10 Facts About HH Holmes, America’s First Serial Killer

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In philosophy, determinists believe that free will is an illusion and that, therefore, human beings can’t be held morally responsible for their actions. As a result of nature and nurture, man’s actions are inevitable. Although he was unable to articulate determinists’ philosophy, HH Holmes believed that he was born to kill. He believed that he had no control over his actions whatsoever, and therefore would not even apologize for the lives that he claimed.

Considered by most to be the first American serial killer, Holmes lived a life that few can come to terms with. A charming, intelligent man who built a mansion for the sole purpose of murder. What could lead a man to carry out such evil? While the answer is anyone’s guess, here are 10 facts about HH Holmes that show he was born to kill.   

10. Nature or Nurture?

HH Holmes was born Herman Webster Mudgett in 1861 to a wealthy and respected family in New Hampshire. Holmes was the third of four children, born to Levi Horton Mudgett and Theodate Page Price. Both of his parents were strict Methodists who used cruel methods of discipline on their children. Holmes’s mother was distant and cold, while his father used food deprivation and isolation as punishment for misdeeds. In one traumatizing incident, Levi Mudget was said to hold kerosene soaked rags over Holmes and the other children’s mouths to “quiet them” when they cried. Fearing his father, Holmes would take refuge in the woods and began dissecting animals, both dead and alive.

Unfortunately for Holmes, school did not prove to be an escape. As an intelligent student, Holmes was bullied constantly. In one instance he was pushed into a doctor’s office, where his classmates placed the hands of a skeleton on his face. While we’ll never know if Holmes actually faced the abuse that many allege, his life of crime started in his youth.

9. Crime started at early age

At the age of 18, Holmes enrolled in the University of Vermont but quickly became dissatisfied and left after just one year. Despite already having a wife and child, Holmes decided to enroll in the University of Michigan’s school of Medicine and Surgery. Holmes later admitted to committing insurance fraud there, and that crime would foreshadow his future misdeeds. While enrolled, Holmes stole several cadavers from the medical lab, disfigured them, and collected the insurance on the “dead persons,” saying they died in an accident.

His behavior would also send his wife and child back to New Hampshire, as Holmes was witnessed violently accosting his wife. Holmes himself would leave Michigan for New York, where he’d continue his criminal behavior. A young boy who was last seen with Holmes disappeared and after moving to Philadelphia, he was a suspect after a boy died after receiving medicine from the drug store where Holmes was employed.

Over the years, he perfected these insurance scams, and supposedly became the beneficiary on the policies of several women who worked for him, many of whom mysteriously died shortly after.

8. Acquisition of Murder Castle

There are two different and distinct theories of Holmes’s acquisition of the drugstore of the drugstore on the southwest corner of South Wallace Avenue and West 63rd Street in Englewood. The first (and scandalous) version is that Holmes was given a job at the drugstore by a widow who soon after disappeared herself. Holmes claimed that she had moved to California, but no one was able to verify the claim.

It’s also been reported that any suggestion that Holmes murdered the drugstore owner is pure fiction, and that he purchased the store and the neighboring lot, leaving the former owners alive and well. Either way, Holmes was able to gain ownership of a piece of land that would begin his devilish plot.

7. Construction of the Castle

In 1887, Holmes took over management of an Englewood drugstore and subsequently began designing a new building to occupy the former drugstore and newly acquired lot. Based on Holmes’s own designs, workers began construction on the three-story building, and what would later become known as the “Murder Castle.”

According to those who worked on the project, construction should have only taken six months, but instead the monstrosity was finally finished after 18 months. This was no accident. Holmes would constantly hire and fire workers so no one knew the exact designs of the building. Despite the large building gaining the attention of pedestrians and police alike, Holmes was able to charm the authorities, and the details of his house of horror were never revealed.  

6. The Murder Castle

It’s not hard to guess why Holmes wanted the details of his building to remain a secret. He’d created a vast array of traps, dead ends, and secret passageways that only he had full knowledge of. The building itself was threatening with false battlements and wooden bay windows that were covered in sheet iron.  Holmes’s castle had a cellar along with three floors, and he made sure to allow the first floor to be open to the public. His building was very popular, with thousands of people passing through the street-level shops. Holmes leased some of the shops to local businessmen and operated some himself. But no one, of course, knew of the castle’s true purpose.

In 1892, with the World’s Fair (commemorating Columbus’s discovery) upcoming, Holmes announced that he would rent out rooms to tourists. The rooms looked more than passable on first glance; they were well furnished and plain. However, soon the guests began to realize the rooms were a bit odd. Each room was scattered in “oddly angled, narrow corridors with poor lighting from widely spaced gas jets on the walls.” Guests found themselves walking down dead ends and stairways that led nowhere. Other guests tried opening doors that were locked. One of the locked rooms was particularly nefarious: it contained a walk-in bank vault that had been modified to include a gas pipe. Holmes was the only one who could control that particular gas flow, “via a panel hidden in his bedroom closet.”

If the third floor seemed confusing, the second floor will leave you spinning. Overall, the second floor had 51 doors, six hallways, and 35 rooms. Most rooms were regular bedchambers, but others were suffocatingly small with asbestos-coated steel plates. Guests complained about low ceilings, others of rooms that were no bigger than closets. Little did the guests know that all the rooms were rigged with gas pipes. What were they connected to? The same control panel that was hidden in Holmes’s bedroom closet.

We’ve shared the most frightening details for last. Exit doors were fitted with alarms that sounded if a guest tried to escape. Holmes also installed trap doors, secret passageways, hidden closets, and a greased shaft door that led directly to the cellar. All of these were used to kidnap his guests and allow for discreet transportation to the lower levels.

The cellar looked and must have felt, for its victims, like dungeon. Its walls were lined with brick, and Holmes stored an acid tank, a quicklime vat, and a dissecting table on the basement floor. Holmes also had a device of his own invention in his cellar named the “elasticity determinator.” Police later compared it a medieval torture rack, which you probably could have guessed given its name.

5. Luring his Guests/Victims

It’s difficult to say exactly how many victims Holmes lured to his Murder Castle. He confessed to 27 murders but many have stated that number is closer to 200. Holmes used two methods to trick guests into entering his castle. He advertised heavily, portraying his accommodations as the best available for tourists looking to visit the World’s Fair. The other method saw him target young women, placing classified ads in small town newspapers offering jobs, and himself for marriage. Both methods saw horribly successful results.

Holmes was able to lure Emeline Cigrand to his business by promising her a job as his personal secretary. Cigrand was an intelligent young woman from Indiana who not only worked for Holmes but would go on to accept his marriage proposal. Soon after their marriage, Cigrand disappeared. Holmes was able to use his charm to ward off any inquiries, claiming that she had run off with another man.

Soon after her “disappearance,” Holmes asked two male guests of the hotel to help him carry a heavy trunk to the cellar. Investigators later learned that Holmes would sell a fully articulated female skeleton to a nearby medical school during that same stretch of a time. After learning this information, police pressed Holmes on Cigrand’s true whereabouts and he finally admitted to raping, then killing her. Holmes did not just target women, or unsuspecting guests; he also killed children. Pearl Conner, who was just 12, was visiting the area and killed along with her mother. Conner was chloroformed and suffocated in her bed. Police later found remnants of her bones in Holmes’s cellar.

4. Holmes’s Arrest

Holmes was not initially arrested for any of his heinous crimes. It was actually an arrest for insurance fraud in 1894 that led to the discovery of his more disturbing crimes. After the third floor of the “castle” had gone up in flames, Holmes left Chicago for Fort Worth, Texas. He had taken out policies on the building which forced insurance companies to investigate the claim for arson. The investigation eventually unraveled the truth behind the Murder Castle.

The investigation into Holmes may never even have begun without the testimony of a felon. After being arrested the first time, for a blue collar crime, Holmes struck up a conversation with an outlaw, telling him of his plan to fake his own death to collect the insurance payment. Holmes promised Marion Hedgepeth, who was serving a 25 year sentence, a $500 commission if he could recommend Holmes a trustworthy lawyer. Hedgerow told the authorities, who were then on Holmes’s trail. Holmes tried to collect the insurance claim on his own ‘death’, but he failed. He decided to then carry out the same scheme with his friend and accomplice from Chicago: Benjamin Pitezel.

Unfortunately for Pitezel, Holmes did not know the meaning of friendship, and murdered him after taking out insurance on his life. Holmes staged Pitezel’s death to make it seem like a lab explosion, burning the man’s body. Stunningly, Holmes was able to convince Pitezel’s wife that her husband was still alive and in hiding in London. For some odd reason, Holmes was able to convince Mrs. Pitezel to give him custody of three of her children. Before eventually arresting him, investigator Frank P. Geyer found the bodies of two of Pitezel’s children in a cellar of a rental house.  

Holmes was finally arrested in Boston on November 17, 1894.

3. Confession

Holmes didn’t beg for forgiveness, and he did not ask for mercy for his sins. In his remarkable confession, Holmes proclaimed, “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.” All the way up to his death, Holmes remained charming and unrepentant. Even a meeting with two Catholic priests could not soften his heart. He refused to ask for forgiveness. Holmes died on May 7, 1896, nine days before his 35th birthday. He was executed by hanging at Moyamensing Prison in Philadelphia. It was reported that Holmes’s neck did not break quickly on the gallows, and that he stayed alive for nearly 20 minutes before finally suffocating.

As if the Murder Castle knew of its master’s death, it came to an abrupt and violent end as well. After being purchased by AM Clark, who hoped to use the publicity to reopen it as a tourist attraction, the castle went up in flames. A railroad watchman spotted flames coming through the roof and seconds later explosions blew out the first floor windows. By the time the fire department arrived, the fire was out of control and the roof had collapsed.

2. Possible Escape

Although HH Holmes’s death at the gallows was witnessed by many observers, some have argued that the serial killer managed to escape. The rumor that began after Holmes’s death was that he bribed police officers and a cadaver was put in his place. Jeff Mudgett believes that the rumors are true, and has argued that his great-great-grandfather did not die in Philadelphia, but escaped and fled to London. Mudgett believes this his relative continued his murderous path in London – this time, under a different name: Jack the Ripper.

His strong convictions led to a judge agreeing to a request to exhume the grave, where Mudgett learned that… his great-great-grandfather was not Jack the Ripper and died on May 7, 1896, as reported.

1. Devil in the White City

More than a century after his death, the life of HH Holmes has continued to marvel modern day audiences (if you’re a fan of the show Supernatural, you may recall an early episode centered on Holmes and his Murder Castle). Bestselling author Erik Larson penned a novelistic style account of the life of the first American serial killer, which has fallen into the hands of the biggest of film stars.

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Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company has secured the rights to the book, and have brought on Martin Scorsese as the director. DiCaprio, of course, is presumably set to star as the madman himself. It seems as though Holmes may have not needed ask for forgiveness. It turn out the wicked may, in fact, live again.


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