As a child, he tortured animals for fun. He financed his medical degree with insurance scams, using corpses and fake claims. Later, he admitted to murdering at least 27 people. He was a graverobber, a pharmacist, and a con artist. Born Herman Mudgett, he is better known as H.H. Holmes, a prolific serial killer forever stitched to the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.
Born as the third child to a wealthy New Hampshire family in 1861, Mudgett suffered under his abusive father for most of his childhood until he could leave home at 16 to take on various teaching positions. He married Clara Lovering the next year and had a son, Robert, in 1880, where the cycle of violence continued. Clara returned to her parent’s house in 1884. By then, Mudgett had graduated and become a doctor, predominately as a graverobber to supply medical cadavers for the school. It was here that he developed his penchant for dissecting human bodies.
With a glut of bodies piling up, Mudgett began using them for various insurance scams. He would steal a corpse, disfigure them to keep them from being easily identified, then purport they died in an accident with him as the insurance policy beneficiary (he had previously taken out).
While still married to Clara, he married Myrta Belknap in 1886, and although he eventually filed for divorce with Clara, it was never finalized. They had a daughter, Lucy, in 1889, but by then, Mudgett had spent most of his time in Chicago. There he changed his name to Henry Howard Holmes, likely to avoid being caught. He would marry another woman, Georgiana Yoke, in 1894, without obtaining a divorce from the two other women.
Using his medical degree, H.H. Holmes found a job as a pharmacist in August 1886, working for Holton’s drugstore in Englewood, merely six blocks from where Chicago would host the World’s Fair in 1893. Holmes worked hard and saved his money, enough to eventually buy the drugstore from the Holtons and a vacant lot across the street. He began building a dual-purpose building with businesses and offices downstairs and apartments upstairs.
He moved the drugstore into the downstairs space, started making fancy profits, and began avoiding any creditors, including the architect who designed the building, furniture rental agencies, and general contractors. When the furniture shop came to repossess the furniture for lack of pay, he emptied the upstairs rooms into a walled-off space so the furniture could not be found.
When plans for the World’s Columbian Exposition debuted, Holmes decided to build a third story onto his building. He was never fully completed, and the myth that he planned to use this hotel to lure in strangers to murder them to fulfill his cadaver business is fictitious. He never murdered strangers.
The third story of the building ended up being a maze of confusing hallways, doors that opened to brick walls, and rooms that were escape-proof and nearly airtight. There were hidden rooms. Some piped gas in, and others had chutes leading to the basement.
The building was described in a contemporary newspaper article: “The castle was built admirably for a murder shop. A dumb waiter ran from the third floor to the basement, and there were no connections with the dumb waiter on the intervening floors. The conveyance was big enough to admit a man riding upon it. A gigantic stove was on the top floor in one of the rooms. It was eight feet high and three feet in diameter. It was an ideal stove for the burning of a human body. A person could be thrown into the stove bodily and burned to nothing. In the basement were quicklime vats. Bodies could be thrown in quicklime and consumed.”
The murders began in 1891, the first being his mistress Julia Smythe and her daughter Pearl. Julia was the wife of one of Holmes’ employees, and when news of their affair reached him, he left town. Holmes claims Julia died from a botched abortion he was trying to cover up (he was a pharmacist, after all). Still, her and her daughter’s skeletons were discovered buried in the basement.
Emeline Cigrande and Emily Van Tassel were both Holmes employees who disappeared around the fall of 1982. They were later found in the basement. Failed actress Minnie Williams was hired in 1893 as Holmes’ stenographer, and he convinced her to sign over some Texas property to him. She (and her sister Annie) were both killed on the Fourth of July 1893. Holmes claimed they were going to visit their brother in Europe. A half-dozen other hotel residents went missing, and although not officially proven to be victims, the coincidences are too astounding.
He also targeted people he knew, such as business associates, acquaintances, and even his family. Holmes would lure his victims to his hotel, where he would trap them in one of his soundproof rooms. He would then kill them, often through suffocation or hanging. He would then dispose of their bodies in various ways, such as cremating them in a kiln or dissolving them in acid.
In September 1893, one month before the close of the Chicago World’s Fair, the Murder Castle caught fire in several different locations simultaneously. Of course, Holmes had insured the building with several companies for $25,000. Investigators discovered strong evidence of a liquid accelerant used to start the blaze, and his claim was denied. The fire was the beginning of the end for H.H. Holmes.
Holmes left Chicago, running from creditors and the investigators looking into the hotel fire and the continuing insurance scams. He ended up in Texas on the property he swindled from Williams. It was here that he was arrested for the first time (on a charge of selling stolen goods), and in jail (briefly), he met Marion Hedgepeth, who helped him find a trusted lawyer that could assist him with a fake-death scam. When the plans fell through, he convinced Benjamin Pitezel, an alleged accomplice to several murders in the hotel years before.
Holmes, instead of faking his death, convinced Pitezel to do the same, as Holmes had taken out several life insurance policies on him. The scheme was for Pitezel to die in a “lab experiment” as an inventor in Philadelphia. Instead, Holmes found it easier to murder him and set fire to his body for the insurance claim. Worse yet, he manipulated Pitezel’s wife to allow three of her children to be put into his custody. He eventually murdered the three children, two of which, by locking them in a trunk and asphyxiating them with gas.
When Holmes attempted to collect on the policies on the Benjamin Pitezel death, the insurance company became suspicious and began investigating. Assigned to the case was Frank Geyer, who eventually found the Pitezel girls’ bodies in the basement of Holme’s rented house in Toronto.
During the investigation, authorities figured out that Pitezel had been one of Holmes’ victims and that Holmes had a history of fraud and murder. They searched Holmes’ partially burned down hotel and found evidence of multiple murders. This included dismembered bodies and body parts hidden in the walls and basement of the hotel.
Holmes was arrested on November 17, 1894, after being tracked down by the Pinkerton Agency. He was charged with Benjamin Pitezel’s murder and was quickly convicted. Following this, Holmes admitted to the murder of 27 people in his lengthy confession (William Randolph Hearst paid him $7500 for the exclusive story, mostly made up).
Just under eight months after his conviction, he was executed in front of a crowd at Philadelphia’s Moyamensing Prison. On the gallows, he was reported to say: “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.”
At Holmes’ request, he was buried ten feet below ground in a cement-filled pine coffin because he was worried about grave robbers.