H. H. Holmes: Gilded Age Con Man & Serial Killer (1861 – 1896)

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H. H. Holmes: Gilded Age Con Man & Serial Killer (1861 – 1896)

H.H. Holmes is considered by many to be the first documented serial killer in the United States. He built a convoluted hotel / rooming house / office building in Chicago just before the beginning of the 1893 World’s Fair. Some of the rooms were designed to be airtight and sound-proof gas chambers. He hired and fired several different contractors to complete the building. One benefit to this behavior was that he was able to avoid paying laborers and contractors by claiming that a firing was due to improperly done work. Perhaps more importantly, for Holmes’ purposes, no one other than Holmes himself really understood the design and layout of what eventually became known as the Murder Castle or Murder Hotel.

Holmes killed for two distinct reasons. He is most well-known for the murders of women in his hotel. At least some of those murders seem to have been committed simply to entertain Holmes. He also killed for practical and financial reasons. Holmes was a criminal in many ways. He ran various cons, including stealing bodies from graves, then cleaning and selling the skeletons, as well as insurance fraud schemes which sometimes led to murder. He was also a bigamist that was married to at least three women. Interestingly, he never killed any of the women he married. (Though he did kill a mistress.) He is known to have fathered one child.

Some theorists believe that H.H.Holmes was responsible for at least one of the Jack the Ripper murders in Whitechapel, London. Though Holmes and Jack the Ripper were contemporaries, there is no evidence that Holmes ever traveled to England. (It is possible, however.) What little evidence there is, in support of this theory, lies in a similarity of handwriting between letters written by Holmes and those sent to various news outlets from people claiming to be Jack.

I am disinclined to believe that a an organized, hands-off, voyeuristic  murderer like Holmes would change his signature drastically enough to commit any of the savage, up-close and intimate murders attributed to Jack.

Dr. Henry Howard Holmes (Herman Webster Mudgett)

MISCELLANEOUS FACTS:

AKA:
Herman Webster Mudgett; Dr. Henry Howard Holmes

Active years:
1888 – 1894
Most murders took place during the 1893 World’s Fair.

Location:
Chicago, IL, USA
In a hotel he built especially to house the fair goers.

Number of murders:
Holmes confessed to 27. Nine were confirmed. Some estimates credit him with up to 200 murders.

Typical victim:
Type A – people, usually women, taken specifically for the purpose of terrifying, torturing and killing within the walls of his “murder hotel.”
Type B – people, male or female, adults or child, whose death / disappearance benefited Holmes as he played out his financially motivated con games.

Trial:
Convicted of 4 counts of 1st degree murder & 6 counts of attempted murder.

Ultimate fate:
Executed by hanging on May 7th, 1896 at the age of 34.

Burial:
Holmes was buried in an unmarked grave. His coffin was encased in a concrete vault to deter grave robbing and / or vandalizing.

Grave site:
(Info obtained from findagrave.com)
Holy Cross Cemetery
Yeadon
Delaware County
Pennsylvania, USA
Plot: Sec. 15, Range 10, Lot 41, graves 3 & 4
GPS (lat/lon): 39.92854, -75.25771

H.H. HOLMES IN THE MEDIA:

Books:
  • The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson (at GoodReads)
  • A Competent Witness by Judith Nickels (at GoodReads) – See comment to this post by the author of this novel.
  • The Torture Doctor by David Franke (at GoodReads)
  • Depraved: The Shocking True Story of America’s First Serial Killer by Harold Schechter (at GoodReads)
  • Confessions of the Serial Killer H.H. Holmes by Mudgett (aka H.H. Holmes), Herman Webster (at GoodReads)
  • Bloodstains by Jeff Mudgett (at GoodReads) – NOTE: This a controversial account of Holmes’ crimes and the legacy of them, written by his great-great grandson. It’s unclear from the description and reviews if it’s intended to be fiction, based-on-true, or biographical (and autobiographical.)
Movies:
  • Rumor has it that Leonardo Di Caprio may play Holmes in a film version of The Devil in the White City. It looks like this project has been in discussion for some time, though, and no progress has been made.
Internet:

1) Chilling tour inside serial killer H.H. Holmes` `Murder Castle` (Fox 32 News Chicago)

–This article includes a video tour of some tunnels under a Chicago Post Office that was built on  the site of the murder hotel. Some original brickwork may have been incorporated into the newer structure.

2) H.H. Holmes Murder Castle Site Basement Footage (Embedded below.)

–five-minute video featuring a possible EVP, by Adam Selzer, for the Mysterious Chicago Blog (aka Chicago Unbelievable).

Documentaries:

H.H. Holmes: America’s First Serial Killer (streaming on Netflix)

–1 hour and 4 minute documentary that focuses on all of Holmes’ crimes rather than on the World’s Fair, which is mentioned but not detailed. This is more sensationalized than the two listed below.

Madness in the White City (streaming on Netflix)

–45 minute documentary which – like the book of the same name – divides its time between discussing Holmes and the World’s Fair.

H.H. Holmes Full Biography on bio.com (available in full on Bio.com)

–45-minute treatment of the story from the folks at Biography, plus three shorter video snippets.

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Click for PDOC homepage.

Note to my regular readers:

This is the first entry in my PDOC series. Tonight I’m working on creating the deck’s homepage. If  the image above doesn’t yet link to a new page, it soon will.

–Renae

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13 Comments on “H. H. Holmes: Gilded Age Con Man & Serial Killer (1861 – 1896)”

  1. pilgrim52 says:

    Thanks for the great links! I first read about Holmes in Devil in the White City and I, too, have a long-time fascination with serial killers (not sure why, but oh well). Adam Selzer’s video is interesting.

    • I think we have an interest in serial killers simply because they are so alien. How does a person become such a thing? How are they so different from from the rest of us that they can inflict pain or terror and enjoy it?

      Holmes is a bit of a bridge for me, because I can grasp his motivation for the kills that resulted from his scams and cons. I think I can see how greed (or self-survival instincts) and lack of empathy can lead a person into being a murderer. I still don’t understand cruelty for cruelty’s sake though.

      The fact that he did both is interesting to me.

      • pilgrim52 says:

        Yes, it’s ‘why’ they kill that is fascinating. You are right. Quite the opportunist as well; to build an entire complex so close to the World Fair just for those purposes. Greed, as you say, and the wish to cover the evidence of it.

  2. Hunter Shea says:

    Great article on a sick, sick man. Maybe we should make masks of him for Halloween.

  3. scoobyclue says:

    He was also a featured in an episode of Supernatural.

  4. Judith Nickels says:

    Hello Renae, I agree with your conclusion that the Jack the Ripper link is unlikely. I spent eight years researching the life of Georgiana Yoke, the last woman H H Holmes married before his arrest. It started as a research project for a museum and ended as a novel. If you are interested in this aspect of the story, the just-finished book is on Amazon, entitled “A Competent Witness.” In it I have tried to challenge some prevailing myths about Georgiana, and fill in the blanks about her family, personality, and how she coped in the aftermath of her traumatic experience with H H Holmes. By the way, while in Edinburgh Indiana researching the book, I spent a night in the 19th century Toner-Maley House, a B&B built by Georgiana’s cousin, which was featured on a paranormal show, and I did have a rather unexplained experience! Please let me know if you decide to take a look at my book. Thanks!

    • Thank you for stopping in, Judith. This is some good networking.

      I did read the “look inside” portion of your book, (available at Amazon books) and found the sample to be well written and intriguing. Based on that, and what you’ve written here, I’ve added your book to the appropriate section of this post. I’ve also added the title to my “Want to Read” list at GoodReads.

      I wish you the best of luck with this project.

      I’d be interested to hear more about your experience at the Toner-Maley House. Do you ever do guest posts?

      • Judith Nickels says:

        Well thank you! I appreciate your interest, and I hope you will like the book. I was, from the start, totally hooked by the story of Georgiana’s predicament. I’m in the process of putting together some background materials and Q&A for a couple book clubs planning to read “A Competent Witness” this fall, and am happy to share anything, including the Toner-Maley adventure, in any format that is convenient.
        I don’t know if you’ve ever looked at this, but another paranormal link with Holmes is the house in Irvington, Indiana, where the body of the murdered child, Howard Pitezel, was found. The present day owners of that home swear they have seen the face of a little boy in the window . . .
        Pertaining to the discussion above with pilgrim52, I struggled with these questions as I tried to write the character of Holmes. An absolutely stunning book that was most helpful to me was “Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight” by M. E. Thomas. Besides the scariest cover art I have ever seen, she lucidly explains the thought processes of a person who scores basically zero on scales of human empathy.
        Thank you again for adding my book to your list.

        • If you think it would be advantageous to you, you are more than welcome to write a guest post for The Paranormalist. I would link it to this Holmes post as well as running it, with an introduction, as a main entry.

          Any of the topics you mention above would be of interest to my readers. (And some of my readers are regular rebloggers too, so that sends the work even further.)

          If you want to do that, I’m quite flexible. As you gather your materials, keep an eye out for something self contained and related to this post (and/or this conversation) that could come here too. Drop me a new note here, and we’ll exchange emails to move the piece from you to me.

          BTW, I’ll be adding “Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight” to my reading list. It sounds fascinating.

        • Judith Nickels says:

          I was just working today on a short piece for a book club about the Toner-Maley house. What is the best way for me to send it to you?

        • I just started a new gmail account for the Halloween scavenger hunt I’m sponsoring. Go ahead and send it there … the box is quiet right now and it won’t get lost or buried.

          halloweenphotoinbox@gmail.com


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