Skatha wrote a great article about H.H. Holmes called “America’s First Serial Killer“. I’d like to take that a step further and discuss Holmes’ Murder Castle because it is so horrific that it deserves its own page.
While Holmes’ villainous behavior began much earlier, it wasn’t until he constructed his Murder Castle that he was able to facilitate his macabre designs. In 1889, H.H. Holmes purchased the lot across the street from the drugstore in the Englewood section at the corner of 63rd and Wallace Street, where he worked under a Mrs. Dr. Holden– the older woman having strangely vanished in 1887 and allegedly bequeathed her store to Holmes.The behemoth of a building was erected on the empty lot and construction on the property commenced in 1889 under the direction of Holmes himself. Holmes regularly hired and fired his construction crews– usually without payment. It is also unclear whether he paid for any of the materials used to build his Murder Castle. Given Holmes’ knack for dismissing construction crews without payment, it is highly likely that he also neglected to pay for building supplies. Holmes’ frequent dismissal of the construction crews is also suspect to having been intentionally done so as to conceal the real horrors contained within the building.
Construction of the Murder Castle was completed in 1892– just in time for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 (also called the Chicago World’s Fair). Given the proximity of the World’s Columbian Exposition, this location was perfect for luring in prospective “tenants” who wished to find lodging near the fair. The list of missing when the World’s Fair finally closed was immense, conditions and atmosphere in Chicago during the fair facilitated unscrupulous activity of all kinds. Holmes wasn’t the only person who capitalized on these fortuitous logistics, but he was certainly one of the more prolific. No less than 50 “missing” persons were traced to Holmes’ Castle by police, though it is likely there may have been somewhere close to 250 persons who may have found their end in Murder Castle.
An excerpt from page 40 of The Chicago Tribune’s article Modern Bluebeard: H. H. Holmes’ Castle Reveals His True Character, which ran on Sunday, August 18, 1895, captured the macabre building in all it’s glory.
What the Castle Is Like
But his castle, it now seems, as its labyrinths are explored, was his principal place of operation, and there it was that he planned and schemed and where many beautiful women are believed to have met their end. With such a place at his disposal, containing hundreds of rooms, torturous passages, secret chambers, trap-doors, dumbwaiters, with a rope for lowering down bodies into vats, a tank and a retort for disposing of them, it is hard to understand why he went elsewhere to commit murders.
Holmes himself had planned the building, having no architect, and he took good care that the workmen were changed frequently, so that no one should know what the interior of the structure was like. He had air-tight chambers and a room of steel, lined with asbestos, where the wildest shrieks of his victims would be deadened, and he had a multitude of secret stairways and passages through which he could effect his escape at any time.
Murder Castle Overview
Murder Castle was 162 feet long and 50 feet wide and had a brick facade. It was three stories tall and included a stone basement and stone foundation. There were several sets of wooden, bay windows overlooking the street. The bottom level housed Holmes’ relocated pharmacy, where he had electrical devices which would warn him if someone were to walk the upper floors. His office was perched in the northeast corner of the third floor. The labyrinthine second floor had a total of 51 doors and 35 rooms, several of which were rooms for rent. The basement housed Holmes’ methods of body disposal.
The Third Floor
Besides his offices, the only other room of note on the third floor was a steel vault located beside Holmes’ office. The vault was tall enough to stand and walk around inside. The steel walls were asbestos lined to absorb sound and the door was secured with a top-of-the-line lock, which only Holmes could open. The expense to build such a room would have been phenomenal.
Also included in the room was a gas pipe supposedly included to light the room, but police suspected that Holmes would blow the gas light out through any one of several pipes outside of the vault, which pointed to the light. With the door sealed shut and gas freely flowing into the room, anyone shut inside would have quickly been asphyxiated.
The Second Floor
Much of H. H. Holmes’ torturing was allegedly done on the second floor of his Murder Castle. Its design was a maddening maze of rooms and doors that could rival the Winchester Mystery House. Long, narrow corridors that would only allow passage of one person at a time and a number of walls formed blind corners which created the perfect location for Holmes to stalk his victims. Once his victim was subdued, he had but to place them in the room of his choosing and end their life at his leisure and there were plenty of rooms available for Holmes to choose from…
Holmes had several dark rooms that could serve as a closet, which were likely used for other purposes. A variety of secret chambers dotted the floor. One such room described by the Chicago paper as “one of the largest rooms of the house” with dimensions of approximately twelve feet long and eight feet wide was sealed off. Authorities found a windowless room with a network of gas pipes connected to it. It is believed that Mrs. Connor was asphyxiated inside this room. The valves which controlled the flow of gas were discovered in another room– a room in which Holmes frequented often, supposedly to sleep. Another room was established as a hanging chamber. In one dark closet, police discovered a trap door in the floor measuring four feet long and two feet wide. The trap door revealed a set of stairs connecting into another secret chamber (five foot by seven foot) half between floors. Further down the hidden stairs, the passage ended at a wall in the first floor tin store. The tinner had built a bench in front of the door to block off the stairs because he didn’t know where they went to. Another closed room housed a dummy elevator, which police suspected Holmes used to transport bodies from the second floor into the cellar.
The more horrific discoveries were made in the cellar of Holmes’ Murder Castle. Once a body made it to Holmes’ cellar, it was as good as gone for he had several means of body disposal at his fingertips– all of them apparently frequently used.
On July 20, 1895 police were still uncovering horrors from Holmes’ cellar. A hollow sounding wall was broken through, revealing a horrible smell and “fumes like those of a charnel house”.
A plumber was sent into the foul smelling room. His first instinct was to light a match. The result was “a terrific explosion that shook the building” and shot flames into the cellar. Amazingly, the plumber escaped without injury, but several workmen who’d helped to open the room were sent to the hospital.
When the smoke cleared, police inspected the room and discovered the source of the acrid smell– a curiously constructed oil tank with fumes that could kill someone in under a minute. Evidence that this oil had been used was found in the form of a mysterious footprint which was found in some loose quicklime in the cellar. An expert reviewing the site noted that the person who made the footprint had to have stepped in oil before treading across the quicklime dust. Police suspect that the footprint was that of Minnie Williams.
The loose quicklime would have been tracked through the cellar from two vaults of quicklime. Quicklime has been used to speed up decomposition of bodies for centuries. As a druggist, it would have been simple for Holmes to acquire the quicklime in quantities big enough to fill two grave-sized vaults of the compound. Digging into the quicklime, police discovered what appeared to be human remains.
There was no lack of bones in Holmes’ cellar. In fact, upon first investigation of the cellar police recovered a “goodly number” of bones strewn about in a refuse heap on the floor. Many of those were discovered to be soup bones, but a fair number turned out to be human remains which Holmes had cleverly disguised in the pile of “soup bones”. Bones of two children approximately age 6 and age 8 were discovered among another collective stash of bones that had been buried under 4 feet of basement soil. Why Holmes would need to bury bodies given the several other methods of body disposal at his hands provokes the question as to how many bodies Holmes needed to dispose.
Besides the quicklime vats, the oil vat and the buried bodies there were still other means of body disposal in the cellar. Holmes also had a furnace similar to those used in cremation. The furnace was built large enough to burn a single body, along with clothing and any belongings. Police noted that an iron flue connected the furnace to a tank containing a white fluid that emitted a powerful odor.
If having his own crematory wasn’t enough, Holmes also had a stove in the cellar. The contents of the stove, upon examination, contained evidence linking Holmes to the disappearance of Mrs. Williams. This evidence was in the form of a rather unique gold watch chain which was identified by the jeweler who sold it to Mrs. Williams. A clump of hair was also discovered beside the furnace.
With bones and bloodstained linen deposited every which way, the scene in the cellar can only be described as macabre.
The End of Murder Castle
Not long after its discovery, Murder Castle was no more. Shortly after midnight on August 19, 1895 three explosions ripped through the upper floors of Murder Castle. By 1:30am the resulting fire was under control, but the roof and rear wall had already collapsed. Damage was estimated to be a hefty $25,000 which would have been quite a substantial amount– an amount large enough to tempt Holmes into attempting one last scheme.
Insurance for the building was under the name of Minnie Williams who, at the time, was thought to have been deceased. Holmes, it seems, was able to convince Mrs. Quinian to forge Minnie’s signature on the policy for one last attempted fraud. Fortunately, Mrs. Quinian confessed and the policy was never awarded, but the building was a total loss. The rest of murder castle was demolished and the lot remained empty for a while.
In 1938 a United States Post Office was built on the site of so much death and destruction. Rumors about the location being haunted still abound. There are unsubstantiated claims that the post office is haunted. A little poking around the internet has revealed claims that dogs will cross the street rather than walk adjacent to the building. There are also claims that the screams of those tortured by Holmes haunt the night. Where such sounds aren’t heard, it’s rumored that passersby will feel wary or on edge in this location. There are also claims that the ghost of H.H. Holmes visits the Museum of Science and Industry, one of the few remaining structures from the 1893 Exposition… but, of course, those are just rumors…
Murder Castle in Popular Culture
The legacy of H.H. Holmes and his Murder Castle is still largely prevalent in capitol crime involving serial killers. In fact, it’s likely that several mass murderers have patterned some aspect of Holmes’ horrific house in their own form of body disposal. Such murderers like John George Haigh, of the “Acid Bath” Murders and Jeffrey Dahmer, were both known for their disposal of bodies in large vats of acid not unlike Holmes’ quicklime and oil tanks. Clown Killer, John Wayne Gacy, also disposed of bodies in a Holmes-esque manner by burying them beneath his residence. With so many horrific qualities to draw inspiration from, it’s difficult to not see evidence of Holmes’ crime find its way into the minds of mass murders and… popular culture.
In 1991, the Buffalo Bill Killer from the film Silence of the Lambs was partially modeled after H.H. Holmes. More specifically though was the killer’s basement– a maze specifically patterned after Murder Castle– complete with torture pit. It was here, in the film, where Buffalo Bill killer, Jame Gump, stalked character Clarice Starling in an all too familiar manner– the way in which H.H. Holmes also stalked his victims in the endless maze of his Murder Castle.
(Update: May 2011)
Most recently, however, H.H. Holmes and his murder castle have been serialized in Eric Larson’s historical fiction account of those tragic events titled “Devil in the White City“. In November of 2010, it was announced that the book was to be made into a film and Leonardo DiCaprio would be playing the role of devil incarnate, H.H. Holmes.
(End May 2011 Update)
*“Modern Bluebeard: H. H. Holmes’ Castle Reveals His True Character,” The Chicago Daily Tribune, 18 August 1895, p40.
*“Holmes’ Den Burned: Fire Demolishes The Place of Murder and Mystery,” The Chicago Daily Tribune, 19 August 1895, p1.