H. H. Holmes, America’s First and Most Prolific Serial Killer

H. H. Holmes

Dr. Henry Howard Holmes

Come with me, if you will, to a tiny, quiet New England village, nestling among the picturesque rugged hills of New Hampshire. This little hamlet has for over a century been known as Gilmanton Academy. So called in honor of an institution of learning of that name, founded there by a few sturdy, self-denying and God-fearing men, over a hundred years ago, who could they now leave their silent resting places in the church yard nearby, and again wander for an hour through these quiet streets, would, with the exception of new faces, see little change.

Here, in the year 1861, I, Herman W. Mudgett, the author of these pages, was born.

That the first years of my life were different from those of any other ordinary country-bred boy, I have no reason to think. That I was well-trained by loving and religious parents, I know and any deviations in my afterlife from the straight and narrow way of rectitude are not attributable to the want of a tender mother’s prayers or a father’s control emphasized, when necessary, by the liberal use of the rod wielded by no sparing schoolmates, they one day bore me struggling and shrieking beyond its awful portals; nor did they desist until I had been brought face to face with one of its grinning skeletons, which, with arms outstretched, seemed ready in its turn to seize me.

It was a wicked and dangerous thing to do to a child of tender years and health, but it proved a heroic method of treatment destined ultimately to cure me of my fears and to inculcate in me, first, a strong feeling of curiosity, and later, a desire to learn which resulted years afterwards in my adopting medicine as a profession.

Unlike most serial killers, not only did Dr. Herman Webster Mudgett finish college, but he completed medical school as well, graduating with the Class of 1884. In the two years that followed, he practiced the art of scamming by insuring acquaintances, then substituting cadavers, probably stolen from the university, as the insured’s corpse.

The life skills he learned prepared him for a life of crime.

To allude authorities, as well as the people he scammed, he changed his identity.

Dr. Herman Webster Mudgett would cease to exist, but the world would soon never forget Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, aka H.H. Holmes, America’s first and most prolific serial killer.

Chicago 1886

After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the city rebuilt. By 1886, tycoons and millionaires flooded the area; they were held in high esteem by the good people of Chicago. Commerce was thriving in the southern part of the state, which is where Holmes decided to make his fantasies a reality—dark desires ripped from the torture chambers of Edgar Allen Poe.

Immediately, he found work at E. S. Holton Drugstore. Several weeks later, Everett Holton, the owner, allegedly died from natural causes. And soon after, his wife mysteriously disappeared after selling Holmes the store.

Now, Holmes had the cash flow to move forward with his plans. In addition to scamming creditors, he sold an elixir to unsuspecting patrons, which was nothing more than town water.

In 1888, he secured a lease on West 63rd Street, directly across the street from the drugstore. It is here where all his childhood fantasies would morph into the unthinkable for you and I.

H. H. Holmes

“The Murder Castle”

In August of that same year, he finalized the architectural plans as Jack the Ripper stunned London with his murderous rampage. While Holmes followed the headlines in the newspaper, he chuckled, as if telling America, “Wait till I unleash my wrath.” Jack the Ripper wasn’t competition. He was more of an inspiration.

Unaware of the evil lurking inside the walls of the West 63rd Street property, Englewood residents were so impressed by the design they dubbed the home “the castle.” Later, it would be remembered as “The Murder Castle.”

During construction Holmes continuously hired carpenters, electricians, and plumbers, allowing them to complete only one room before firing them for incompetence so no one learned the sinister design.

One of the things he bought was a huge bank vault, which he installed, then built a room around it. By doing so, when he refused to pay the note, the bank couldn’t repossess without fear of damaging the residence and being sued by Holmes.

The third floor of the castle seemed innocent enough, with rented rooms. But the second floor was an entirely different story. Narrow hallways designed like mazes kept house guests off-kilter. Torture chambers and labyrinth construction with doorways to nowhere. Hidden behind wallpaper was a secret door and greased shoot, leading to the basement, designed for easy body disposal.

Some victims were taken to the “secret hanging chamber.” There was another secret room sealed with brick walls that could only be entered through a trapdoor in the ceiling. He’d lock his victims inside to die of hunger and thirst. A unique alarm system on all the bedroom doors alerted him whenever someone left their room. There were “staircases that led nowhere in particular,” blind passageways, hinged walls, false partitions, rooms with no doors and rooms with many doors. All these centered on the second floor with Holmes’ own apartment at the front of this floor. A trap door in his bathroom led to a hidden stairway; at the bottom was a windowless cubicle between-floors in the heart of the house, complete with a chute that dropped into the cellar.

The basement resembled a medieval torture dungeon, with chains and iron cuffs mounted on the walls, acids vats, quicklime pits, various poisons, even a crematorium disguised as a glass furnace. An “elasticity determinator” was a table where he strapped his victims to “stretch them out” in an attempt to create giants. Whether this was truly his intention we’ll never know. Clearly he enjoyed torturing his victims.

Once they succumbed to their injuries, he’d meticulously dissect, clean—by stripping them of flesh—and create skeleton models, which he’d sell to medical schools and universities. He was literally and figuratively making a killing.

H. H. Holmes' partner in crime

Benjamin Pitezel

Around the same time, Benjamin Pitezel traveled across the Midwest committing petty crimes and working dead-end jobs to provide for his wife, Carrie, and their five children, the youngest an infant. The financial hardships drove him to drink. Even though Pitezel morphed from a handsome young man into a disheveled shell of his former self, he was devoted to his family, working any job he could find. One day, he answered a newspaper ad: Carpenters Wanted.

When Pitezel met H. H. Holmes they immediately hit it off. Over the next few months, they became extremely close. Holmes relied on him to take up the slack in his absence. You need to understand that by all outward appearances Holmes was slight of stature, some might say an elegant man, which attracted many female callers. So, no one viewed him as a threat. Especially Benjamin Pitezal, who welcomed him into his family. Holmes allegedly adored the children, but later actions would call his feelings into question.

Could a sociopath adore anyone?

In May, 1883 The World Fair came to Chicago. Three years later, over 20 million tourists flocked to the area. Holmes used this opportunity to capitalize on his demented design of his castle, the perfect lodging for unsuspecting tourists. He redesigned the third floor to make it more attractive to elderly women who exploited their wealth. Perfect victims, because they were unknown in the city and relatives only knew they went to the fair. Some left the castle unharmed. Many were never heard from again.

Females from his staff were some of Holmes favorite victims, many of whom were required to take out life insurance polices with Holmes as the beneficiary. He paid the premiums as part of their employment.

Hidden in Holmes’ office was a control panel for gas chambers that ran inside the walls to the bedrooms. When the women fell asleep Holmes snuck into the office and turned on the gas. The asbestos lining the walls silenced the bloodcurdling screams as they asphyxiated.

At the height of fair, his multitasking skills reached a whole new level as he scammed creditors, ran a thriving business, and slaughtered people at night—all while no one, even the other house guests, ever suspected any wrongdoing. Not only that, but he was quite the lady’s man. At one point he had three wives, and each one believed they were his one and only. He also had a mistress, Julia Smythe, who had a young daughter named Pearl. When Julia got pregnant months later she pressured Holmes to marry her. He had one stipulation…she allow him to perform an abortion. Reluctantly, she agreed.

The abortion was planned for Christmas Eve. Holmes murdered Julia by overdosing her with chloroform. Later, he killed Pearl, too.

After Christmas — using the alias Henry Gordon — he hired a man named Charles Chappell to articulate Smythe’s skeleton. Holmes took Chappell 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; Holmes would disarticulate the rest of the body. Later that night, Holmes and Pitezel showed up at Chappell’s door with the body sliced into two pieces.

One week later, Holmes sold an articulated, clean skeleton to the university for $200.

Holmes hired Chappell a second time and took him to the same room on the second floor. This time he was to process a male corpse. The third job was for the body of a female. After Chappell finished the third skeleton, Holmes refused to pay, due to some financial trouble. In retaliation, Chappell held the third skeleton as collateral. Later, when Holmes’ crimes became public, he gave the skull to police for examination.

The room where Holmes kept the three bodies would soon be dubbed “the room of the three corpses.”

Another mistress, Emmaline Cegrand, entered the scene. She also worked as his personal secretary. After she was no longer useful, or maybe just for fun, Holmes asked her to retrieve documents from the vault. Once she entered, he locked her inside. Police later found her shoe impression on the door, where she’d tried to kick her way free before suffocating to death.

One week later, Holmes sold a female skeleton to the university.

Georgiana Yolk thought she married Henry Mansfield Howard (one of Holmes’ aliases). Like Holmes’ other two wives, Georgiana lived a long, healthy life. Apparently, he never harmed any of them.

Pitezel’s drinking problem worsened. At night, guests could hear Holmes and Pitezel arguing over finances, and Holmes feared he’d ramble in a drunken stupor, tell others about the inner design of the castle and his afterhours activities. In other words, he’d outgrown his usefulness.

H. H. Holmes QuoteIn the peaceful Midnight hours, Holmes plotted.

He persuaded Pitezel to buy a life insurance policy worth $10, 000, naming his wife Carrie as the beneficiary. The plan was to stage his death in Pennsylvania, substituting a stolen cadaver for his corpse while the family went underground. They’d split the insurance money 50/50. Never thinking his good friend would do him harm, he agreed. Carrie, however, took longer to convince. Before they set their plan into motion Holmes and the family of seven left Chicago to commit fraud across the country, using numerous fake IDs.

It wasn’t until months later, in July, 1894, that Holmes tried to swindle the wrong guy…another drugstore owner, who wasn’t an easy mark. For the first time his plan backfires, landing him in jail for fraud.

While behind bars he met a notorious gangster, Marion Hedgepeth, whom he shared a jail cell with. For some reason Holmes let him in on the insurance scam. To his surprise Hedgepeth gave him the name of a crooked attorney who could legitimize the scam. In return for this information Holmes agreed to pay Hedgepeth a $500. finder’s fee.

Also while incarcerated, Holmes peered out the tiny jailhouse window at the gallows where a death sentence was being carried out. Watching the lifeless corpse swing, his neck snapped from the force, Holmes ruminated about his own fate. Would authorities discover what he’d done and hang him one day?

You might think this would curb his lust for vengeance, but sociopaths don’t fear anyone. In their mind, they’re way too clever to get caught.

Georgiana Yolk bailed Holmes out of jail. Several weeks later, Holmes and Pitezel headed for Pennsylvania—the location where they’d carry out the insurance scam. As Pitezel hugged his wife goodbye, she begged him to reconsider.

It was too late to turn back now.

Pitezel masqueraded as a patent dealer named B. F. Perry. One month later, an inventor he’d been working with stopped by the office to discuss his latest invention. He knocked at the door.

No answer.

He poked his head inside Pitezel’s office.

Empty.

Up the stairs and down the hall he prowled, where he stumbled across Pitezel’s body, the decaying corpse singed coal-black. At the time, fingerprint technology wasn’t the preferred method of identification. Rather, the Bertillon method was used, where authorities would take body measurements—length of head, arm, and leg, length of left foot. Because of the fake ID, the deceased needed to be ID’d by a family member. With no money or food, Carrie was desperate, so she sent her three eldest children with H. H. Holmes while she stayed behind with the younger two.

H. H. Holmes

How H. H. Holmes might appear today, minus the jail cell.

Alice, the eldest boy, positively ID’d his father’s body. The coroner ruled the manner of death as accidental.

Upon Holmes’ return, Carrie was stunned to learn that her children did not accompany him home, but he reassured her that they were fine. The insurance paid the policy limit, and Holmes convinced Carrie to hand over most of it by using her missing children as leverage—never once considering the strength of a mother’s love.

With the two youngest Pitezel children in tow, the couple, now intimately involved, travelled across the northern United States and into Canada—all the while Holmes was lying to Carrie about her husband’s death, claiming he was hiding out in London. During this time, Carrie wrote several letters to her mother, but Holmes intercepted them. Her letters would later be used against him at trial.

How did he kill the children?

I’ll tell you that in Part II. This twisted tale gets even creepier.

About Sue Coletta

Member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers, Sue Coletta is an award-winning, multi-published author in numerous anthologies, and her forensics articles have appeared in InSinC Quarterly. In addition to her popular crime resource blog, Sue’s a radio show host—check out "Partners In Crime" in the menu bar—the communications manager for the Serial Killer Project and Forensic Science and founder of #ACrimeChat on Twitter. She lives in rural New Hampshire where she's surrounded by wildlife...bear, moose, deer, even mountain lions have been spotted. Course, Sue would love to snuggle with the animals, but her husband frowns on the idea.

35 Comments

  1. OMG! I only just got around to reading this but wow, did it give me chills. I can’t wait to read part 2. Good stuff, Sue!

  2. Excellent as always. What a devious mind & the conviction that nobody will know. That place are like a scary house at the circus. An interesting but deadly guy!

    Thanks as always, Miss Coletta…

    • You can say that again, Eve. That’s exactly what The Murder Castle was like, only worse. I’m glad you found him interesting, even though he’s deadly. I did, too.

      Enjoy your week, Eve!

  3. OMG, what a place to end things! I’ve heard of this killer before, but never knew the story of his life or how truly diabolical he was. What an absorbing account. I can’t wait for part two and to learn how he’s finally brought to justice!
    Mae Clair recently posted…Guest Author Sandra Cox with Sunset #FantasyRomance #GeniesMy Profile

    • LOL I had to ensure everyone would come back for Part II. Wishing you a wonderful end to your weekend and a productive week ahead, Mae. Happy Father’s Day to your husband (fur babies count!)

  4. Thanks, Sue. I don’t think I’d heard about him in any detail. Gripping story (well, indeed reality can be more difficult to believe than fiction).

  5. Wow! Usually this stuff doesn’t bother me, but it’s almost midnight here and I’m all creeped out! No one can say that Holmes isn’t creative at least, that’s for sure. The dungeon sounds lovely, and it he wasted the skin? but worked on the rest. Sociopath is a mild word for this guy. There must be a stronger label.

    I so look forward to your blogs, and you’ve done it again, Sue–amazed and enlightened me! Thanks.
    Gippy Adams Henry recently posted…Field Notes: Grow Leadership Academy 2016My Profile

    • LOL You read this post at midnight, Gippy? Wow. You’re brave.

      At the very least, yes, I would definitely agree that Holmes was creative. Hmm…good question about the skin. From what I’ve read I think he disposed of it, along with the rest of the flesh. I suppose things could’ve been worse; he could’ve made home furnishings out of skin like Albert Fish. But I think Holmes was way to smart to risk displaying any “trophies.”

      Aww, thank you, Gippy. It means so much to me that you look forward to my posts.

  6. Sue, I learned about HH Holmes several years ago and found a small personal connection to him. One of the caretakers to the murder castle retired in my hometown. He, his wife, and his daughter are buried in the local cemetery.

  7. I’d read about Holmes in Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, and I still can’t believe he managed to get away with so many crimes. Just thinking about all the horrible things that went on in that house makes me shudder.

  8. Man, Sue! I’ve heard of this guy but had no idea he was this complicated. Wow! Looking forward to reading how this turned out. Must… not… Wikipedia…

    • Oh, yeah, Garry, H. H. Holmes was a frightening serial killer, with his own version of hell built into his house of horrors. You could Wikipedia, but I doubt you’ll find all the tidbits I’ve included in Part II. I got lost for two straight days researching him. 😉 What else is new, right? LOL

  9. Egads, glad to have not known him.
    Traci Kenworth recently posted…Writers Have You Rocked the Boat?My Profile

  10. Oh crikey, what a gruesome geezer!
    Sue, this is such an interesting story, I am so surprised I have never heard of him before. His house, what a nightmarish concept…..
    This is worthy of a longer novel, you really should consider this, with your magical wordsmithery you would hog the number one bestseller spot for ages…..this time for factual writing, let’s face it, you’re going be hogging the fiction one too pretty soon 🙂
    #wordhog #loveyourstuff
    Aching to read the next part!

    • Aww…you say the nicest things, Shaggs. Thank you for your continued support. Unfortunately, there are several novels about H. H. Holmes. One day I’ll tackle true crime; it seems inevitable. Until then, I enjoy blogging about serial killers. They’re fascinating creatures.

  11. Absolutely demented! Waiting for Part II
    June Lorraine Roberts recently posted…Toronto’s – Noir at the BarMy Profile

  12. Truth is always stranger than fiction

  13. Oh, this is such a creepy, awful story, Sue! And it’s made all the more scary because it really happened. It’s hard to get your mind around that much evil…
    Margot Kinberg recently posted…A Public Service Update… 😉My Profile

    • You can say that again, Margot. But it also makes me wonder. Mudgett claims the bullying turned him into the monster called H. H. Holmes, but I’m not sure I agree. For a man to possess this much evil he must’ve had sociopathic tendencies, or at least, they were beginning to develop when he encountered that first skeleton.

  14. This is so interesting. It was easier for these people to operate way back then. I wonder how many of them never got caught at all.

    PS: I’d love to see a blueprint of that house.
    Craig recently posted…Day #2 of my working vacationMy Profile

  15. H. H. Holmes did indeed do devilish deeds. Thanks for this revealing look into the mind of a monster.
    pauldaleanderson recently posted…Wings of Mayhem Flies FastMy Profile

    • Yeah, he was one sick puppy. No one knows the exact number of kills, but the estimates range from 50 to over 200. His murders make great fodder for crime writers, though.

  16. Okay. I’m only on chapter two, but your book is scaring the hell out of me. I feel like I’m reading a missing chapters or two from Silence of the Lambs (My favorite book and movie, BTW)

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