Crime Museum

H.H. Holmes

hhholmesIn 1861, Herman Webster Mudgett was born in New Hampshire. It is said that at an early age he was fascinated with skeletons and soon became obsessed with death. It may have been this interest that led him to pursue medicine. After graduating high school at 16, Mudgett changed his name to Henry Howard Holmes, and later in life would be known as H.H. Holmes. Holmes studied medicine at a small school in Vermont before being accepted into the University of Michigan Medical School. While enrolled in medical school, Holmes stole cadavers from the laboratory, burned or disfigured them, and then planted the bodies making it look as if they had been killed in an accident. The scandal behind it was that Holmes would take out insurance policies on these people before planting the bodies and would collect money once the bodies were discovered.

In 1884 Holmes passed his medical exams and in 1885 he moved to Chicago where he got a job working at a pharmacy under the alias Dr. Henry H. Holmes. When the owner of the drugstore passed away, he left his wife to take over the responsibilities of the store; however, Holmes convinced the widow to let him buy the store. The widow soon went missing and was never seen again. Holmes claimed that she moved to California, but this could never be verified.

After Holmes had become the owner of the drugstore, he purchased an empty lot across the street. He designed and built a 3-story hotel, which the neighborhood called the “Castle.” During its 1889 construction, Holmes hired and fired several construction crews so that no one would have a clear idea of what he was doing; he was designing a “Murder Castle.” After construction was complete in 1891, Holmes placed ads in newspapers offering jobs for young women and advertised the Castle as a place of lodging. He also placed ads presenting himself as a wealthy man looking for a wife.

All of Holmes’ employees, hotel guests, fiancés, and wives were required to have life insurance policies. Holmes paid the premiums as long as they listed him as the beneficiary. Most of his fiancés and wives would suddenly disappear, as did many of his employees and guests. People in the neighborhood eventually reported that they saw many women enter the Castle, but would never see them exit.

In 1893, Chicago was given the honor of hosting the World’s Fair, a cultural and social event to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America. The event was scheduled from May to October, and attracted millions of people from all over the world. When Holmes heard that the World’s Fair was coming to Chicago, he looked at it as an opportunity. He knew many visitors would be searching for lodging near the fair and believed many of them would be women whom he could easily seduce into staying at his hotel. After being lured into the hotel, many of these out-of-town visitors would never be seen again.

The first floor of the Castle had several stores; the two upper levels contained Holmes’ office and over 100 rooms that were used as living quarters. Some of these rooms were soundproof and contained gas lines so that Holmes could asphyxiate his guests whenever he felt like it. Throughout the building, there were trap doors, peepholes, stairways that led nowhere, and chutes that led into the basement. The basement was designed as Holmes’ own lab; it had a dissecting table, stretching rack, and crematory. Sometimes he would send the bodies down the chute, dissect them, strip them of the flesh and sell them as human skeleton models to medical schools. In other cases, he would choose to cremate or place the bodies into pits of acids.

Through it all, Holmes traveled throughout the U.S. committing insurance scams with his accomplice, Benjamin Pitezel. Once the World’s Fair had ended, Chicago’s economy was in a slump; therefore, Holmes abandoned the Castle and focused on insurance scams – committing random murders along the way. During this time, Holmes stole horses from Texas, shipped them to St. Louis, and sold them – making a fortune. He was arrested for this swindle and sent to jail.

While in jail, he concocted a new insurance scam with his cellmate, Marion Hedgepeth. Holmes said he would take out an insurance policy for $10,000, fake his own death, and then provide Hedgepeth with $500 in exchange for a lawyer who could help him if any problems arose. Once Holmes was released from jail on bail, he attempted his plan; however, the insurance company was suspicious and did not pay him. Holmes then decided to attempt a similar plan in Philadelphia. This time he would have Pitezel fake his own death; however, during this scam Holmes actually killed Pitezel and collected the money for himself.

In 1894, Marion Hedgepath, who was angry that he did not receive any money in the initial scam, told police about the scam Holmes had planned. The police tracked Holmes, finally catching up to him in Boston where they arrested him and held him on an outstanding warrant for the Texas horse swindle. At the time of his arrest, Holmes appeared as if he was prepared to flee the country and police became suspicious of him. Chicago police investigated Holmes’ Castle where they discovered his strange and efficient methods for committing tortuous murders. Many of the bodies they located were so badly dismembered and decomposed that it was hard for them to determine exactly how many bodies there really were.

The police investigation spread through Chicago, Indianapolis, and Toronto. While conducting their investigation in Toronto, police discovered the bodies of the Pitezel children, who had gone missing sometime during Holmes’ insurance fraud spree. Linking Holmes to their murders, police arrested him and he was convicted of their murders. He also confessed to 28 other murders; however, through investigations and missing person’s reports, it is believe that Holmes is responsible for up to 200 murders.

In May 1896, one of America’s first serial killers, H.H. Holmes, was hanged . The Castle was remodeled as an attraction and named the “Holmes Horror Castle”; however, it burned to the ground shortly before its opening.

For more information, please visit:
The H.H. Holmes Biography

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  • About

H.H. Holmes

Quick Facts

Name
H.H. Holmes
Occupation
Murderer
Birth Date
c. May 16 , 1861
Death Date
May 7 , 1896
Did You Know?
H.H. Holmes was born into an affluent family and enjoyed a privileged childhood.
Did You Know?
Holmes killed an estimated 20 to as many as 200 victims.
Education
University of Michigan
Place of Birth
Gilmanton , New Hampshire
Place of Death
Philadelphia , Pennsylvania
AKA
H.M. Howard
Herman Mudgett
Dr. Henry H. Holmes
Henry H. Holmes
Henry Holmes
H.H. Holmes
Full Name
Herman Webster Mudgett
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quotes
“I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing.”
—H.H. Holmes

H.H. Holmes Biography

Murderer (c. 1861–1896)
H.H. Holmes was the alias of one of America’s first serial killers. During the 1893 Columbian Exposition, he lured victims into his elaborate ‘Murder Castle.’

Who Was H.H. Holmes?

Herman Webster Mudgett, better known as H.H. Holmes, (May 16, 1861 to May 7, 1896) was a con artist and bigamist who was one of America's first serial killers. Sometimes referred to as the "Beast of Chicago," Holmes is believed to have killed somewhere between 20 and 200 people. He killed many of his victims in a specially constructed home, which was later nicknamed the "Murder Castle." Apprehended in 1894, he was hanged for his crimes two years later. Erik Larson wrote about Holmes in his 2003 book The Devil in the White City, which has been adapted for a feature film starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

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H. H. Holmes Photo

H.H. Holmes 

H.H. Holmes Movie: 'Devil in the White City'

Holmes' life as one of America's first serial killers has been the subject of many books and documentaries, including The Devil in the White City (2003), by Erik Larson. The book is in the process of being adapted for the big screen, with Hollywood heavyweights Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio tapped to direct and star, respectively.

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H.H. Holmes and Jack the Ripper

In 2017, the History Channel aired an eight-part series, American Ripper , in which Holmes' great-great-grandson, Jeff Mudgett, explored the theory of whether H.H. Holmes was actually Jack the Ripper . The series also investigated the rumor that Holmes had somehow escaped his execution, concluding with a visit to his gravesite to exhume his remains.

Early Life and Scams

H.H. Holmes was born Herman Webster Mudgett circa May 16, 1861, in Gilmanton, New Hampshire. Born into an affluent family, Holmes enjoyed a privileged childhood and was said to be unusually intelligent at an early age. Still, there were haunting signs of what was to come. He expressed an interest in medicine, which reportedly led him to practice surgery on animals. Some accounts indicate that he may have been responsible for the death of a friend.

Holmes' life of crime began with various frauds and scams. As a medical student at the University of Michigan, he stole corpses and used them to make false insurance claims. Holmes may have used the bodies for experiments, as well.

“Murder Castle”

In 1885, H.H. Holmes moved to Chicago, Illinois. He soon found work in a pharmacy, using his now infamous alias, Dr. Henry H. Holmes. He eventually took over the business, and was later rumored to have killed its original owner.

Holmes had a three-story building constructed nearby, creating an elaborate house of horrors. The upper floors contained his living quarters and many small rooms where he tortured and killed his victims. There were also trapdoors and chutes that enabled him to move the bodies down to the basement, where he could burn the remains in a kiln or dispose of them in other ways.

During the 1893 Columbian Exposition, Holmes opened up his home as a hotel for visitors. Unfortunately, many guests did not survive in what became known as the "Murder Castle." Many of these victims — no one knows for certain the total number — were women who were seduced, swindled and then killed. Holmes had a habit of getting engaged to a woman, only for his fiancée to suddenly "disappear." Other victims were lured there by the offer of employment.

Schemes

Holmes left Chicago shortly after the World's Fair to continue his schemes, including a plan with an associate named Benjamin Pitezel in which Pitezel would fake his death to collect $10,000 from a life insurance company. Jailed at one point for another fraud, Holmes confided in fellow inmate and notorious outlaw Marion Hedgepeth — who knew Holmes as H.M. Howard — about the life insurance scheme. Hedgepeth later helped investigators by revealing details of their discussion.

While the authorities eventually identified Howard as Holmes, they did not catch on soon enough to stop his final murders. Holmes killed Pitezel and, after telling his widow that her husband was still alive and in hiding, convinced her to let him travel with three of her five children, who also became his victims.

Arrest

After several weeks of outrunning authorities, Holmes was finally apprehended in November 1894. During his time in custody, he gave numerous stories to police, once admitting to killing 27 people. Convicted in 1895, Holmes appealed his case but lost.

How Many People Did H.H. Holmes Kill?

Estimates of the total number of people H.H. Holmes killed range from 20 to as many as 200 victims — a total that would dwarf those of other murderers who followed in his bloody footsteps.

H.H. Holmes’ Death

H.H. Holmes died on May 7, 1896, when he was hanged for the Pitezel murder. He was buried in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 

Videos

H.H. Holmes - The World's Fair
H.H. Holmes – The World's Fair(TV-14; 1:45)

H.H. Holmes - Chicago Expansion
H.H. Holmes – Chicago Expansion(TV-14; 1:46)

H.H. Holmes - Finding the Victims
H.H. Holmes – Finding the Victims(TV-14; 2:13)

Fact Check

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Citation Information

Article Title

H.H. Holmes Biography

Author

Biography.com Editors

Website Name

The Biography.com website

URL

https://www.biography.com/people/hh-holmes-307622

Access Date

date:’MMMM d, yyyy’

Publisher

A&E Television Networks

Last Updated

January 3, 2018

Original Published Date

April 2, 2014

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