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H.H. Holmes (Herman Webster Mudgett) – America’s first, and possibly most prolific, serial killer

Born Herman Webster Mudgett, also known as Dr. Henry Howard Holmes or H. H. Holmes

“I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing — I was born with the “Evil One” standing as my sponsor beside the bed where I was ushered into the world, and he has been with me since.” H.H. HOLMES

Herman Webster Mudgett, aka Dr. Henry Howard Holmes or just H.H. Holmes, was one of the first documented serial killers in the modern sense of the word. His legendary crimes have been written about in several books, including Erik Larson’s popular The Devil in the White City, and featured in many movies and TV shows including American Horror Story: Hotel and the 2016 movie The Devil in the White City starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Holmes gained notoriety as the nation’s first, and possibly most prolific serial killer in history, after he confessed to 27 murders. However, authorities believe the actual body count may have been closer to 200. Regardless of the true number of kills attributed the Holmes, it is clear that he surpassed later American serial killers such as Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy in his depravity.

Who was Herman Webster Mudgett – aka H.H. Holmes?

 Herman Webster Mudgett (1861–1896), better known under the alias of Dr. Henry Howard Holmes

H.H. Holmes was born as Herman Webster Mudgett in Gilmanton, New Hampshire on May 16, 1861.  His parents say he was a quiet child and spent most of his time alone, reading. Neighbors, however, say he had a mean streak, taking pleasure in attacking animals in the woods and dissecting them while they were still alive. During his youth, he had only one friend – who died while the two were playing together.

Holmes’s father was a violent alcoholic who was known to often “take a rod” to Holmes. His mother, a devout, possibly fanatic, religious woman, often locked the children in the attic without food as a means of punishment. Children in the neighbor didn’t treat Holmes much better.

Holmes noted that he often strolled past the office of the town doctor on his way to school. The doctor’s office doors were typically open and the stench that emanated from the building terrified Holmes. When neighborhood bullies discovered Holmes’s phobia, the forcibly dragged him into the doctor’s office where there hung a human skeleton from a rack. The bullies forced the trembling Holmes to stand by the skeleton and ultimately, to touch it. Holmes often said that after the incident, he became obsessed with death.

H.H. Holmes in adulthood

From the latest and best photograph of H. H. Holmes

At 18 years of age, Holmes moved from Gilmanton to Ann Arbor, Michigan where he married Clara Lovering on July 4, 1878. Their first child, Robert Lovering Mudgett, was born on February 3, 1880 (little Robert went on to earn a CPA license and became the City Manager of Orlando, Florida).

By the time Holmes reached 19 years of age, he was not only a handsome gentleman of fashion but also a skillful manipulator of amazingly complex orchestrated schemes. A few years after Robert was born, Holmes attended the University of Michigan Medical School. Holmes had already mastered the art of scams, often stealing bodies from the school laboratory, and passing them off as deceased insurance policy holders. Holmes would claim that they were victims of accidents and collect insurance payoffs on policies he took out on them. Each time a body disappeared while being taken to the college dissecting room, a resident of Ann Arbor “died”.

By the time Holmes graduated medical school in June 1884, he was known to have a strong interest in hypnotism and the occult. It was also rumored that he hung around the lab after all other students had left and conducted his own “experiments” on the bodies. Whether or not these rumors are true is unknown. What we know for fact though, is that by the time Holmes graduated, he was a seasoned criminal.

Holmes moves to Philadelphia and becomes a druggist

After graduating from college with a medical degree, Holmes moved to Philadelphia where he worked as a “keeper” in the Norristown Asylum (now Norristown State Hospital). It is said that the experience so terrified Holmes, that he quit the job and took his first of many positions at a drugstore.

While in Philadelphia, Holmes dabbled in petty theft and honed his craft swindling insurance companies. One particular attempt to con an insurance company for $20,000 using a planted body failed miserably and prompted Holmes to adopt the name H.H. Holmes. After a customer he dispensed medicine to died, Holmes fled Philadelphia.

Holmes flees Philadelphia and sets up shop in Chicago

In August 1886, Homes move from Philadelphia to Chicago (leaving his wife Clara and child behind) and using the moniker H.H. Holmes, started a truly legitimate business, the A.B.C. Copier Company. According to Harper’s Magazine, when the business went south, so did Holmes:

“He was president of the A.B.C. Copier Company, a concern producing an excellent device for copying documents. (Holmes appears in the role of “copier” every now and then.) He even went so far as to pay his typewriter–as stenographers then were called. (He seduced, mulcted, and murdered subsequent typewriters instead of paying them.) When the business failed Holmes gave up his office, leaving behind an assortment of creditors and taking with him fifty gallons of glycerin which did not belong to him. Later it was hinted that he intended to prepare nitroglycerin with the loot and perhaps did so.”

During one of his travels around the country, Holmes took another wife (in Minneapolis, Minnesota) – while still married to Clara. On January 28, 1887, Holmes married Myrta Belknap and brought her back to Chicago. On July 4, 1889, Lucy Theodate Holmes was born in Englewood, Illinois (Lucy would grow up to become a public-school teacher).

In Chicago, Holmes worked in a drugstore located on the corner of S. Wallace and West 63rd Street in Englewood. The drugstore’s owner had died of cancer, leaving the store to his wife, Elizabeth S. Holton. When Elizabeth became pregnant, Holmes saw the opportunity to “purchase” the drugstore from her. In a clever ploy, Holmes financed the mortgage by mortgaging the store’s fixtures and stock.

As with many of Holmes’ acquaintances, the final disposition of Elizabeth Holton is unknown. Some say she retired in California. Others say Holmes killed her, disposed of her body, and told neighbors she had moved to California.

The Chicago World Fair and construction of Murder Castle

World's Fair Hotel, better known as H. H. Holmes Castle

The opening of the World’s Columbian Exposition, aka the Chicago World Fair, in 1893 presented a unique opportunity for Holmes. Holmes purchased a lot across the street from the drugstore and using various schemes to secure funding, constructed a monumental building on the site. Named the World’s Fair Hotel (later to be called the Holmes Murder Castle, Murder Hotel, and Horror Hotel), the building was more than 150 feet long and 50 feet deep, towering three-stories tall, not including the basement. The building’s appearance was iconic – and menacing.

Built about three miles west of the World Fair’s grounds in Jackson Park, Holmes intended to lease rooms to World Fair visitors. He relocated his drugstore in a corner room on the ground floor of the building and leased retail space to shopkeepers (the ground floor housed a jewelry store, blacksmith shop, barber, and a restaurant). The third, top floor consisted of boarding rooms while the second floor consisted of a menagerie of unusual building constructions designed to provide Holmes a sanctuary for which he could secretly murder boarders, employees, ex-wives, and various children. On the second floor were over 100 windowless rooms, doorways that opened to brick walls, false doors, sliding walls, oddly angled hallways, stairways leading to nowhere, walled-up rooms, and doors openable only from the outside.

On the stairs, Holmes installed pressure plates wired to alarms to detect anyone entering, or fleeing, from the home. A system of alarms was wired throughout the house and some rooms were lined with iron plates making them inescapable. Some rooms had blowtorch-like devices built into the walls of asbestos-lined rooms and others had false floors that concealed tiny airless chambers. One staircase opened to a steep drop to the alley behind the house. A trap door was cut into Holmes’s bathroom floor which led to a short, hidden stairway that connected to a hidden room in between the floors. From there, a chute dropped straight to the basement.

The basement was perhaps the most horrendous floor in the entire home. In the basements were shelves lined with bottles of poison and boxes of bones. The room was fitted with operating tables, racks of surgical instruments, and a full-size crematory. In the floor were built-in pits containing quicklime and acids that could dissolve a body in a matter of hours. Situated throughout the area were torture racks and other malicious devices, some of which were never fully understood by the investigating authorities.

Holmes repeatedly changed workers during the construction of the house and thus, nobody but Holmes fully understood the design of the building. It was at this “Murder Castle” that Holmes was exceedingly active in his devious schemes. Harper’s Magazine wrote:

“From here [Murder Castle] Holmes marketed a sure-fire cure for alcoholism, crusading with great zeal against the evil of drink. He opened a restaurant and sold it before the outfitting company could repossess the fixtures. When, after banking hours, a citizen came to the drugstore to get large bills for $178 in small change, Holmes gave him a worthless personal check and stalled him off successfully for two years. He sold his drugstore by misrepresenting the volume of business; to substantiate his claims he hired various persons to stream into the store and make expensive purchases. He bought a large safe, moved it into a small room of the castle, narrowed the size of the room’s door, refused to pay for the safe, and invited the owner to repossess it but warned him not to mar the house.

Having “invented” a machine which made illuminating gas out of water, he demonstrated it successfully to an expert who could not discover in the Rube Goldberg maze of pipes, pulleys, wires, and other gadgets the one pipe which tapped the gas company’s mains; aided by the expert’s endorsement, Holmes sold his “invention,” which looked like a washing machine on stilts, to a Canadian for $2,000. When the invention was removed from the basement a hole remained; presently Holmes announced that he had discovered in it a miraculous mineral spring; he piped the healing potion upstairs to his drugstore and retailed it successfully at five cents per glass until the water company threatened to prosecute him for tampering with its mains.

Perhaps his most spectacular swindle during this period involved the furnishings of the castle. He bought truckloads of furniture, crockery, mattresses, bedsprings, hardware, and gas fixtures (a sinister item, it turned out). All this was delivered to the castle on 63d Street. The Tobey Furniture Company, unpaid a week later, became anxious and dispatched an agent to watch the house, then demanded payment. Holmes’s usual tactics of cajolery failed, and the company sent vans and brawny moving men to repossess its property. They found the house empty. Yet the company’s own agent swore that no furniture had been taken out and, indisputably, it had been taken in. The castle had swallowed the furniture as, later, it would swallow human beings. A janitor at the castle gave the game away for a $25 bribe. Holmes had moved all the furniture into one room, taken out the door frame, bricked up the door, and papered the wall.”

Minnie Williams

Minnie R. Williams

During his years at Murder Castle, Holmes secured the “friendship” of a matron who likely became complicit in his many crimes. In her youth, Minnie Williams had travelled to Dallas, Texas to visit an uncle who later adopted her. Around the time Minnie graduated from the Conservatory of Elocution, her uncle died leaving her property in Fort Worth valued at more than $20,000. Shortly thereafter, Minnie’s sister, Anna, moved in with her.

After securing her degree, Minnie began teaching elocution in Denver, Colorado, Midlothian, Texas and Mississippi where she was said to have shown people a photograph of a young man named Harry Gordon in whom she was interested because he was “handsome, wealthy, and highly intelligent”. The man of course, was H.H. Holmes.

Holmes travelled to Fort Worth, pulled off a few schemes, and secured the loving grace of Minnie. In March 1893, Minnie moved to Chicago where she married Holmes. Soon thereafter (June 1893), her sister Anna left Texas and joined her in Chicago. Anna’s last communication was a letter to her aunt in which she said Minnie, Harry, and herself were leaving for Europe the next day where she would study art. She added, “Brother Harry says you need never trouble any more about me, financially or otherwise; he and sister will see to me.” Anna was never seen nor heard from again.

Not long after Anna disappeared, Holmes reappeared in Fort Worth as O.C. Pratt and used the title to Minnie’s property to secure cattle and begin building another “castle”. For unknown reasons, Holmes abandoned the project and returned to Chicago to continue what he loved most – killing.

Holmes flees Chicago and travels throughout the United States and Canada

When the Chicago World Fair concluded, and business dried up, Holmes fell into financial ruin. Around 1893, creditors began closing in on Holmes and as expected, he fled the city and travelled throughout the United States and Canada. During his flight, on January 17, 1894, Holmes married again – to Georgia Anna Yoke (Minnie Williams served as a witness to the wedding). Georgie Anna was a tall, slender beauty of about twenty-five with flaxen hair and blue eyes so large, one newspaper commented, as to be almost disfiguring. By the spring of 1894, Minnie Williams had also disappeared.

Holmes arrested in St. Louis and meets Marion Hedgepeth

In July 1894, Holmes was arrested and jailed in St. Louis for a horse swindle (in Fort Worth, Holmes purchased several railroad cars of horses with counterfeit banknotes and signed the papers as O.C. Pratt – then the horses were shipped to St. Louis and sold – Holmes made off with a fortune.). During his months in the St. Louis jail, he spent time with a lifetime convict named Marion Hedgepeth. Holmes talked often with Hedgepeth and even confided in him some of his plots and schemes. His confidence in his newfound friend would eventually lead to his downfall.

The Pitezel swindle

Benjamin F. Pitezel

After release from the St. Louis jail, Holmes returned to Chicago where he met Benjamin Pitezel.  Together, they conducted various scams in the city. In one instance, Holmes had tried to fake his own death and collect on a insurance policy but the insurance company became suspicious and refused to pay. To conduct the ploy, Holmes had taken a cadaver to a seaside resort in Rhode Island and burned it, disfiguring the head and dumping it on the beach. He then shaved his own beard off (to alter his appearance) and returned to the hotel, registering under another name and inquiring about his friend, Holmes. When the body was discovered on the beach, he identified it as “H.H. Holmes” and presented an insurance policy for $20,000. The insurance company suspected fraud though and refused to pay. Holmes returned to Chicago without pressing the claim and began concocting a new version of the same scheme.

The second time Holmes attempted the scheme, he altered it slightly – this time they were to fake Pitezel’s death. According to their plan, Holmes would secure a body, disfigure it, and claim it was the body of Pitezel who died in a violent lab explosion. They would then collect the insurance money and split it between them.

On September 4, 1894, a caller to 1316 Callowhill Street found it odd that the door was locked. He enlisted help from Policeman George Lewis to force the door open. Inside they found the disfigured body of a man who had apparently died in a lab explosion. His face and arms were burnt beyond recognition and nearby lay a pipe, matches, and broken bottles of flammable liquids. The man had been dead for three days. Police identified the man as B.F. Perry, the tenant of the office. Neighbors knew the man conducted experiments inside the office, but nobody had heard an explosion.

A few days later, Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance Association received a letter from St. Louis claiming that B.F. Perry was actually Benjamin F. Pitezel, whose life was insured by the company. A group of claimants arrived on the scene – Dr. H. H. Holmes, Jephtha Howe (Mrs. Pitezel’s “attorney”), and the dead man’s daughter. They claimed that Mrs. Pitezel was too ill to travel. Together they provided identifying information about the deceased Mr. Pitezel.

Mrs. Pitezel

The body was exhumed, examined, and when it fit the identifying characteristics supplied by Holmes and the dead man’s “daughter”, the $10,000 policy was paid to Holmes who told authorities he was “acting on behalf of the widow”. Days later, Fidelity received a letter from Mrs. Pitezel expressing her gratitude that the claim had been paid so promptly. Fidelity was so impressed by the gesture, they used the letter in promotional advertising campaigns.

Holmes’ plan to fake Pitezel’s death was carried out with only one hitch. What nobody but Holmes knew, was that they had not faked Pitezel’s death – Holmes had killed Pitezel. According to his later testimony, he had prodded Pitezel into getting drunk, doused his sleeping body with oil, and burned him alive while he slept. In a further act of debauchery, Holmes convinced Mrs. Pitezel that her husband was still alive and that they must travel across the country to reach him. Mrs. Pitezel not only bought Holmes’s story, she allowed three of her five children to accompany Holmes after they split up.

Tagging along with Holmes and the three Pitezel children during their trek across the country was his wife Georgie Anna and Mrs. Pitezel and her other two children. In an unbelievably complicated juggling act, Holmes was able to travel with Georgie Anna and Mrs. Pitezel without either knowing the other was anywhere in the vicinity. Harper’s Magazine wrote:

“Holmes performed such miracles as keeping Mrs. Pitezel and Georgie Anna ignorant of each other’s presence on the same train; when they arrived in certain cities he established Mrs. Pitezel in one rooming house, her children in another, and Georgie Anna in a third. And all the while he was inventing lies and carrying on a complicated correspondence involving half a dozen forwarding addresses.”

Their movements around the country were complicated. Holmes would leave Georgie Anna in one location and Mrs. Pitezel in another and travel onward with the three children in tow, meeting Georgie Anna and/or Mrs. Pitezel somewhere along the way. At some point in these travels however, the three Pitezel children went missing. Holmes convinced Mrs. Pitezel that they were staying with a widow lady in Indianapolis.  When Mrs. Pitezel asked for more details about the “widow lady”, Holmes claimed that he could not remember her name.

Holmes old buddy Marion turns him in

By this time, Holmes’ many scams had attracted the attention of the police and insurance investigators. The final blow came in 1894 when police were tipped off by Holmes’s former cellmate, Marion Hedgepeth.  Hedgepeth you will recall, had been jailed next to Holmes when Holmes was arrested for horse swindling in St. Louis. According to Hedgepeth however, the man in the cell next to him was “Howard”.

“Howard” had promised money to Hedgepeth for suggesting an attorney who would help him swindle money from an insurance company. Hedgepeth complied, suggesting attorney Jephtha Howe who indeed, assisted Holmes with the Pitezel insurance claim. Hedgepeth sought revenge after “Howard” failed to pay him his share of the money. Harper’s Magazine explained how the deal was to go down:

“Howard had offered him $500 if he would suggest an attorney of repute who would assist in a foolproof scheme to make $10,000. Howard planned to insure the life of B. F. Pitezel, to fake a fatal accident, to send Pitezel into hiding, and to substitute a body which he would obtain at a morgue and which he would identify as Pitezel’ s. Howard said he had perpetrated similar frauds at other times. Hedgepeth recommended as an aide Jephtha Howe, the younger brother of one of Hedgepeth’s own attorneys. Presently Howard was released from the jail, where he had been held briefly as a swindler. The plot progressed beautifully until Howard refused to permit Mrs. Pitezel to go to Philadelphia to identify the body. Attorney Howe suspected, too late, that Howard had double-crossed Pitezel and had actually murdered him instead of substituting a body. After the insurance was paid, Hedgepeth said, Howard left Mrs. Pitezel to settle with Howe; they quarreled over his fee and $2,500 was put in escrow. Hedgepeth never got his $500 share.”

The insurance company recognized the ploy as the Pitezel death benefit that they had just paid on. With the assistance of Philadelphia detective Frank Geyer, a more thorough investigation of Holmes was initiated.

Holmes last days as a free man

With investigators hot on his tail, Holmes travelled to New Hampshire where he visited his aged parents and, reportedly, his first wife, the woman who helped put him through medical school. On his visit, he settled some old accounts, bought a new suit for his son, presented his wife with various gifts, and cheated his brother out of $300. He then left for Boston – where he was arrested.

The Pitezel swindle unravels

The information provided by Hedgepeth was forwarded to the Fidelity Insurance Company who recognized the scheme as that of a recent payoff to a “H.H. Holmes”. The Pinkertons were set in pursuit and on November 17, 1894, Holmes was arrested in Boston just as he was about to board a ship leaving the country. At this point, without hard evidence in hand, he was held on an outstanding warrant for horse theft in a Texas case.

Mrs. Pitezel was prostrated with fear. Having been led to believe that they were going to “fake” her husband’s death, she was now beginning to understand that the body used in the scheme was no fake – her husband had been murdered.  A second autopsy was conducted which concluded that indeed, the burnt body was Pitezel’s. It should be noted here the irony: Holmes was ultimately caught by an insurance company, the type of which Holmes had swindled countless dollars, which believed itself defrauded by the death of a man claiming to be Pitezel when in reality, the body was indeed Pitezel’s and they had not technically been defrauded at all.  Confused?  So were the police.

The truth about Holmes is revealed at last

Police found that Holmes’ extravagant lies confused detectives and frequently sent them running in circles. They discovered that the “Howard” they had arrested was actually Herman W. Mudgett, aka Dr. H.H. Holmes. As police peeled back the layers of Holmes’ life, they found an almost incomprehensible tale of a man with multiple wives, various aliases, and an unfathomable number of murders.

In the midst of the investigation, a custodian of Holmes building in Chicago told police he was never allowed in the upper floors of the building. This prompted suspicion from the police which led them to search the building. Inside they found Holmes’s torture lair. Meanwhile, the bodies of the Pitezel children were found, sealing Holmes’s fate.

Bodies of the Pitezel children are discovered

Alice Pitezel

In Toronto, the Pinkerton boys searched for eight days before finding a cottage at No. 16 Vincent Street that had been rented to a man fitting Holmes’ description. According to witnesses, the man had been traveling with two little girls. Holmes borrowed a partially broken shovel from a neighbor, which he claimed he wanted to use to dig a hole to store potatoes in. Detective Geyer borrowed the same spade and when digging in the same location, found the bodies of Nellie and Alice Pitezel secreted several feet under the earth. In an upstairs bedroom of the cottage, he found a large trunk that had a piece of rubber tubing leading into it from a gas pipe. Holmes had told the girls that he wanted to play hide and seek, tricked them into climbing into the trunk, and then gassed them to death.

After the bodies of the two Pitezel girls were found, police began an anxious search for 8-year-old Howard Pitezel.  Backtracking through Holmes’ trek across the country, Detective Geyer searched throughout Indianapolis for the boy and according to him, no less than 900 supposed clues were run out. Finally, a man who rented a house in October remembered Holmes (he stood out to the man because of his rude and abrupt behavior). He noted that the man had a young boy with him.

Detective Geyer searched the premises, digging in several disturbed spots around the property. Finally, a small bone fragment was found in the fireplace. The chimney was dismantled, and more bones were found including teeth and a piece of jaw identified as that of a young boy. At the bottom of the chimney was a large mass. The mass was cut into and found to contain a portion of a stomach, liver and spleen, baked quite hard. According to Holmes’s later testimony, he had drugged the boy and cut the body into pieces small enough to pass through the grates in the stove.

The victims at Holmes’ Murder Castle

Howard Pitezel

Meanwhile, Chicago police began the arduous task of searching through the labyrinth of rooms in Holmes’s building.  Inside, they discovered not only Holmes’s torture and murder implements, but bones and other remains scattered throughout the basement.

At the time of the investigation, the number of victims was estimated to be between 20 and 100.  Today, modern-day researchers believe the number could be as high as 200 murdered during Holmes’s travels throughout the United States and Canada. The exact number is exceedingly difficult to determine because so many people arrived at the World’s Fair and for one reason or another, never returned home. The Chicago World Fair lasted 6 months and an estimated 27 million people attended – a perfect opportunity for a murderous fiend.

It is believed that Holmes selected mostly female employees for his victims. As part of his business affairs, Holmes hired more than 150 stenographers that he used to copy documents (many of the girls he employed were photographed and showed to be young, beautiful blonde-haired women). Each stenographer was also appointed notary public so they could notarize Holmes’ fraudulent documents. Furthermore, as a condition of employment, they were required to allow Holmes to take out life insurance policies in their name.

Emily Van Tassel, a young lady who lived on Robey Street, is an example of one employee who likely met her end at the hands of H.H. Holmes. Tassel was only 17 and worked at the candy store located on the first floor of Holmes’ building. It is unknown what caused her to catch Holmes’ eye, but she vanished just one month after his offer of employment.

Nellie Pitezel

Holmes also killed at least a dozen hotel guests. Untold numbers of victims used the hotel during the Columbian Exposition.

Holmes used a variety of means to murder his victims, but his favorite methods were gassing and strangulation (often after brief torture sessions). Some victims were held captive in soundproof rooms that had been fitted with gas lines which would allow Holmes to asphyxiate them at his leisure. Others were locked in a huge, soundproof bank vault near his office where they were allowed to suffocate.  It is believed that many of these victims were held captive for several months before their deaths.

When police entered the premises, they found the hotel was equipped with greased chutes which allowed Holmes to drop a body into the chute where it would fall promptly to the basement. They discovered that in the privacy of the basement, Holmes would dissect and mutilate the bodies. Some he stripped of flesh, then reassembled the bones and determined to reap every penny of profit from his crimes, sold the skeletons to medical schools. Some bodies were cremated in two giant furnaces designed to trap any suspicious odors. Others were placed in giant pits of acid and lime where they were allowed to dissolve.

Police found a ball of woman’s hair wrapped in cloth and bits of bones and flesh wedged in between table edges. In the basement were bottles of acid, various poisons, and a stretching rack where victims could be tortured until they split in two. Newspapers described how one chamber of death was uncovered:

“The hazy smell of gas hung in the air and as the men tore away one wall, they discovered a large tank or metal-lined chamber. As soon as they broke through, the basement was filled with the stench of death, driving the crew back. Noting the metal lining of the tank, they sent for a plumber and he struck a match to peer inside of it. Suddenly, the tank exploded, shaking the building and sending flames out into the basement. The men were buried in piles of debris but no one was seriously injured. The tank was lined with wood and metal and was 14 feet long, although thanks to the explosion, no one will ever know that it was used for. The only clue in the room was a small box that was found in its center. When it was opened by Fire Marshal James Kenyon, an “evil smelling” vapor rushed out. The gathered men ran, except for Kenyon, who was overpowered by the stench. According to the New York World, “he was dragged out and carried upstairs, and for two hours acted like one demented.”

Holmes Trial

Holmes sketched during his trial

Holmes chose to represent himself in the trial which began on October 28, 1895. The newspapers were quite entertained by the affair, noting that during recesses, Holmes sat in the dock and read Stephen’s Digest of the Laws of Evidence. They reported that when Holmes requested a pre-testimony interview with her, “my wife”, the district attorney had snapped, “Which wife?”

Holmes self-representation however, likely hurt his case. He made a grave error when, after Pitezel’s corpse was described in gruesome detail, Holmes requested a lunch break, saying he was hungry. His actions demonstrated to the jury that he had no sense of sorrow over the supposed suicide of his business partner and friend.

During the trial, Holmes was caught in several obvious lies. Although his faculty for lying made it difficult for authorities to investigate his case (and for later researchers to piece together a true picture of the events), in court, they allowed Holmes to maneuver himself in a corner. Holmes admitted that he was with Pitezel when he died but claimed that Pitezel had committed suicide and died by his own hand. When it was determined that Chloroform in Pitezel’s lungs had been forced there, Holmes fate was sealed (Holmes burned Pitezel alive then poured Chloroform down his throat to make it appear to be a suicide).

The trial lasted 6 days but it only took the jury 2 ½ hours to render a verdict. A juror later said that they decided on the verdict within minutes but remained longer “for the sake of appearances”. Upon conviction, Holmes confessed to 30 murders in Chicago, Indianapolis, and Toronto.

Murder castle burns

As if the Holmes case could not get any stranger, in 1895, just before the trial had begun, Murder Castle caught on fire burning much evidence and leaving police with many unanswered questions. The cause of the fire was never determined and the lot where the Castle was located remained empty for many years until finally, a U.S. Post Office was built on the site in 1938.

Holmes execution

Execution of H. H. Holmes 1896
The execution of H. H. Holmes, scene while he was making his final address.

Until the moment of his death, Holmes remained calm showing no signs of fear or anxiety. He was visited in his cell by two Catholic priests and although he took communion with them, he refused to ask forgiveness for his crimes. On May 7, 1896, while walking to the gallows in the courtyard of Moyamensing Prison, Holmes made one last confession – once again rewriting his story.

“Gentlemen, I have very few words to say. In fact, I would make no remarks at this time were it not that by not speaking I should acquiesce in my execution. I only wish to say that the extent of my wrongdoing in the taking of human life consists of contriving the killing of two women that have died at my hands as a result of criminal operations. I wish to also state, so that there can be no chance of misunderstanding my words hereafter, that I am not guilty of taking the life of any of the three Pitezel children, or the man for whose death I was convicted, and for whose death I am now to be hanged. That is all I have to say.”

When the platform dropped and Holmes was hung, his neck did not snap and instead, Holmes struggled and twitched for over 15 minutes before finally meeting his end at 10:25 AM – just nine days before his 36th birthday. Holmes was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Philadelphia, body encased under 10 feet of concrete, without a headstone.

Strange deaths in the aftermath of Holmes execution

Marion Hedgepeth

Marion Hedgepeth, the man who informed police of Holmes’s crimes, was granted a pardon for his testimony. Marion died on New Year’s Eve 1909 after being shot during a holdup at a Chicago saloon.

Pat Quinlan

Pat Quinlan purchased Holmes murder castle, restored parts of it, and took care of it. A few years after the purchase, he claimed it was “haunted”. He died in the Murder Castle after committing suicide by strychnine poisoning.

Dr. William K. Matten

A short time after Holmes’ body was buried, under two tons of concrete, Dr. William K. Matten, a coroner’s physician who had been a major witness in the trial, dropped dead from blood poisoning.

Priest death

Several weeks after the hanging, one of the priests who prayed with Holmes before his execution was found dead in the yard behind his church.

Head Jury Foreman Linford Biles

A few days after the priest died, Linford Biles, who had been jury foreman in the Holmes trial, was electrocuted in a bizarre electrical accident.

Other strange deaths

More deaths followed in rapid order, including that of the head coroner Dr. Ashbridge and the trial judge who had sentenced Holmes to death. Both men were diagnosed with sudden, and previously unknown, deadly illnesses. Next, the superintendent of the prison where Holmes had been incarcerated committed suicide. The reason for his taking his own life was never discovered. Then, the father of one of Holmes’s victims was horribly burned in a gas explosion. Finally, the remarkably healthy Pinkerton agent, Frank Geyer, suddenly became ill and passed. 

Was Minnie Williams aware of Holmes’s activities?

We know that Minnie Williams lived with Holmes in Chicago for more than a year and thus, likely knew more about Holmes’ crimes than any other person. In fact, police investigators stated that there was no way she could not have had knowledge about many of the murders. It is now generally believed that Minnie was ultimately responsible for the deaths of at least two people, Julia and Pearl Connor, and is also believed to have instigated the murder of Emily Van Tassel.

Could H.H. Holmes be Jack the Ripper?

Several have proposed that H.H. Holmes was Jack the Ripper. One man who believes this is Las Vegas attorney Jeff Mudgett – great-great-grandson of H.H. Holmes. The theory in intriguing given that for a period around 1888, when five prostitutes were found murdered on the streets of London’s East End, Holmes whereabouts are unaccounted for. In addition, handwriting experts have said that Mudgett’s handwriting matches letters sent to London media during the Ripper killings.

The theory is not easy to discount. Holmes was believed to have travelled to London on at least one occasion (he is rumored to have had a friend that lived in the Whitechapel area) and several Jack the Ripper witnesses thought the killer looked and sounded like an American. There were also several early Jack the Ripper theories proposing that Jack the Ripper had at least some amount of medical knowledge.

Additional resources

Transcripts of newspaper accounts of the H. H. Holmes trial and events

Chicago Sunday Tribune – July 21, 1895

Two more victims

Another strange chapter in H.H. Holmes career

Woman and child gone

Mrs. Conner and her girl have disappeared

Last Seen with Holmes

Arch fiend had them both in his control

No trace of either to be found

Chicago, July 20 – The specimens of alleged bones found in the stove in the Holmes Building, No. 701 Sixty-third street, and submitted to me for examination, when you put together and perfectly matches, strongly resembled in appearance the charred remains of a beef rib, but subjected to chemical tests proved to be fire clay.

C.F Stringfield, M.D.

No. 300 Thirty-first street

To the long list of murders and other crimes directly traceable to the arch fiend, H. H. Holmes, must now be added the mysterious disappearance of Mrs. L. L. Conner and her 12-year-old daughter, with a reasonable certainty that they may have been disposed of in the same manner in which the rest of his victims met their death. Mrs. Conner and her child were last seen in the company of Holmes in this city in 1893. Since then all trace of them has been lost, and the shrewdest of detectives who, at the instigation of the woman’s family, have been working on the case are now of the opinion that the finding of their bodies is the only possible solution of the mystery. The hunt for Mrs. Conner and her child has not, until lately, been made on the theory that they had been murdered. It was pursued in an effort to locate the woman and het her away from the influence of Holmes, in whose net she had been trapped, and it was not until the disclosures of this work in connection with the Pitzel case were made that her friends began to fear the lives of herself and child had been taken. There are circumstances which, while at first seemingly susceptible of explanation, now point in the direction of another double murder at the hands of the greatest villain of modern times.

Mrs. Conner came originally from Davenport, Is, where she was married to I.L. Conner, a jeweler, nearly fifteen years ago, probably in 1890, when she was about 18, though the exact time is unknown. To them a child was born and in 1889 Conner and his wife and girl, then 7 or 8 years old, came to Chicago. Holmes at that time was just beginning to frame the swindles or which he later became notorious, and had started a drug and jewelry store in Englewood at Wallare and Sixty-third streets. Conner, who was known by the nickname of “Ned,” went to work for Holmes at a salary of $12 a week and moved his family into a flat over the store. When Holmes had perfected his plans for robbing his creditors, he pretended to make a sale of the store and stock to Conner and raised the latter’s salary to $18 a week so he could pay back $6 a week on the alleged purchase. There was no bona-fide sale, no papers passed, and Conner never handled the extra $6 a week, the whole thing being merely a scheme on the part of Holmes to blind his creditors.

He captures Mrs. Conner.

About this time Mrs. Conner, a smart, ambitious woman, was given a position in the store as bookkeeper. A more observant and less trusting man than Conner would have noticed from this on a change in the manner of his wife. He would have seen the relations between her and Holmes were something more than those of an employer and clerk, but he mistrusted nothing. Conner was of an easy-going, innocent nature, and even in th deal which Holmes made with him by which many Chicago firms were defrauded, could see nothing wrong. Proff of his wife’s perfidy would probably never have reached him were it not that the swindler furnished it himself. This was one of Holmes’ characteristics. He had many liaisons with women and to prevent them from getting a hold upon him, while at the same time keeping them within his control, he daused news of their misdoings to reach the injured husband, especially if the latter were of a class who were not likely to be troublesome.

When Conner heard of his wife’s conduct he consulted with his friends here and on their advice left her, resigning from the employ of Holmes and taking a position with a jewelry firm down town. Conner’s marital experience had not been a happy one. He is a mild, inoffensive young man about 35 years of age. The best he could do was to earn a mere living, and Mrs. Conner was not satisfied. She was a woman of brains and somewhat good-looking, and wanted to dress better than her husband’s means would permit. Naturally she fell into the clutches of Holmes. From this Holmes led her step by step, it is now supposed, into the position of counsellor and adviser in the handling of the many schemes which he was planning at that time. At least this is the theory of those who have investigated the relations of the pair while prosecuting a search for the woman.

PHILADELPHIA NORTH AMERICAN – Saturday, April 11, 1896.

Eight Pages. One cent.


The Story of the Most Horrible Murderer Ever Known in the Annals of Crime


The Multi-Murderer Feels That He Is Gradually Turning Face and All Into a Demon


The Man Now Sitting In the Shadow of the Gallows Tells How He Took His Little Son into a Barn and There Committed the Most Horrible of Crimes – “I Was Born With the Devil In Me” – A Fearful Narration of the Taking of Twenty-Seven Lives – His One Regret.”

“Yes I was born with the devil in me,” is the startling declaration which H.H. Holmes, the arch-murder, the multi-mutilator and self-admitted author of 27 murders makes in his awful confession of guilt, which the North American is enabled to present to its readers for their perusal to-day.

Then he adds: “I was born with the evil standing as my sponsor beside the bed where I was ushered into the world, and he has been with me since.”

This startling declaration strikes the keynote of the long and revolting story told by the arch murderer himself, and which was written word for word by the man now sitting in the shadow of the gallows and awaiting only the fatal moment when the noose will be placed about his neck and his power ruthlessly and recklessly to destroy will forever be removed.

This confession, this terrible record, of slaughter made by the man himself and over which he seems to gloat as he leaps from word to word in the written recollection of his blood deeds, at last tells the true story of his murderer’s life, his motive and the dark inspiration that led him to choose a life to devoted absolutely and fervidly to the pursuit of murder.

Imbued with the conviction that he was born for murder, that he was possessed of the evil one, and that he really at this moment is gradually but surely turning body and soul into an imp, a representative of the infernal regions, under whose banner he has so long served, this man, feeling not the slightest pang of remorse, and expressing no regret whatever for the twenty-seven souls he has ushered into eternity, sits to-day and, more like demon than man, tells the story of his bloodthirsty career.

Beginning at the date of his birth, the impious character of which he so graphically describes in the opening sentence, he leads the reader on line by line through the chapters reeking with gore and swelling to heaven with the foulness of his deeds until he pictures himself as a fiend, a monster, changed not only in mind actually in feature, to the demon he has lived all his life long.

He tells with awfully dramatic effect of his registered vow to learn the subtle qualities of fatal drugs – the agencies that kill be sleep and stealth – the employ ( UNINTELLIGIBLE one line) -cine, and made doubly dangerous, he meant to pursue.

He speaks of the holy bond of matrimony into which he entered while still a youth, and his ghastly mutilation of the innocent result of that union.

On and on he goes, and tells with utter abandon of the murder planned, carried out and the out beings whom he put out of the world, and whose friends never knew how they died.

He designates them by name, as a tradesman would his wares, and speaks of the fine work he did here or the botch me made there.

Only once does he show remorse, and that is when speaking of Minnie Williams.

“I really did love that woman,” he says, and then, with an expression that passes off like a sigh, he seems to say, “Well, it’s done, and it was a good job.”

Throughout the long story, that reads more like a book of the wildest kind of fiction, the pen never falters, and the gloom of the cell never for a moment seems to dim the page.

“I believe I have no longer anything human in me,” he declares, and then makes the startling statement in conclusion that “he is gradually turning in a devil, head, tail and all.”

In conclusion he declares that an abnormal deformity is gradually taking place in his form and features, and standing as he does on the threshold of his doom, declares, multi-murderer that his is, that he is already the living personification of Satan himself.

Can it be, indeed, that the evil one has actually put his mark upon his own in such a way that it cannot be mistaken, or is it the ( ) of a demon in the flesh that occupies the cell in the County Prison?

Verily, the North American is led to believe that such is the case.


Holmes Makes the Confession to Enable Him to Secure Money With Which His Son My Be Educated

In prefacing the confession of his many murders, which cover in full nearly three newspaper pagers, written in Holmes’ own handwriting and detailing with a minuteness that is simply at times revolting, the arch mutilator and author of twenty-seen murders, as he admits himself to be, states with something like pathos that he does so simply that he may obtain enough money to educate his boy.

That “boy,” outside of one of the victims of his numerous tragedies, seems to be the only human thing that ever reached the abysmal heart of H.H. Holmes.

It was because of the love of the boy primarily that he determined when he found the shadows of the gallows closing upon him to accept the offers made in big sums of money to write a confession, and it was because the lad that the latter might be left enough money to see him safely through life, that the fantastically criminal father accepted the offer and wrote out night after night by the dim burning light in his cell the words which rise up against him and stamp him as the most terrible of human monsters that ever lived since the days of conspicuous degenerates began.

It was then that Holmes made the request of Judge Arnold of “the light in his cell,” and procured copy paper and pens and began to write the memorable document, the advance proofs of which the North American has seen, and which in part this journal reproduces below.

It may be stated at the beginning that Holmes writes of his bloodcurdling atrocities with an abandon that simply appalls one. None one grain of remorse seems to enter in to the construction of that terrible document, and never for a moment, except in two isolated cases – one where he refers touchingly to the memory of Minnie Williams and another time when he pathetically speaks of an outrage perpetrated on his boy, does the redeeming element pity figures in the case Regret is never for a moment expressed. “Nascor (? non fit” seemed to be the motto of Holmes with regard to his devilish inclinations and he comes out boldly and without compunction at the very opening with the statement “I was born with the very devil in me.”


Holmes as he Sites in his cell at Moyamensing Believes Fervently That He is Owned by the Evil One

(unintelligible – roughly two column inches)

-tion, which conjures up hosts of vengeance-calling dead, or not, his face assuming the lok, the eyes, the leer, and the very ears the exact similitude of the picture of Satan themselves.

“Yes, I was born with the devil in me,” says he in one part of the concessions. “I could not help the fact that I was a murderer no more then the poet can help the inspiration to song, nor the ambition of an intellectual man to be great. I was born with the evil one standing as my sponsor beside the bed where I was ushered into the world, and he has been with me since.”

“The inclination to murder came to me as naturally as the inspiration to do right comes to the majority of persons.

“Where others’ hears were touched with pity, mine filled with cruelty, and where in others the feeling was to save life, I revealed in the thoughts of destroying the same.

“Not only that, I was not satisfied in taking it in the ordinary way. I sought devices strange, fantastical and even grotesque. It pleased my fancy. It gave me play to work my murderous will, and I revealed in it with the enthusiasm of an alchemist who is hot on the trail of the philosopher’s stone.

“This inclination,” continues Holmes, “came to my early in life. I remember when a mere lad my ambition was to study medicine, that I might know the relative effects of poisonous gases, that I might fully become acquainted with their uses, and learn to be an expert in handling them.”

This inclination, according to the multi-murderer, followed him up through boyhood, confronted him as he stood on the threshold of manhood, and when he entered into the sacred state of husbandhood it even confronted him there in an evil shape, and led him to think of murders then to be committed, to be kept in oblivion for some time to come, but finally to be divulged before Heaven and earth and rise up against him as he mounted the steps of an avenging scaffold.


The Arch Mutilator Firmly Convinces That His Features Are Growing to Resemble More and More Those of The Arch Fiend

This feeling so grew upon the man that he lost all affinity for his brother man. He felt himself apart from the rest of the world, and endowed with a mission to destroy everyone and everything that crossed his path.

So possessed had Holmes become with this belief that he grew to imagine himself a part and parcel of the Inferno, and now that he is imprisoned, and his brooding thoughts have more time to work on his disordered brain, he is fully convinced that physically as well as mentally he is slowly but surely growing to look like a devil, and that incipient malformation has already taken place.

“I am convinced,” he declares, that since my imprisonment I have changed woefully and gruesomely from what I formerly was in feature and in figure.”

“If you look at my picture when I was first taken into custody in Boston, nearly two years ago, and look at my face now, you may begin to observe something of what I mean

“I mean, in fact, that my features are assuming nothing more nor less than a pronounced Satanic cast; that I have become afflicted with some disease, rare but terrible, with which other physicians are acquainted, but over which they seem to have no control whatever.

“That disease,” said he, “is a malformation or distortion of the osseous parts, causing deformity so marked that in many cases men are made to assume likenesses to the inferior animals.

“It begins with paints (SIC) in all the joints, followed by excruciating symptoms, local on the head and bones of the face.”

“These I attributed at first to rheumatic trouble, until I found that they were gradually causing a change to take place in my whole figure, quite in keeping with my character.”

“The real nature of the malady then began to dawn, and I recollected having studied once about a man whose features had become deformed by this disease in such a way that he gradually grew to resemble a monkey.”

“The horror of the thing did not pall on me, for it was quite in keeping with y nature, and like a true medical student I began to study the new conditions which had arisen.

“From what I can see, I believe fully that I am growing to resemble the devil, that the osseous parts of my head face are gradually assuming the elongated shape so pronounced in what is called the degenerate head, and that the similitude is almost completed.”

“IN fact, so impressed am I with this belief,” continued Holmes, “that I am convinced that I have no longer anything human in me.”

Holmes’ confession from this on speaks of his early experiences of his boyhood days on the farm up in Vermont, and the life he led, until he entered college to study medicine in Michigan.

It was not until after he graduated, fully equipped with the knowledge of poisons and the easiest way to sever the simple thread of life, that Holmes began his career as a murderer and mutilator.

“And I would have committed six other murders,” he added, “had not certain occurrences intervened.

“I had planned them and was several times about to carry them out when something intervened.”

Chicago Daily Tribune – May 7, 1896

Cries like a child

H. H. Holmes gives up all hope and breaks down.

His last day on earth.

Says he is innocent of crimes charged to him.

Is too restless to sleep.

Reads his Bible and newspapers and talks to guards.

Trap to drop soon after 10.

Philadelphia, PA. May 6 (Special) – H.H. Holmes has given up hope and completely broken down. Several times today and tonight the doomed man has wept like a child.

George B. Chamberlin, a Chicago attorney, visited him in his cell this evening. Chamberlin, who carried with him a satchel, presumably filled with documents for Holmes to sign, declined subsequently to discuss his mission, but did tell how the murderer behaved.

“As I took his hand and bade him goodbye,” said the lawyer, “the utterly dejected fellow broke down and wept without restraint. It was a pathetic scene, view the condemned man as you will.”

Another incident today was the call of Lawyer R. O. Moon at the prisoner’s request. He wanted to thank the energetic attorney, who had worked so hard to secure a new trial.

“He said to me,” said Lawyer Moon, “that he was innocent of every one of the capital crimes of which he had been suspected and accused, excepting only the deaths of Emily Cigrand and Miss Conner, who had expired as victims of malpractice e, which was, on his part, wholly accidental. I don’t think he will make any final confession inconsistent with this assurance which he gave me.”

Sheriff notifies him to prepare.

Probably the most unwelcome visitor of the day was Sheriff Samuel M. Clement. He simply told the prisoner that unpleasant as it might be for all concerned, there would be no delay in the performance of the law’s mandate. If Holmes was not yet fully ready and prepared to meet his doom the Sheriff advised him to make good his final arrangements tonight.

“I will,” replied the murderer, and the next time he sees Sheriff Clement will be the last.

There last two nights have been restless ones for Holmes. Sleep, except for the short naps he gets during the afternoon, has forsaken him, and he seems more inclined to stay awake and converse with the members of the death watch, and when they are disinclined to talk to read devotional books.

His choice of reading varies, and although he seems to find the greatest consolation in his Bible, he frequently casts that aside in a petulant manner and picks up a newspaper in which he has carefully marked the matter bearing upon his case.

Says his repentance is sincere.

After Holmes had completed his breakfast this morning he was visited by Father Daily, who was with him in his cell for over an hour, preparing him for the end. Holmes, according to Father Daily, is fully prepared for his fate, and is sincere in his repentance for his numerous crimes.

He will, if he can secure permission, make a statement from the gallows tomorrow that will be in the form of an expression of his penitence. It is hardly possible that Sheriff Clement will permit of any long valedictory, for he is inclined to the belief that the condemned man will talk until he collapses.

The Sheriff will try to have Holmes make his statement in his cell before the warrant of execution is read, or have him leave a written statement, to be given to the public after the execution.

At noon today, everything was in readiness for the execution as soon after 10 o’clock as the Sheriff can conveniently arrange. The gallows is erected in the lower tier of the corridor, on the side of the old prison occupied by those who have been convicted and so situated that the condemned man cannot, from the small window of his narrow place of confinement, see it.

Both Supt. Perkins and his assistant, Alexander Richardson, will be upon the gallows to prepare the condemned for his fatal drop and Father Dally, perhaps accompanied by Father Ryan, will administer the last rights of the church and mount the steps to the gallows.

Executes his will.

Lawyer Rotan visited Holmes this afternoon to receive from the condemned client his final instructions. It is believed that Holmes’ will was executed tonight, and that Messrs. Perkins and Richardson subscribed themselves as witnesses.

This morning Lawyer Rotan stated that in regard to the disposal of his estate Holmes had made frequent changes, and the chances were that at the lat he might refuse to make a will at all, and ,dying intestate will leave his cloudy title to a number of persons to be fought out in the courts for the benefit of any of his creditors who may see fit to enter almost endless litigation to secure what is due them.

One reason for anticipating the refusal of Holmes to execute a will is the reception his last letter to Mrs. Pitzel received. He had at numerous times assured the widow of Ben Pitzel that she would receive a one-third interest in whatever he should heave. Lawyer Fahy expects that this interest will net the widow at least $1,000, but he has as yet failed to explain how she is going to realize upon the disputed property.

“Mrs. Pitzel has received from Holmes thus far,” said Mr. Fahy this morning, “just $30.”

Mrs. Pitzel will remains.

Lawyer Fahy stated Mrs. Pitzel would remain in this city until after the execution and would take with her to her Galva home a collection of photographs which were prepared by the District-Attorney at great expense to be used at the Holmes trial.

Sheriff Clement will personally conduct the hanging, a thing not done by any Sheriff since Sheriff Kelm. Every mail brings to the Sheriff request for admission to the hanging. Many of these come from intimate personal and political friends, and all alike are politely refused.

Lawyer Rotan this afternoon received from Holmes orders for the disposal of his body. The condemned man some time ago instructed his attorney that his body would be cremated and that an autopsy should be held. Since then he has changed his instructions, except as to those relating to his request that his body be not cut up for scientific research.

The Chicago Daily Tribune– July 27, 1896

Footprint is found.

Important discovery in the cellar of the “Castle”

It is that of a woman, and has certain peculiarities that indicate it was made by “one of Holmes” victims – furnishes a clew as to how he disposed of the bodies after he committed the crimes – traces cannot be removed, probably because of the use of chemicals.

The police yesterday found a woman’s footprint on the inside door of the blind vault on the third floor of the “Castle” building. Although the vault had been carefully examined on previous occasions the footprint was not found until yesterday. Up to that time the police had been entirely at a loss to attribute any object for the construction of the vault arrangement other than that advanced by conjecture. Now it is believed and confidently asserted that Holmes’ victims or some of them were inveigled into the vault between the two sets of doors and there they were smothered to death. They were then, it is supposed, carried around the winding hallway to the bathroom, which contained the secret entrance to the hidden stairway that led to the basement. Here, the police think, they were laid upon the dissecting table, which bears evidence of blood and indentures of surgical instruments, and dissected into parts small enough to allow a ready disposition of them by the one who had put them to death.

Here again in the basement the parts of the bodies were either buried in quick lime or else subjected to the flames of the crematories or stoves that Holmes had in this part of the building. The mystery surrounding the false vault the police believe they have solved. Their opinion is that the victims of Holmes were smothered therein and then made away with as des cribbed. The footprint is upon the left side inner door, about two feet or a little more from the ground. It is that beyond doubt of a woman on account of its narrowness, general form, and size. The exact measurements have been taken by the police, and they are making every endeavor to obtain the size of the feet of some of Holmes’ victims who are supposed to have met death in his castle, so that a comparison can be made.

By this means they expect to prove the identity of some of the victims an obtain convincing evidence against the chief conspirator. The vault in question is in a south front room on the third floor. In its construction there is nothing but the large heavy outside door with combination lock, next to which there are regulation two inside doors. Beyond this there is nothing but a plaster wall packed with asbestos. The space between the two sets of doors is about two feet, allowing room enough for a person to stand and have the outer door closed upon him in which he would in short order be suffocated. This is the theory of the police, the first that they have been able to advance after a week’s investigation and they admit that in the clew they have one that they consider most valuable.

The footprint is that of a bare foot, and is firmly placed against the enamel-finished door’s smooth surface. Detective Sergeants Norton and Fitzpatrick immediately reported the find to Inspector Fitzpatrick, and commenced work under directions received from their superior officer. Another circumstance connected with the footmark is that it cannot be rubbed off by hand or through the agency of a cloth or soap and water. These were tried by the officers, but had no effect upon the marks. The latter show plainly the imprint of the toes, the ball of the foot, and the heel, and are directed at a right angle when facing the vault from the outside room. How the imprint could have been made so clearly and so firmly was a matter that gave the police considerable bother when first discovered.

After a thorough investigation and consideration of the probable methods employed by Holmes, who was a chemist, it was decided by the officials that before inveigling his victim into the false vault Holmes placed some kind of acid upon the floor between the doors that would, when they were closed, in a few seconds destroy all of their life-giving properties in what little air there was in this small space. This was in line, the police believe, with the precautionary care that Holmes exercised in all of his crimes to prevent detection. With the acid in the vault, as a dying struggle the victim presumably put her foot up against the door on the inside, attempting to throw her weight against the outside door in a vain endeavor to force it open. With the acid upon the floor and the victim’s feet unclad, it is thought that part of the acid might have adhered to the feet, and when placed against the door the imprint was eaten into the enamel finish and escaped Holmes’ attention, and remained intact. Inspector Fitzpatrick admitted that the footprint had been found, and that it would prove undoubtedly of great importance in the work of unraveling at least one of the many murder mysteries credited to Holmes. The Inspector was not inclined to discuss the matter, and nothing could be obtained from Detective Sergeants Fitzpatrick and Norton, but they too, admitted that they were working with the end in view of ascertaining the identity of the person who was presumably smothered to death in the mysterious vault by Holmes.

Chicago Daily Tribune – July 27, 1896

New clew is found

Police have a mysterious witness under arrest.

Refuse to give his name of the nature of this knowledge, but hint that he is the most important witness they have yet discovered – he is expected to clear up many points in the several cases of murder of which Holmes is accused.

A man who is now under arrest at the Cottage Grove Avenue Station, the police believe, will prove the most important witness yet discovered to prove H. H. Holmes is guilty of the many murders of which he is suspected.

The greatest care has been observed to keep the man’s identity and the nature of his testimony a secret.  He was not booked at the station and Lieut. Thomas positively refused to answer any questions in regard to him last night.

Half a dozen detectives were kept going between Central and Cottage Grove all the evening, and a great deal of suppressed excitement was manifested by all engaged on the case.

Just before Inspector Fitzpatrick went home for the night the detective of the sam name came into Central with a heavy satchel, which he turned over to the Inspector and at the same time made a lengthy report of his discoveries.  It is expected that this man’s evidence will absolutely prove up a direct case of murder against Holmes.

The “sweat-box” investigation will be continued today by the Inspector alone, as Chief Badenoch went out to Brown Lake yesterday afternoon to spend Sunday.

The Chicago Daily Tribune – July 27, 1896

Gas used in his various murders

Inspector Fitzpatrick’s theory as to how Holmes killed his victims.

Police officials, so Inspector Fitzpatrick says, received an eye-opener in the news matter printed in The Tribune yesterday concerning the attempted murder of Jonathan S. Belknap by Holmes by gas asphyxiation.  Inspector Fitzpatrick now declares he believes Holmes disposed of many of his victims in that way, and says the investigation from this time on will be carried on with the point in view that all of the murders of which Holmes is said to be guilty may have been, and in fact most likely were, accomplished by the employment of gas for Asphyxiation.

“Until I read that article in The Tribune today,” said the Inspector yesterday, “the thought that Holmes may have used gas in accomplishing his crimes never struck me so forcibly.  But on studying the question I can discover very many cogent reasons why a mange engaged in wholesale murder should prefer or desire to use gas as his agent of murder.  When we recall the fact that a person who is asphyxiated by gas is in no manner mutilated physically we have the one great reason why gas should be chosen as an agent for murder.  I believe that a large percentage of the deaths from “blowing out the gas” in cheap lodging houses and second-class hotels are murders for no other purpose than robbery.  Police officials of Chicago know that there are many men in Chicago who would willingly commit murder for $10, especially if the chances of escape are good and if the act of murder may be committed without the use of a weapon.”

“Will you give your reasons, which you characterize as being ‘particularly good,’ for your belief that Holmes employed gas as an agent for his crimes?”

“Yes, Gas, when liberated in a room in sufficient volume to asphyxiate, will permeate the whole house, making a disagreeable odor that will cause investigation to establish the source of the offending odor.  Holmes was a professed expert in gas matters, and we know he repeatedly tried to interest men of wealth in a scheme he had for manufacturing gas with water.  Of course, the scheme was a fake.  He knew it was a fake, yet he kept all kinds of ill-smelling materials about the Wentworth avenue house, which he said were used in connection with his experiments in manufacturing gas.  Ill-smelling gas or ill-smelling articles supposed to be used in connection with his gas business would throw suspicion off if ill-smelling gases from decaying corpses pervaded his establishment.  We have always heard of Holmes’ castle as being the abode of bad odors.  I believe now and always have thought that Holmes would not undertake a violent murder himself.  In fact, I think the developments thus far show in in the light of a user of human tools for the accomplishment of his murderous designs.  While I believe that Holmes would not dispatch a victim with an ax of other deadly weapon, I fully believe him capable of sneaking into a dark room where his victim was asleep and turning on the gas.  But in his own castle it was not necessary for him to enter his victim’s room.  By blowing through the gas-burner from the hallway he could put out a gas flame burning in an adjacent room and not enter the sleeping apartment himself.  Just imagine for a moment what a task it would be for a prosecution to prove murder against an individual if the murder had been committed in that way.  It seems to me that Holmes was perfectly equipped in his castle or the commission of wholesale murder by gas asphyxiation.”

High resolution scan of one of the “full confessions” written by H.H. Holmes to The Journal – April 12, 196

H. H. Holmes Murder Castle pictorial gallery

Image Credits

In-Article Image Credits

H. H. Holmes letter to judge via by Herman W. Mudgett with usage type - Public Domain. Jan 30, 1896
Benjamin F. Pitezel via by Herman W. Mudgett with usage type - Public Domain. Holmes' Own Story ( 1895)
Emeline Cigrand via by Herman W. Mudgett with usage type - Public Domain. Holmes' Own Story ( 1895)
Nannie Williams via by Herman W. Mudgett with usage type - Public Domain. Holmes' Own Story ( 1895)
Showing room where Nannie Williams was killed via by Herman W. Mudgett with usage type - Public Domain. Holmes' Own Story ( 1895)
Mrs. Pitezel via by Herman W. Mudgett with usage type - Public Domain. Holmes' Own Story ( 1895)
H.H. Holmes burning Pitezel's clothing via by Herman W. Mudgett with usage type - Public Domain. Holmes' Own Story ( 1895)
House where Pitezel's body was found via by Herman W. Mudgett with usage type - Public Domain. Holmes' Own Story ( 1895)
Alice Pitezel via by Herman W. Mudgett with usage type - Public Domain. Holmes' Own Story ( 1895)
Howard Pitezel via by Herman W. Mudgett with usage type - Public Domain. Holmes' Own Story ( 1895)
Nellie Pitezel via by Herman W. Mudgett with usage type - Public Domain. Holmes' Own Story ( 1895)
Minnie R. Williams via by Herman W. Mudgett with usage type - Public Domain. Holmes' Own Story ( 1895)
Holmes murdering the glass inventor via by Herman W. Mudgett with usage type - Public Domain. Holmes' Own Story ( 1895)
Holmes and the vault via by Herman W. Mudgett with usage type - Public Domain. Holmes' Own Story ( 1895)
The stove and false safe in H. H. Holmes castle via by Herman W. Mudgett with usage type - Public Domain. Holmes' Own Story ( 1895)
Holmes murdering Alice and Nellie Pitezel in the trunk via by Herman W. Mudgett with usage type - Public Domain. Holmes' Own Story ( 1895)
A trap door in Holmes castle via by Herman W. Mudgett with usage type - Public Domain. Holmes' Own Story ( 1895)
The Irvington cottage where Howard Pitezel was murdered via by Herman W. Mudgett with usage type - Public Domain. Holmes' Own Story ( 1895)
Letter from Holmes to the Philadelphia Inquisitor via by Herman W. Mudgett with usage type - Public Domain. April 11, 1896
The gas tank in Holmes Castle via by Herman W. Mudgett with usage type - Public Domain. Holmes' Own Story ( 1895)
From the latest and best photograph of H. H. Holmes via by Herman W. Mudgett with usage type - Public Domain. Holmes' Own Story ( 1895)
Holmes sketched during his trial via by Herman W. Mudgett with usage type - Public Domain. Holmes' Own Story ( 1895)
Full confession of H. H. Holmes page 3 via Wikipedia Commons by The Journal with usage type - Public Domain. April 12, 1896
Born Herman Webster Mudgett, also known as Dr. Henry Howard Holmes or H. H. Holmes via Wikipedia Commons with usage type - Public Domain
World's Fair Hotel, better known as H. H. Holmes Castle via Wikipedia Commons by Frank P. Geyer with usage type - Public Domain. Published in Geyer, Frank P. The Holmes-Pitezel Case: A History of the Greatest Crime of the Century and of the Search for the Missing Pitezel Children. Philadelphia, 1896.
U. S. Post Office previous site of H. H. Holmes' Murder Castle demolished in 1938 via Wikipedia Commons by Marlin Keesler with usage type - Creative Commons License. 22 November 2016
Full confession of H. H. Holmes via Wikipedia Commons by The Journal with usage type - Public Domain. April 12, 1896
Philadelphia City Police Detective Frank P. Geyer who was best known for his investigation of H. H. Holmes via Wikipedia Commons by Frank P. Geyer with usage type - Public Domain. 1896 book: The Holmes-Pitezel case; a history of the greatest crime of the century and of the search for the missing Pitezel children. Philadelphia, PA: Publishers' Union, 1896.
Herman Webster Mudgett (1861–1896), better known under the alias of Dr. Henry Howard Holmes via Wikipedia Commons with usage type - Public Domain
Benjamin Pitezel, longtime associate of H. H. Holmes via Wikipedia Commons with usage type - Public Domain
Execution of H. H. Holmes 1896 via Wikipedia Commons by with usage type - Public Domain
2nd floor of the Holmes Castle via Altered Dimensions with usage type - Public Domain
Holmes Murder Castle July 4, 1914 via Library of Congress by The Ogden Standard with usage type - Public Domain. July 4, 1914
Floorplans of the second and third floors of the Holmes Castle via Fright Find with usage type - Public Domain
Sketchings of the outside of Holmes’ castle, the stove, and the false safe inside via Dusty Old Thing with usage type - Public Domain. Library of Congress
New York Newspaper The World via Wikipedia Commons with usage type - Public Domain. August 11, 1895

Featured Image Credit

Born Herman Webster Mudgett, also known as Dr. Henry Howard Holmes or H. H. Holmes via Wikipedia Commons with usage type - Public Domain


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