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

Meet the American swindler and confidence trickster who is widely considered the country’s first known serial killer.

H.H. Holmes has earned himself the often-reported title of America’s first serial killer. Whether that is accurate or not is nearly impossible to prove, but regardless, his crimes were a never before seen sort of shocking in America to date.

Holmes built his “Murder Castle” in Chicago, Illinois, a three-story death trap with rooms equipped for the torture, dispatch, and discarding of victims.

H.H Holmes Showing his Mustache
Photo Credit: Kickass Facts

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Before the building of his murder castle, Holmes, born Herman Mudgett, was a doctor with a penchant for committing insurance fraud. Often stealing bodies from the medical school and posing them as victims of accidents, Mudgett was able to reclaim up to $12,500 from insurance payments. Eventually, after countless insurance frauds and name changes to avoid detection, Mudgett decided on his final, most infamous alias: Henry Howard Holmes. Holmes’ first murder was that of Mrs. D. Holden.

Mrs. D. Holden was a widow whose husband had hired Holmes to work in his pharmacy. Holmes became popular with the customers. Holmes eventually convinced Mrs. Holden to sell him the pharmacy, and she went missing shortly after.

Holmes calmly explained to anyone who came asking that, after selling him the pharmacy, Mrs. Holden had left town.

In 1887, Holmes bought an empty lot across the street from the pharmacy and began building a hotel, which would later become his infamous murder castle. The ground floors were shops, and the floors above were rooms, all built into a disorienting labyrinth even the construction crew couldn’t figure out. Holmes repeatedly hired and fired contractors, reportedly to ensure nobody knew the exact lay out of the hotel.

Later reports would state that the building featured soundproof rooms, trapdoors, and acid vats in the basement in which to dispose of bodies. There were peepholes in doors to rooms fitted with gas lines, enabling Holmes to watch on as he gassed victims to death.

Holmes fashioned a laboratory in the basement. Equipped with dissection tables, a stretching rack, and a crematory. In the bowels of the hotel, Holmes would dissect and clean bodies to sell to nearby medical schools.

Medical schools notoriously paid well for human specimens, and Holmes likely raked in a good deal of cash.

All of the hotel’s guests and employees, as well as Holmes’ numerous fiancées and wives, were required to have life insurance policies in which Holmes was named as the beneficiary. Most of Holmes’ fiancées and wives would eventually go missing, as did his employees and guests.

Neighbors would later report seeing numerous women entering the hotel, known locally as the “Castle,” but never leaving. Holmes, it seems, had returned to his favorite money-making scheme of insurance fraud.

After his crimes came to light, some would claim that as many as two hundred people lost their lives in the hotel’s foreboding walls.

Holmes Castle 63d St, Chicago
Photo Credit: History

In 1893, Chicago hosted the World’s Fair in Jackson Park, a short distance from Holmes’ hotel. In total, twenty-seven million visitors flocked to Chicago for the World’s Fair that year, including young single women seeking employment at the Fair.

Holmes saw an opportunity and jumped on it; opening his hotel to any single woman seeking a place to stay. The Fair ran from May to October of that year, and it is unknown how many women in those months fell victim to Holmes. Countless women in the area went missing during 1893, but it is likely many cases had little to do with Holmes.

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After the Fair ended, and Chicago’s economy fell into a slump, Holmes attempted many other acts of insurance fraud. Following a failed attempt to burn his hotel down and collect insurance payment—the third floor burned, leaving the rest intact—the insurance company suspected Holmes of arson and refused to pay, Holmes left Chicago.

Henry Howard Holmes partnered up with his longtime co-conspirator, Benjamin Pitezel, to attempt a life insurance fraud. Pitezel would, supposedly, fake his own death, and his wife, Carrie, would be named the beneficiary. Holmes successfully took out a ten thousand dollar life insurance policy on Pitezel and set to work on other schemes while he waited for the policy to mature.

Holmes, at this time, was also on the run from moneylenders to whom he owed fifty thousand dollars as well as insurance companies and the fraud investigation. He and his latest wife, Georgiana Yoke, made their way to Fort Worth, Texas, where Holmes planned to liquidate the property he had acquired from one of his Murder Castle victims, Minnie Williams.

Holmes had met her in 1893 and hired her as his secretary. Minnie was naïve, and Holmes took advantage of that fact, seducing her and convincing her to sign over her Texas house to him. He learned she had a wealthy sister, that he met and convinced to sign over her estate to him, before killing her. He also murdered Minnie, went through her belongings, found a life insurance policy for her brother in which she was named beneficiary, then subsequently killed her brother and collected the payment.

Once in Fort Worth, things didn’t go Holmes’ way with liquidating the property. He quickly developed another scheme: stealing some high-quality horses with Pitezel’s help and shipped them to St. Louis, where he sold them.

The authorities eventually caught up with him there and arrested him. While in jail, Holmes struck a deal with his cellmate, Marion Hedgepeth. Holmes planned to fake his death after taking out a twenty thousand dollar life insurance policy and give promised to give Hedgepeth five hundred dollars on the condition he found Holmes a cooperative lawyer, in case the plan went awry. Hedgepeth agreed, and Holmes was quickly released on bail.

H.H Holmes Fakes His Own Death
Photo Credit: The Chicagoist

Once out of prison and with a shady lawyer supplied by Hedgepeth, Holmes successfully faked his own death… for the time being.

On September 4, 1894, living under an assumed name, Holmes acted on Benjamin Pitezel’s life insurance policy. Instead of merely rendering the man unconscious and faking his death, Holmes went all the way and killed him. Afterwards, he paid the lawyer twenty-five hundred dollars, gave Pitezel’s widow five hundred dollars, and kept the remainder for himself.

He never paid Hedgepeth, who eventually went to police with the information of the fraud.

Holmes, meanwhile, had convinced Pitezel’s widow that her husband was still alive and would meet up with them in the east. So, she, her three children, Holmes, and his wife traveled the country until Holmes told Pitezel’s widow to go on without them. He would head to Canada with the children. After he arrived in Canada, he killed the children and fled.

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Police arrested Holmes after he went to his parents’ house in Boston to lay low.

Investigators in Chicago were searching his hotel of horrors, and the contents of the basement were horrendous. Human bones rested amid ashes in the crematorium.

Floating in vats of acid were more bones. Skeletons lay in pits in the floor and stacked under the dissection table awaiting their sale to medical institutes.

Bloodied clothes and scattered belongings, including Minnie William’s watch, lay around the basement.

They also discovered immaculate surgical instruments.

The Murder Castle would never give up its secrets. In the middle of the night on August 19, explosions shook the Englewood neighborhood over which it towered.

The roof of the hotel caved in within the hour, and the walls soon followed suit.

Eyewitnesses would later report two men entering the building and rushing out just half an hour later. An empty gas can was later found inside.

Execution of Holmes Sketched By Artist in Prision
Photo Credit: Delco Times

Henry Howard Holmes’ trial began in October 1895, and lasted just a week. The jury took only two hours to find Holmes guilty. He was sentenced to death.

A mere month before his execution, Holmes penned several confessions, published in newspapers across the country. The first was ten thousand words long, containing each grisly detail of twenty-five murders.

However, many of the people he’d claimed he’d killed were still alive, and others never existed at all.

Police said they only considered Holmes a suspect in nine or ten murders, and none of the crimes he had confessed to were reliable, giving them no more names to add to the list.

His confessions were all slightly altered, and none of them any more credible.

Perhaps the most-quoted line from them was, “I was born with the devil in me.”

He was hanged the following month, on May 7, 1896.

The world would never know for sure how many lives Henry Howard Holmes had claimed.

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