Who Was H.H. Holmes?
Herman Webster Mudgett, better known as H.H. Holmes, 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.
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.
In 1885, 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.
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.
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.
Estimates of the total number of people Holmes killed range from 20 to as many as 200 victims.
Holmes died on May 7, 1896, when he was hanged for the Pitezel murder. He was buried in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
'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 to the small screen, with Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio tapped to executive produce.
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