H.H. Holmes: The Master Of Murder
WORLD HISTORY | March 11, 2019
Two portraits (one a profile) of American pharmacist and convicted serial killer Herman Webster Mudgett (better known by his alias H.H. Holmes, 1861 - 1896), mid to late 1890s. Source: (gettyimages.com)
Who Was He?
H.H. Holmes was born in 1861 with the name of Herman Webster Mudgett. He was from New Hampshire. Even as a child he had a fascination with death. He was always interested in skeletons and animals that had died. He also got into a fair amount of trouble, which caused his father a headache, as he was well known as the town postmaster. Holmes was very smart and did well in school. He graduated when he was sixteen and at this point changed his name to Henry Howard Holmes. He studied medicine at a smaller institution in Vermont before being accepted into the University of Michigan Medical School. Holmes was a scammer. While in medical school, he stole cadavers and burned them. He would place the bodies in places so it would look as though they had been killed. The scam came in because he would take out life insurance policies on these people then collect once the bodies were discovered.
Holmes bought the empty lot across the street from the pharmacy. He designed a three-story hotel, called the ‘Castle’. While it was being built, he fired several construction crews so no one would know that he was really building a murder castle. Construction was completed in 1891. He put want ads in the newspapers looking to ‘hire’ young women to work in the hotel. He also advertised the hotel as open for lodging. He even placed personal ads saying he was a rich man looking for a wife. He required all of his employees to have life insurance but he did not stop there. He also required hotel guests, his many fiancés, and wives to have policies as well. Holmes would pay the premiums as long as he was listed as the beneficiary. Most of these people would suddenly disappear. Neighbors started to report that they saw many women enter the hotel but never see them leave. In 1893, Chicago hosted the World’s Fair, which Holmes saw as a great opportunity. He lured many women to his hotel, none would ever be seen again.
From the outside, the ‘Castle’ looked like any other building. It had stores on the first level and what appeared to be living quarters on the two floors above. It actually contained over one-hundred rooms. Some of the rooms were soundproof and had gas lines leading to them so Holmes could asphyxiate his victims. Throughout the whole place, there were peepholes, trap doors, stairways that went nowhere, and chutes to the basement. The basement was his lab. It contained a dissecting table, stretching rack, and a crematory. He would send the bodies down the chute and do what he wanted. Sometimes he would dissect them, strip them of all their flesh and sell them to medical schools as skeleton models. If he didn’t want to go to that trouble, he would cremate them or put the bodies into pits of acid. No one knows exactly how many people became his victim during this time. It is estimated that just during the World’s Fair time, over fifty could be connected to his hotel.
Holmes met Minnie Williams in 1893. She had inherited a fortune in Texas land. She was quite a simple and naive woman and it did not take long for Holmes to persuade her to marry him. Soon she was signing over her property to him. As he got to know Minnie better, he learned that she had a sister who also had a large fortune. He convinced Minnie to invite her sister, Nannie, for a visit. Nannie left her home to travel to Chicago. Holmes went alone to pick her up from the train station. He was able to seduce Nannie quickly and got her to sign over her wealth to him and he promptly killed her. He wrote a letter to Minnie to make her think that Nannie had decided not to come visit. A few months later, Holmes took Minnie to Momence, Illinois where he killed her and buried her body in a basement. Once she was dead, he looked through her belongings and discovered that her brother had taken out life insurance and Minnie was the beneficiary. He was so greedy that he traveled all the way out to Colorado to kill her brother. After shooting him, Holmes forged Minnie’s signature and collected the life insurance.
The Scams Continue
Along with the diabolical murders, Holmes was the consummate scam artist. He had taken out several fire insurance policies on his building. A fire destroyed the third level but the rest of the building was left intact, so the insurance company would not pay. Ben Pitezel was an employee of Holmes and had been a partner of a few of his scams. He convinced Pitezel to take part in another insurance scam. Holmes would take out a policy on Pitezel with Pitezel’s wife as the beneficiary. The plan was to fake Pitezel’s death to collect and then split the money. Holmes was able to obtain an insurance policy from an out of state company, as the local insurance companies were quite suspicious of him. While waiting to finish this scam, the two men decided to go to Texas to sell off the land he got from Millie. While there, they stole horses from some ranchers. The authorities caught up to Holmes in St. Louis. He went to jail for a short period of time before posting bail. While in jail he met outlaw Marion Hedgepath. They concocted a plan for Holmes to fake his own death and collect insurance money. This did not work so he went back to trying to collect the insurance money for the faked death of Ben Pitezel. Holmes ended up double-crossing everyone. He actually killed Pitezel and only gave $500 to Pitezel’s wife. He never did pay Marion Hedgepath, which ended up being his final downfall.
The End Of The Road For Holmes
Hedgepath did not take kindly to being double-crossed by Holmes. He decided to contact the local police and give them information about Holmes’s scam. Holmes was on the run with Pitezel’s wife Carrie and her children. Carrie was unaware that Holmes had killed her husband. Holmes convinced her to go to Philadelphia and leave her children with him. He went to Canada with the children. Philadelphia detective, Frank Geyer was on Holmes’s trail. He found the bodies of two of the children buried in the basement of a house Holmes had rented. They found the remains of the youngest boy cut up in pieces and stuffed in a stove in a house in Indiana. The Fidelity Mutual Insurance Company hired private investigators to trail Holmes. His luck ran out in November of 1894, where he was captured at his parent’s house in Boston. When investigators searched the ‘Castle’ in Chicago, they discovered the remains of his house of horrors. Holmes confessed to twenty-seven murders, though it is thought that number is really in the hundreds. He received the death penalty and was hung on May 7, 1896.
Tags: H.H. Holmes, 1800s, murderer, seducer
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