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H. H. Holmes – America’s First Serial Killer

by Jen Mouzon about a month ago in guilty / capital punishment
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“I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing.”

Dr. Henry Howard Holmes (Herman Webster Mudgett). Unknown author English: though likely a mugshot., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As Detective Frank Geyer walked into the cellar of the Toronto house that Holmes had reportedly rented, he had an idea of what he would find. Although H. H. Holmes was on trial for insurance fraud and the murder of his business partner Benjamin Pitezel, Geyer suspected there may be more victims.

Holmes had been seen with two of Pitezel daughters before they vanished, and Geyer was on the trail of every city they had traveled to. The neighbor of this particular house recounted how Holmes had rented the property, and at one point came over to borrow a shovel, claiming he needed to dig a hole in the cellar to keep potatoes. As Geyer and a local police officer began digging, they uncovered the unimaginable: the bodies of the two young Pitezel girls.

These victims were only two of many.

Early Life and Disappearances

Herman Webster Mudgett was born in New Hampshire in 1860. An intelligent young man, he graduated from high school at only 16 years old and soon married Clara Loveringat.

H. H. Holmes. Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Enrolled at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor, rumors began that the quiet and unassuming Mudgett would steal bodies from the school lab or graves to perform his own macabre autopsies.

Eventually, Mudgett found himself in Englewood Illinois, just south of Chicago. In 1885 he sent Clara back to New Hampshire despite never divorcing her and began going by the name of Henry Howard Holmes, potentially among other aliases.

In 1886, he visited a small drugstore belonging to a Dr. Holton. The doctor was dying of cancer, and his wife was trying to keep the store going on her own. Holmes introduced himself and was quickly hired as an assistant and allowed to live upstairs. Holmes proved a valuable employee and kept the store afloat, reportedly by the patronage of many young women that enjoyed visiting the charming young man.

When Dr. Holton passed away, Holmes asked to purchase the store from the grieving Mrs. Holton. She agreed under the condition that he would continue to live upstairs. He agreed, but soon quit paying the rent he owed. Mrs. Holton pursued legal action for the money she was owed, but strangely, she disappeared. Holmes told those who questioned that she had moved to California.

Holmes met and married Myrta Belknap, who began working in the store. She was unaware that Holmes was still married but noticed his interest in other women. She chose to leave him and move in with her parents, despite being pregnant with their daughter. Upon their daughter being born, Holmes supported them from afar.

Building the “Murder Castle”

With the success of his drugstore, H. H. Holmes decided to purchase the lot across the street and design and build the castle of his dreams. The first floor would contain upscale shops. The second floor would contain apartments. The basement and third floor he could use as he desired.

Holmes became very involved in the construction process. He ensured that no one stayed on the job for more than a week. He would criticize the crew’s work and fire them, refusing to pay until they gave up and left. This ensured that no one knew the exact floor plan or features of his new castle.

In May 1890, construction was complete, and he began to lease out the stores on the first floor. No one suspected the features that he built on the floors out of sight.

H. H. Holmes’ Castle. Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Reportedly, this “Murder Castle” contained 71 bedrooms with hallways and closets connecting them. The rooms were soundproof and equipped with gas pipes. The bedroom doors could only be locked from the outside. The halls and stairs were a maze with trap doors, sliding panels, stairs that didn’t lead anywhere, and “laundry” chutes that dropped into the basement.

Holmes’ private office on the third floor had a large walk-in vault and a massive stove, in addition to the gas controls that led to the bedrooms.

In the basement was an acid tank, a pit of quicklime that would be used for decaying corpses, a dissection table and crematorium.

Disappearances Continue

Holmes hired a manager for his jewelry store on the first floor of his property, Ned Conner. Conner brought along with him his wife Julia and their three-year-old daughter. Soon, Mrs. Conner became involved with the charming Holmes, and her and Ned divorced. He moved away leaving Julia and their daughter with Holmes.

Soon, Julia became pregnant with Holmes’ child. He convinced her to let him perform an abortion. She and her daughter were never seen alive again.

Not long after, Holmes became involved with a young Emmaline Cigrand, who disappeared soon after. Rumors say she wound up locked in his private vault.

Chicago World Fair

In 1893, the Chicago World Fair brought a huge influx of tourists right into Holmes’ neighborhood. Reportedly, he rented out his rooms for these visitors. The unsuspecting could then be killed in their sleep by the simple flip of a switch, flooding their rooms with gas. The bodies could be quickly disposed of with the basement’s amenities.

Reports say there could have been up to 50 – 200 victims during this time.

Insurance Fraud and Murder

Holmes’ approached his longtime partner Benjamin Pitezel with a new scam. Pitezel would take out a life insurance policy for $10,000, and they could fake his death and split the money. While apprehensive, Pitezel did have a wife and five children to care for and agreed to the scheme. He told his wife Carrie of the plan, and made her his beneficiary, reassuring that reports of his death would be a part of the plan, he would stay safe.

Benjamin Pitezel. Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Holmes’ ended up serving a short time in St. Louis for a different fraud scheme and told a Marion Hedgepath about the life insurance scam. He offered to connect Holmes’ with a lawyer who could help, in exchange for $500 of the insurance money. Holmes’ accepted the offer.

After being released from jail, Holmes’ and Pitezel traveled to Philadelphia where Holmes’ actually murdered him rather than faking his death. To collect the insurance money, Pitezel’s body had to be identified. Carrie was ill and caring for children and sent her 15 year old daughter Alice instead.

Disappearance of the Pitezel Children

Alice identified Pitezel’s body and traveled with Holmes to a hotel, what he claimed to be a temporary arrangement requested by her mother. Holmes left Alice and went to see Carrie. She was upset that her husband and daughter had not returned, but Holmes conned her into believing that this was part of the scam and would help them maintain cover. He convinced her to allow Alice’s younger brother and sister to go back with him, then they could all meet up with Carrie in Cincinnati safe and sound.

While Alice was happy to see her siblings, Holmes quickly became frustrated with the situation and took Alice’s brother to stay with a relative he claimed. The boy disappeared.

The Holmes Pitezel Case. Franklin Pierce Geyer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Holmes traveled with Alice and her sister to several cities before eventually the girls disappeared as well.

Arrest and Trial

Holmes never paid the $500 he owed to Marion Hedgepath, who soon wrote a letter to the insurance company informing them of the fraud Holmes committed. The insurance company sought the services of the Pinkertons in October 1894, and Holmes was found and arrested in 6 weeks.

Holmes was charged with insurance fraud and the death of his partner Benjamin Pitezel. His trial began in May 1895, and he pled guilty, hoping for a lighter sentence.

Detective Frank Geyer, suspecting that Holmes was guilty for more, took up the investigation. He was able to track down everywhere that Holmes had traveled and spoke to a number of witnesses, leading him to a house in Indiana, whose chimney contained the body of Alice’s younger brother, and the house in Toronto containing the body of Alice and her sister in the basement.

As the trial continued, the list of names of people who had associated with Holmes and gone missing grew larger and larger.

Full Confession of H. H. Holmes. The Journal (New York), April 12, 1896, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In Chicago, detectives investigated Holmes’ castle. Reportedly they found a mound of human bones in the basement, including those of a young child, a human rib and hair in the stove in his office, and even a tank hidden behind a wall containing chemicals.

As the trial concluded, Holmes was found guilty of first-degree murder in the death of Benjamin Pitezel and sentenced to death. Holmes confessed to killing 27 people and provided names, however, some of those “victims” came forward alive, so his confession may be unreliable.

While imprisoned, he wrote an autobiography: Holmes’ Own Story. In this he claimed:

“I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing.”

Holmes’ Fate

On May 7, 1896, Holmes met his end at the gallows. Supposedly, his neck did not break immediately, and he slowly suffocated to death for 20 minutes.

Execution of H. H. Holmes. Herman W. Mudgett, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Ironically, Holmes was concerned about graverobbers and made an odd final request that was granted. Holmes had his coffin weighted down with cement, his body added, more cement added on top, nailed shut, buried 10 feet deep, then more concrete and dirt were added.

Like many other notorious killer’s rumors spread that perhaps Holmes’ was not actually dead. Perhaps he bribed the guards and escaped, and another man was executed and buried in his place. To close the book on that, in 2017, descendants of Holmes had his remains exhumed and DNA tested. The results proved conclusively that the remains buried belong to H. H. Holmes.

What happened to the Murder Castle?

Interestingly, in 1895 while Holmes was imprisoned, the Murder Castle was burned one night. Reports say that witnesses claimed that two men entered late one night and caused the fire. Despite the damage, the structure remained standing for another 43 years until it was demolished in 1938.

Newspaper article on H. H. Holmes Castle. Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Today, the site of the Murder Castle is now a branch of the US Postal Service.

How many victims were there?

There’s no doubt that H. H. Holmes was guilty of murder, but depending on the source, the estimated number of victims varies greatly.

Holmes’ himself confessed to killing 27 people, but his confession was inaccurate at the time as some of the victims were still alive.

Some sources will say that the Murder Castle used during the Chicago World Fair led Holmes to be the killer of some 50-200 individuals. Unfortunately, we cannot confirm these numbers. Some say that reports of the Murder Castle were greatly exaggerated by sensationalist journalists at the time, and perhaps the “Murder Castle” wasn’t really a “Murder” Castle.

We can speculate that he was responsible for killing the following people, who associated with him and disappeared or whose bodies were found. In case you couldn’t keep track:

  1. Mrs. Holton
  2. Julia Conner
  3. The Conner’s daughter
  4. Emmaline Cigrand
  5. Benjamin Pitezel
  6. Alice Pitezel
  7. Pitezel’s son
  8. Pitezel’s daughter

In the 1890’s, forensic evidence was no where near it is today, and we cannot say with certainty that he caused these deaths, but it is likely.

Whether Holmes killed 200 in his Murder Castle, or as few as Pitezel and his family, we can say that this charismatic manipulator was likely America’s first serial killer.

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About the author

Jen Mouzon

Sometimes truth is scarier than fiction. Obsessed with exploring and sharing myths, legends, weird history and the unexplained. Join me at hungryforlore.com.

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  • Alex H Mittelman about a month ago

    Sad and interesting

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