H.H. Holmes: America’s First Serial Killer

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Podcast Transcript

In 1893, the eyes of the world turned to the city of Chicago, which was hosting the World’s Fair. The fair was the largest public demonstration at that point of the new technology called electricity. 

However, there was a dark side to what was happening in Chicago. 

One man created a building that has been dubbed a murder castle. Many of the people who entered his macabre structure never left alive. 

Learn more about HH Holmes, the man who is considered to be America’s first serial killer, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The man history knows as Dr. Henry Howard Holmes was born Herman Webster Mudgett on May 16, 1861, in the town of Gilmanton, New Hampshire. 

He was, by all accounts, an intelligent child who grew up in a highly troubled household. Both of his parents were very religious and strict Methodists. However, his father was also an alcoholic and very abusive.

Herman, however, was extremely bright and was able to attend the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. However, there, he was also bullied by his classmates, who often picked on him because of his intelligence. 

Later in life, he recounted one episode where there was a skeleton in one of the classrooms that he was terrified of. The boys in his class made him stand in front of the skeleton with the hands of the skeleton on his face. Initially terrified, he eventually said to have found it calming and later claimed that the incident began his fascination with death. 

Around this time, he also began dissecting animals, which psychologists now recognize as an early symptom of being a psychopath. 

He graduated high school with honors at the age of 16. At the age of 17, he married Clara Lovering, with whom he had one child, and attended the University of Vermont, which he dropped out of at the age of 18.

He worked for several years in New Hampshire as an apprentice to Dr. Nahum Wight, who was an advocate of human dissection.  

At the age of 21, he entered the University of Michigan Medical School and got a job at the anatomy lab. It was here where he began his career of engaging in extremely creepy and/or shady things. 

His supervisor at the anatomy department was Professor William James Herdman, and there were accusations that Herdman and Mudgett were robbing graves to supply the department with cadavers. 

He paid for his education through petty scams, usually involving defrauding life insurance companies with the cadavers he stole.  

While at the University of Michigan, he began being violent with his wife. She eventually left Michigan and returned to New Hampshire with their son, and she had little connection with him for the rest of his life. 

However, at no point did they ever legally get divorced. 

After he graduated from Michigan with his medical degree, he moved to the town of Moores, New York. He was seen in the company of a boy who soon disappeared. Rumors spread that Mudgett might have been involved in the boy’s disappearance. He claimed he went back to his home in Massachusetts and left town under a cloud of suspicion. No formal investigation ever took place.

He then moved to Philadelphia, where he worked odd jobs and engaged in more scams. One of his jobs included working in a pharmacy where a young boy died after taking a prescription purchased at the store.

In 1886, he again left the city under a cloud of suspicion and moved to Chicago. It was at this time he began going by the name Henry Howard Holmes so he could evade detection from his previous scams. The name was taken as a nod to the fictional character Sherlock Holmes.

After arriving in Chicago, he met and married 24-year-old Myrta Belknap. As he was still legally married to his previous wife, Clara, he was now guilty of bigamy, which, as it would turn out, was to be the least problematic of all the crimes he would be guilty of. 

He got a job working at a drugstore on the corner of South Wallace Avenue and West 63rd Street in the Englewood neighborhood of South Chicago, not far from Jackson Park.

By all accounts, he was a model employee.

He worked hard, saved his money, and eventually purchased the pharmacy. 

It was then, in 1887, he purchased a vacant lot across the street and had a two-story building constructed. The first story would be the location of his new pharmacy, and above would be apartments. 

He, of course, didn’t bother to pay several of his contractors and was taken to court. 

He opened a jewelry counter at his pharmacy and hired a man by the name of Ned Connor, a professional jeweler and watchmaker, to run it. Conner came with his wife Julia Smythe and their daughter Pearl.

Holmes began an affair with Julia that was discovered by Ned, which resulted in him leaving his wife and child. Both Julia and Pearl later disappeared on Christmas Eve 1891. 

That same year, Emily Van Tassel, who also worked in the drugstore, also disappeared. 

In 1892, Holmes built a third story onto his building. This third story was very strange, even to the workers who constructed it. More on that in a bit. 

Holmes claimed that the new level of the building was to serve as a hotel for visitors to the upcoming World’s Columbian Exposition, which was the world’s fair celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus discovering the New World.

In 1892, very fishy things began to happen. Emeline Cigrand began working for Holmes in May as a secretary and allegedly began an affair with him. She disappeared in December.

A stenographer, Holmes hired by the name of Kitty Kelly, also disappeared in 1892. 

In 1893, an actress named “Minnie” Williams moved to Chicago and met Holmes. He managed to defraud her of property she owned in Texas. Her sister “Nannie” Williams, came to visit in July, and both of them were never seen again. 

During this time, he was continually conducting scams. He tried to burn down his building to collect insurance money, but the insurance company found it to be arson, so they never paid out.

In January 1894, he met and married Georgiana Yoke in Denver, Colorado, while still legally married to his other two wives. 

That same year, he met up with a former criminal named Benjamin Pitezel, whom he used as an accomplice in many of his scams. 

He ran several schemes with Pitezel, and in 1894, the two decided to defraud a life insurance company by faking Pitezel’s death. However, Holmes needed to produce a body for the insurance company. He realized that the best body would be that of Pitezel himself. On September 4, 1894, he knocked out Pitezel with chloroform and lit him on fire while still alive. 

He then convinced Pitzezel’s wife that Benjamin was still alive and in London. Holmes convinced her to sign over custody of their three children to himself and then took the children, Pitezel’s wife and his third wife, on a trip to the Eastern United States. Holmes said he was going to take her to meet her husband.

In reality, investigators were on his trail for some schemes he perpetrated in Texas. 

Eventually, he abandoned Pitezel’s wife and continued with their three children. All three children eventually disappeared.

Holmes’s luck eventually ran out when he was apprehended in Boston, visiting his parents on November 17, 1894. Pinkerton agents, hired by an insurance company he defrauded, were surveilling the home.

Despite all of the missing people whom Holmes was associated with, the only one that he was initially accused of killing was Benjamin Pitezel and his children. 

However, they had no evidence. A Philadelphia police officer named Frank Geyer was put on the case. He retraced Holmes’s steps and in July of 1895, the bodies of the two Pitezel girls were found buried in the cellar of a house in Toronto.

The jawbone of the young Pitezel boy was later found in a house where Holmes stayed in Indianapolis. 

An analysis of Benjamin Pitezel’s body and the appearance of rigor mortis didn’t fit Holmes’s alibi, and after that, the gig was up. 

Once news of the discovery of the bodies found in Toronto hit the press, the Chicago authorities and media began to focus on the building he owned, in particular the odd third floor. 

This was the height of yellow journalism, and reporting on Holmes became a sensation. 

The building was dubbed a Murder Castle. There were reports of asphyxiation rooms in the building. Rooms that had asbestos walls and flame throwers. They claimed that there was a chute that went from the third floor to the basement, where there was an exam table and an incinerator to burn bodies. 

Newspapers began reporting that HH Holmes had murdered as many as 200 people. 

Here, I need to take a break from the story. Over a year ago, I had planned to do an episode on HH Holmes, and in one of the only times ever, I abandoned the episode in the middle of researching it. 

The first time I heard the story, I heard what had been passed down from the original 1890s news reports. That is the most common version of the story. The story of the murder castle and the torture rooms. 

Getting to the truth of the matter is difficult because almost every source I had read had a different take on the story. 

As far as I can tell, most of the stories about the murder castle were fabricated. The third floor of his building was oddly designed, and there were hidden rooms, but they were mostly used to hide furniture that Holmes owed money to creditors. 

There were some objects found in the building that were tied to some of the victims, but nothing on the scale that the newspapers claimed.

In October 1895, HH Holmes was found guilty of the murder of Benjamin Pitezel and sentenced to death. 

After his sentence, he confessed to the murders of 27 people in exchange for a payment of $7,500 from William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers.

But there was a problem with his story. Several of the murders he confessed to he undoubtedly committed. However, several of the people he claimed to have killed were later found to be alive. 

Most of the murders, he claimed, were not done with some elaborate torture room but via asphyxiation with chloroform. 

On August 19, 1895, two men were seen entering the so-called murder castle, and minutes later, there were several explosions, and the upper floor was on fire. 

The fire was put out, and the building survived, remaining in active use until 1938.

On May 7, 1896, Herman Webster Mudgett, aka Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, was executed by hanging. He did not die instantly. Rather it took him 15 minutes to be strangled to death. 

His last request was for his coffin to be covered in concrete and buried extra deep so grave robbers wouldn’t take his corpse…because that is exactly what he would have done. 

After his death, rumors persisted that Holmes had managed to escape the executioner. In 2017, his body was exhumed, and it was verified to have been him via dental records. 

There is an enormous amount of misinformation about the case of HH Holmes due to the sensational coverage of him at the time. There are nine murders that can be definitely tied to Holmes.  It is entirely possible if not probable, that many of the disappearances in Chicago around the time of the World’s Fair were due to Holmes as well.

The actual number of murders committed by Holmes will probably never be known.  However, the actual number doesn’t matter as HH Holmes was certain one of the most vile criminals of the 19th century. 

As he told the police during his confession, “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.”

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Peter Bennett and Cameron Kieffer.

Today’s review comes from listener Chas Cosgrave over on Castbox. They write:

The perfect podcast! I left 5-star reviews on Apple, Spotify, and Amazon just to show how much my kids and I enjoy our daily dose of learning from you! Our first review comes today when we have finally listened to every episode. Greetings from Zanesville, Ohio. Oh, and my daughter has a request: she would love to hear you say the words, “I actually love candy corn.” Thank you, Gary!

Thanks, Chas! First, let me congratulate you on joining the completionist club. Second, this is a good lesson for your daughter. Just because I read the words in a review doesn’t make them true. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.