The Victims of Chicago's First Serial Murderer, H.H. Holmes

On May 7, 1896 H.H. Holmes was hanged for the murder of his business partner Ben Pitezel. Before his execution, Holmes confessed to killing 27 people.
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On May 7, 1896 H.H. Holmes was hanged for the murder of his business partner Ben Pitezel. Before his execution, Holmes confessed to killing 27 people.
H.H. Holmes

H.H. Holmes

"I was born with the very devil in me," famously stated H.H. Holmes. "I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to song, nor the ambition of an intellectual man to be great. The inclination to murder came to me as naturally as the inspiration to do right comes to the majority of persons."

On May 7, 1896, Henry Howard Holmes was executed by hanging for the murder of his associate Ben Pitezel. Despite Holmes' confession of killing 27 other people (some of those people were later discovered to be alive and well), he was officially linked to nine murders. Some estimate Holmes had killed up to 200 people, but these claims were exaggerated.

By the time H.H. Holmes (real name Herman Webster Mudgett) arrived in Chicago in 1886, he was a wanted man. As a con artist and bigamist, he fled from one town to the next, avoiding prison time for various scams, including insurance fraud of a ghastly nature: Holmes was stealing and mutilating medical cadavers and pretending they were victims of accidents to collect money.

But Holmes had more monstrous ideas tinkering in his dark mind. Soon after arriving in Chicago, he found work as a pharmacist and quickly began plans on building a "Murder Castle," a three-story building that took up the entire block of 63rd and Wallace streets. Holmes called it the World's Fair Hotel to accommodate tourists who were arriving in droves for the 1893 Columbian Exposition. His victims of choice? Young female drifters searching for a new exciting life in the big city.

In an article written in 1937, the Chicago Tribune described Holmes' Murder Castle in this way: "O, what a queer house it was! In all America there was none other like it. Its chimneys stuck out where chimneys should never stick out. Its stairways ended nowhere in particular. Winding passages brought the uninitiated with a frightful jerk back to where they had started from. There were rooms that had no doors. There were doors that had no rooms. A mysterious house it was indeed — a crooked house, a reflex of the builder's own distorted mind. In that house occurred dark and eerie deeds."

HH Holmes Castle Photo

HH Holmes' Murder Castle

Here are some of Holmes' victims, both known and assumed.

The Pitezel Family were the known victims of Holmes: Father Ben and his three children, daughters Alice and Nellie, and little son Howard.

The family was killed during the fall of 1894. Instead of using a cadaver, Holmes used former business partner Ben as part of his insurance fraud scheme. Holmes knocked Ben out and killed him by setting him on fire. 

On July 15, 1895 Alice and Nellie's bodies were found in a Toronto cellar. Later, authorities found teeth and pieces of bone among charred ruins that belonged to Howard in an Indianapolis cottage that Holmes had rented.

Of Holmes' assumed victims were: Julia and her daughter Pearl Connor (1891), Emeline Cigrand (1892) and sisters Minnie and Nannie Williams (1893). (Minnie had married Holmes, who swindled her out of her inheritance.)

The bodies of Julia, Emeline, and Minnie and Nannie were never found but rumor had it Holmes probably sold their cadavers to medical schools. He had consistently stated that Julia and Emeline died while undergoing illegal abortions. Julia was allegedly Holmes' lover and Emeline was Holmes' former secretary whom he later purportedly proposed to.

While searching Holmes' hotel, authorities recovered Minnie's watch chain and Nannie's garter buckle in one of the ovens. Although forensic evidence was rudimentary at the time, bones found in the basement most likely belonged to 12-year-old Pearl Connor, whom he allegedly poisoned. As for Emeline, the police believed they had come upon her hair and bones. One account claims that an eyewitness saw Holmes and his janitor haul out a big trunk the day after her disappearance.

Although there is a lengthy list of other potential victims Holmes may have murdered, these nine victims have been plausibly attributed to the serial killer's killing spree.

Just before his execution, Holmes was said to be pleasant and calm. The only request he had was for his body to be buried 10 feet deep into the ground with his casket encased in cement. (He didn't want grave robbers to dig his body up and use it for dissection.)

When Holmes was finally hung from the gallows, it was said his neck did not snap. Instead he died a slow death, his body twitching until he was finally pronounced dead 20 minutes later.