Herman Webster Mudgett (May 16, 1860 – May 7, 1896), better known under the alias of Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, was an American serial killer. Holmes trapped and murdered possibly hundreds of guests at his Chicago hotel, which he opened for the 1893 World's Fair. He confessed to 27 murders, although only nine have been confirmed.
The case was notorious in its time, and received wide publicity via a series of articles in William Randolph Hearst's newspapers. Interest in Holmes' crimes was revived in 2003 by Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, a best-selling non-fiction book that juxtaposed an account of the planning and staging of the World's Fair with Holmes' story. In 2004, filmmaker John Borowski released the first ever documentary film focusing on the entire life of the torture doctor, entitled H. H. Holmes: America's First Serial Killer and a book entitled The Strange Case of Dr. H.H. Holmes, which contains Holmes' Own Story and The Holmes-Pitezel Case, as well as other material dating from the period of the case. In addition, Mudgett's story has been told in a biography of his life by Harold Schechter entitled Depraved: The Definitive True Story of H.H. Holmes, Whose Grotesque Crimes Shattered Turn-of-the-Century Chicago.
Herman Mudgett graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School in 1884. While enrolled, he stole bodies from the school laboratory. Disfiguring the corpses and claiming that the unlucky souls had been accidentally killed, Mudgett collected insurance money from policies which he himself had taken out on each and every one. After graduating, he moved to Chicago to practice pharmacy. He also began to engage in a number of shady businesses, real estate, and promotional deals under the name "H. H. Holmes".
On July 8, 1878, Holmes married Clara A. Lovering of Alton, New Hampshire. On January 28, 1887, he married Myrta Z. Belknap in Minneapolis, Minnesota; he was still married to his first wife at the time, making Holmes a bigamist. He and Belknap had a daughter named Lucy. The family of three resided in the upscale Chicago suburb of Wilmette—although Holmes spent most of his time in the city tending to "business". He filed a petition for divorce from his first wife after marrying his second, but the divorce was never finalized. He married his third wife, Georgiana Yoke, on January 9, 1894. He also had a relationship with Julia Smythe, the wife of Ned Connor, a one time employee of his who later fled Chicago. Julia would become one of his victims.
Holmes was good looking, slight of build, and had an ingratiating charm that made him very much a "ladies' man".
Holmes opened it as a hotel for the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, using the rest of the structure as commercial space. The ground floor of the Castle contained, aside from Holmes' own relocated drugstore, various shops (one a jeweler, for example), while the upper two floors contained his personal office as well as a maze of over one hundred windowless rooms with doorways that would open to brick walls, oddly angled hallways, stairways to nowhere, doors that could only be opened from the outside, and a host of other strange and labyrinthine constructions.
Over a period of three years, Holmes selected 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 also be the beneficiary), lovers and hotel guests, and would torture and kill them. Some were locked in soundproof bedrooms fitted with gas lines that permitted him to asphyxiate them at any time. Some victims were locked in a huge bank vault near his office; he sat and listened as they screamed, panicked and eventually suffocated. Holmes had repeatedly changed builders during the initial construction of the Castle to ensure that only he fully understood the design of the house he had created, thereby decreasing the chances of any of them reporting it to the police. In addition, according to law at that time, by firing workers every two weeks, he didn't have to pay them. The victims' bodies went by a 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, allegedly in order to create a race of "giants". Through the connections he had gained in medical school, he was able to sell skeletons and organs with little difficulty. Holmes picked one of the most remote rooms in the Castle to perform hundreds of illegal abortions. Many of his "patients" died as a result of his abortion procedure, and their corpses were also processed and the skeletons sold.
Pitezel had agreed to fake his own death so that his wife could collect on the $10,000 policy, which she was to split with Holmes and a shady attorney. The scheme, which was to take place in Philadelphia, was that Pitezel should set himself up as an inventor, under the name B. F. Perry, and then be killed and disfigured in a lab explosion. Holmes was to find an appropriate cadaver to play the "role" of Pitezel. Holmes, however, then allegedly killed Pitezel (September 2, 1894), although some have argued that Pitezel, an alcoholic and chronic depressive, might in fact have committed suicide. Holmes proceeded to collect on the policy on the basis of the "genuine" Pitezel corpse. He then went on to manipulate Pitezel's wife into allowing three of her five children to stay in his custody. The eldest daughter and baby remained with Mrs. Pitezel. He traveled with the children through the northern United States and into Canada. Simultaneously he escorted Mrs. Pitezel along a parallel route, all the while using various aliases and lying to Mrs. Pitezel concerning her husband's death (claiming that Pitezel was in hiding in South America) as well as lying to her about the true whereabouts of her other children—they were often only separated by a few blocks. The three children were killed at various points during the course of this escapade, which ended when Holmes was finally arrested in Boston (November 17, 1894), after being tracked there from Philadelphia by the Pinkertons. He was held on an outstanding warrant for horse theft in Texas, as the authorities had little more than suspicions at this point and Holmes appeared poised to flee the country, in the company of his unsuspecting third wife.
After the custodian for the Castle informed police that he was never allowed to clean the upper floors, police began a thorough investigation over the course of the next month, uncovering Holmes' efficient methods of committing murders and then disposing of the corpses. A fire of mysterious origin consumed the building on August 19, 1895, and the site is currently occupied by a U.S. Post Office.
The number of his victims has typically been estimated between 20 to 100, and even as high as 230, based upon missing persons reports of the time as well as the testimony of Holmes' neighbors who reported seeing him accompany unidentified young women into his hotel—young women whom they never saw exit. The discrepancy in numbers can perhaps best be attributed to the fact that a great many people came to Chicago to see the World's Fair but, for one reason or another, never returned home. The only verified number is 27, although police had commented that some of the bodies in the basement were so badly dismembered and decomposed that it was difficult to tell how many bodies there actually were. Holmes' victims were primarily women, but included some men and children.
Holmes was put on trial for the murder of Pitezel, and confessed, following his conviction, to 27 murders in Chicago, Indianapolis and Toronto, and six attempted murders. It should be noted, however, that Holmes was paid $7,500 by the Hearst Papers in exchange for this confession. He gave various contradictory accounts of his life, initially claiming innocence, and later that he was possessed by Satan. His facility for lying has made it difficult, if not impossible, for researchers to ascertain any truth on the basis of his statements.
On May 7 1896, Holmes was hanged at the Philadelphia County Prison. Until the moment of his death, Holmes remained calm and amiable, showing very few signs of fear, anxiety or depression. According to the The New York Times coverage of the execution, Holmes' neck did not snap immediately; he instead died slowly, infrequently twitching over ten minutes before being pronounced dead fifteen minutes after the trap was sprung. He requested that he be buried in cement so that no one could ever dig him up and dissect his body, as he had dissected so many others. This request was granted.
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