The Doctor of Death: The Story of Dr. H. H. Holmes

“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.”

– H. H. Holmes

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Meet Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, a gilded age entrepreneur and one of America’s first serial killers. During the 1893 Chicago’s World Fair, Holmes lured an estimated 200 victims into his “murder castle”, an enormous hotel with an elaborate maze of death traps that he built for the purpose of killing and disposing of human bodies.

 

A Child with Morbid Obsessions

Born in 1861 in Gilmanton, New Hampshire, H.H. Holmes was born Herman Webster Mudgett. Born into an affluent, religious Methodist family, Mudgett had a comfortable childhood growing up in a pastoral New England town.

His life changed forever the day he wandered into a local pharmacy and saw a skeleton for the first time. The encounter terrified him, and yet, left him fascinated with corpses and other morbid obsessions.  He continue his interest in medicine, and as a child, would practice surgery on animals. Some accounts claim he may have killed one of his childhood friends.

Holmes’ life of crime escalated as a medical student. While studying at the University of Michigan, he made money by stealing corpses from the school which he would cash in on fraudulent life insurance claims.

After graduating school, the former Herman Webster Mudgett relocated to Chicago, where he changed his name to one of his most infamous alias, Dr. Henry Howard Holmes. There he began working for a local pharmacy. He eventually took over the business after which the original owner mysteriously disappeared.

He then set his eyes on a vacant lot across the street, the future location of his infamous Murder Castle.

 

The Murder Castle

Using borrowed money from lenders which he never paid back, Holmes began construction of his three-story Murder Castle.

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Inside Holmes’ Murder Castle

Holmes designed the building himself. The ground floor seemed normal enough, containing a pharmacy and grocery store. As for the other parts of the building, “only Poe could have dreamed the rest.”

On the second floor, Holmes constructed his personal office complete with an airtight vault and soundproof rooms.  Amidst the living quarters, he built many small rooms where he tortured and killed his victims. Some of the rooms had gas jets which Holmes used to asphyxiate his victims.  In the basement, Holmes installed a giant, oil-fired kiln. Throughout the building, he included chutes and trap doors so he could easily dispense bodies for disposal in the basement.

In a 1937 article, the Chicago Tribune described Holmes’ Murder Castle: “There were rooms that had no doors. There were doors that had no rooms. A mysterious house it was indeed — a crooked house, a reflex of the builder’s own distorted mind. In that house occurred dark and eerie deeds.”

 

The Mask of Insanity

The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (or Columbia Exposition) attracted millions of visitors to the windy city. Originally, Holmes built the castle as an apartment building, but converted it into a hotel to accommodate the tourists flocking to visit the fair. The overwhelming number of visitors gave Holmes the opportunity to murder hundreds of people without the detection of local police.

“Every night the rooms on the two upper floors of the Castle were filled to overflowing. Holmes reluctantly accommodated a few men as paying guests, but catered primarily to women—preferably young and pretty ones of apparent means, whose homes were distant from Chicago and who had no one close to them who might make inquiry if they did not soon return. Many never went home. Many, indeed, never emerged from the castle, having once entered it”

― Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America

 

A Handsome Devil

Like a real-life Jekyll and Hyde, Holmes had a particular enjoyment of seducing females before murdering them in cold blood. Women found him incredibly charming, good-looking, and irresistible. Under the guise of various aliases, Holmes made a habit of marrying  and swindling women before they would mysteriously disappear. He would dispose of them in the kiln of his basement. He also earned a little side money selling unidentified corpses to medical schools in desperate need of bodies for educational purposes.

A drawing of Holmes' many female victims, whom he seduced and killed.

A drawing of Holmes’ many female victims, whom he seduced and killed.

A relative to one of his missing victims, Myrta Belknap, recalled meeting Holmes:

“Holmes was charming and gracious, but something about him made Belknap uneasy. He could not have defined it. Indeed, for the next several decades alienists and their successors would find themselves hard-pressed to describe with any precision what it was about men like Holmes that could cause them to seem warm and ingratiating but also telegraph the vague sense that some important element of humanness was missing. At first alienists described this condition as “moral insanity” and those who exhibited the disorder as “moral imbeciles.” They later adopted the term “psychopath,” used in the lay press as early as 1885 in William Stead’s Pall Mall Gazette, which described it as a “new malady” and stated, “Beside his own person and his own interests, nothing is sacred to the psychopath.”

Half a century later, in his path-breaking book The Mask of Sanity, Dr. Hervey Cleckley described the prototypical psychopath as “a subtly constructed reflex machine which can mimic the human personality perfectly. … So perfect is his reproduction of a whole and normal man that no one who examines him in a clinical setting can point out in scientific or objective terms why, or how, he is not real.”

Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America

 

Insanity, Unmasked

Throughout his career as a professional serial killer, Holmes continued making a fortune through insurance fraud. Holmes, along with his assistant Benjamin Pitezel, would convince unsuspecting victims to sign over life insurance policies in return for employment or free living accommodations. The individual would later disappear, leaving Holmes and Pitezel as the beneficiary.

However, his trail of death and fraud eventually caught up with him. After ending up in a Texas prison, Holmes and his partner brought in a fellow inmate on a life insurance scheme, named Marion Hedgepeth. When Holmes failed to pay Hedgepath’s share of the deal, Hedgepath informed the police.

Eventually the authorities caught up with Holmes, but not before he committed his final heinous acts. First, he killed his partner Pitezel to cash in on another life insurance claim. He then travelled with Pitezel’s three children. When the police arrested Holmes concerning insurance fraud, the children remained missing. It soon became apparent that Holmes had killed their father and possibly the children as well.

While Holmes awaited sentencing in Philadelphia’s Moyamensing prison for the death of Ben Pitezel, Pennsylvania Detective Frank Geyer took charge of the investigation to find the three missing children. He retraced Holmes’ footsteps by following a series of unsent letters written by the children. Geyer, an experienced detective, couldn’t help but notice the sinister and unique behavior of Holmes:

“Why had Holmes taken the children? Why had he engineered that contorted journey from city to city? What power did Holmes possess that gave him such control? There was something about Holmes that Geyer just did not understand. Every crime had a motive. But the force that propelled Holmes seemed to exist outside the world of Geyer’s experience. He kept coming back to the same conclusion: Holmes was enjoying himself. He had arranged the insurance fraud for the money, but the rest of it was for fun. Holmes was testing his power to bend the lives of people.”

Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America

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The three missing Pitezel children, Alice, Howard, and Nellie

After visiting almost every hotel, Geyer slowly began to put the pieces together. His findings led him to a Toronto property that Holmes had purchased and sold for a short period of time. Detective Geyer finally broke the case after discovering the bodies of the two young girls buried in the backyard of the Toronto home. The children had been buried nude. Alice lay on her side and Nellie lay face down, partially covering her sister.

“We lifted her as gently as possible,” Geyer recalled, “but owing to the decomposed state of the body, the weight of her plaited hair hanging down her back pulled the scalp from her head.”

They later discovered their brother Howard had been killed earlier in private residence located in Irvington, Indiana.

July 19, 1895: After the discovery of the two girls, Chicago detectives began to explore Holmes’ elaborate Murder Castle. The third floor of building contained small hotel rooms. On the second floor, detectives began to uncover rooms with no windows and fitted doors that made the room airtight. One room consisted of an iron vault, with iron walls. Detectives found a gas jet with no function other than to admit gas into the vault. In Holmes’ bedroom, they found the cut off valve to the vault.

By far, the hotel basement contained the eeriest clues into Holmes’ madness. The police entered the basement and discovered a vat of acid with eight ribs and part of a skull, mounds of quicklime, a large kiln, a dissection table stained with blood, surgical tools, and charred high heeled shoes.They uncovered bones, lots of them: 18 ribs from a child’s torso, several vertebrae, a bone from a foot, a shoulder blade, and one hip socket.

The Murder Castle mysteriously burned to the ground shortly after the investigations. Police suspected arson.

 

The Doctor’s Demise

During his time in custody, Holmes gave the police multiple different accounts, from claiming innocence to admitting to the murder of 27 people. Estimates range from 20 to 100 victims, and even as high as 200. Holmes was found guilty of four counts of murder in the first degree and six counts of attempted murder. He met his demise on May 7, 1896 when he was hanged in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

While medical schools fought for access to study his remains, Holmes left his lawyers with strict burial instructions. Workers not only filled the entire coffin with cement, but also poured cement into his double grave before lowering the coffin and covering it with an extra layer of cement on top. The Public Ledger reported, “Holmes’ idea was evidently to guard his remains in every way from scientific enterprise, from the pickling vat and the knife.

No stone marks the grave of Herman Webster Mudgett, buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, Pennsylvania.

 

The Devil’s Curse

Strange things happened following the doctor’s death. Detective Geyer, the man who directly led to Holmes’ conviction became seriously ill. The warden of Moyamensing prison committed suicide. The jury foreman was electrocuted in a freak accident. The priest who delivered Holmes’ last rites died on the grounds of his church from mysterious causes. The father of one of Holmes’ victims, Emeline Cigrand, was burned alive in a boiler explosion. A fire destroyed the presiding District Attorney’s office, leaving only a photograph of Holmes unharmed.

With possibly 200 victims and the strange occurrences surrounding his death, could Holmes’ claims about being the devil be true after all?

 

By Allie Michelle

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