According to the FBI, at any given time, there’s 25 to 50 serial killers operating in the United States. Cool, sleep tight kids. USA have the highest number of serial killers per capita in the entire world.
The FBI defines serial killer as somebody who kills over 3 people over the span of more than a month, with emotional cooling-off periods in between. The General popular version of what a serial killer is somebody who gets off on hurting and inflicting pain on other people.
And while we think of serial killers is a fairly modern phenomenon. There’s always been a small percentage of the population that has no empathy and gets pleasure out of seeing other people suffering.
But you know we’ve always been fascinated by bandits and outlaws. The gunslingers of the Old West. Jesse James, Billy the Kid, those kinds of guys. Whose stories have become so sensationalized over the years, it’ hard to tell the difference between truth and legend.
So, even though they were definitely, you know bad guys that you wouldn’t want to run into in a dark alley or anything. The newspapers just reveled in their adventures and sometimes even painted them as a hero. You know, people that are fighting against the system and killing to stay alive and to square bad deals.
Serial killers. That was another thing. That’s not some hero trying to you know buck the system or something. That is a sadistic bastard who gets off on murdering women and small children. That’s somebody punching down not punching up. So serial killers get sensationalized in a different way. Focusing on the grotesque and the perverted in the McCobb.
This was a lesson the press learned over a hundred years ago with the first real serial killer in the United States. The American Ripper himself, H.H. Holmes.
So, let’s start with the legend of HH Holmes and work our way backwards. H.H. Holmes was a businessman and small-time hustler in Chicago in the 1890s. Who had a three-store hotel at the corner of 63rd and Wallace street. It was a modest business, but the legend says that this was just a front. What he was really doing was creating a killing Factory. He modified the room, so he could pump gas into the rooms to knock out his victims and then he would dump them down secret chutes down to the basement where he would have them dismembered and disposed of.
Sometimes he would drop bodies down that chute unconscious, but still alive. So when the victim woke up, they were tied to a table where he would torture them for days before finishing them off. And he installed all this just before the Chicago World Columbian Exposition of 1893, when millions of people came and visited Chicago from all around the world. These were his perfect victims. People were much less connected back then. You couldn’t trace people from their credit card purchases or their cell phone activity.
Sometimes people just disappeared, and that’s exactly what happened in Holmes house of horrors. People would check in and then vanish in the middle of the night. Never heard from again. And the police finally caught on and searched this hotel. They found the burned bodies of hundreds of victims in the basement. Bodies and bats of acid and overall, just absolute horror show.
Holmes became known as the American Ripper, the devil of Chicago and America’s first serial killer. Yeah, that’s the legend, it’s pretty dramatic!
The truth is way more convoluted and messy. He was much less of a monster and much more Walter White. But only in the bad ways like the small-time hustler. That was just smart enough to always kind of slither out of trouble. Not the badass, you know say my name, Walter White.
First, HH Holmes wasn’t his real name. His real name was Herman Webster Mudgett. Herman was born in 1861 in Gilmanton New Hampshire. And though the legend says that he grew up torturing animals. His mother said that he loved animals, especially dogs. Another part of the legend is that Holmes grew up really awkward and couldn’t look people in the eye. But the truth was he had strabismus in his left eye, which causes a loss of muscle control.
In fact, he was a charming conversationalist by most accounts. He married three women with throughout his life. He was a compulsive womanizer. I mean probably wasn’t that awkward. He trained as a surgeon before he moved to Chicago in 1886. Where he made his fortune running small con jobs around town. Like, renting out furniture and bikes under an assumed name and then selling them,
It was while running these small con jobs that he took On the pseudonym HH Holmes. When he spelled it out, he would sometimes say Henry Howard or just Harry H. Holmes. Having a fake name kind of helped him to skip out on bills.
Homes eventually scanned enough money that he was able to buy a drugstore in the Chicago neighborhood of Englewood. The legend has it that he murdered the owners, but he probably just bought it.
And across the street from that drugstore he’d built a building. A building that would later be known as the murder castle.
The second floor of this building contained a baffling maze of hallways and rooms. Doors that led nowhere. Secret walls that opened up into secret rooms. People later assumed that this was to confuse his victim so he could murder them outside the prying eyes.
In fact, the rooms were given names like. “the room of three corpses” and “the ex-fixation chamber” by the press. But it was probably just meant to confuse repo-man. It was a place where he could hide all of his furniture and bikes that he was later selling so that nobody could find them.
In fact, one of the tenants of the building once said that he saw rooms of furniture that were just empty the next day. The whole thing about the hundreds of victims that came from the World’s Fair. Apparently he didn’t take in a single guest from the World’s Fair. In fact, while the World’s Fair was going on, he was actually living in a different part of town and only visited that building, because it was a fire on the third floor, which was probably an insurance scam.
And this is actually the pattern with Holmes. He was much less of a genocide on Monster and more of just a conman that was constantly juggling his scams. Which might not sound so bad. You know, just a guy running some cons, a scammer bit of a shyster you might say. I mean it’s not like he felt like he killed people. Except he totally killed people.
Everything about HH Holmes, a number of his victims is wrapped up and legend and outright lies. Some of which he told himself. He had a great sense about how to confuse people by telling the truth and lying at different times. But there are nine victims that are canonical and definitely assumed to be from HH Holmes. Five of which happened in the murder castle.
But the murder that did Holmes in was a guy named Benjamin Pitezel. He was actually an accomplice of Holmes and they went in together on an insurance fraud scam. So what they were gonna do was find a dead body. And then fake Benjamin’s death by passing off the dead body as his. Then collect the insurance money from it and give it to a “widow” that only appeared on paper.
And, of course it would go to Holmes and he would split the money with Benjamin. Now, getting a dead body wasn’t difficult for Holmes because he had some medical connections. But he decided that the best way to pass off a dead body as Benjamin Pitezel’s body, would be for it to, you know, actually be Benjamin Pitezel’s body. So he killed him. Which had the added bonus of not having to split the money with anybody. So win-win.
In this case the insurance company challenged the story that Benjamin was blown up in an accidental explosion. They investigated. They wound up convicting Holmes of this murder and he was hanging just nine days before his 35th birthday.
But when investigating Holmes, more murders and mysterious disappearances came to light, in a past that was full of manipulation and deception.
The first victim that was definitely Holmes Work was a woman named Julia Conner. She worked at Holmes drugstore in the jewelry department, with her husband Ned, who was the jeweler. The couple lived at Holmes castle and somewhere along the way, Julia and HH Holmes had an affair. This broke up their marriage. Ned ran away, leaving Julia there with her six-year-old daughter Pearl.
By all accounts, Julia and Pearl were perfectly happy there. But around Christmas of 1891 they both disappeared. The castle janitor, a guy named Pat Quinlan, had apparently told his family that they had moved off to California. Pat was also known to be an accomplice of Holmes. So he might have been directed to say that.
Regardless, after Holmes was arrested and police started looking through the castle, they actually dug up the remains of a six-year-old girl in the basement. Homes will later claimed responsibility for Julia’s death. But what he claimed was that he was trying to perform an abortion on her and she died on the operating table.
Obviously, nobody knows what really happened. Why Pearl was killed as anybody’s guess, maybe she witnessed her mom’s death. Maybe she was just responsibility he didn’t want to keep up with. But regardless, after a few weeks after they disappeared. He was actually renting out their room for other people and it was still had all their stuff in it. Yeah, according to the tenant that moved in. The room had women’s clothes strewn all about, and apparently HH Holmes casually kicked a doll under the bed.
The next murder attributed to Holmes was a woman named Emeline Cigrand. Just like Julia, she also worked for Holmes and eventually had a romantic relationship with him. When she disappeared in 1892, Holmes claimed that she had run off to get married. But one tenant of the hotel claimed the day after she was last seen. Holmes and Pat Quinlan were seen carrying out a large crate.
He would later claim responsibility for her death, but he used the same excuse that he used for Julia. That she died in a botched abortion attempt. Set side by side, the murders of Julia, Pearl and Emmeline looked less like some sadistic killer that gets off on hurting People, and more like somebody that just is a narcissist trying to get rid of his obligations. A narcissist with zero empathy. Which is basically a psychopath.
There are two more people who Holmes killed in his murder castle. A pair of sisters named Minnie and Nannie Williams. These are kind of the most mysterious of all of his victims. Holmes had a gift for confusing things by sometimes confessing to crimes he hadn’t committed and denying crimes that he committed. Even though he killed Minnie and Nannie, he never claimed responsibility for it.
According to his story, Minnie was actually a murderer. She and him were having an affair and when Nannie came over, she flew into a jealous rage, hitting Nannie over the head with a stool and killed her. Holmes then helped her dispose of the body and then helped her to leave the country, according to Holmes.
But both sisters disappeared at the same time. They were last seen on July 5th, 1893. Holmes had an impressive body count going, but believe it or not we’re not even at the crazy part yet.
Something I didn’t mention before was the Holmes had two wives with two separate families. While he was living in Chicago and in 1894, things started getting a little hot around all of his insurance scams. So he had to leave them behind. He went from Chicago to Denver where he collected some debt that was owed to Minnie Williams and while he was there; he got married, again. Three marriages going on at this point.
This one was named Georgiana Yoke. She followed him from Denver to Fort Worth, where he got into trouble for stealing horses. He was chased out-of-town pretty quickly and learned the meaning of the phrase “Don’t mess with Texas”.
He bounced to St. Louis, where he started a new drugstore business but decided, hey, It’s much better to just rip off your suppliers instead. His old Chicago hustles didn’t work out so well in St. Louis. So he was arrested and put in jail for a brief period where he just couldn’t help but brag to his cellmate about all the insurance scams he was running.
After we made bail, he rushed off to Philadelphia and now low-lying cash and desperate for a payday. This is where he met up with his old friend Ben Pitezel. Remember Ben the guy that would work with Holmes to fake his own death and then Holmes just killed him? That’S where this happened. Knocked him out with chloroform, then burned his body. But it gets way worse than this.
Ben had a wife and family. His wife’s name was Cary. He had a daughter named Alice that was 15, a daughter named Nellie that was 12 and a son named Howard that was 8. Cary and possibly the children knew that there was this insurance scam going on. So when they identified the body, they thought it was the fake dead body. They did not understand that it was actually their father and husband.
The insurance company cut homes a check for $10,000. Then he told Kerry that he would reunite her with Ben. But he didn’t think the kids should go along with him. He didn’t think they should get wrapped up in this scam. So he put them and under the protection of a friend of his named Minnie Williams, yeah that many Williams, who had been dead for a year at that point. What he did was move these Kids around himself and kept them separate from their mother. While he shuttled them all around the country on a wild goose chase.
Also, his wife Georgiana was with him and she did not understand about any of this other stuff. So somehow he shuffled these people around on this insane route from Philly to Cincinnati, to Indianapolis to Detroit with stops in Toronto and Ogdensburg New York. Three different groups of people, none of which had any idea that the other people were involved in all this.
Sometimes they were writing the same trains and even staying in the same hotel. Eventually, the children became too much for him to want to deal with. So he did what pretty much came naturally to him at this point. It’s believed that Howard, the eight-year-old, was poisoned and then burned. Apparently, some of his teeth and chunks of his skull were found in the flue of the stove in a house that Holmes had rented along the way.
And the bodies of Allison, Nellie were found buried in a shallow basement. Amazingly, during all this, he had time to go back to his hometown and visit his first wife, Clara and his son Robbie. And he told them that he had been in a railway accident and had been experiencing amnesia for the last six years. And they were so happy to see him. They were totally fine with the fact that he said that he married Georgiana, because she was a nurse that was taking care of them.
Holmes’s luck finally ran out. The insurance company that dealt with Ben Patel’s death challenged the original story. They hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency, who found a slew just an entire trail of fraud and scam victims along the way. And a former cellmate that shared with them everything that Holmes had bragged about when he was in jail.
From November 1894 to July 1895, fragments of the truth started popping up left and right and they arrested Holmes. Extradited to Philadelphia where he faced charges for the murder of Ben Pitezel. And all the craziness that they found in the Chicago castle started to come to light after an excavation order was done in July 1895.
Quickly the trickle of press interest turned into an absolute flood. Everything got blown completely out of proportion. Details became big mountains of evidence, ashes that were found. The basement turned into hundreds of bodies and in fact they called one room “the hanging room”. Because they found a rope in it. Crowds flocked to the murder castle to see the place where all this stuff happened. In fact, in one day, 4900 people showed up and had to be kept away by the police, but hundreds got into the castle and ransacked the place.
But even after the Pitezel’s children’s bodies were found. The lawyer for HH Holmes convinced the judge to only let the evidence around Ben Pitezel’s death be involved in the case. 12 jurors, convicted Holmes of killing Ben. They denied all of his appeals and even as he was standing at the gallows, the only debts he claimed responsibility for, where Julia and Emeline from the botched surgeries.
After his execution, the story and The Legend of HH Holmes just spread even more. Hundreds of people were claimed to have been his victims from the World’s Fair. When in fact probably hundreds of people just disappeared, because people just disappeared back then sometimes. Some people claim Holmes faked his own death. And later on, some actually said that he might have been Jack the Ripper before he moved to Chicago.
One of the people who actually believes the Ripper story is Jeff Mudgett. The great-great-great grandson of HH Holmes. He actually had Holmes’s body un-earthed and did DNA tests on to make sure that that was actually his body. It was.
And by the way this wasn’t easy to do, because Holmes insisted that a concrete dome to be built over his grave. So the people wouldn’t desecrate it. Holmes today is remembered more for the crimes that he might have committed than the crimes that he actually committed. Which is a shame, because these are real people whose lives were destroyed, like dozens of them.
When you count the family members and everything, that’s enough, isn’t it? Holmes wasn’t a super villain, though it makes us feel better to think of him that way. If we can think of him as some supernaturally evil person, then we can convince ourselves that we’re nothing like him. Labels kind of create a little of a distance there.
He was a man who told lies with every other breath. Who hated earning an honest buck when a crooked one would do. And he thought he was smarter than everybody, and then he would always get away with it. And like everybody else, he started small.
Clara Lovering Mudgett, his first and only legal wife once said to a criminologist that she had a hard time, accepting that he did these things saying quote:
But of course, he has worked himself up to it little by little, and I think, having done some little wrong, he Had been driven to a greater one for a cover, and each one growing worse, of course it’s more easy to go in the wrong after the first few steps.
Regardless of he was more Walter White than Zodiac killer. H.H Holmes was the first serial killer to really capture the public consciousness. Sadly, he was not the last.