This week on the inaugural edition of True Crime Corner, we’ll be looking at H.H. Holmes. Herman Webster Mudgett, also known as Henry Howard Holmes, or more commonly known as H.H. Holmes, is widely considered America’s first serial killer, although that factually isn’t correct. He is the first known serial killer. The lengths at which he went to carry out his atrocities and the sheer number of possible victims make him more notorious than murderers who came before him. His crimes occurred over a century ago, but why is it his infamy exists in pop culture today?
Herman Webster Mudgett was born in New Hampshire in 1861. When he was a young boy, a group of bullies took him into a doctor’s office and forced him to touch a skeleton. This interaction cured him of his fear of skeletons, and he would later say that this episode in his life is what began his interest in medicine. He would go to medical school to become a doctor, but not before practicing surgery and dissections on animals.
Although his family was affluent, H.H. Holmes started his criminal career by committing fraud for monetary gain, sometimes using corpses in insurance schemes. He would steal bodies from the medical school, and take out insurance policies on them before staging what appeared to be accidents. He collected on people who were already dead. He also had a bad habit of marrying a woman without first divorcing his other wife. He earned his notoriety by constructing what became known as the Murder Castle.
The sinister building was designed to kill its guests. What victims didn’t know was that rooms were equipped with gas lines, and the proprietor was able to watch them suffocate and die. There were also staircases that went nowhere, rooms with many doors, and doors that didn’t open. There were elevators and chutes to send victims to the basement for disposal. Once in the bowels of the Murder Castle, bodies were dissolved in lime pits or burned in the crematorium. Holmes often sold the skeletons to medical schools for profit. It was a combination haunted house and not-so-fun house. Holmes opened his evil creation to the public in time for the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. It’s interesting to note that only Holmes knew the layout of his Murder Castle, as he fired and hired various contractors throughout its construction.
The killer murdered visitors staying at his hotel for the fair. Others he lured with promises of employment. Young, attractive women were also a target for Holmes. He would seduce them, relieve them of their funds, and kill them. The Murder Castle was later set ablaze and torn down, and a post office now sits where it once stood.
Years of swindling and killing caught up with H.H. Holmes with the death of his associate Benjamin Pitezel when he traveled to Philadelphia. He planned an insurance scheme where Pitezel would fake his death, and he and Holmes would split the proceeds of an insurance policy. Again motivated by greed, Holmes decided he wanted Pitezel out of the picture, keeping the money for himself. Not only did he kill Pitezel, but he killed three of his five children. He was eventually arrested for the elder Pitezel’s murder.
Holmes met his demise at the end of a rope at Moyamensing Prison in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on May 7, 1896, days shy of his 35th birthday. His death did not come quick; instead he suffered on the scaffold as the noose failed to snap his neck. He took his final breath several minutes after the trap door was sprung. I visited the site of the former Moyamensing Prison. A grocery store now stands in its place, but remnants of a prison wall remain.
Following his execution, Holmes’s body was believed to be interred in Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, Pennsylvania. His burial was ironic. Just as he robbed graves of their skeletons in life, he feared this fate for himself in death. To guard against body snatchers, he requested that his coffin be encased in concrete, and buried 10 feet below the Earth’s surface. I’ve read that the concrete was poured into the coffin before it was removed from the vehicle that transported it. As a result, his coffin toppled over, leaving him buried upside down. His grave site is unmarked. Some believe that Holmes’s remains are elsewhere, but most sources agree that he is in the Yeadon cemetery. I attempted to locate the spot where Holmes is believed to be and found an unremarkable patch of grass.
It’s not clear how many people fell victim to H.H. Holmes. The official count is nine, but that number is most likely much higher. Ever the entrepreneur, Holmes sold his story to William Randolph Hearst while he was imprisoned. Of course, he told so many conflicting accounts that no one can really know the truth or the extent of his crimes.
Holmes remains a fascinating character to both true crime fans and historians. He’s the subject of many books, documentaries, and podcasts on serial killers. Perhaps one of the most well-known books is The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. Not only does it discuss Holmes, but it also is very informative about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The book is so popular that a feature film of the same name is believed to be in development, with Leonardo DiCaprio rumored to be portraying the killer, and possibly directed by Martin Scorsese. If this film comes to pass, I venture a guess that it will do well at the box office. There’s no doubt that it will have my money opening weekend.
More recently, an ancestor of H.H. Holmes penned a book called Bloodstains. Jeff Mudgett released his narrative about his great-great-grandfather based on Holmes’s diaries. Some reviews feel it’s more fiction than fact, but it may be worth reading.
American Horror Story: Hotel featured an episode called “Devil’s Night,” which was a dinner attended by deceased serial killers at the Hotel Cortez, orchestrated by a character who is similar to Holmes.
People are fascinated by real life monsters, the worst of the worst who rival horror movie villains. Their crimes are unforgettable, and their stories are handed down like macabre fairy tales, solidifying their place in pop culture.