H.H. Holmes, also known as Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, was considered to be the first serial killer in America. In 1893, he built a hotel in Chicago which was nothing less than a giant, elaborate torture chamber, a death trap in which rooms contained a uniquely cruel and unusual way to die.
He eventually confessed to 27 murders, although only nine were confirmed, yet the actual body count could have been up to 200. In life and in death, his victim’s bodies were his playthings. Now is the time to learn the disturbing history of H.H. Holmes and the hotel known as the ‘Murder Castle’.
10. The Hotel Had Foundations In Childhood Abuse
Most serial killers have troubled childhoods, and H.H. Holmes was no exception. The boy then known as Herman Webster Mudgett was born into a respectable, Methodist, farming family in New Hampshire in 1861. His father was an alcoholic who disciplined him with his fists, and boys at his school also bullied and beat him, jealous of his academic success. He also developed an early interest in mutilating animals.
In one telling incident, the bullies forced him into a macabre embrace with a skeleton in a doctor’s office, an experience which Holmes later admitted to finding curiously comforting. It is a scene worth remembering as we delve into the later horrors of Holmes’ life.
9. It Was Built On An Early Life Of Crime
Holmes committed his first murder at the age of just 17, killing an old school pal with laudanum to collect an insurance pay-out. He evidently caught the bug, because his life of crime took off with a vengeance.
He trained as a doctor and ran a side-line where he stole dead bodies, took out life insurance policies, butchered them, claimed they had died in accidents and reaped the financial rewards. (This was not, it would be fair to say, an age in which the deaths of the poor were high on the agenda of the police.)
During these years, he married one wife who died and acquired two more simultaneously in two different cities. The bigamist was also linked to the disappearances of a couple of young boys, but again then nothing was ever proved
8. No-One But Holmes Knew All Its Secrets
Ultimately, Holmes settled down in Chicago and got a job at a drug store. He bought an empty plot opposite the drug store and started to build.
Holmes constantly changed workers as he built his hotel, claiming that none of them met his exacting standards. In truth, he was only trying to ensure that nobody knew how its labyrinthine passages slotted together. His closest confidant was a man called Benjamin Pitezel (pictured above), who a judge would later describe as “tool… his creature.”
The looming building, which became known locally as “The Castle”, opened for business as a hotel in time for the 1893 world’s fair.
7. It Could Kill You In Countless Ways
One way to die in the hotel of nightmares was if you were locked in a room where the walls are clad in iron, scrambling frantically for an escape, blowtorches hidden in the walls fire up and scorch the flesh off your bones. Another was if your bedroom became a gas-chamber, and you’re asphyxiated by the fumes as you scramble hopelessly for an escape.
You could also be trapped in a metal gas-chamber or a brick-lined oubliette and left to die of hunger and thirst, or executed in the ‘secret hanging chamber’, or perhaps Holmes might force you to overdose on chloroform. There were a million ways to die, each one more gruesome than the last.
6. It Was A Streamlined Murder Machine
In fact, even those few parts of the hotel which couldn’t literally kill you outright were still designed to facilitate death. An elaborate alarm system was rigged to all the doors, so ‘guests’ and staff could not even move through the hotel without Holmes tracking their movements.
Secret metal chutes and fake elevators lead down to the basement so that the mutilated corpses of Holmes’ victims could be secreted away into the bowels of the building with ease.
5. It Was An Efficient Butcher’s Shop As Well
Holmes killed at least 27 and probably nearer 200 people throughout his brief, bloody career. Unsurprisingly, he was an expert at disposing of dead bodies. The basement of the hotel was a gory butcher’s shop, bursting with giant furnaces, bottles of poison and pits full of quicklime and corrosive acid.
It also boasted an assortment of tools used for cutting up the bodies of the dead and even a medieval-style stretching rack. His medical connections enabled him to sell on organs and skeletons to a wide network of acquaintances, some of whom were seemingly complicit in helping him to dispose of the tons of bodies which passed through the meat-grinder of his hotel.
4. It Was Inspired By His Childhood Bullies
The bigamist Holmes had a string of affairs. One mistress was Julia Smythe, the wife of one of his employees. After he got her pregnant, she tried to insist on a marriage: Holmes agreed to wed his mistress, but got her to agree to an abortion. Under the pretext of the operation, he murdered Smythe (and then killed Pearl, her daughter from a previous marriage.)
So far, so typical for Holmes. But in a morbid recollection of his childhood trauma when he was locked in a cupboard with a skeleton by bullies, he paid an underworld acquaintance to strip the flesh from the bones and articulate the skeleton as a grim memento.
3. He Made A Lot Of Money From It
Holmes murdered pretty indiscriminately, but certain patterns emerge when examining his blood-spattered track record. Many of his victims were young women, often unmarried, often blonde.
His very first murder was to collect on an insurance scam, and this was a pattern which continued throughout his life. Holmes would employ young, single women in his hotel and pharmacy, and insist that they take out a life insurance policy of which he was the sole beneficiary. Once they disappeared into the guts of the hotel, he would collect on the policy.
2. The Horrors Weren’t Revealed Until He Was Arrested
Holmes’ downfall came in 1894 when a separate insurance scam came unraveled. He arranged to fake an acquaintance’s death to collect on a life insurance policy but killed him outright instead, then bumped off his young daughters by gassing them.
A detective found their naked corpses and realised that Holmes had hacked off one daughter’s club foot to prevent her body being identified. Holmes was soon behind bars, just a few short months after opening his gruesome hotel for business. Once detectives got into the hotel, they were finding blood-spattered clothes and piles of human bones in every cupboard. The evidence was overwhelming.
1. Holmes Was Its Final Victim
Holmes was the last person killed by his murderous mansion. Unsurprisingly for the time, a horrified public demanded the death sentence. Holmes’ confessions ranged wildly, with his initial assertion that he had killed over 100 people later scaled back to 27.
A newspaper paid him over $200,000 for his confession, and some of the names he gave turned out to belong to people who were still alive (and who must have had a nasty shock when they opened the papers that day). Holmes was a life-long pathological liar, and it’s impossible to know for sure how many people died in his torture chambers, but it looks like it was well into the triple figures.
His claims of insanity were also seemingly a lie, intended to try and help him escape the chair: “I was born with the devil in me,” he said. “I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing — I was born with the Evil One”. He was hanged on May 7, 1896, at Moyamensing Prison.