Dr. Henry Howard Holmes may have achieved fame as America’s first real and extrensivly documented serial killer, but he didn’t start off that way. Holmes was born Herman Webster Mudgett. He was a motivated student who graduated with a surgical degree, though rumors swirled about his after-hours activities. It was said he spent his nights in the morgue disfiguring corpses for sport. Holmes’s dark legacy lives on. He was America’s first serial killer, but he wasn’t the last,
By the time Mudgett moved from New Hampshire to Chicago in 1885, a lot had changed. He now went by Holmes, and had married and abandoned three wives without bothering to divorce any of them. In Chicago he ran a pharmacy and, across the street from it, erected an elaborate home for himself. This house would later become infamously known as Holmes’s “Murder Castle.”
Holmes’s capitalized on the Chicago’s World Fair and advertised rooms for rent in his castle. Many of his hotel’s “guests” were women who alternately became his lovers, employees, and his victims.
Holmes enlisted the carpentry skills of Benjamin Pitezel. The man helped Holmes realized his macabre fantasies. He built torture rooms and even a crematorium to Holmes’s specifications. It was a partnership that would end not only in Pitezel’s own death, but in the deaths of three of his children.
While the bodies of Pitezel’s daughters Alice and Nelly were eventually recovered from the basement of the castle, all that remained of his youngest child, Howard, were fragments of his teeth located inside Holmes’s crematorium.
It was not Holmes’s murderous habits that proved to be his undoing. Rather, it was an arrest for charges of horse swindling that would be his downfall. Before he was released on bail, he inexplicably told his cellmate about the murders. That man, Marion Hedgepeth, then tipped off the police, who tracked down and arrested Holmes in Boston.
Police gained access to the castle, where they discovered the sick torture maze Holmes devised. They also discovered human bones, bloody examining tables, and the jewelry, hair and clothing of his victims. While only 9 murders are confirmed, the actual number is thought to be between 27 and 100. Holmes gave conflicting reports, but never denied that he perpetrated these atrocities.
Holmes did not discriminate. He killed men, women, and children without hesitation. He would later say that he conquered his fear of death as a surgical student and came to love the sight of blood and gore. The public was fascinated by the man, his insidious house of horrors, and his utter lack of remorse.
Holmes was hanged in 1896. The only fear he expressed at his execution was that grave robbers might dig up his body and do to him what he had done to so many others. He asked that concrete be poured over his grave to prevent this.
Holmes’s castle was burned down by an arsonist in 1895. No one was ever charged with the crime. It is believed that locals destroyed the building to prevent it from becoming a tourist attraction out of respect to the victims.