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H. H. Holmes and his murder castle

Updated on March 6, 2016
HH Holmes
HH Holmes

The date was April 14, 1912, a sinister day in martime history, but of course the man in suite 63-65, shelter deck C, did not know it yet. The chilling opening to "The Devil in the White City" by Erik Larson.

What is a Serial Killer?

The definition of a serial killer is a person who has killed more than three people with down time between each murder, and whose motivation is based on psychological gratification.

H.H. Holmes

Dr Henry Howard Holmes, also known as Herman Webster Mudgett, was America's first recorded serial killer. He opened his hotel during the 1893 World's Fair, built with the specific intention of murder. He only acknowledged 27 of his murders but the actual body count was said to be around 200.

There have been a number of books written about this particular serial killer, notably; "Devil in the White City"; "The Strange Case of Mr H. H.Holmes and "Devil's Disciple: The Deadly Dr Holmes.

The Early Years

Born Herman Webster Mudgett on May 16, 1861 to Levi Horton Mudgett and Theodate Page Price, his mother a devoted Methodist and his father a raging drunk. As a young boy Herman was coerced into viewing and touching a human skeleton, by his fellow classmates. Unfortunately this didn't have the desired affect of scaring him, but lead to his lurid fascination with death.

He Married Clara Lovering in New Hampshire on 4 July 1878, she gave birth to his first child Robert Lovering Mudgett on February 3 1880.

Graduating from the University of Michigan Medical School in 1884, he abducted bodies from the University laboratory, to disfigure them, and then claimed the bodies were killed accidentally. This was all done so that Mudgett could collect the insurance money he took out on each of the bodies stolen. He took up work in pharmaceuticals in Chicago, doing many other underhanded activities in real estate and promotional deals under the name H. H. Holmes.

While still being married to his first wife Clara, on January 28 1887, he married Myrta Belknap in Minesota. His second child, a daughter, Lucy Theodate Holmes was born on 4 July 1889 in Illinois.

He lived with Myrta and daughter Lucy, but mostly spent time in Chicago tending to his business. When he married Myrta, he filed for divorce from Clara. That divorce never came through. On January 9 1894 he married Georgina Yoke, in Colorado. This marriage went ahead even though he was still married to his two previous wives, Clara and Myrta. Holmes also a relationship with a former employees wife, her name was Julia Smythe unfortunately she would go on to become one of his many victims.

The Victims

  • Dr Robert Leacock
  • Dr Russell
  • Julia Conner and her daughter
  • Mr Rodgers
  • Lizzie a maid
  • Emeline Cigrand
  • Minnie Williams
  • Nannie Williams
  • Benjamin F Pitezel
  • Howard, Nellie and Alice Pitezel

The Murder Castle - Chicago

In the summer of 1886 he persuaded the wife Dr E S Holton, who was suffering from cancer at the time, to give him a job in their drugstore. Holmes was a model employee, after the death of Dr Holton, Holmes persuaded his grieving widow that selling the drugstore to him would relieve help unburden her of her responsibilities, making her life easier after her husband;s death. There was an agreement laid down where by Mrs Holton would live in the small apartment upstairs.

Holmes used the stores fixtures and fittings to pay for part of the mortgage, but repaid in large montly installments. Mrs Holton seemed to disappear from the scene completely. Holmes told people she had gone to visit her relatives in California. But she never appeared, he then went on to say that she had moved to California permanently.

Holmes bought a lot across the drugstore, this is where he built his three storey block long "Castle". Used as a hotel for the Columbian Exposition in 1893, a part of structure was used as a commercial space. The ground floor would be used for use as a drugstore and various shops. On the two upper other floors upstairs, he would space for his own office, and numerous rooms without windows were formed. These rooms would open to thick walls, have strangely angled hallways, stairs that would lead to nowhere, doors that would only open from the outside and many other constructions within his building block. During the construction period, Holmes went through many construction companies to take suspicion away from the building work going on, and any suspicion that may lead to the police being called.

Meeting Benjamin Pitezel, who would become his "creature" or "stooge" for all of his criminal activity.

Holmes selected females as his victims, and as a requirement of employment, would get them to take out insurance policies. He would take his victims, torturing them, locking them in bedrooms with gaslines that would be soundproofed, they would be asphyxiated. Other victims would be left to suffocate in a room that was set up like a bank vault and left to die. The bodies would be sent down a secret chute to the basement, where he would use the bodies for dissection. The bodies were stripped of all flesh then made into model skeletons. These were then sold on to medical schools for profit. He cremated most of the bodies, but would use a lime pit for total elimination. Holmes had various poisons, pits of acid and even a stretching rack. He would sell on these skeletons and organs he harvested with the connections he had made
in the medical profession.


With the economy in a slump, Holmes moved to Texas, he inherited property from two heiress sisters, both of whom had promised marriage who also ended up dead by his hand. He hoped to build another "Castle" in Texas, but the law enforcement was inhospitable.

His killing spree would go on across both America and Canada, tip off by a former associate Marion Hedgepath, to whom he had promised to pay off, lead to Holmes being arrested in Boston on 17 November 1894. Caught for horse theft, his killing spree was over.

Testimony from many witnesses would say that females would go into the building but never come out. A custodian for the building the "castle" would say that he was never able to clean the upper floors. Police then went on to do a thorough investigation in the building.

The remains found of his three missing children would seal his fate in the public's mind. An estimate of between 20 and 200 was given to the amount of people he murdered. Hearst Newspapers paid him $7,500 for his confession. He gave many accounts of his life, pointing that he was possessed by Satan.


He was hanged on 7 May 1896 in Moyamensing Prison. Holmes remained calm and friendly right up till his time of death. He showed no sign of fear, or even being anxious. His neck did not snap immediately, so it took him 15 minutes to die, all of which were spent by his body twitching. He was pronounced dead 20 minutes later.

© 2011 Helen Bolam


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