H.H Holmes: America’s First Serial Killer

*warning of details of murder, death and torture, including of children*

Herman Webster Mudgett, aka H.H Holmes is believed to be America’s first serial killer. It is said that he killed between 20 and 200 people, in his ‘Murder Castle’, a building that was intricately designed by Holmes so that he could take his victims and murder them. He was apprehended in 1894 and hanged 2 years later. 

Throughout this post we will be delving in to the early life of Holmes – a childhood that is suggested to have contributed to his killer instincts later on in life, his early life of crime and, of course, the infamous ‘Murder Castle’.

Early life

Holmes was born on May 16, 1861 in New Hampshire, to an affluent family. He was the third born, having an older sister – Ellen, and brother – Arthur, and a younger sister – Mary and brother – Henry. His parents were devout Methodists and demanded complete obedience from him. His mother Theodate Page Price, a former school teacher, was described as ‘cold and distant’, who used religion as a daily guide for parenting (this isn’t looking good so far). Additionally, his father, Levi Horton Mudgett, was an alcoholic who chose strict discipline as his form of parenting, that often resulted in physical abuse. Some of his harsh disciplinary tactics included prolonged isolation and food deprivation. It is also reported that he held kerosene soaked rags over the mouths of Holmes and his siblings to ‘quiet them’ when they cried. Top notch parenting skills if you ask me.

During this time, Holmes found solace in the forest near to his home. It was here that his fascination with the dead began, as he began dissecting bodies of dead animals. This obsession began with reptiles and then escalated to mammals such as rabbits and dogs. This later provided him with flesh-cutting skills and later acted as a psychological facilitator for his obsession with human anatomy. It is suggested that all these factors combined, resulted in his inability to form meaningful relationships, with the abuse contributing to his penchant for lies, swindling and abusing other individuals. Studies show that serial killers are 6x more likely to have experienced abuse in their childhood. Holmes was also a abused in school for his good grades and slightly odd demeanour. One instance, for example is when his classmates blindsided him by forcing him into the doctors office and forcibly placing a skeletons hands over his face. This was during a time during many medical advancements that garnered much public attention so it wasn’t rare to find skeletons in doctors windows.

This morbid curiosity with the dead may have led him to killing his childhood friend at 11. Although nothing has been proved it would not be surprising. Holmes had a friend named Tom; whilst exploring an abandoned house together, Holmes recalls witnessing Tom die by falling off a landing. However, it is speculated that Holmes was standing close enough to Tom that he could have pushed him. Could this have been his first human killing?

Beginning his life of crime and relationships

It will come as no surprise when I say that Holmes went to medical school. He was a student at the University of Michigan and it was here that things started escalated. Throughout his time here, he stole corpses and used them to make false insurance claims and in some cases, he also used them for experiments. He began robbing graves, and morgues and sold the cadavers (corpse) to medial schools or utilised them for more insurance scams. He did this by creating pseudonyms for himself and naming himself beneficiary of a life insurance policy he took out on a fictitious individual.

Another way of earning money, was by swindling money out of women. At one point he had 3 wives in 3 different cities – the women knowing nothing of each other. In 1878 he married Clara Levering, the daughter of a wealthy local farmer with whom he had one son, Robert who was born in 1880. In 1884, Holmes left Clara and Robert using her money for his medical school tuition, they both described him as being abusive. In 1886, whilst still married to Clara, he married Myrta with whom he had one daughter, Lucy, in 1889. He then went on to marry again, still married to his previous two wives.

The ‘Murder Castle’

By now it is already obvious that Holmes wasn’t a nice guy and that was before all the killings! Holmes arrived in Chicago in 1886, when he started using his new name, Henry Howard Holmes. It was here that he began working at a drugstore and eventually bought it. He purchased the land opposite the building and in 1887 began building a two story building, consisting of apartments on the first floor and retail space on the ground this. This would become the ‘Murder Castle’. In 1892, he added a third floor, telling investors and suppliers that it was space for a hotel. Within the building there was soundproof rooms and mazes of hallways, some leading to nowhere. Many rooms were fitted with chutes that went straight to the basement where there were acid vats, quicklime and a crematorium. Holmes wasn’t too keen on paying suppliers or staff, so when furniture suppliers began poking around after not receiving their payments they found that Holmes was hiding their materials in hidden rooms and passages. Their search made the news and investors pulled out once reading the articles.

By 1892 the hotel was more or less complete. The ground floor stayed the store front and the first and second floor consisted of elaborate torture rooms including the basement chute. Police had been suspecting things were off about Holmes, so in 1894 when Holmes was out, they inspected the hotel and discovered rooms with hinged walls and false partitions, rooms linked with secret passages and airtight rooms that were connected to pipelines full of gas, aka, gas chambers. The chutes were used to deliver bodies to the basement and once there, Holmes made use of surgical tables and an array of medical tools to dissect bodies before selling the organs and bones to the black market and medical institutions.

Shortly after Holmes’ arrest, the hotel was set on fire by an unknown arsonist. It is speculated that it was the neighbours as they didn’t want it to become a tourist attraction. However, it was largely rebuilt and used as a post office until 1938.

The victims

One of the first victims, if you aren’t including Tom, was his mistress Julia Smythe. She was the wife of Ned Connor who had moved into the building and began working at the pharmacy jewellery counter. Connor found out about the affair and left Julia and their daughter, Pearl behind. Smythe gained custody of Pearl and stayed with Holmes, continuing their relationship. However, on Christmas Eve, 1891, Julia and Pearl disappeared – Holmes claimed Julia died during an abortion, but it was never confirmed.

Other victims include Emeline Cigrande who began working in the building in May 1892 and disappeared in the December of that year. 1893 was the year that actress Minnie Williams moved to Chicago and also fell under the charm of Holmes. He persuaded her to transfer the deed of her properly in Forth Worth, Texas to one of his aliases. Holmes and Williams rented an apartment together, to which her sister Annie visited. During this visit Annie wrote to her aunt telling her she had to de decided to accompany ‘brother Harry’ to Europe. Neither Minnie nor Annie were seen alive after July 5 1893.

Throughout his spree, Holmes had what only can be described as a partner in crime, his name was Benjamin Pitezel – he helped at times to dispose of the bodies and sell the parts. Both Pitezel and Holmes concocted a plan for Pitezel to fake his own death so that his wife and five children could collect the $10000 insurance policy, to which Holmes would get a cut. However, Holmes in good old Holmes style, thought it better to just kill Pitezel by knocking him unconscious with chloroform and setting his body on fire. It was never confirmed whether or not Pitezel was still alive when his body was set on fire.

Holmes proceeded to collect the money and went on the manipulate Pitezel’s wife into allowing 3/5 of her children to be in his custody. Holmes and the three children, Annie, Nellie and Howard all travelled throughout the USA and Canada together, escorting Mrs Pitezel along a parallel route, whilst still lying to her about her husbands death – claiming he was in London, hiding – in addition to lying to her about the whereabouts of her children. Holmes later confessed to killing Annie and Nellie by forcing them into a large trunk and locking them inside. He drilled a hole into the lid and used gas to asphyxiate them. He buried their bodies nude in the cellar of his rental home in a Toronto. Holmes also rented a home in Indianapolis where he killed Howard. He purchased drugs from the local pharmacy to kill Howard, and tools from a repair shop to sharpen the knives he used to cut up the body before burning it. Howard’s teeth and bits of bone were discovered in the chimney.

Capture and arrest

With insurance companies pressing to prosecute Holmes for arson, he left Chicago in July 1894, reappearing in Forth Worth, Texas in the home he procured from Minnie Williams. It was here that he sought to construct another ‘Castle’. However, his spree ended in Boston on November 17, 1894 where Holmes was finally arrested after an outstanding warrant for horse theft in Texas. Of all the things he had done and it was horse theft that got him. Following the discovery of Alice and Nellie in July 1895, Chicago police began investigating Holmes’ building, ‘The Castle’. However, despite many claims, no evidence was found that could have convicted him. Obviously in the 1890s, having a torture house wasn’t enough. Despite this, in October 1895, Holmes was put on trial and found guilty for the murder of Benjamin Pitezel and sentenced to death. By then it was also evident that he had murdered Annie, Nellie and Howard.

Following this conviction, he ‘confessed’ to 27 murders in Chicago, Indianapolis and Toronto. He initially claimed innocence and said that he was possessed by Satan. Classic. On May 7 1896, he was hanged at Moyamensing Prison, also known as the Philadelphia County Prison for the murder of Pitezel. Leading up to his death he remained calm and amiable, showing very few signs of anxiety, fear or depression. He asked for his coffin to be contained in cement and buried 10ft deep as he was concerned grave diggers would steal his body and use if for dissection. I wonder why. When hanged, his neck did not snap; instead the rope strangled him slowly to death, his body twitching for over 15 minutes before finally being pronounced dead, 20 minutes after the trap had sprung.

In 2017, amid allegations that Holmes had in fact escaped execution, his body was exhumed for testing. Due to the body being contained in cement, the body hadn’t decomposed normally. His clothes were almost perfectly preserved and his moustache in tact. He was positively identified as Holmes through his teeth and then reburied.

So there we have it, the lift and death of America’s first serial killer. Wasn’t a very nice guy and I am personally very glad his neck didn’t snap, he deserved the longest death possible. Come back next week when we will be discussing the Roanoke colony, the first English permanent settlers in America that disappeared without a trace.

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