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

Today we are going to talk about H.H. Holmes, the man who claimed “I was born with the devil in me.”

H.H. Holmes was born Herman Webster Mudgett in May of 1861, but is most well known by his self-proclaimed moniker of “Dr. Henry Howard Holmes,” which he acquired while running away from one of his early insurance schemes. From a young age, by our standards, H.H. Holmes was on the run from the law. He participated in numerous insurance fraudulent schemes as well as petty theft (on the side). He is also known as the first documented serial killer in the United States of America.

In 1893, Holmes concocted his most notorious crime to date, and by no means was it an easy feat. This plan consisted of building an entire hotel in the middle of Chicago during an event called the World’s Columbian Expedition, also known as the World’s Fair; an event that housed people from all over the world, who joined together for six months to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World in 1492. Holmes knew that this would attract people of all ages and ethnicities to Chicago for an extended period of time and decided to take advantage of the situation. Unfortunately, only he would see the advantage it brought as his idea took the lives of an approximated 200 innocent people.

When Holmes learned of the World’s Fair in 1889, he began designing a hotel. The location would be an entire city block which he managed to buy out from current shop owners until he acquired all of the land necessary. This would be a place where foreigners could come to stay during their six month visit, and pay him directly for his accommodations. Throughout the construction of this hotel, he would hire, fire and rehire numerous construction contractors in order to get rid of any suspicion around the purpose for this hotel. You see, this was no normal hotel, and construction workers began to realize this as they built the bizarre labyrinth that was laid out before them in the initial blueprints. This hotel consisted of twists and turns that could make it nearly impossible for anyone to escape. Similar to what many of you may be familiar with, known as the Winchester Mystery House in California, this building is something straight out of many guest’s nightmares. Some of its features included 51 doors that opened to brick walls, 100 windowless rooms, staircases that lead to nowhere, two furnaces in the basement, large metal chutes that led straight into an incinerator and rooms that only the most sinister of minds could design.

This hotel would come to be known simply as Murder Castle and construction was completed in 1982, just before the commencement of the World’s Fair in 1893. The place where H.H. Holmes confessed to murdering 27 people, 9 of which are proven, and 200 of which are suspected over the course of the six months that the World’s Fair took place. The twists and turns that he had laid out in the hallways would lead “guests” into their assigned rooms. Some of which were outfitted with the unimaginable. The second floor, where the guests were roomed, housed 51 doors, but only 35 available rooms which were rented out by the day. Each room was soundproofed, and at least one was outfitted with gas lines that could be controlled from an adjacent room; one where Holmes reportedly visited often, allegedly to sleep. A single room was sealed in by bricks, only accessible through a trap door in the ceiling and one room was dubbed the “secret hanging room” by the hotel’s owner, where he would bring the victims that he stalked and captured in the narrow hallways of the second floor to watch them parish. Many of the rooms were also completely windowless, despite the exterior facade of large windows.

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Second Floor: Courtesy of Pinterest

The third floor is where Holmes housed his personal office. The entire floor, as well as the doors leading to the floor, was fitted with alarms that would alert Holmes if anyone was coming as he had many things to hide before they arrived at their destination. Another room on this floor was also fitted with similar gas lines to a guest room on the second floor. Except this particular room was more like a vault. Steel walls were lined with asbestos in order to dampen any sound coming from within and the room was just large enough to stand and walk around in. It is alleged that this is where some of his captured victims would be held so Holmes could stand by and watch them starve or suffocate to death. Each floor had access to either a dummy elevator or large metal chutes that would lead into the cellar of the hotel. These would be used to transport the bodies of his victims to the lower level where he would not only dissect and mutilate them, but also gut them completely and drop their flesh and organs into vats of Quicklime or acid in order to remove any possible evidence.

Holmes was a former medical student, which aided him in performing a proper and clean dissection of each victim. Some victims bodies would simply be thrown into an incinerator and forgotten about completely, while others were gutted and cleaned, and their skeletal remains were donated to local labs and schools to be used for experiments and teachings in the medical field.

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Murder Castle: Courtesy of Missedinhistory.com

Once the World’s Fair had seen its last day in Chicago, H.H. Holmes packed his bags and abandoned his hotel; leaving it to it’s caretaker, Pat Quinian to run on his own. Quinian was aware of the murders taking place in the hotel, but was never convicted of participating as he cooperated with police officials and seemed genuinely afraid of Mr. Holmes. Upon leaving Chicago, Holmes travelled to Boston, where he picked up where he left off with petty crimes and insurance fraud. In Boston, he also acquired a partner of sorts, Benjamin Pitezel, who helped him execute each of his twisted schemes in hopes of finding some monetary gain. Their partnership worked out well until Holmes requested that Pitezel fake his own death, just to actually kill him shortly after, as well as his three children. Holmes was actually arrested only for the murder of Benjamin Pitezel in Boston, but when police officials traces his whereabouts for the last year or so, they followed him back to Chicago, Illinois, and chose to visit his infamous hotel. Upon discovery of the dark and twisted reality inside of the Murder Castle, Holmes chose to confess to the murders of 27 men, women and children. Inside of the hotel, officials found piles of partial human and animal skeletal remains, including some bones of a child no older than six to eight years of age. They also found the bloodied clothing of a woman, next to a dirtied dissection table, and a gold chain and a shoe inside of a large oven on the third floor.

Despite the horrors that were revealed in this investigation, H.H. Holmes was only officially tried for the murder of Benjamin Pitezel, for which he was sentenced to death by hanging. His only dying wish was to be buried ten feet underground and covered by cement, so that no one could excavate his body and dissect it in the future. On May 7, 1896, H.H. Holmes was hanged at Philadelphia County Prison for his crimes. Upon dropping at the gallows, his neck did not snap as one’s neck usually would, so it took him a total of 20 minutes to fully parish and be pronounced dead at the scene. He was only 34-years-old.

In 1914, the hotel’s caretaker, Pat Quinian, committed suicide by ingesting Strychnine; a natural chemical that is lethal to humans and animals that cuts of nerve control to the body’s muscles, causing painful spasms until the muscles tire and the victim suffocates to death. The only note he left behind read “I couldn’t sleep.”

Although this sounds like a place that many horror lovers would like to visit, unfortunately, the hotel was burned down in 1895 after the news leaked of the happenings that went on within its walls. Standing in its place today is a simple neighbourhood post office.

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Current site of the Murder Castle: Courtesy of Flikr.com

Although Holmes died over a century ago, his legacy as America’s first serial killer lives on through pop culture’s depiction of him in numerous books and television shows. The most popular recounts of his story are in the “fictional” novel by Robert Bloch, called American Gothic (Note: It is very hard to find a copy of this novel as it is no longer in print, if you happen to find a place where I can purchase a copy. PLEASE let me know. Tweet me @kelsimarie1330), where we hear the story of a similar serial killer with his own “Murder Castle” and in American Horror Story: Hotel, airing in 2015, the fifth season of AHS follows a character known as James March, the owner of the hotel who kills his victims in much the same way as the beloved H.H. Holmes.

I hope you all enjoyed learning about the beginning of serial killers in the United States. This story has intrigued me for many years and researching the topic was definitely an eye opener into the scary things that go through some people’s minds. If you have anything you would like to contribute in terms of facts, please feel free to send me a message via the Contacts page linked above. 

Until next time, keep it spooky!

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