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.
Herman Webster Mudgett; Dr. Henry Howard Holmes
1888 – 1894
Most murders took place during the 1893 World’s Fair.
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.
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.
Convicted of 4 counts of 1st degree murder & 6 counts of attempted murder.
Executed by hanging on May 7th, 1896 at the age of 34.
Holmes was buried in an unmarked grave. His coffin was encased in a concrete vault to deter grave robbing and / or vandalizing.
H.H. HOLMES IN THE MEDIA:
- 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.)
- 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.
–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.)
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.
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.
This evening, when I went outside at about eight o’clock, I stopped mid-stride. The dark, quiet, heat of this early October night ignited random thoughtlings in my mind: Drums thundering. A snippet of an old Steve Miller Band tune. Me, wearing a cotton nightgown with short, puffed sleeves while sitting on cement steps. Tan grass that looked silver and red leaves that looked black. The sudden realization that “it wasn’t a summer night at all!” And an overwhelming … awareness of serial killers.
I have an unreliable memory. The details of my life – even milestones and heartbreaks – fade within a few years. Sometimes those details come surging back, as they did tonight, but I’ve learned not to trust such surges too much.
It took all evening, and a fair bit of web research, to reconstruct the memory that wanted to surface. As far as I know, there is no particular event or story buried behind my visceral recollections … just a sense-connection between tonight and a similar night, more than 30 years ago.
Here’s what I was able to piece together by prowling the net to stimulate and verify my memories:
In the last week of September, 1976, the temperature ranged between the mid-30s at night, and the high-60s during the day. The autumn had come on cool and colorful. By contrast, that summer – my ninth – had been hot and parched. In July and August, the unrelenting heat had granted me a new privilege – in order to cool off enough to sleep, I had been allowed to sit on the front stoop, after my tepid nightly bath, while my mother watched the ten o’clock news. The newscaster’s voice would drift out the living room window and mingle with the sound of traffic as it swooshed past the house.
By September, when school started, the rules had changed and I was in bed long before the news came on.
On Friday, October 1st, the temperature jumped to 82°. That evening, Goodrich Field – the stadium across the street from the house where I lived – came alive with the commotion of a high school football game in full swing. I begged my mother to let me go out to listen to the marching band play. She allowed it. She must have had friends over, because music poured out the windows, as I sat on the stoop, instead of news. The song I remember hearing was called Rock’n Me. It was #16 on the pop charts that week.
Knowing that my mother’s vigilance was relaxed by Black Velvet whiskey and the distraction of her companions, I took the opportunity to steal across the lawn. A leaf got stuck to the sole of my foot when I stepped on it. I peeled it off while standing under the maple tree that grew in the the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street. My toes curled over the curb’s edge as I craned to see into the stadium.
For the most part, the memory shrapnel that bombarded me when I stepped out my back door this evening can be attributed to October 1st, 1976 – with a single, notable exception. I have no idea why that night is so intertwined with thoughts of serial killers.
My research revealed that both John Wayne Gacy and David Berkowitz were active in 1976, but neither should have been in the news yet. Ted Bundy had been convicted of the aggravated kidnapping of Carol DaRonch on February 23rd of 1976. On October 22nd, he was charged with the murder of Caryn Campbell. Still, I don’t think his intensive media coverage occurred until 1977.
Why, then, do I believe that my fascination with serial killers was born on that hot autumn night?