Supposedly, the devil is beautiful. It makes sense, doesn’t it? If he has the power to make men do his bidding and the ability to make women weak with his touch, chances are that he’d be pleasant to look at. That’s why it should come as no surprise that Herman Webster Mudgett was a blonde haired blue-eyed beauty, who also just happened to be one of the most dangerous men who ever lived. In his day, he may have convinced men and women alike that he was merely a good-hearted practicing physician, but the truth is, behind the closed doors of his infamous murder castle, he was secretly racking up a body count, and would soon be known for the heathen that he was: notorious serial killer H. H. Holmes.
Strict rules were set in place regarding courtship during the late 1800s, but Holmes broke them all, and the ladies loved him for it. He’d touch them too much and too often in public, and stare into their eyes with his steely baby blues, and invite them to come live with him in his castle without first asking for their hand in marriage. One by one, young beautiful women would follow Holmes into his intricately built labyrinth on 63rd and Wallace in Englewood, during the height of the World’s Fair, and one by one, they’d vanish without a trace. Eventually their parents and loved ones would come knocking, looking for their disappeared companion, but Holmes dealt with them the same way he dealt with creditors who occasionally stopped by looking for payment. He’d just turn on the charm and quick-wittedness that he used to woo women in the first place, bring out the drinks and the cigars, and by the end of the evening, he’d send them on their way, smiling, feeling hopeful and assured that he truly was doing everything in his power to help them.
On the outside, he was a charming, well-spoken, and properly put together suit-and-tie businessman who made his living as a pharmacist and a landlord. However, on the inside, H. H. Holmes a.k.a. Harry Gordon a.k.a. Alexander E. Cook, A.C. Hayes, G.D. Hale, Henry Mansfield Howard, etc., etc., delighted most in listening to the muffled cries of his victims as he slowly suffocated them to death in their gas-filled sleeping quarters.
What caused this seemingly normal man from Gilmanton, New Hampshire to suddenly snap and leave corpses in his wake? What could drive a man to commit such heinous crimes? Some people say it was his strictly religious, abusive childhood. Others point to a traumatic event that occurred early in Holmes’ life, when two bullies at his local academy yanked him into a doctor’s office and forced him to come face to face with a grim grinning skeleton. See, back then, skeletons in doctors’ offices weren’t made of plastic, but rather were removed from real dead bodies, bleached, and mounted accordingly. To consider this idea today is no doubt terrifying for the average person, let alone a little boy, and it’s true that the event might have frightened Holmes. However, it’s much more likely that he was fascinated by what he saw, or that it even awoke an interest within himself that he did not yet know existed. After all, as Holmes himself wrote in his confession in 1896, “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”.
In 1886 Herman Webster Mudgett moved to Englewood Chicago and changed his name to Dr. H. H. Holmes, before quickly attaining a job at Holton Drugs on the corner of Wallace and Sixty-third. Eventually, Holmes acquired the entire store, as the previous owners suddenly went away. Mr. Holton mysteriously passed away, supposedly due to natural causes, and Mrs. Holton disappeared – or, as Holmes began to tell the myriad customers in the shop that he now owned, inquiring of her whereabouts, she moved to California indefinitely, because she liked it so much.
In 1888 Holmes secured the rights to the vacant lot property across the street, and began building his castle of horrors. During construction, Holmes experienced a high turnover rate of workers. Holmes fired his men quickly and often for two main reasons: 1) Holmes found that he could skip out on paying men by labeling their work as incompetent, and 2) only he truly knew the entire blueprint of his wildly complicated hotel of death. The first floor housed many normal shops, including a restaurant, a barber, and a glass company, and the third was relatively normal as well, but the second story was meant to confuse and entrap its patrons, as it housed thirty-five separate rooms, including many doors and stairways that led to nowhere. Hidden in the walls was a greased chute that Holmes used to quickly dispose of bodies by sending them straight down into the basement below. The basement itself was possibly the most petrifying part of the whole place, as it resembled a lair Edgar Allan Poe would dream up – a man from whom Holmes took much inspiration. Like a medieval torture dungeon, it contained quicklime pits, vats of acid, a crematorium, and an “elasticity determinator”, a.k.a. a torture device that stretched out peoples’ bodies by elongating their limbs until their bones turned to brittle.
1893 marked an exciting time as the iconic World’s Fair in Chicago became open to the public. Holmes was giddy as well, but obviously for much darker, more devious reasons. As the streets near his castle flooded with people, he opened his hotel to visitors of the Fair, and filled his rooms with a plethora of people – mainly women – who never would’ve dreamed when they checked in, that they might never check out.
The actual amount of people Holmes killed has been disputed for dozens of years by historians and intrigued readers alike, but there is irrefutable proof that he murdered Julia and Pearl Conner, Emeline Cigrand, the Williams’ sisters, and Bejnjamin Pitezel along with his three children, Alice, Nellie, and Howard. Each time a person vanished from his hotel, a hospital nearby would suddenly acquire a fresh new cadaver in the weeks that followed. Back then, doctors paid top dollar for a fresh corpse. In desperate need for their bodies for their students for educational purposes, it wasn’t entirely uncommon for them to resort to robbing graveyards for their material, but it was much easier for them to pay someone for a body, and simply not ask where it came from. Holmes took full advantage of this demand, and made a killing offering up the supply.
Out of all of his victims, perhaps the ghastliest murders of all were the killing of the Pitezel family members. Mr. Pitezel came to work for Holmes doing construction on his castle in 1889, but with his criminal background, he soon proved useful in other areas as well. Holmes was big on insuring newfound friends with life insurance policies, convincing them to sign over the deeds to him, murdering them, and then collecting on their policies. He would do this by assuring the patron involved that they would enter into this venture together. First, as he told them, they would scam the insurance company by taking out a life policy, then he would provide an unidentifiable corpse which could be claimed as said person, then the person would go into hiding, Holmes would collect the money, meet up with them, and they would split the profits and stay underground until it was safe to emerge. However, when it came time to put the plan into motion, Holmes would forgo the fake corpse and simply kill the poor soul who agreed to go along with his idea, and then keep all of the money for himself. Such was the case with Benjamin Pitezel.
Mr. Pitezel’s wife Carrie wasn’t a fan of the plan, but after talking with her husband at length, she finally agreed to see it through. Believing the plan was still on and her husband was in hiding, when Holmes came to her after he killed her Mr. Pitezel, and asked to take her three children with him to meet Benjamin, she obliged. At that point, Holmes took Alice, Nellie and Howard on a sad and twisted journey from which they would never return – that is, until Detective Frank Geyer later tracked down and discovered their bones hidden within the earth. Geyer was made a national hero by the press, but found little joy in his fame since he was unable to return the children to their mother alive.
Supposedly, every killer has a motive, but if that is the case, what was it for Holmes? Why did he bother to work out such intricate plans? Apparently, when he took the Pitezel kids on their journey away from home, he traveled through Cincinnati to Indianapolis, and on to Detroit before he finally ended their lives. He even bought them little crystal pens and took them to the zoo and fed them lemon cake. So why bother? Why toy with his victims before killing them? As best as Detective Geyer could understand it, Holmes was simply having fun. He reveled in his power, in his ability to play god, to possess people like they were pawns, and dispose of them when he grew bored. He found the chase thrilling, and just wanted to see how far his charm and ego could take him. It was all a game to him, and he always won.
As for how he got away with it for so long, that’s much easier to comprehend. In the midst of the chaos of the World’s Fair, policemen had a hard enough time dealing with the massive crowds and the petty swindlers and the large influx of famous and wealthy people appearing in the city. Besides, this was Chicago, and people went missing all the time, usually to no avail. Also, even if they had started to notice a pattern, it’s unlikely that they would know how to handle it, given that there had never been record of a man like Holmes in America before.
It also helped that Holmes was very selective about whom he chose to pursue. It wasn’t just that he targeted young women, but women who were transients – new to the big dangerous city, and fresh off the train to Chicago from some dusty old town. Sweet little girls with big dreams and doe-eyed faces that resembled a deer caught in the headlights. Easy prey. Easily forgotten.
When he was finally arrested and found guilty, Holmes confessed to killing twenty-seven people. Nine can be confirmed for sure, and the rest are speculation. Herman Webster Mudgett, a.k.a. H. H. Holmes, was hanged for the murder of Benjamin Pitezel on May 7th, 1896. Unfortunately, he was not found guilty for any other murders, as the judge would only allow evidence to be brought forth that had to do directly with Pitezel’s death.
It’s curious that people find the man who ended so many lives so terribly interesting. Maybe the reason people have fawned over every testimony, every diary entry, and every inch of Holmes’ confession is because understanding this man is possibly the closest we’ll ever get to understanding the devil himself. One thing’s for sure, the memory of this madman is forever ingrained in history as the man who went down as America’s first serial killer.