America’s First Serial Killer

Imagine, if you will, being in a place where you could disappear and no one would notice. Until it’s too late.

These days one might argue that these days a place like that could be anywhere, but over 100 years ago when the population of the United States was a mere fraction of what it is today, one would think that this situation would be nearly impossible. But then, in 1893, the World’s Columbian Exposition happened in Chicago, Illinois, providing a concentration of massive numbers people in a relatively small area.

Into this world stepped one Dr H.H. Holmes, born Herman Webster Mudgett in Gilmanton, NH in 1861. Mudgett had found surgery fascinating for as long as he could remember. While enrolled at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor, 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 that he, personally, took out on each and every one.

Dr. Holmes, as he was so frequently known, arrived in Chicago, in 1887, just before the opening of the Exposition. His first job there was as a druggist/chemist for a woman who ran the drugstore owned by her husband at 63rd and Wallace. Through this position, he was able to establish himself in the Windy City and soon was able to purchase land across the street from the drugstore and begin work on a castle he planned to open as a hotel for the World’s Fair. Designed entirely by Holmes, he carefully supervised the construction making sure no workman stayed on the job for more than a week. Claiming their work was second rate, he fired them, refusing to pay for their services and, at the same time, ensuring that no one knew the exact layout of the building. Completed in May 1890, the building stood three stories high. Exclusive shops occupied the first floor, but the upper floors and basement held secrets – deadly ones.

Through ownership of the exclusive shops, Holmes was able to hire young women from all over the country to “work” for him in various roles, only to later disappear. I’ve got the audiobook for ‘Devil in the White City,’ which is about this very subject, and the author mentions that one legitimate businessman took a warning ad out in the Chicago Tribune warning ladies that any respectable gentleman who was searching for employees legitimately would not add to the advertisement specifics about hair/eye colour and marital status. Apparently this was Holmes’ idea of a good advertisement for available employment.

Mazes of mystery entwined the second and third floors of Holmes’ castle. There were secret hallways and closets connecting the seventy-one bedrooms. Soundproof, and with doors that could only be locked from the outside, these ‘guest quarters’, were fitted with gas pipes attached to a control panel in Holmes’ bedroom. He turned them on and off at will. Holmes’ office, complete with an oversized stove, was also on the third floor adjacent to his walk-in vault. There were trap doors, sliding panels, stairs that led nowhere, and doors that opened to nothing but solid brick walls. Large greased chutes led straight to the basement where Holmes kept an acid tank, a dissecting table…and a crematorium.

Following the World’s Fair, Holmes left Chicago and apparently murdered people as he traveled around the country, though only his close associate and children were ever located. He was arrested in 1895 when police discovered his connection with this former business associate, Benjamin Pitezel, and three of his children. The same year, Holmes’s “castle” in Chicago burnt down on August 19, revealing the carnage therein to the police and firemen. His habit of taking out insurance policies on some of his victims before killing them may have eventually exposed him regardless, but it wasn’t until his custodian revealed to the police that he was never allowed to clean the upper floors that terror seized the local department. Inspections of the damage and the rest of the building revealed Holmes’ true intentions. The number of his victims has typically been estimated between 20 to 100, and even as high as 230 by some estimates, using missing persons records at that time. However, the only verified number is 27, though police had commented that some of the bodies in the basement were so badly marred and distorted that it was difficult to tell how many there actually were. His victims were primarily women, but included some men and children.

At the time of the murders and subsequent revelation of these unspeakable horrors, there was no word or phrase to accurately describe Holmes. Some called him the devil – hence the name of Erik Larson’s book ‘Devil in the White City’ – but it wasn’t until much later that the term serial killer entered the American lexicon. After that, the more appropriate term was applied to America’s first serial killer.

Sources:

The Murder Castle of H.H. Holmes
American Gothic: H.H. Holmes
H.H. Holmes

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One thought on “America’s First Serial Killer

  1. A top-notch article about a very horrible man…I’ve read a lot about him, and you have summed up everything I’ve read in one very concise article. A good reference for anyone looking to find out more about the crimes committed and the man behind them.

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