Serial killers are scary enough in 2017 when countless TV shows like Criminal Minds show just how difficult it is to get away with a string of murders. DNA evidence is a real thing, guys – but what about in the late 1800s? If a serial killer was on the loose, chances are he’d only be found if he wanted to. This is what helped America’s first serial killer get away with an upwards of 200 horrific murders.
American Horror Story: Hotel Is Based on This Guy
Introducing H.H. Holmes, the creepy con-man-turned-murderer who inspired American Horror Story: Hotel and will be played by the Oscar-winning Leonardo DiCaprio in The Devil in the White City.
Holmes killed at least nine people, and that’s a proven fact. What’s more, he admitted to killing upwards of 30. He may even be responsible for as many as 200 murders, but the sheer number of people he’s killed isn’t what’s most unsettling. It’s how Holmes dealt with his victims. Here’s what you didn’t know about one of the creepiest serial killers in history.
H.H. Holmes Had a Seemingly Normal Life
H.H. Holmes, born Herman Webster Mudgett, was a con man well before he was a crazed serial killer. He was a young father who got married at the age of 17, (well before his early 20s which was much more typical for the time). He fathered a son two years later.
Holmes’ life seemed pretty average. After having a son, he enrolled at the University of Vermont, but dropped out after a year. He later enrolled in the University of Michigan at the school of medicine and surgery. It’s hard to tell if Holmes developed sinister passions while studying medicine, but he did apprentice in New Hampshire with Dr. Nahum Wright, who was a known advocate of human dissection. Holmes also picked up a creepy hobby during his college career.
H.H. Holmes Mutilated Cadavers to Scam Insurance Companies
While Holmes was studying at University of Michigan, rumors started soaring about how not all of the cadavers were acquired legally, but it wasn’t anything for concern. This urban legend was (and still is) a pretty common ghost story told among students at medical campuses around the country. In reality, Holmes had a weird link to the cadavers, but it wasn’t initially murder.
Years after attending university, Holmes admitted that he used the cadavers to commit insurance fraud. He would mutilate the bodies and claim they were victims of accidents in order to collect insurance money.
H.H. Holmes Was Linked to a Missing Boy in New York
Aside from Holmes’ creepy hobby, classmates reported no strange behavior other than the fact that he was occasionally violent with his wife, Clara. She eventually left him a year before graduation and moved back to New Hampshire. She never really spoke to him again. Holmes graduated and moved to Mooers Forks, New York where disturbing rumors about the budding serial killer began to surface.
Holmes was rumored to have been seen with a little boy who went missing. He claimed the boy went back home to Massachusetts, and denied all involvement in his alleged disappearance. Despite the fact that there was no investigation, Holmes still skipped town and moved to Philadelphia.
H.H. Holmes Linked to the Death of a Child
H.H. Holmes hadn’t been convicted of any type of murder at this point in his life, but strange, tragic things were happening all around him – and each time they did, he skipped town. When Holmes fled New York and moved to Philly, he started working at Norristown State Hospital. Out of the blue, he quit after just a few days.
Holmes began a more permanent position at a drugstore, a career path he would further explore in Chicago. While he was working there, a boy mysteriously died from taking medicine purchased from the pharmacy. Again, Holmes denied any involvement and skipped town and pursued a rather sinister new business opportunity.
H. H. Holmes Runs to Chicago to Open a Murder Hotel
In an attempt to distance himself from previous scams (hello, insurance fraud), the con artist-turned-serial killer finally changed his name from Herman Webster Mudget to H.H. Holmes and moved to Chicago. Holmes picked up another rather inconspicuous job as a pharmacist while working on opening his own business – a hotel.
Rather than a typical, comfy-cozy bed and breakfast, Holmes’ hotel was gorgeous and expansive. Unfortunately, it was a bit more like something out of American Horror Story’s fifth season than your run of the mill Ritz Carlton, which is why it was famously dubbed the Murder Castle.
Inside the Construction of Holmes’ Murder Castle
We may know Holmes’ hotel as the Murder Castle, but in 1893, it was known as the World’s Fair Hotel. The three-story, block-long building was designed as lodging for people visiting the Chicago World’s Fair (also known as the World’s Columbian Exposition).
To build a proper Murder Castle, Holmes had to make sure it was constructed a very specific way. This is why he constantly replaced workers while it was under construction. He claimed that their work wasn’t good enough, but the truth was that he switched people in and out so no one was around long enough to catch onto his plan.
Holmes’ Hotel Was Literally Designed to Foster Murder
It’s no surprise that the World’s Fair Hotel never really opened as an actual hotel, but what’s surprising is that no one building the actual hotel seemed to pick up on the fact that it was literally the most murdery place in existence. The rooms were equipped with every feature you would need to torture and kill another human being. There was no other possible purpose.
The hotel was packed with stairs that lead to nowhere, 51 doorways that opened to brick walls, and locks that sealed people in their rooms – but that’s not all.
Every Room Had Special, Extra-Creepy Features
Most hotel rooms have a bed, a TV, and a bathroom. Anything else would be considered an upgrade. If you checked into Holmes’ murder hotel, you got a few extra features you didn’t know you were going to end up paying for.
Each bedroom was soundproofed and had a gas line that was controlled from the other side of a wall. One could assume this was used to kill people with carbon monoxide poisoning. Doors within the hotel had silent alarms that tracked movement, so Holmes could know the whereabouts of each guest at any given time.
Inside the Hotel’s Murder Suites
Beyond your basic, run-of-the-mill murder room, Holmes had a few special rooms in the World’s Fair Hotel that were extra, extra creepy. One room was completely sealed up by brick. It had no doors and was only accessible through a trap door in the ceiling. Guests would fall through the trap door and be unable to escape. An upwards of 100 rooms had no windows.
Holmes was particularly proud of the second floor of the hotel. This is where he had what he dubbed the “Secret Hanging Chamber.” As you could probably guess, this was used to hang people. We’re not sure if they were tied up and tortured or merely hanged by the neck.
Holmes Murdered His Victims in Numerous Ways
Holmes murdered his victims a number of different ways, but they all ended up in the same place. His hotel was a cacophony of terror – why choose one way to kill?
Holmes would start by luring victims into his labyrinth of murder. He would then track their movements. Sometimes he would play a game of cat and mouse, watching them get lost in the series of staircases and doors to nowhere, and sometimes he’d be a bit more kind and let them die immediately of asphyxiation or hang them in his hanging chamber. In some cases, he’d trap his victims in a chamber and let them die of starvation and thirst.
Selling His Victims for Parts
The only way out for Holmes’ victims was down, and in a body bag (if he even bothered, which he definitely didn’t). When the hotelier completed a murder, he’d place the body in a dummy elevator or drop it down a secret metal chute that lead to the basement. Once the bodies arrived in the basement, Holmes would dissect them.
This was a money-making operation far sicker than his previous cadaver insurance fraud. Holmes didn’t just score big on room rentals; he sold their bones and organs using his connections with the medical community. Most of his victims were stripped of flesh and sold as skeleton models to medical schools.
How Holmes Disposed of the Bodies
The basement was equipped with a number of features to help Holmes dispose of the bodies without a trace. Holmes used giant furnaces to cremate the remains, which were, shockingly, the least suspicious installation out of all of the features his murder hotel had to offer. Chicago winters get cold, and you’ve got to heat a giant building somehow.
Cremation wasn’t the only way Holmes got rid of bodies. In a plot straight out of Breaking Bad, he used acid baths to dissolve the parts of his victims that he couldn’t sell. He would also use lime, which actually aids in the preservation of remains.
Holmes Finally Gets Caught – But Not in His Hotel
With the absolutely insane way the World’s Fair Hotel was built, you’d think it would take a police officer all but 30 seconds of inspecting the lobby to realize it was a murder house. Even with all of the disappearances during the World’s Fair, Holmes didn’t get caught because of his Murder Castle.
After the World’s Fair ended, Holmes left Chicago for Boston to cover his tracks. He ended up performing another insurance scheme, which was the one that would bring him down. The scheme involved the murder of a business partner and friend named Benjamin Pitezel and three of his five kids. Holmes was arrested in Boston in 1874.
The Scheme That Brought Holmes Down
Holmes was pretty fond of insurance fraud, having performed schemes without a hitch since his college days. However, it was his final insurance scam that ended up being the one that brought him down. He convinced Pitezel to fake his own death so his wife could collect $10,000 in life insurance (worth roughly $200,000 now).
She would then split the payment with Holmes. This meant Holmes had to find a cadaver that looked like Pitezel and split the payout. That’s a whole lot of effort. Instead, Holmes decided to kill Pitezel. He knocked him out with chloroform and set him on fire.
Holmes’ Lack of Medical Knowledge Is What Proved His Guilt
After Holmes never paid up for a scheme that involved a former cell mate from one of his previous arrests, Holmes’ cellmate snitched and lead police right to his door. Though Holmes confessed to insurance fraud, it was his lack of medical knowledge that gave away the fact he was a cold, hard murderer.
Holmes claimed he got Pitezel’s body from a doctor in New York who had shipped it to Philadelphia. He claimed that he managed to fit Pitezel’s body in a trunk because of his medical knowledge. Unfortunately for Holmes, the inspector remembered that the body was in full rigor mortis when it was discovered. This meant the body was fresh. When the inspector asked Holmes what techniques he used to stiffen a body after rigor mortis was broken, he had no answer.
Police Finally Discovered Holmes’ Murder Castle
After Holmes’ Boston arrest in 1874, police were able to trace him back to Chicago. This is where they found the Murder Castle. It didn’t take long for police to discover the wealth of torture chambers, the labyrinth of dead ends, the secret chutes and dummy elevators, and the basement morgue where Holmes would dissect his victims.
Unfortunately, because Holmes did an excellent job of disposing of the bodies or sold off their organs and bones, police were unable to find complete human remains. They only found a couple clues that linked him to just a few murders.
The Evidence: Piles of Bones and Women’s Clothes
After tearing through Holmes’ Murder Castle, police found a pile of animal and human bones. It was discovered that some of these bones belonged to a child between ages six and eight. Police also found a pile of women’s clothes covered in dried blood next to the dissection table. On the third floor, police found a gold chain and women’s shoe in a large stove.
With this evidence, police were able to connect Holmes to nine murders, though he confessed to nearly 30. It turned out that some of the people Holmes claimed to have killed were still alive.
The Trial and Sentencing
H.H. Holmes was only tried for the murder of Pitezel, even though he was connected to numerous other murders inside of the hotel. In October of 1895, Holmes was found guilty of murdering Pitezel and sentenced to death. After his conviction, he admitted to 27 murders across Chicago, Indianapolis and Toronto as well as six attempted murders.
Even during his last days, Holmes still hustled for cash. He was paid $7,500 (worth over $150,000 if you consider inflation) by Hearst newspapers in exchange for his confession. This turned out to be a major waste of money for Hearst (who should’ve known better than to make a deal with a con man). His accounts were completely contradictory and the confession was mostly nonsense.
Holmes Was Hanged and Requested to be Buried in Concrete
Holmes was hanged for his crime but not before placing an odd request. Most death row inmates don’t get a say in what happens to their body after they die, but Holmes had to try. He was obsessed with the idea of dissection and didn’t want anyone to be able to tarnish his body the way he tarnished the body of his victims.
Holmes asked to be buried 10 feet underground and encased in a thick layer of concrete. Despite the fact that he totally deserved for grave robbers to exhume his body and dissect him just like he did with nearly every cadaver he came in contact with, his request was granted.
Holmes’ Burial Site to be Exhumed
Since his 1896 hanging and bizarre burial request, rumors have swirled that H.H. Holmes had faked his own death. In his book H.H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil, author Adam Selzer claims that one of Holmes’ accomplices told the media that the murderer had persuaded a prison guard to swap out a corpse for his own body and then smuggle him out of the facility in a coffin.
In 2017, some of Holmes’ descendants requested to have his grave exhumed and find out the truth once and for all. Three great-grandchildren, Richard and John Mudgett and Cynthia Mudgett Soriano, made the request and submitted their DNA to the University of Pennsylvania. However, the family is not publicly commenting on the issue and is not expected to release the results of the investigation.
Because people believed that Holmes faked his own death and escaped, other theories quickly sprung up in the case that that might be true. One theory came from a former janitor who worked at Holmes’ murder castle.
In 1989, Robert Latimer claimed there were letters that proved Holmes conned his lawyer, priest, and the jail officials into burying a different dead man in his place. He further claimed that Holmes escaped to New York before traveling to San Parinarimbo, Paraguay, where he lived at a coffee farm. However, this story was quickly discredited as San Parinarimbo is not a city in Paraguay—or anywhere in South America for that matter.
A Story Full Of Holes
While Lattimer’s story was full of holes, Holmes himself claimed to have killed Lattimer, which was obviously untrue since Lattimer was still alive to make those claims. Holmes expert Matt Lake told NBC Chicago that Holmes’s escape to South America was “quite a popular story at the time. A cynical person might say this was just designed to sell more newspapers, and it did sell newspapers!”
The reason that so many different theories and sensationalized stories popped up at the time of Holmes’s conviction and death was because this was the era that Yellow Journalism was at its height.
How Does One Fake An Execution?
But how could Holmes have gotten away with a fake hanging anyway? Adam Selzer, who wrote H.H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil, wrote:
“They’d brought in a fake body and hidden it behind a partition below the scaffold. When Holmes was brought out to be hanged, the guards had formed a semicircle around him, momentarily blocking the view… while [the executioner] pretended to bind his arms and put the hood over his head. In those few cruicial seconds, the hooded substitute body was raised behind the semicircle, and Holms himself slipped away to be smuggled out in a casket.”
The Stories That Sell
Before his execution, there were many newspapers that wanted to publish Holmes’s confession. Hearst newspapers wanted Holmes to tell his story in exchange for $7,500—which today amounts to $215,000. Although Holmes took them up on their offer, being the con man that he was he provided a number of contradictory accounts.
Despite all the accounts that discredited Holmes, one thing that he wrote to newspapers struck a chord with many. In 1896, Philidelphia North American published this infamous line: “I was born with the devil in me.” This line inspired the book and the subsequent film, The Devil in the White City.
The Traumatizing Beginnings
H.H. Holmes proved to be a conniving and confusing character and perhaps this can be attributed to the way he was brought up. Sources say that a young Herman Webster Mudgett was terribly bullied as a child.
In addition to that, he was afraid of the doctor, as most kids tend to be. In order to taunt him, kids forced Mudgett to stand in front of the human skeleton at the doctor’s office. But the trauma must have sparked something in him because Holmes said that “the experiences exorcised him of his fears about death, and may have lead to his fascination with it,” according to Mental Floss.
A Growing Obsession
Some say that Holmes was obsessed with death. After the experience at the doctor’s office, Holmes got into some strange hobbies as a kid. At age 11, he was known to practice surgery on innocent animals, which sparked his interest in medicine. He was said to have tortured them until they were almost dead, before bringing them back to life.
Also during his youth, he was an assistant to a local doctor that helped him learn about the human body during life and death. The same doctor wrote recommendations to help Holmes get into medical school.
Running From His Truth
Because Holmes was a con artist who was constantly lying, he moved cities plenty of times to avoid getting caught. Just as much as he moved, he got married and at one point was married to three different women at once! As previously mentioned, his first wife Clara left him and had little contact with him since.
Almost nine years later in 1887, Holmes married Myrta Belknap and at this time he sought a divorce from Clara, but it was never finalized. Seven years later, he moved to Denver where he married Georgiana Yoke. While the divorce from Clara was never finalized, it might be easy to assume that Georgiana didn’t know about Myrta. By the time of his death in 1896, he was still legally married to all three women.
A Haunting Discovery
In 2017, Daily Mail reported about Claire Fanelle, of New Jersey, that found a very particular note tucked away in a Bible. The note was dated May 7, 1896 and read, “Dear Father Dailey, I must write and make you know the kind feelings I have for you… I need your prayers after my death. With all of my heart.”
The signature at the bottom of the note belonged to none other than “HH Holmes.” Most of the note was illegible but Fanelle and her family were at least able to decipher that Holmes requested prayers in the wake of his execution.
Claire Fanelle said she found the Bible, which was previously owned by her mother, while she was cleaning. The Bible itself already was stuffed with numerous newspaper clippings. Fanelle’s son found the note, and “the two of us look at each other like, ‘This is weird,'” Fanelle told reporters.
The priest to whom the note is addressed, Father Patrick J. Dailey, is the first cousin of Fanelle’s great-grandfather and his church was located close to where Holmes was hanged. Fanelle theorized that “When he came to walk him to the gallows he probably handed him the Bible back with that inscription in it.”
Could It Be?
Interestingly enough, there is a theory out there that claims H.H. Holmes is actually the true identity of another infamous serial killer in history: Jack the Ripper. The theory is strongly supported by Jeff Mudgett, who is the great-great-grandson of H.H. Holmes.
Mudgett said that he inherited from his grandfather two diaries that contain rambling entries from none other than H.H. Holmes himself. Mudgett had the diaries examined by a handwriting analysis expert who said that they were written by Holmes. The diaries are said to have detailed some of Holmes’s murders and even his escape from prison and fake execution.
Remember Jack The Ripper?
Jack the Ripper rose to prominence after a string of murders hit the Whitechapel district of London in 1888. The culprit of the murders has yet to be identified, but the murderer was dubbed “Jack the Ripper” after a fake letter from someone claiming to be the murderer.
The letter was known as the “Dear Boss” letter, in which the killer claims that he thinks he’s about to be caught but he still details what he plans to do next. Jack the Ripper’s murders primarily involved female prostitutes. He would slit their throats before mutilating their abdominal region to harvest their organs.
Holmes’s Connection To London
We know what you’re thinking: If Jack the Ripper was in London, then he couldn’t have been the American H.H. Holmes. However, there are some points of interest that may lead you to believe the impossible. While studying at the University of Michigan, Holmes made a friend in Edmund Buckley, who hailed from a wealthy family in Whitechapel.
Buckley became Holmes’s partner-in-crime, as he helped Holmes with his numerous insurance fraud schemes and also helped sell corpses to medical facilities. Because Holmes had someone to assist him in his schemes, it wouldn’t be far off to assume that he instructed Buckley to commit the Jack the Ripper murders in London.
Maybe He Was There…
While this might lead you to believe that Buckley is actually Jack the Ripper, there is still some evidence that shows Holmes may have been in London himself. Despite his inclination to lie on census reports, there are some records that show Holmes had a residence in Whitechapel.
Around the time of the murders, there was even a complaint filed against him after he tried to sell a corpse to a local hospital, as he and Buckley were prone to do to make quick cash. Due to the nature of Jack the Ripper’s murders, authorities concluded that the killer had to have extensive medical and anatomical knowledge, which of course, Holmes did.
In Two Places At Once?
This might lead you to think: But H.H. Holmes couldn’t have had the time to commit the murders in London if he was busy building his ‘Hotel of Horrors.’ While this point may be true, records show that Holmes may have found time to be in London. Five women known as the “Canonical Five” are believed to be victims of Jack the Ripper. They were killed from late August to early November of the year 1888.
Holmes purchased the land that was the future home of his Chicago Murder Castle in July of that same year, however, construction of it didn’t even begin until 1889. Records show that Holmes wasn’t even in Chicago during the winter months of 1888, so he may very well had been in London.
By The Same Hand
The aforementioned “Dear Boss” letter was received by the Central News Agency of London and was subsequently forwarded to Scotland Yard on September 29, 1888. The letter provided a detailed warning of the killer’s plans to cut off his victim’s ears and the next day, a body of a woman was found with one severed ear lobe.
Jeff Mudgett sent samples of Holmes’s handwriting from the diaries to be computer analyzed and compared to the “Dear Boss” letter. The results proved that there was a near 98% chance that the handwriting from both documents are one in the same.
In His Likeness
Over a century after the murders were committed, Scotland Yard and the BBC used eyewitness accounts from 1888 to create a detailed composite photo of what Jack the Ripper might look like. The haunting results were strangely similar to photos of H.H. Holmes!
The most distinguishing detail is the long mustache, however, facial hair was a popular trend among nineteenth-century men. But anyone who sees the photos side by side can’t deny that there is a striking resemblance between the composite photo and the actual photo of H.H. Holmes. Is this enough to convince you that they are the same person?
It Couldn’t Have Been One Person
Keep in mind that no one really ever saw Jack the Ripper, so it’s still hard to say that that is what he looks like. On the other hand, Holmes’s great-great-grandson Jeff Mudgett argues that Holmes didn’t commit the London murders himself, rather that he had sent his assistant (probably Buckley) to commit the murders for him.
Even though that would technically make Buckley the real murderer, it was still Holmes who orchestrated the entire thing! Add to the fact that he committed all those murders across the pond, it wouldn’t be too far off to assume that Holmes was responsible for what went down at the hands of Jack the Ripper.
An Ulterior Motive
If Holmes had his own plans in the U.S., why would he bother going to London anyway? Sources say that he orchestrated the Jack the Ripper killings to create a diversion.
Not only would a sensationalized story about an unidentified serial killer in London distract the media from what Holmes was really doing (murdering people and building a fake hotel in which he could murder more people), Jeff Mudget believes that he had a second ulterior motive. Mudgett claims that Holmes wanted to kill rich women and use their reproductive organs to create a youth serum that would help him live for an unnaturally long time.
Can We Really Believe This?
While H.H. Holmes’s descendants have taken it upon themselves to have their murderous ancestor’s remains exhumed to dispel rumors that he faked his death, great-great-grandson Jeff Mudgett has a different goal: convincing everyone that his ancestor was Jack the Ripper.
Mudgett, who is a lawyer and former Commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve, has made a lifelong effort to prove his theory. Mudgett is the author of Bloodstains, in which he provides transcripts of the diaries that he inherited that were believed to have once belonged to Holmes. Despite provided word for word transcripts of what the diaries said, he doesn’t provide actual photocopies, which sort of discredits him.