Herman Webster Mudgett (b. May 16, 1861, Gilmanton(d), New Hampshire, USA – d. May 7, 1896, Pennsylvania, USA), better known as Dr. Henry Howard Holmes or H.H. Holmes, was an American con man and serial killer(d), the subject of over 50 trials in Chicago alone.
Although he confessed to killing 27 people (including people known to be alive at the time) while awaiting execution, Holmes was sentenced to death for only one murder, that of accomplice and business partner Benjamin Pitezel. He is believed to have killed three of Pitezel’s children, as well as three mistresses, the child of one of those mistresses and the sister of another. Holmes was executed on May 7, 1896, nine days before his 35th birthday.
Many of the legends surrounding “Castle Crime”, along with many of its alleged crimes, are considered exaggerated or fabricated for tabloid tabloid sensationalist articles. Many of these factual inaccuracies have persisted due to a combination of ineffective police investigations and the exaggerations of tabloid journalism, which are often cited as historical records. Holmes gave various conflicting accounts of his life, at first claiming innocence, then claiming to have been possessed(d) by Satan. His penchant for lying has made it difficult for researchers to establish the truth of his claims.
Since the 1990s, Holmes has often been described as a serial killer, although Adam Selzer points out in his book on Holmes: “just that he killed more people is not necessarily enough for most definitions . More often than not, it has to be a series of similar murders committed over a longer period of time, usually more to satisfy a psychological impulse on the part of the killer than for any more practical reason” and “the murders we can link him to generally had a clear motive: someone knew too much or was confusing him and could not be trusted. The murders were not simply for the pleasure of bloodshed, but a necessary part of promoting his con operation and protecting his lifestyle.”
Holmes was born Herman Webster Mudgett in Gilmanton, New Hampshire(d), on May 16, 1861, to Levi Horton Mudgett and Theodate Page Price, both descendants of early English immigrants to the area. Mudgett was his parents’ third child; he had an older sister Ellen, an older brother Arthur, a younger brother Henry, and a younger sister Mary. Holmes’s father came from a farming family, and at times worked as a farmer, merchant and painter; his parents were devout Methodists. Later attempts to fit Holmes into the patterns seen in modern serial killers(d) claimed that he would have tortured animals and suffered abuse at the hands of a violent father, but contemporary and eyewitness accounts of his childhood offer no evidence for this.
At the age of 16, Holmes graduated from Phillips Academy in Exeter(d) and was employed as a teacher in Gilmanton and later in nearby Alton(their son, Robert Lovering Mudgett, was born February 3, 1880, in Loudon, New Hampshire(d) Robert became a certified public accountant and served as City Manager(d) in Orlando, Florida.
Holmes enrolled at the University of Vermont in Burlington at age 18, but was dissatisfied with the school and left after a year. In 1882, he was admitted to the University of Michigan’s College of Medicine and Surgery(d) and graduated in June 1884 after passing his exams. While enrolled, he worked in the anatomy laboratory with Professor William James Herdman, then chief instructor of anatomy, and the two were allegedly involved in facilitating grave robbing to obtain cadavers for medical purposes. Holmes had apprenticed in New Hampshire with Nahum Wight, a known advocate of human dissection. Years later, when Holmes was suspected of murder and claimed to be nothing more than an insurance fraudster, he admitted that he had used cadavers to defraud life insurance companies several times in college.
Those with whom he lived claimed Holmes treated Clara violently, and in 1884, before graduation, she moved back to New Hampshire and later wrote that she never heard from him again. After moving to Mooers Forks(d), New York, a rumor spread that Holmes had been seen with a young boy who later disappeared. Holmes claimed the boy had returned to his home in Massachusetts. No investigation took place, and Holmes soon left town.
He later traveled to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and got a job as a security guard at Norristown(d) State Hospital, but quit after a few days. He later took a job at a Philadelphia drugstore, but while working there, a boy died after taking medicine that had been purchased at the store. Holmes denied any involvement in the child’s death and immediately left town. Just before moving to Chicago, he changed his name to Henry Howard Holmes to avoid the possibility of being exposed by the victims of his previous scams.
In his post-arrest confession, Holmes claimed that he murdered his former medical school classmate, Robert Leacock, in 1886 for insurance money. Leacock, however, actually died in Watford, Ontario(d), Canada, on October 5, 1889. In late 1886, while still married to Clara, Holmes married Myrta Belknap (b. October 1862 in Pennsylvania) in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He filed for divorce from Clara a few weeks after marrying Myrta, accusing her of infidelity. The allegations could not be proven and the lawsuit went nowhere. Documents that have survived show that she probably wasn’t even informed of the court action. In any case, the divorce was never finalized; it was dismissed on June 4, 1891, on the grounds of “deficient action.”
Holmes had a daughter with Myrta, Lucy Theodate Holmes, who was born on July 4, 1889, in Englewood, Chicago, Illinois. Lucy became a public school teacher. Holmes lived with Myrta and Lucy in Wilmette, Illinois(d), and spent most of his time in Chicago, attending to business. Holmes married Georgiana Yoke on January 17, 1894, in Denver, Colorado, while he was still married to Clara and Myrta.
Holmes arrived in Chicago in August 1886, when he began using the name H. H. Holmes. He stumbled upon Elizabeth S. Holton’s grocery store on the northwest corner of South Wallace Avenue and West 63rd Street in Englewood. Holton gave Holmes a job, and he turned out to be an able employee, eventually buying the store. Although several books say Holton’s husband was an old man who quickly disappeared with his wife, Dr. Holton was a college graduate from Michigan, only a few years older than Holmes, and both Holton spouses remained in Englewood throughout Holmes’ life and survived into the 20th century. It is a myth that they were murdered by Holmes. Holmes also did not kill Miss Kate Durkee, who turned out to be alive, although it has been claimed that she was a victim of “The Castle”.
Holmes bought a vacant lot across the street from the drugstore, where he began in 1887 to build a two-story, mixed-use building with apartments on the second floor and commercial space, including a new grocery store. A Holmes creditor named John DeBrueil died of apoplexy on April 17, 1891, in the drugstore. When Holmes refused to pay the architects or his steel supplier, Aetna Iron and Steel, they sued him in 1888. In 1892, he added a third story, telling investors and suppliers that he intended to use it as a hotel during the upcoming World’s Columbian Exposition, although the hotel portion was never completed. In 1892, the hotel was somewhat completed, with three floors and a basement. The ground floor was the storefront.
Fictional accounts say Holmes built the hotel to lure tourists visiting the nearby World’s Fair to kill them and sell their skeletons to medical schools. But there is no evidence that Holmes ever tried to lure strangers to his hotel to kill them. In fact, none of his possible victims were strangers to him. Holmes had a history of selling corpses to medical schools, but he acquired his “merchandise” through grave robbing, not murder.
Yellow press reports labeled the building as Holmes’ “Murder Castle,” claiming that the structure contained secret torture chambers, hatches, gas chambers, and a basement crematorium; none of these claims were true. Other accounts claim that the hotel consisted of more than a hundred rooms and was laid out like a maze, with doors that opened into brick walls, windowless rooms and stairwells. In fact, the hotel floor was moderate in size and largely unrecognizable. It contained some hidden rooms, but they were used to conceal furniture Holmes bought on credit and didn’t intend to pay for.
The hotel was destroyed in a fire set by persons unknown shortly after Holmes was arrested, but was largely rebuilt and used as a post office until 1938. In addition to his infamous “Castle of Crime,” Holmes also had a one-story factory, which he claimed would be used for bending glass. It is unclear whether the furnace in the factory was ever used for glass bending and there is speculation that it may have been used to destroy incriminating evidence of Holmes’ crimes.
One of Holmes’ first victims was his mistress, Julia Smythe. She was the wife of Ned (Icilius) Conner, who had moved into Holmes’s building and started working at his pharmacy’s jewelry counter. After Conner found out about Smythe’s affair with Holmes, he quit his job and moved out, leaving Smythe and her daughter Pearl behind. Smythe gained custody of Pearl and stayed at the hotel, continuing her relationship with Holmes.
Julia and Pearl disappeared on Christmas Eve 1891, and Holmes later claimed she died during an abortion. Despite his medical background, Holmes was unlikely to have had experience performing abortions, and mortality from such a procedure was high at the time. Holmes claimed he poisoned Pearl, presumably to conceal the circumstances of his mother’s death. A partial skeleton, probably of a child Pearl’s age, was found when excavating Holmes’ cellar. Pearl’s father, Ned, was to be a key witness at Holmes’ Chicago trial.
Another of Holmes’ victims, Emeline Cigrande, began working in the building in May 1892 and disappeared in December. Rumors after her disappearance claimed she had become pregnant by Holmes, possibly the victim of another botched abortion that Holmes tried to cover up.
While working in the Chemical Bank(d) building on Dearborn Street, Holmes met and befriended Benjamin Pitezel, a carpenter(d) with a criminal record who was displaying a coal bin he had invented in the same building. Holmes used Pitezel as his right-hand man for several criminal schemes. A district attorney later described Pitezel as “Holmes’ tool… his creature”.
In early 1893, an actress named Minnie Williams moved to Chicago. Holmes claimed to have met her in an employment office, although there were rumors that he had met her in Boston years earlier. He offered her a hotel job as his personal stenographer, and she accepted. Holmes convinced Williams to transfer her property in Fort Worth, Texas, into the name of a man named Alexander Bond (an alias of Holmes).
In April 1893, Williams transferred the property, with Holmes serving as notary (Holmes later passed the deeds over to Pitezel, giving him the pseudonym “Benton T. Lyman.”) The following month, introducing themselves as husband and wife, Holmes and Williams rented an apartment in Chicago’s Lincoln Park(d). Minnie’s sister Annie came to visit, and in July, she wrote her aunt that she planned to accompany “Brother Harry” to Europe. Neither Minnie nor Annie were seen alive again after July 5, 1893.
If any of the remains of these five victims were found, they were never identified.
As insurance companies pressed charges against him for arson(d), Holmes left Chicago in July 1894. He reappeared in Fort Worth, where he had inherited property from the Williams sisters where Commerce and 2nd Streets are today. Here, he again attempted to build an incomplete structure without paying his suppliers and contractors. This building was not the site of other crimes.
In July 1894, Holmes was arrested and briefly jailed for the first time on charges of selling mortgaged property in St. Louis, Missouri. He was released on bail shortly thereafter, but while in custody, he came into contact with a convicted bandit named Marion Hedgepeth(d), who was serving a 25-year prison sentence. Holmes had hatched a plan to swindle $10,000 from an insurance company, taking out a policy and then playing dead.
Holmes promised Hedgepeth a $500 fee in exchange for the name of a lawyer he could trust. Holmes was referred to a young St. Louis lawyer named Jeptha Howe. Holmes’ plan seemed brilliant to Howe, who agreed to play a part. However, Holmes’ plan to fake his own death failed when the insurance company became suspicious and refused to pay out. Holmes didn’t press the claim; instead, he concocted a similar plan with Pitezel.
Pitezel agreed to fake his own death so that his wife could cash in a $10,000 life insurance policy, which she was to share with Holmes and Howe. The plan, to be carried out in Philadelphia, called for Pitezel to pretend to be an inventor under the name BF Perry and then be murdered and disfigured in a laboratory explosion. Holmes was to find a suitable corpse to play Pitezel. Holmes actually killed Pitezel, however, by sedating him with chloroform and dousing him with gasoline and setting him on fire. In his confession, Holmes suggested that Pitezel was still alive after sedating him with chloroform before setting him on fire. However, forensic evidence presented at Holmes’ subsequent trial showed that the chloroform was administered after Pitezel’s death (a fact the insurance company did not know about), presumably to simulate suicide in order to exonerate Holmes in case he was charged with murder.
Holmes cashed the insurance on the basis of Pitezel’s genuine body. Holmes went on to manipulate Pitezel’s unsuspecting wife into allowing three of his five children (Alice, Nellie and Howard) to be placed in his custody. The eldest daughter and child remained with Mrs. Pitezel. Holmes and the three Pitezel children traveled throughout the northern United States(d) and Canada. At the same time, he took Mrs. Pitezel on a parallel journey, all the while using various aliases and lying to her about her husband’s death (claiming Pitezel was hiding in London), telling her lies about the true whereabouts of her three missing children as well. In Detroit, just before entering Canada, the two groups were only a few blocks apart.
In an even bolder move, Holmes was staying at another location with his wife, who was unaware of the whole affair. Holmes would later confess to killing Alice and Nellie, stuffing them into a large trunk and locking them inside. He cut a hole in the trunk lid and ran a hose through the hole, attaching the other end to a gas line to asphyxiate the girls. Holmes buried their naked bodies in the basement of his rented house at 16 St. Vincent Street in Toronto. This house and address no longer exist, St. Vincent Street having long since been realigned and turned into part of Bay Street.
Frank Geyer(d), a Philadelphia police detective tasked with investigating Holmes and finding the three missing children, found the decomposed bodies of the two Pitezel girls in the basement of his Toronto home. Detective Geyer writes: “The deeper I dug, the more horrible the smell became, and when I got to a depth of three feet, I discovered what appeared to be the forearm bone of a human being.” Geyer then went to Indianapolis, where Holmes had rented a small house. Holmes was said to have visited a local pharmacy to buy the drugs he used to kill young Howard Pitezel, and a repair shop to sharpen the knives he used to cut up the body before burning it. The boy’s teeth and pieces of bone were discovered in the chimney of the house.
Holmes’ crime spree finally came to an end when he was arrested in Boston on November 17, 1894, after being tracked there from Philadelphia by the Pinkerton National Detective Agency(d). He was held on a warrant for horse stealing in Texas, as authorities had become more suspicious by this time, and Holmes seemed ready to flee the country in the company of his unknowing third wife.
In July 1895, after the discovery of Alice and Nellie’s bodies, Chicago police and reporters began investigating Holmes’ Englewood home, now called the Castle. Although many sensationalist claims were made, no evidence was found to convict Holmes in Chicago. According to Selzer, stories about torture equipment found in the building are 20th century fiction.
In October 1895, Holmes was tried for the murder of Benjamin Pitezel and was found guilty and sentenced to death . At the time, it was clear that Holmes had also murdered Pitezel’s three missing children. After his conviction, Holmes confessed to 27 murders committed in Chicago, Indianapolis and Toronto (although some of the people he “confessed” to killing were still alive) and six attempted murders(d). Holmes was paid $7,500 by Hearst newspapers in exchange for his confession, which quickly turned out to be largely a collection of aberrations.
While writing his confessions in prison, Holmes mentioned how drastically the appearance of his face has changed since he was incarcerated.
On May 7, 1896, Holmes was hanged at Moyamensing(d) Jail, also known as the Philadelphia County Penitentiary, for the murder of Pitezel. Until his death, Holmes remained calm and amiable, showing very few signs of fear, anxiety or depression. However, he requested that his coffin be encased in cement and buried 10 feet deep because he was worried that grave robbers would steal his body and use it for dissection. Holmes’s neck was not broken; he died choking slowly and jerking for more than 15 minutes before being pronounced dead 20 minutes after the hatch was opened.
After his execution, Holmes’ body was buried in an unmarked grave at Holy Cross Cemetery, a Catholic cemetery in the western Philadelphia suburb of Yeadon, Pennsylvania.
On New Year’s Eve 1909, Hedgepeth, who had been pardoned for giving information about Holmes, was shot dead by policeman Edward Jaburek during an armed robbery at a Chicago saloon.
On March 7, 1914, the Chicago Tribune reported that with the death of Patrick Quinlan, the Castle’s former caretaker, “the mysteries of Holmes’s castle” would remain unexplained. Quinlan committed suicide by strychnine. His body was found in his bedroom with a note that read: “Couldn’t sleep.” Quinlan’s surviving relatives claimed he had been “haunted” for months and suffered from hallucinations.
The castle itself was destroyed by a mysterious fire in August 1895. According to an article in The New York Times, two men were seen entering the back of the building between 8 and 9pm. About half an hour later, they were seen exiting the building and quickly fleeing. Following several explosions, the Castle caught fire. Investigators later found a half-empty gas canister under the back steps of the building. The building survived the fire and remained in use until it was demolished in 1938. On its site is now the Englewood branch of the United States Postal Service.
In 2017, amid allegations that Holmes had actually escaped execution, Holmes’ body was exhumed for testing by Janet Monge(d) of the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology(d). Due to the fact that his coffin was encased in cement, it was discovered that his body did not decompose normally. His clothing was almost perfectly preserved and his mustache remained intact. The body was positively identified by dentition as Holmes’. Holmes was then reburied.
The case was notorious at the time and received wide publicity in the international press. Depraved: The Shocking True Story of America’s First Serial Killer by Harold Schechter(d) (1994), was the first major book about Holmes that characterized him as a serial killer.
Interest in the Holmes murders was revived in 2003 by Erik Larson(d)’s The Devil in the White City(d): Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, a nonfiction book that juxtaposes an account of the planning and organization of the World’s Fair with a fictionalized version of the Holmes story. His story had been told in David Franke’s The Torture Doctor (1975), Allan W. Eckert’s The Scarlet Mansion (1985), and the chapter “The Monster of Sixty-Third Street” in Gem of the Prairie: An Informal History of the Chicago Underworld by Herbert Asbury(d) (1940, republished 1986).
Horror writer Robert Bloch’s 1974 novel American Gothic(d) was a fictionalized version of the HH Holmes story.
Selzer’s 2017 comprehensive biography, HH Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil, attempted to separate fact from fiction and trace how the legend developed.
On November 2, 2006, HH Holmes appeared as a ghost in the fictional television series “Supernatural”. The season two episode of the show touched on many of the fictional points of Holmes’ life and crimes. In an episode of Timeless, the main characters traveled back in time to the World’s Fair in Chicago, and were trapped by antagonists in HH Holmes’ “Hotel of Death”, only to be helped to safety by Harry Houdini.
In 2017, History aired a limited eight-episode documentary series called American Ripper, in which Holmes’ great-grandson Jeff Mudgett, along with former CIA analyst Amaryllis Fox, investigated clues to try to prove that Holmes was also the infamous London serial killer Jack the Ripper.
In 2018, horror writer Sara Tantlinger published The Devil’s Dreamland: Poetry Inspired by HH Holmes (Strangehouse Books), which won the 2018 Bram Stoker Award for best poetry collection.
In 2019, an adaptation of The Devil in the White City with Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio attached as executive producers was in development with Paramount TV and Hulu. Although originally written in 2015 that the film would be a feature film starring DiCaprio, once Hulu agreed to a partnership with Paramount, the project was announced as a series with no confirmation if Scorsese and DiCaprio would direct and star in it, respectively. Production has not begun.
- H. H. Holmes
- H. H. Holmes
- ^ a b c d e f g JD Crighton; Herman W. Mudgett MD (2017). Holmes’ Own Story: Confessed 27 Murders, Lied, then Died. Aerobear Classics. pp. 87–90. ISBN 978-1-946100-00-9.
- ^ Holmes călăuzea astfel simultan trei grupuri de oameni prin țară, fiecare neștiind de celelalte.
- (en) Philadelphie (Pennsylvanie). Board of Health. Death registers, 1860–1903. Salt Lake City : microfilmé par la Genealogical Society of Utah, 1962.
- (en) New Hampshire Registrar of Vital Statistics. Index to births, early to 1900, Registrar of Vital Statistics, Concord, New Hampshire. FHL Microfilms : film no 1001018
- (en) Steven Chermak et Frankie Y. Bailey, Crimes of the Centuries, ABC-CLIO, 2016, p. 387.
- a b c d e et f Stéphane Bourgoin, « L’affaire H. H. Holmes », émission L’Heure du crime sur RTL, 2 mars 2012.
- New Hampshire. Registrar of Vital Statistics. «Index to births, early to 1900», Registrar of Vital Statistics, Concord, New Hampshire. FHL Microfilms: film number 1001018
- Philadelphia (Pennsylvania). Board of Health. «Death registers, 1860—1903». Salt Lake City: Filmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah, 1962.
- Фильм ужасов «Хэвенхёрст» выходит в прокат (неопр.). Дата обращения: 4 сентября 2017. Архивировано из оригинала 5 сентября 2017 года.