The man known as H.H. Holmes killed at least nine people, confessed to as many as 30 murders, and may have been responsible for up to 200, according to some estimates. Yet it wasn’t just the number of victims that earned Holmes his place in serial killer history—it was the way the deeds were done.
Born Herman Webster Mudgett, H.H. Holmes was already a consummate con man, grifter, and bigamist prior to his arrival in Chicago in 1886. He changed his name to Henry Howard Holmes to skirt punishment from his previous scams—one particularly ghoulish scheme had Holmes stealing cadavers from the University of Michigan’s Department of Medicine and Surgery, mutilating them, then claiming the bodies were victims of accidents to collect insurance money.
Upon his arrival in the Windy City, Holmes set himself up as a pharmacist. He then began work on what we now know as the “Murder Castle.” Dubbed the World’s Fair Hotel, this sprawling structure of hallways and rooms was three stories tall and a full block long. Holmes advertised it as a lodging space for visitors to the upcoming Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, also known as the World’s Columbian Exposition.
Of course, the not-so-good doctor had far more sinister intentions.
Holmes repeatedly swapped out workers during the construction process. He claimed their efforts simply did not meet his standards. In truth, Holmes replaced staff to ensure no one figured out his demented design.
And what a demented design it was. If are to be believed, Holmes’ Murder Castle was a veritable maze of murder. Stairwells ended abruptly; doors opened onto walls or were outfitted with perplexing locks that would seal a person inside. Bedrooms were soundproofed. Alarm mechanisms monitored the movement of guests.
It was into this maze that Holmes lured his victims. He asphyxiated, hanged, gassed, and starved his targets. Upon death, bodies were placed in a dummy elevator or dropped down a shaft that led to the basement.
Downstairs, Holmes would then dissect his victims’ bodies, using his connections with the medical community to sell their bones and organs. Giant furnaces, lime pits, and acid baths were installed in the lower level and used to dispose of remains.
When the World’s Fair ended, Holmes left Chicago and his Murder Castle behind, engaging in another insurance scheme that led to the murder of an associate named Benjamin Pitezel (pictured above) and his three children. Holmes was arrested in Boston in 1894, at which point authorities traced back his trail to Chicago and entered the Murder Castle.
There they found his maze of torture chambers, secret shafts, and subterranean dissection facilities. Given Holmes’ methods, authorities found no complete human remains. However, authorities did uncover a pile of bones. Much of the remains were animal in origin, but the mound did include the bones of a child, aged 6-8 years old. Also recovered from the Murder Castle was a gold chain and a woman’s shoe, a bloodied heap of women’s clothing, and a dissection table spattered with dried blood.
Police were able to positively connect H.H. Holmes to nine murders. The suspect confessed to many more, though some of the people he named later turned out to be alive.
Tried for the murder of Pitezel and found guilty, Holmes was hanged on May 7, 1896. His neck didn’t snap when the trap was sprung, and it took 20 minutes for him to be pronounced dead. Though he didn’t seem to fear the gallows, he asked for his coffin to be encased in cement and buried 10 feet deep so that his body might avoid dissection.
In 1914, Pat Quinlan, the former caretaker of Holmes’ World’s Fair Hotel, committed suicide by ingesting strychnine. His body was found along with a note that read, “I couldn’t sleep.” Quinlan had been questioned by the police in the course of their investigation, but was never charged. His first-hand knowledge of the Murder Castle and the horrors that happened within its walls followed him to his grave.
As for the Murder Castle itself, much of it was destroyed by a mysterious fire in 1895. Two men were reportedly seen fleeing the structure shortly before burst into flames. Some believe these two were destroying evidence, while others believe the people who set the blaze were Chicagoans who wished to stop the site from becoming a morbid tourist attraction. Portions of the structure remained in use until 1938, when it was torn down completely. A post office currently occupies the plot.
Holmes’ history as a con man and liar makes it nearly impossible to verify the total number of victims he may have killed. Many people came to Chicago during the World’s Fair and never returned home, and some estimates have placed the number of Holmes’ potential victims as high as 200. Holmes himself has famously been quoted as saying, “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.”
Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons