H. H. Holmes

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H.H. Holmes

Holmes's mugshot, 1895
Background information
Birth name: Herman Webster Mudgett
Alias(es): Dr. Henry Howard Holmes
Born: May 16, 1860(1860-05-16)
Gilmanton, New Hampshire
Died: May 7, 1896 (aged 35)
Cause of death: Execution by Hanging
Penalty: Death
Number of victims: 20 - 230
Span of killings: 1893–1895
Country: U.S., Canada
State(s): Chicago, Illinois and Irvington, Indiana
Philadelphia Pennsylvania
Toronto Canada
Date apprehended: Boston November 17th 1894

Herman Webster Mudgett (May 16, 1860 – May 7, 1896), better known under the alias of Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, was an American serial killer. Holmes opened a hotel in Chicago for the 1893 World's Fair. While he confessed to 27 murders, of which nine were confirmed, his true body count is likely significantly higher.

The case was notorious in its time and received wide publicity via a series of articles in William Randolph Hearst's newspapers. Interest in Holmes' crimes was revived in 2003 by Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, a best-selling non-fiction book that juxtaposed an account of the planning and staging of the World's Fair with Holmes' story. In 2004, filmmaker John Borowski released the first documentary film focusing on the entire life of the torture doctor, entitled H. H. Holmes: America's First Serial Killer and a book entitled The Strange Case of Dr. H.H. Holmes, which contains Holmes' Own Story and The Holmes-Pitezel Case, as well as other material dating from the period of the case. In addition, Mudgett's story has been told in a biography of his life by Harold Schechter entitled Depraved: The Definitive True Story of H.H. Holmes, Whose Grotesque Crimes Shattered Turn-of-the-Century Chicago.


[edit] Early life

Herman Webster Mudgett was born in Gilmanton, New Hampshire. He was the son of Levi Horton Mudgett and Theodate Page Price. The family was descended from among the first settlers to the area. He grew up with a father who was a strict disciplinarian, and he was often bullied as a child. He claimed that, as a child, he had been forced by other students to view and touch a human skeleton after they found out about his fear of the local doctor's office. The bullies had initially brought him there to scare him, but instead he was utterly fascinated.

Herman Mudgett graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School in 1884. While enrolled, he stole bodies from the school laboratory. Disfiguring the corpses and claiming that the people had been accidentally killed, Mudgett collected insurance money from policies which he had taken out on each one. After graduating, he moved to Chicago to practice pharmacy. He also began to engage in a number of shady businesses, real estate, and promotional deals under the name "H. H. Holmes".

On July 8, 1878, Holmes married Clara A. Lovering of Alton, New Hampshire. On January 28, 1887, he married Myrta Z. Belknap in Minneapolis, Minnesota; he was still married to his first wife at the time, making Holmes a bigamist. He and Belknap had a daughter named Lucy. The family of three resided in the upscale Chicago suburb of Wilmette—although Holmes spent most of his time in the city tending to business. He filed a petition for divorce from his first wife after marrying his second, but the divorce was never finalized. He married his third wife, Georgiana Yoke, on January 9, 1894. He also had a relationship with Julia Smythe, the wife of Ned Connor, a one time employee of his who later fled Chicago. Julia became one of his victims.

Holmes was slight of build and had a charm that made him very much a ladies' man.

[edit] Chicago and the "Murder Castle"

While in Chicago, Holmes came across Dr. E.S. Holton's drugstore. It was located at the corner of Wallace and 63rd Street, in the neighborhood of Englewood. Holton was suffering from cancer while his wife minded the store. Through his charm, Holmes got a job there and then manipulated her into letting him purchase the store. The agreement was that she could still live in the upstairs apartment even after Holton died. Once Holton died, Holmes murdered Mrs. Holton and told people she was visiting relatives in California. As people started asking questions as to when she would be coming back, he elaborated the lie and told them she loved it so much in California that she decided to live there.

Holmes purchased a lot across from the drugstore, where he built his three-story, block-long "Castle"—as it was dubbed by those in the neighborhood. It was opened as a hotel for the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, with part of the structure used as commercial space. The ground floor of the Castle contained, aside from Holmes' own relocated drugstore, various shops (one a jeweler, for example), while the upper two floors contained his personal office as well as a maze of over one hundred windowless rooms with doorways that would open to brick walls, oddly angled hallways, stairways to nowhere, doors that could only be opened from the outside, and a host of other strange and labyrinthine constructions. Holmes had repeatedly changed builders during the initial construction of the Castle to ensure that only he fully understood the design of the house he had created, thereby decreasing the chances of any of them reporting it to the police.

Over a period of three years, Holmes selected female victims from among his employees (many of whom were required as a condition of employment to take out life insurance policies for which Holmes would pay the premiums but also be the beneficiary), lovers and hotel guests, and would torture and kill them. Some were locked in soundproof bedrooms fitted with gas lines that permitted him to asphyxiate them at any time. Some victims were locked in a huge bank vault near his office; he sat and listened as they screamed, panicked and eventually suffocated. The victims' bodies went by a secret chute to the basement, where some were meticulously dissected, stripped of flesh, crafted into skeleton models, and then sold to medical schools. Holmes also cremated some of the bodies or placed them in lime pits for destruction. Holmes had two giant furnaces as well as pits of acid, bottles of various poisons, and even a stretching rack, allegedly in order to create a race of giants. Through the connections he had gained in medical school, he was able to sell skeletons and organs with little difficulty. Holmes picked one of the most remote rooms in the Castle to perform hundreds of illegal abortions. Some of his patients died as a result of his abortion procedure,[1] and their corpses were also processed and the skeletons sold.

[edit] Capture and arrest

Following the World's Fair, with creditors closing in and the economy in a general slump, Holmes left Chicago. He next appeared in Fort Worth, Texas, where he had inherited property from two railroad heiress sisters, one of whom he had promised marriage and both of whom he murdered. There, he sought to construct another castle along the lines of his Chicago operation. However, he soon abandoned this project, finding the law enforcement climate in Texas inhospitable. He continued to move about the United States and Canada, and while it seems likely that he continued to kill, the only bodies discovered which date from this period are those of his close business associate and three of the associate's children. He was arrested in 1894 when police discovered his connection to a life-insurance fraud scheme involving the business associate whom he had murdered, Benjamin Pitezel.

Pitezel had agreed to fake his own death so that his wife could collect on the $10,000 policy, which she was to split with Holmes and a shady attorney. The scheme, which was to take place in Philadelphia, was that Pitezel should set himself up as an inventor, under the name B. F. Perry, and then be killed and disfigured in a lab explosion. Holmes was to find an appropriate cadaver to play the role of Pitezel. Holmes then killed Pitezel, although some have argued that Pitezel, an alcoholic and chronic depressive, might in fact have committed suicide. Holmes proceeded to collect on the policy on the basis of the genuine Pitezel corpse. He then went on to manipulate Pitezel's wife into allowing three of her five children (Alice, Nellie, and Howard) to stay in his custody. The eldest daughter and baby remained with Mrs. Pitezel. He traveled with the children through the northern United States and into Canada. Simultaneously he escorted Mrs. Pitezel along a parallel route, all the while using various aliases and lying to Mrs. Pitezel concerning her husband's death (claiming that Pitezel was in hiding in South America) as well as lying to her about the true whereabouts of her other children—they were often only separated by a few blocks. A Philadelphia detective had tracked Holmes, finding the decomposed bodies of the two Pitezel girls in Toronto. He then followed Holmes to Indianapolis. There Holmes had rented a cottage. He was reported to have visited a local pharmacy to purchase the drugs which he used to kill Howard Pitezel, and a repair shop to sharpen the knives he used to chop up the body before he burned it. The boy's teeth and bits of bone were discovered in the home's chimney.[2] Holmes's escapade ended when he was finally arrested in Boston on November 17, 1894, after being tracked there from Philadelphia by the Pinkertons. He was held on an outstanding warrant for horse theft in Texas, as the authorities had little more than suspicions at this point and Holmes appeared poised to flee the country, in the company of his unsuspecting third wife.[3]

After the custodian for the Castle informed police that he was never allowed to clean the upper floors, police began a thorough investigation over the course of the next month, uncovering Holmes' efficient methods of committing murders and then disposing of the corpses. A fire of mysterious origin consumed the building on August 19, 1895, and the site is currently occupied by a U.S. Post Office building.

The number of his victims has typically been estimated between 20 and 100, and even as high as 230,[citation needed] based upon missing persons reports of the time as well as the testimony of Holmes' neighbors who reported seeing him accompany unidentified young women into his hotel—young women who they never saw exit. The discrepancy in numbers can perhaps best be attributed to the fact that a great many people came to Chicago to see the World's Fair but, for one reason or another, never returned home. The only verified number is 27,[4] although police had commented that some of the bodies in the basement were so badly dismembered and decomposed that it was difficult to tell how many bodies there actually were. Holmes' victims were primarily women (and primarily blonde) but included some men and children.

[edit] Trial and execution

While Holmes sat in prison in Philadelphia, not only did the Chicago Police investigate his operations in that city, but the Philadelphia Police began to try to unravel the whole Pitezel situation—in particular what had happened to the three missing children. Philadelphia detective Frank Geyer was given the task of finding out. His quest for the children, like the search of Holmes' Castle, received wide publicity. His eventual discovery of their remains essentially sealed Holmes' fate, at least in the public mind.

Holmes was put on trial for the murder of Pitezel and confessed, following his conviction, to 27 murders in Chicago, Indianapolis and Toronto, and six attempted murders. Holmes was paid $7,500 by the Hearst Papers in exchange for this confession. He gave various contradictory accounts of his life, initially claiming innocence, and later that he was possessed by Satan. His facility for lying has made it difficult for researchers to ascertain any truth on the basis of his statements.

On May 7, 1896, Holmes was hanged at the Philadelphia County Prison.[5] Until the moment of his death, Holmes remained calm and amiable, showing very few signs of fear, anxiety or depression.[6] Holmes' neck did not snap immediately; he instead died slowly, twitching over ten minutes before being pronounced dead fifteen minutes after the trap was sprung.[7][5] He requested that he be buried in concrete so that no one could ever dig him up and dissect his body, as he had dissected so many others. This request was granted.[5]

Strange events followed his death that lead some people to believe he was, as he had claimed, possessed by the devil. Detective Geyer was taken seriously ill. The warden (Superintendent Perkins) of the prison where Holmes was held committed suicide. The foreman of the jury that convicted him was accidentally electrocuted, as was his son, who survived. The father of Emeline Cigrand (one of Holmes' victims and mistresses) was horribly burned in a boiler explosion. The priest who delivered the last rites on Holmes' body was mysteriously found dead on his church's grounds. The coroner's physician Dr. William K. Mattern died of blood poisoning, Coroner Ashbridge and Judge Arnold were stricken with life-threatening illnesses. A fire completely destroyed the interior of the Chicago district attorney's office, leaving only the framed original copy of Holmes's arrest warrant and two photographic portraits of Holmes untouched.[8]

On New Year's Eve, 1910, Marion Hedgepeth, who expected a pardon for informing on Holmes, was shot and killed by a police officer during a hold up at a Chicago saloon. Then, on March 7, 1914, a story in The Chicago Tribune reported the death of the former caretaker of the Murder Castle, Pat Quinlan. Quinlan had committed suicide by taking strychnine, and the paper reported that his death meant "the mysteries of Holmes' Castle" would remain unexplained. Quinlan's surviving relatives claimed Quinlan had been "haunted" for several months before his death and that he could not sleep.[9]

[edit] In popular culture

  • "Murder Castle," the August 3, 1943 episode of the American radio horror show Lights Out, written by Arch Oboler, is directly inspired by the Holmes case.
  • Allan Eckert wrote a fictional treatment of Holmes that closely followed the known facts in his The Scarlet Mansion.
  • Cartoonist Rick Geary wrote about Holmes in his Treasury of Victorian Murder
  • The White City, a novel by Alec Michod, features a fictionalized H.H. Holmes.
  • The Devil in the White City, a non-fiction book by Erik Larson, intertwines the true tale of two men: Daniel Burnham, chief architect and mastermind of the Exposition, and H.H. Holmes.
  • In the episode of the TV series "Supernatural" aired 2 November 2006 (Season 2, Episode 6) The antagonist was the ghost of H. H. Holmes

[edit] See also

[edit] Notes and references

  1. ^ Holmes only admitted having 2 women die during a criminal operation.
  2. ^ Lloyd, Christopher (October 24, 2008), "Grisly Indy", The Indianapolis Star (Gannett Company, Inc.) 
  3. ^ Holmes was thus simultaneously moving three groups of people across the country—each ignorant of the other two.
  4. ^ This number reached by Holmes' confession, for which the Philadelphia Enquirer paid him. Some of the names on the list turned out to be alive.
  5. ^ a b c Ramsland, Katherine. "H. H. Holmes: Master of Illusion". Crime Library. http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/serial_killers/history/holmes/20.html. Retrieved on 2009-01-02. "On May 7, 1896, H.H. Holmes went to the hangman's noose. His last meal was boiled eggs, dry toast, and coffee. Even at the noose, he changed his story. He claimed to have killed only two people and tried to say more but at 10:13 the trapdoor opened and he was hanged. Blundell says that it took him 15 minutes to strangle to death on the gallows." 
  6. ^ Franke, D. (1975). The Torture Doctor. New York: Avon. 
  7. ^ "Holmes Cool to the End.". New York Times. 1896-05-08. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9807EED7123EE333A2575BC0A9639C94679ED7CF. "Under the Noose He Says He Only Killed Two Women. He denies the Murder of Pitezel. Slept Soundly Through His Last Night on Earth and Was Calm on the Scaffold. Priests with him on the Gallows. Prayed with Him Before the Trap Was Sprung. Dead in Fifteen Minutes, but Neck Was Not Broken. Murderer Herman Mudgett, alias H.H. Holmes, was hanged this morning in the County Prison for the killing of Benjamin F. Pitezel. The drop fell at 10:12 o'clock, and twenty minutes later he was pronounced dead." 
  8. ^ Innes, B. (2006). Serial Killers: The Stories of History's Most Evil Murderers, London: Quercus Publishing
  9. ^ Schechter, H. (1994). Depraved: The Shocking True Story of America's First Serial Killer, New York: Pocket Books

[edit] Further reading

[edit] External links

NAME Holmes, H. H.
ALTERNATIVE NAMES Mudgett, Herman Webster (birth name)
DATE OF BIRTH May 16, 1861
PLACE OF BIRTH Gilmanton, New Hampshire, United States
DATE OF DEATH May 7, 1896
PLACE OF DEATH Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
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