for it. With the game now in play, they took to the road supplementing their incomes by perpetrating frauds across the country. Holmes juggled a series of aliases including: Harry Gordon, Alexander Cook, G.D.Hale, A.C.Hayes, J.A.Judson, Herbert A. Henderson, Henry Mansfield Howard, George H.Howell, Melvin Hollis, G.Howell, Edward Hatch, and Franklin Pratt. But he slipped in 1894 trying to swindle a drug store owner in St.Louis. He was arrested, and imprisoned until making bail. But during his stay, he shared a cell with another career criminal named Hedgepeth who gave him the name of a crooked attorney to collect on the insurance policy hanging over Pitezel. In exchange, Holmes promised to wire Hedgepeth $500 on collection of the policy proceeds. It would prove to be a fatal mistake.
He met up with Pitezel in Philadelphia to conclude his criminal masterplan. They rented a front street store and Pitezel posed as a patent filer. He was discovered soon after by an inventor who found him burnt to death upstairs. Holmes later admitted that he had killed Pitezel using chloroform to subdue him, binding him, then saturating his clothes with benzene and lighting him afire. The local coroner had ruled it an accidental death.
Meanwhile, Pitezel's wife Carrie, believed that he was alive and in hiding. She collected the policy on her husband and Holmes convinced her to send two of her kids, Alice and Nellie, to come see their father. He put them up at a hotel and then used their possession as leverage to extort most of her payout.
Holmes may have felt he had won but he had made a fatal flaw in his plan execution. In keeping with his twisted personality, he never sent payment to Hedgepeth. When Hedgepeth read Pitezel's obituary in the newspaper, he alerted the insurance company who in turn hired the Pinkerton detective agency to investigate. In November 1894, Holmes was arrested and taken to Moyamensing prison. He was found guilty of fraud, but more troubling was the question of "where was Pitezel's children?"
Detective Frank Geyer was assigned to find Pitezel's children. He used letters written by Alice to her mother that were in Holmes' possession - mail that he never intended to delivered - to trace their whereabouts. Det. Geyer followed the addresses on the letters criss-crossing across the north of North America. By dint of hard detective work and personal determination he found the remains of Pitezel's boy, charred in a stove in Indianapolis, and dug up the remains of the girls Nellie and Alice in a Toronto basement. Holmes had placed them in a large trunk and through a small hole he bored, connected it to a gas line and suffocated them before burying them in a shallow grave in a dirt basement. The discoveries were met with intense public outrage.
On July 19th, 1895 police raided Holmes' Inn. They found piles of human and animal bones, bloodied women’s undergarments, and his dissection table in the basement caked in dry blood. Fifty missing persons from the earlier Chicago Fair were later traced to the Castle.
A year later, May 7th, 1896 Herman Mudgett aka H.H.Holmes, was hung, nine days before his 35th birthday. Perhaps troubled by the things he had done to the dead bodies of others, or that his brain might end up in a specimen jar for scientific study of his monstrosity, he requested that he be buried in a slab of concrete. He was.
Holmes penned these chilling words to explain his misguided life: “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 was born with the evil one standing as my sponsor beside the bed where I was ushered into the world and he has been with me since…”