America’s First Serial Killer

H.H. Holmes

America's First Serial Killer

“I was born with the very devil in me. 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.”

– From the confession of H.H. Holmes


In 1893 Chicago held its annual Columbian Exposition (which is now called the World’s Fair) to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the North. Who could have known that at the same time that people were celebrating the life of a murderer, I mean Christopher Columbus, a new murderer was making a debut that would shake the world.

H.H. Holmes was born Herman Webster Mudgett on May 16th 1861, in Gilmanton, New Hampshire to Theodate Page Price and Levi Horton Mudgett. The Mudgett family was very wealthy and he was the third of four siblings. Other than that, not much else is known about his childhood. After graduating high school he attended the University of Michigan Medical School, where his life of morbid crime started. Like most serial killers, he didn’t jump straight to murder. In fact, his biggest concern was money. You see, Holmes was not only a prolific serial killer, but he was also a serial con artist. While attending medical school he committed insurance fraud by stealing cadavers from his school’s lab and mutilating them to the point of being unrecognizable so he could stage their bodies in accidents and collect the insurance money. He continued running various scams throughout the rest of his school career and life before arriving in Chicago in 1886. Here he changed his name to H. H. Holmes to avoid getting arrested for these scams. A year after his arrival in Chicago in 1887 he took over Englewood drugstore after the owners mysteriously vanished. He then hired a family from Iowa to work in the store for him (and took out insurance policies for them where he was the benefactor, of course) and got started on what would cement him into American true crime history: The Murder Castle.

Holmes’ most elaborate and infamous scam was a three-story hotel designed by Holmes himself. Despite looking like an average hotel from the outside with small shops on the first floor and lodgings on the second and third floor, the hotel was anything but average inside. Construction took almost two years (three times longer than planned) because Holmes kept hiring and firing construction workers so that no one could figure out the actual layout of the building. Construction was finished in 1892, an extremely lucky time. The World Fair was being held in Chicago and soon flocks of tourists descended on the city hoping to see the exhibition. Instead, some found their untimely demise at the hands of a master con artist. Holmes found this environment to be perfect for luring people, usually young women, into the hotel and killing them in various chambers throughout the hotel. The layout was designed to be purposefully confusing and various rooms were designed to kill their residents in specific ways. Most common was through gas that was pumped into the rooms and caused asphyxiation. If the guest didn’t die in one of the rooms they could always accidentally fall down a greased pipe into the hotel’s secret basement. Here they would find vats filled with acid, a dissecting table, and a contraption Holmes created called the elasticity determinator which he used to test how far human bodies could be stretched. Those that ended up in the basement would be experimented on until Holmes was satisfied. Then he would sell their organs and skeletons to medical schools. Despite the number of people who went missing after coming into contact with Holmes, he was not caught until much later.

The beginning of the end for Holmes started when he got arrested for stealing horses in Texas. While in jail, he created a plan with his cellmate Marion Hedgepath to take out a $10,000 insurance plan for himself and then fake his own death so that he could collect the money. However, this plan failed because the insurance company suspected foul play. Holmes was unwilling to give up on this plan, though, and turned to his friend and fellow con artist Benjamin Pitezel. They decided that Pitezel would instead fake his death and they would split the $10,000 afterward. However, this also didn’t go exactly as planned… for Pitezel. During their scheme Holmes murdered Pitezel by setting him on fire. He collected the money and then, paranoid that Pietzels wife was going to find out the truth, convinced her to leave her three kids in his care and then murdered them.

Everything was going smoothly until 1894 when his old cellmate Marion started the process that would lead to his arrest and eventual hanging by telling the police about his prison scam. The police arrested him for insurance fraud soon after. While he was arrested, police began to get suspicious of him because he was acting nervous and flighty, so they searched his hotel. There where they found his torture devices and several bodies that were in such bad shape they could not figure out how many there were. After finding this they expanded the investigation and found the bodies of the Pietzel children in Toronto which helped police definitively link Holmes to three murders. With this definitive evidence, they charged Holmes with murder. While awaiting trial he confessed to 28 other murders which could not be verified. Estimates for the actual amount of people killed by Holmes go as high as 200, however, police were only able to plausibly link 9 murders to Holmes. Holmes was hanged on May 7th, 1896 and buried in a concrete coffin ten feet underground (his request). As for his hotel, it was bought by a man named A.M. Clark and remodeled into a tourist attraction called Holmes Horror Castle. However, the attraction was never opened as the hotel burned to the ground in 1896 in a mysterious fire. In 1938, the place where Holmes had committed his most atrocious murders was turned into a US Post Office which remains there to this day. Almost all those who did business with Holmes died mysteriously over the course of the next few decades, closing the book on this mysterious and fascinating tale of murder and fraud.