H.H. Holmes was born Herman Webster Mudgett on May 16, 1861, in Gilmanton, New Hampshire. Sometimes referred as the “Beast of Chicago,” H.H. Holmes killed many of the city’s inhabitants in his specially constructed home, which was later nicknamed the “Murder Castle.” He has also been linked to deaths in other parts of the United States and Canada.
Holmes parents were Levi Horton Mudgett and Theodate Page Price, both of whom were descended from the first European settlers in the area. It has been said that he appeared 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 had a number of marriages and children. On July 4, 1878, Mudgett married Clara Lovering in Alton, New Hampshire; their son, Robert Lovering Mudgett, was born on February 3, 1880, in Loudon, New Hampshire.
On January 28, 1887, while he was still married to Clara, Holmes married Myrta Belknap in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He filed for divorce from Clara a few weeks after marrying Myrta, but the divorce was never finalized. Holmes had a daughter with Myrta, Lucy Theodate Holmes, who was born on July 4, 1889, in Englewood, Illinois. Holmes lived with Myrta and Lucy in Wilmette, Illinois, and spent most of his time in Chicago tending to business. Holmes married Georgiana Yoke on January 17, 1894, in Denver, Colorado, while still married to Clara and Myrta.He also had a relationship with Julia Smythe, the wife of one of his former employees. Julia would later become one of Holmes’s victims.
Holmes’s life of crime began with various frauds and scams. As a medical student at the University of Michigan, he stole corpses, which he used to make false insurance claims. Holmes may have used the bodies for experiments, as well.
Holmes arrived in Chicago in August 1886 and came across Dr. Holton’s drugstore at the northwest corner of S. Wallace Avenue and W. 63rd Street in the Englewood neighborhood. Holton gave Holmes a job, and he proved himself to be a hardworking employee. After the death of Holton’s husband, Holmes offered to buy the drugstore from Mrs.Holton, and she agreed.
Holmes purchased a lot across from the drugstore where he built his three-story, block-long “castle” as it was dubbed by those in the neighborhood. The address of the Castle was 601-603 W. 63rd St. It was called the World’s Fair Hotel and opened as a hostelry for the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, with part of the structure devoted to commercial space. The ground floor of the Castle contained Holmes’ own relocated drugstore and various shops, while the upper two floors contained his personal office and a maze of over 100 windowless rooms with doorways opening to brick walls, oddly-angled hallways, stairways to nowhere, doors openable only from the outside, and a host of other strange and labyrinthine constructions. Holmes repeatedly changed builders during the construction of the Castle, so only he fully understood the design of the house.
After the completion of the hotel, Holmes selected mostly female victims from among his employees (many of whom were required as a condition of employment to take out life insurance policies, for which Holmes would pay the premiums but was also the beneficiary), as well as his lovers and hotel guests, whom he would later kill. Some were locked in soundproof bedrooms fitted with gas lines that let him asphyxiate them at any time. Other victims were locked in a huge soundproof bank vault near his office, where they were left to suffocate. The victims’ bodies were dropped by secret chute to the basement, where some were meticulously dissected, stripped of flesh, crafted into skeleton models, and then sold to medical schools. Holmes also cremated some of the bodies or placed them in lime pits for destruction. Holmes had two giant furnaces as well as pits of acid, bottles of various poisons, and even a stretching rack. Through the connections he had gained in medical school, he sold skeletons and organs with little difficulty. During the period of building construction in 1889, Holmes met Benjamin Pitezel, a carpenter with a past of lawbreaking, whom Holmes exploited as a stooge for his criminal schemes. He decided to join forces with Benjamin Pitezel to collect $10,000 from a life insurance company. The two traveled around for a time committing other frauds.
In July 1894, Holmes was arrested and briefly incarcerated for the first time, for a horse swindle that ended in St. Louis. He was promptly bailed out, but while in jail, he struck up a conversation with a convicted train robber named Marion Hedgepet, who knew Holmes as H.M. Howard. Holmes offered to include Hedgepet in on the life insurance scheme with Pitezel. When Holmes failed to deliver Hedgepeth’s share of the deal, Hedgepeth tipped off the authorities.
While they eventually identified Howard as Holmes, the authorities did not catch on to Holmes soon enough to stop his final murders. He killed Pitezel and then convinced Pitezel’s widow that her husband was still alive. Becoming concerned that the five Pitezel children might expose him, he went away with three of the children, eventually killing them. At first, Holmes was charged with insurance fraud. He later stood trial for the murder of Benjamin Pitezel. During his time in custody, Holmes gave numerous stories to police, once admitting to killing 27 people. Estimates range from 20 to 100 victims, with some going as high as 200 victims. After his conviction, Holmes appealed his case, but lost. He met his end on May 7, 1896, when he was hanged for the Pitezel murder in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Some of the final words of H. H. Holmes:
“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. I was born with the “Evil One” standing as my sponsor beside the bed where I was ushered into the world, and he has been with me since.”
His life as one of America’s first serial killers has been the subject of many books and documentaries.