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 sing. ...I was born with the Evil One standing as my sponsor beside the bed where I was ushered into the world, and he has been with me since.
Dr. H.H. Holmes
Dr. Henry Howard Holmes is usually regarded as America’s first serial killer. An actual medical doctor, his prey of choice were young women who moved to Chicago in the hopes of getting a job at the World’s Colombian Exposition in the 1890s. Much like Ted Bundy, he was known as a good-looking man filled with intelligence and charm. Unlike Bundy, Holmes' crimes were not sexually based but instead took the form of twisted medical experiments. Physical evidence exists to confirm only nine killings, but he surely killed more and some estimates range into the hundreds. After Holmes was finally captured, he wrote several confessions and an autobiography that was both best selling and self-serving. Everyone who came into contact with Holmes emphasized what a wonderful man he was, with a ready smile and beautiful blue eyes. Women would talk about how he was able touch them with such familiarity and how drawn they were to his intimate demeanor.
Education and Early Exploits
Dr. Holmes was born Herman Webster Mudgett in Gilmanton, New Hampshire in 1860, the son of devout Methodist farmers. A “mama’s boy” who spent a good deal of time alone in his room reading Jules Verne and Edgar Allen Poe, Herman also showed an early interest in science by building a wind machine that generated noise to scare birds out of the family fields and also set out to build a perpetual motion machine. His only close friend was a boy named Tom who was killed in a fall while the two boys were playing alone together.
Mudgett graduated from high school at the age of sixteen and two years later eloped with a woman named Clara Lovering. After the initial passion wore off, he abandoned Lovering and moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan to attend medical school at the University of Michigan (then noted for its emphasis on the controversial use of dissection to educate). After he graduated in 1884 he traveled around the country for a while, but eventually settled in Moores Forks, New York, becoming both the town doctor and the school principal. During his travels, Mudgett left behind a trail of scorned women who he had seduced with promises of marriage but eventually abandoned after he had gotten what he wanted. While living in Moores Forks, an orphan boy that had been last seen with him disappeared, but the charming Dr. Mudgett claimed that the boy had gone to live with extended family in Massachusetts. No investigation was conducted.
Mudgett moved from New York to Philadelphia, where he got a job at the Norristown Asylum for the Insane. After that he got a job at a drugstore in the city. When a child mysteriously died after taking some medication, Mudgett skipped town and moved to Chicago. In July 1886, one year before A Study in Scarlet was published, Mudgett registered with the Illinois medical board as Dr. H.H. Holmes.
Life in Chicago
Holmes moved into the rapidly growing upscale area known as Englewood located on the southwest side of the city. At the corner of 63rd and Wallace stood a pharmacy run by a Mrs. Holton, whose husband was dying of cancer. Holmes went in and became her assistant, helping the poor, soon-to-be widow with whatever she needed. After her husband died, Holmes bought the store from Mrs. Holton and began to run the place all by himself. Soon the store was booming, partially thanks to the young and handsome doctor who was now running the place. An increasing number of young single women began to come to the store, and whenever they asked what happened to old Mrs. Holton, Holmes told them that she had moved to California to live with relatives.
Holmes courted and married a young blond girl named Myrta Belknap, who quickly became pregnant. Unfortunately he was not yet divorced from his first wife Clara, so he filed for divorce, charging her with infidelity. The case was eventually dropped as Holmes failed to follow though on his petition. Myrta’s parents lived in Wilmette, a northern suburb of Chicago, and she eventually moved back in with them to have the child. Holmes rarely visited his wife, as he claimed that his many business issues in Englewood kept him too busy.
It was during this time period that Holmes built his now-infamous death hotel across the street from his pharmacy. Chicago was a boom town and able-bodied men streamed into the city looking to find work, especially to help build the newly-invented skyscrapers that sprang up next to the lake. As a result, labor was cheap and Holmes could to whatever he wanted and he would always have a deep pool of workers to draw from. He would berate the workers for doing shoddy work and would not give them their full wages or even not pay them altogether. If any quit, he could always find more. The large number of workers also allowed him to keep secret what he was actually building, a single man knew only the task he was given so he wouldn’t be able to piece together what the building was becoming: a literal death trap.
The Murder Castle
The building had over 60 rooms and 51 doors that were cut oddly into various walls. Gas lamps were unevenly placed in the hallways, leaving pools of shadow everywhere. The hotel was fitted with trap doors, hidden staircases, secret passages, rooms without windows, chutes that led into the basement and a staircase that opened out over a steep drop to the alley behind the house. Evidence would later be found to show that Holmes used some of the rooms as "asphyxiation chambers", where his victims were suffocated with gas. Other chambers were lined with iron plates and had blowtorch-like devices fitted into the walls. In the basement, Holmes installed a dissecting table and maintained his own crematory. There was also an acid vat and pits filled with quicklime, where bodies could be conveniently disposed of.
By May of 1890 the building was complete. That November, it was announced that Chicago would be hosting the World's Columbian Exposition. The fairgrounds would be located in Jackson Park, only a few miles east of the hotel. Holmes realized that he could make a killing renting out his rooms for top dollar during the fair, then burn the place down for the insurance money.
Holmes opened a new pharmacy on the first floor of the building, complete with a jewelry counter that was run by a new Chicagoan named Ned Conner. Ned lived on the second floor with his wife Julia and their 8 year old daughter Pearl. Julia also worked for Dr. Holmes, helping him out in his mail-order medicine business. Holmes sold the pharmacy to Ned without telling him about the massive debts that he had accrued, which were now Ned’s problem. Holmes also seduced Julia, which, combined with the debt problem, caused Ned to leave town and divorce his wife. Holmes promised to marry Julia, but kept putting it off until she told him that she was pregnant. A bastard child simply would not do, so Holmes took Julia into his operating room in order to perform an abortion on Christmas Eve 1891. He suffocated her with chloroform, then went upstairs and did the same to Pearl. He skinned and dissected their bodies and later sold their skeletons to a local medical college. The next day, when some of the boarders that lived on the second floor of the building asked where Julia and her beautiful young daughter Pearl were, Holmes told them she had gone off to live with her sister in Iowa.
Holmes then hired a young blond woman named Emeline Cigrand to be his personal secretary. They quickly became lovers and he asked her to marry him. Within a few weeks, Emeline had disappeared. Holmes told her family that she had run off and eloped with another man. A few weeks later, LaSalle Medical College got a brand new female skeleton.
Holmes also met and married Minnie Williams, an heir to a Texas real estate fortune, in a private ceremony; strangely the marriage does not show up on Cook County records. Holmes told Minnie that his name was Henry Gordon, and that Holmes was just an alias he used in his business dealings. He convinced her to sign all the property she owned over to him.
The World’s Columbian Exposition opened on May 1, 1893 and Holmes’ World’s Fair Hotel was soon filled with beautiful young women who were on their own for the first time in their lives. Homes convinced Minnie to move into an apartment on the North Side of the city, as the dreary hotel was no place for the family they were going to raise. This left Holmes alone to interact with his young female guests. Holmes presented himself as kind and caring man, there to protect the his young guests from the dangers of the city. He was such a forgiving soul, not at all concerned when some guests would simply disappear without notice, leaving their bills unpaid.
Over 300,000 people attended the fair, most of them visiting Chicago from various places around the world. Hundreds of people were declared missing in the city during the time of the fair, but the tiny, underfunded police department had enough trouble dealing with crowd control, pickpockets, and striking workers than to worry about a bunch of missing tourists that forgot to send letters home on a timely basis. Of the many missing, the trails of at least fifty of them come to a dead stop at the World’s Fair Hotel.
Minnie’s sister Anna came from Texas to visit her sister and to see the Fair. One day, Holmes brought Anna over to the hotel to show her the building. He managed to lure her into the airtight closet in his office, slammed the door, and turned on the gas jets and suffocated her. He went back to the North Side apartment and told Minnie that her sister was waiting for them at the hotel, and brought her back there too. Several days later Holmes gave several pairs of ladies shoes and some hats to the wife of his new assistant. He said they belonged to his cousin that had recently married and moved east.
The building and furnishing of his hotel left Holmes in debt to scores of creditors. He was able to hold most of them off for years simply through the power of his engaging personality. After the fair had ended in November of 1893, Holmes set fire to the 3rd floor of his hotel, but was unable to collect on the insurance thanks to suspicious investigators. After being hounded by creditors, insurance men, and private detectives searching for information about many of the woman that had stayed at Holmes’ hotel and disappeared, Holmes skipped town yet again.
Final Flight of the Doctor
Through the rest of 1893 and 1894 Holmes traveled around the Midwest with his assistant, a man named Benjamin Pitezel, pulling insurance scams in the hopes of raising enough money to build another hotel on the land he had bilked from Minnie Williams. Eventually Holmes grew desperate and took out a $10,000 life insurance policy on Pitezel, murdered him, and kidnapped his three children. He reached Philadelphia without any children and hoped to collect on his policy on Pitezel. Holmes was arrested for insurance fraud and veteran Pinkerton detective Frank Geyer attempted to recreate Holmes’ trail over the past several months in the hopes of finding the children. It was during the frantic search for the children that Holmes’ case became a national phenomenon, every day the newspapers would report on Geyer’s search. After moving through several cities in the U.S. and Canada, the trial eventually led to a boardinghouse in Toronto. Buried in the basement there, the detective found the nude bodies of Pitezel’s two daughters and the murder weapon: A small box with a hole cut in it and a tube leading out. Holmes had placed the girls in the box, and then filled it with gas to suffocate them. Several days later, the incinerated body of Pitezel’s son was found in an abandoned house in Indiana.
As all of this was going on, Holmes was sitting in a Philadelphia prison acting as a model prisoner and writing his memoirs in which he blamed Minnie Williams and an accomplice known as “Hatch” for the murders.
On July 19, 1895, the Chicago police entered Holmes’ abandoned hotel, what they found would be a horror show unequaled until the excavation of John Wayne Gacy’s house eighty years later. A vat of acid with eight ribs and part of a skull inside. A dissection table and surgical instruments stained with blood. Eighteen ribs from the torso of a child. Vertebrae, a foot bone, shoulder blades, hip sockets. Human hair clotted a stovepipe. Two buried vaults filled with quicklime and human remains. The study and excavation of the building continued for weeks.
One month after the police began searching the hotel, the place burned to the ground in the middle of the night.
On November 30, 1895, Holmes was found guilty of the murder of Benjamin Pitezel and sentenced to death. In his final confession (he actually wrote three) he admitted to killing twenty-seven people, but the document was filled with lies and some of the victims he listed were later found to be alive. He also claimed that he was actually turning into the devil.
Herman Webster Mudgett a.k.a. Dr. Henry Harold Holmes was hanged in Philadelphia on May 7, 1896.
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (this book is spectacular!)
Haunted Chicago by Troy Taylor