Friday, February 7, 2020

An in-depth look at H.H. Holmes, his murder castle, and his victim(s).

H.H. Holmes was born Herman Webster Mudgett on May 16, 1861, in Gilmanton, New Hampshire. Born into an affluent family, Holmes enjoyed a privileged childhood and was considered unusually intelligent at an early age. 

Mudgett (later, Dr. Henry Howard Holmes) was his parents' third-born child; he had an older sister Ellen, an older brother Arthur, Herman W. Mudgett, a younger brother Henry, and a younger sister Mary.

Still, there were haunting signs of what was to come. Holmes was interested in medicine, reportedly leading him to practice animal surgery. Some accounts indicate that he may have been responsible for the death of a friend.

Holmes's life of crime began with various frauds and scams. As a medical student at the University of Michigan, he stole corpses and used them to make false insurance claims. Holmes may have used the bodies for experiments, as well.

Herman Webster Mudgett, better known under Dr. Henry Howard Holmes (H.H. Holmes), was among one of the first documented serial killers in the modern sense of the term[1], along with Dr. Thomas Neill Cream. 
H.H. Holmes Murder Castle on the corner of Wallace and 63rd streets in Chicago. This is the 63rd Street View. Note the added fourth floor. (unknown date)
This is a cabinet photo of the H.H. Holmes Murder Castle looking northwest toward 63rd Street in Chicago. This location is now the Englewood Post Office. This photo was taken on the Wallace Street side of the building. Note the tracks on Wallace. (unknown date)
Holmes arrived in Chicago in August 1886 and came across Elizabeth S. Holton's drugstore at the Englewood neighborhood's northwest corner of South Wallace Avenue and West 63rd Street. Holton gave Holmes a job, and he proved himself to be a hardworking employee. After the death of Holton's husband, Holmes offered to buy the drugstore from Holton, and she agreed. Holmes purchased the store mainly with funds obtained by mortgaging the store's fixtures and stock, the loan to be repaid in substantial monthly installments of $100 (worth $2,600 in 2015). Holton was never seen or heard from again. Whenever regular customers asked Holmes about her whereabouts after selling the drug store to him, he would say that she moved to California to be close to relatives.

Holmes purchased an empty lot across from the drugstore where he built his three-story hotel building. Because of its enormous structure, local people dubbed it "The Castle." The building was 162 feet long and 50 feet wide. The address was 701 West 63rd Street (601-605 West 63rd Street, today), 4 miles west of the World's Fair. It was called the World's Fair Hotel and opened as a hostelry for the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, with part of the structure devoted to commercial space. The Castle's ground floor contained Holmes's relocated drugstore and other various shops.

In contrast, the upper two floors contained his personal office and a labyrinth of rooms with doorways opening to brick walls, oddly angled hallways, stairways leading to nowhere, doors that could only be opened from the outside, and various other strange and deceptive constructions. Holmes was constantly firing and hiring different workers during the Castle's construction, claiming that "they were doing incompetent work." His actual reason was to ensure that he was the only one who fully understood the design of the building.

Note the 4th floor has been removed.

During the period of building in 1889, Holmes met and became close friends with Benjamin Pitezel, a carpenter with a criminal past. He used Pitezel as his right-hand man for his illegal schemes. Later, a district attorney described Pitezel as "Holmes tool, his creature." After the hotel's completion, Holmes mainly selected female victims from his employees, lovers, and hotel guests, whom he would later kill. Many of Holmes' employees were required to take out life insurance policies, which Holmes offered as a benefit, and he paid the premiums. Of course, he was the beneficiary of those policies.

Some were locked in soundproof bedrooms fitted with gas lines that let him asphyxiate them at any time. Some victims were taken to one of the rooms on the second floor, called the "secret hanging chamber," where Holmes throttled them to death. Other victims were locked in a massive soundproof bank vault near his office, leaving them to suffocate.
Holly Carden's Illustration is comprised of fabricated articles describing the murder castle. (see sidebar below)
See 'Making This H.H. Holmes Murder Castle.'


There was also a secret room sealed by solid brick that could only be entered through a trapdoor in the ceiling; Holmes would lock his victims in this room for days to die of hunger and thirst. He invented a unique alarm system and installed it in all the doors on the upper floors, and it alerted him whenever anybody was walking around in the hotel. The victims' bodies were put inside a secret metal chute or a dummy elevator leading to the basement. Some were meticulously dissected, stripped of flesh, crafted into skeleton models, and sold to medical schools. Holmes also buried some of the bodies in lime pits for disposal. Holmes had two giant furnaces used to incinerate some of the bodies or evidence, vats of corrosive acid, bottles of various poisons, and even a stretching rack. Through his connections in medical school, he sold skeletons and organs with little difficulty.

One victim was his mistress, Julia Smythe. She was the wife of Ned Conner, who had moved into Holmes building and began working at his pharmacy's jewelry counter. Holmes started an affair with Smythe. After discovering the affair, Conner quit his job and moved away, leaving Smythe and her daughter Pearl behind. Smythe gained custody of Pearl and remained at the hotel, continuing her affair with Holmes. In 1891, Smythe told Holmes she was pregnant with his baby and demanded marriage. Holmes agreed to marry her but told her they could not have a child. He then suggested performing an abortion, and she agreed. The abortion was planned for Christmas Eve. Holmes murdered Smythe by overdosing her with chloroform and later killed Pearl too. When confronted by a tenant in the building, who questioned the whereabouts of Smythe and her daughter, Holmes said that they had left for Iowa to attend a family wedding.

After Christmas, Holmes hired Charles Chappell to articulate Smythe's skeleton. Holmes introduced himself to Chappell as "Henry Gordon" and took him to one of the rooms on the second floor to show him the body. After some discussion, they agreed that Chappell would put the arms in a bag and take them home to articulate them, and Holmes would do the rest of the body. After Chappell had arrived home with the weapons, Holmes and another man (possibly Pitezel) showed up at the door and gave him the rest of the body cut into two pieces. Holmes later hired Chappell again and took him to the same room to process a victim's body. The third job was for the body of another woman. After Chappell had finished the third skeleton, Holmes refused to pay the money he owed him due to some financial trouble; Chappell declined to give the bones back to Holmes and kept them in his home. After Holmes was caught and his crimes became public, Chappell cooperated with the police and gave them the skull for examination. The room where Holmes kept the three bodies was later identified by investigators as "the room of the three corpses."

Holmes met a railroad heiress named Minnie Williams while on a business trip in Boston. He introduced himself to her as "Henry Gordon." They started dating and then entered into a relationship. Although Holmes had to return to Chicago, he kept in touch with Williams and sent her love letters. In February 1893, she moved to Chicago and contacted Holmes. She accepted his offer of a job as his personal stenographer at the hotel. After rekindling their relationship, Holmes persuaded Williams to transfer the deed to her property in Fort Worth, Texas, to a man named Alexander Bond (an alias of Holmes). In April 1893, Williams transferred the deed, with Holmes serving as the notary (Holmes later signed the deed over to Pitezel, giving him the alias "Benton T. Lyman"). After proposing to Williams, Holmes encouraged her to invite her sister Annie to Chicago, and she accepted the invitation. Holmes eventually started a friendship with Annie Williams and even gave her a personal tour of the hotel. While working in his office, Holmes asked Annie to go inside his office vault to get a file for him. While Annie stepped inside the vault, Holmes quickly closed the vault door and turned on the gas, slowly killing her. At about the same time, Minnie Williams also mysteriously "vanished."
“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 song, nor the ambition of an intellectual man to be great. The inclination to murder came to me as naturally as the inspiration to do right comes to the majority of persons.”   Dr. Henry Howard Holmes
Benjamin Pitezel was the known victim of Holmes. Father Pitezel, Holmes business partner, and his three children, daughters Alice and Nellie, and little son Howard. The family was killed during the fall of 1894. Instead of using a cadaver, Holmes used former business partner Ben as part of his insurance fraud scheme. Holmes knocked Ben out and killed him by setting him on fire. 

On July 15, 1895, Alice and Nellie's bodies were found in a Toronto cellar. Later, authorities found teeth and pieces of bone among charred ruins that belonged to Howard in an Indianapolis cottage that Holmes had rented.

Julia Connor and her daughter Pearl (1891) — Emeline Cigrand (1892) — Sisters Minnie and Nannie Williams (1893).Minnie married Holmes, who swindled her out of her inheritance.

The bodies of Julia Connor, Emeline Cigrand, and Minnie and Nannie Williams were never found but rumor had it that Holmes probably sold their cadavers to medical schools. He had consistently stated that Julia Connor and Emeline Cigran died while undergoing illegal abortions. Julia was allegedly Holmes' lover and Emeline was Holmes' former secretary whom he later purportedly proposed to.

While searching Holmes' hotel, authorities recovered Minnie's watch chain and Nannie's garter buckle in one of the ovens. Although forensic evidence was rudimentary at the time, bones found in the basement most likely belonged to 12-year-old Pearl Connor, whom he allegedly poisoned. As for Emeline, the police believed they had come upon her hair and bones. One account claims that an eyewitness saw Holmes and his janitor haul out a big trunk the day after her disappearance.

Although there is a lengthy list of other potential victims Holmes may have murdered, these nine victims have been plausibly attributed to the serial killer's killing spree.

Just before his execution, Holmes was said to be pleasant and calm. The only request he had was for his body to be buried 10 feet deep into the ground with his casket encased in cement. He was affraid grave robbers to dig his body up and use it for dissection.

On May 7, 1896, Herman Webster Mudgett (Holmes) was executed by hanging. It was said his neck did not snap; instead, he died slowly, his body twitching until he was finally pronounced dead 20 minutes later. He was convicted for the murder of his associate Ben Pitezel. Despite Holmes' confession of killing 27 other people (some were later discovered alive and well), he was officially linked to the above nine murders. Some estimate Holmes had killed up to 200 people, but those claims were exaggerated.

The scope of the building's hidden horrors was finally revealed when authorities descended into the cellar. Beside a blood-soaked operating table, they found women's clothes. Another surgical surface was nearby — along with a crematory, an array of medical tools, a bizarre torture device, and shelves of disintegrating acids. Holmes's fascination with dead bodies had apparently lasted long past college, as had his surgical skills. After dropping his victims down through the chutes, he reportedly dissected them, cleaned them, and sold the organs or skeletons to medical institutions or sold them illegally.

The Murder Castle was gutted by fire in 1895 after witnesses reportedly saw two men entering the building late one night. The building remained standing until 1938 when it was razed to build a U.S. Post Office.

THE TRUTH: It was a printed suggestion that Holmes may have killed as many as 200 people. The fact is that it was fabricated to increase newspaper readership (Yellow Journalizm). But once in print everybody else who retold the story threw in that same line until people started believing that that was a real estimate or possibility.

There’s no evidence Holmes trapped strangers inside his hotel in an attempt to kill them. The nine people he likely killed were all people he already knew. The building he owned wasn’t a hotel. The first floor consisted of storefronts, and the second floor had apartments for long-term rental. When he added a third floor to his building in 1892, he told people it would be a hotel space, but it was never finished, furnished, or open to the public. The whole idea was just the means to swindle suppliers, investors, and insurance companies.

It’s believed that all the stories about the visitors to the World’s Fair who were murdered in his 'Murder Castle’ were just fabricated by the press. And so goes the  talltale of Holmes being "America's First Serial Killer."

NOTE: Someone mentioned that they had no forensics in the late 1890s. Nothing could be farther from the truth. James Marsh was the first to apply the new forensics science in 1832. He was called by the prosecution in a murder trial to give evidence as a chemist. That's over 60 years of improvements and procedures to the science of forensics by the time Holmes was hung. So forensics science was not in its infancy.


Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

[1] A Serial Killer is a person who commits a series of murders, often with no apparent motive and typically following a characteristic, predictable behavior pattern.


  1. I doesn’t look like the building ever had a fourth floor. It was 3 stories and a basement


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