The Dark Life of H.H. Holmes
The idea of a deranged doctor getting rid of his patients for insurance money or a madman that builds a house or horrors complete with torture chamber and dissection room is merely the stuff of Hollywood and overactive imaginations right? Sometimes these bizarre stores have their roots in real life events. Such is the case of Herman Webster Mudgett or H.H. Holmes as he became to be known throughout his criminal career. This personable and even charming character was uncovered to be a ruthless murderer who built a Murder Castle on the streets of Chicago, lured in victims so he could strip their bones clean and sell them to the local Universities, had a long standing career in insurance fraud, committed bigamy and ultimately killed off his wives, secretaries and business partners.
The extremely bright and adept Mudgett became the focus of bullying during his younger days. In one of these acts, two boys forced Mudgett to confront a skeleton from the local medical office. While the event scared him at the time, it did cure him of his needless fear and made him accustomed to the sight of bones. Ultimately he would go to medical school and graduate as one of the more prominent members of his class.
While in school Mudgett becomes adept at insurance fraud. His grand scheme was to take out a policy on someone, produce a corpse and then collect on the insurance. He has access to plenty of bodies and he knows how to disfigure them enough and measure them correctly so identification will be close enough. He begins to have larger plans and decides Chicago is where he will make his fortune. He changes his name to H.H. Holmes and blends in with the all the other people seeking jobs as the city rebuilds from the infamous fires that swept through.
Soon Holmes is working at a drug store as a chemist. After some time, he stages the death of the owner and convinces the widow to turn over the store to him. He will keep running the business and take care of her now that her husband is gone. With the store now his the widow soon disappears and he tells anyone who inquires that while visiting California she found it quite agreeable and decided to stay.
Holmes makes quite a bit of money from the drug store and buys the property across the street where he will build his new home. He hires and fires a myriad of workers. He continually swindles the workers out of money, but also, he keeps switching people around so no one except for himself will know what the finished building actually looks like on the inside. The house is actually designed with murder rooms. Corridors were constructed that lead no where. Doors would open into brick walls. Trap doors were placed in the floor that lead to the basement. Body chutes so he could easily dispose of a body. False stairs were added that lead nowhere. In many ways it resembled the Winchester House but in much more sinister ways. There are even claims of acid bathes, dissection tables and even a blast furnace he used as a crematorium.
The Murder Castle looked quite ordinary on the outside with the first floor consisting of regular shops such as a barber, jeweler and even a restaurant. He would make money from the rent but it also exposed him to a new crowd of people , a throng of potential victims.
Since Holmes had so much space he decided to rent it out during the 1893 Columbian Exposition which was basically the World’s Fair. His castle was just a mile or two away and he offered room and board to many of the visitors. These were perfect victims. They were alone is a new city, no one knew where they were and they couldn’t let their relatives know where they were staying. Holmes would invite them over, seal them up in one of the air tight rooms and fill it with gas so he could watch them asphyxiate. Or, he would take them to the torture chamber in the basement, strip the flesh from their bones and sell them off for $200. He even went so far as to suffocate his mistress in the bank vault he had placed on the first floor of the building. There is really no telling how many people met their end at the Murder Castle. People would leave the fair to find lodging and would never be heard from again.
It was also during this time that Holmes would meet B.F. Pietzel and a new insurance scam would be hatched. Pietzel had financial troubles and wasn’t able to take care of his family. With his problems mounting he becomes a heavy drinker, and as such, easy prey for Holmes. Holmes ends up befriending Pietzel and the two begin to come up with a way to fake Pietzels death and use the money to take care of his family. It’s a simply plan really, fake his death, substitute a body and grab the money. Easy enough.
The two set out on a spree of insurance fraud and deception. They travel thousands of miles committing fraud and taking money from their victims. But as Holmes tries to swindle a shopkeeper out of drugstore he gets caught and sent to jail. While there he meets a detainee called Hedgepeth and for some reason decides to reveal his master plan of Pietzel and the insurance fraud. Hedgepeth offers up the name of a lawyer who can help them and Holmes says he will send $500 once the job is done.
Holmes is released and the plan is back on track. But Holmes isn’t going to just fake the death, he’s going to do it for real. Pietzel’s drinking has become a liability and Holmes fears he may reveal too much while in one of his stupors. Pietzel sets up shop as a patent clerk and Holmes ends subduing Pietzel with chloroform and then setting the body on fire to disguise the true identity. Holmes then tries to claim the body and collect the insurance policy after reporting this “accident”.
The insurance company needs more than just Holmes to indentify the body, they need a blood relative. Carrie Pietzel is desperate for money so she sends their 15 year old daughter back with Holmes. The death of Pietzel is reported in the paper and in a strange bit of luck is read by Hedgepeth who is still in prison. Holmes never sent the $500 he promised so Hedgepeth decides to talk with the police about what he knows.
Holmes returns back to the Pietzel family without the daughter and explains that she is with her father and that he needs to take the rest of the family there. Carrie thinks her husband is alive and well, and she can’t refuse the promise of some money for food. After long talks she agrees to let Holmes take the children.
The police are now on to Holmes and the fraud he is trying to perpetuate. Pinkerton detectives track his movements and finally arrest him. However, none of the children can be found. Alice wrote extensive letters to her mother while she was travelling and Holmes never posted them. Pinkertons follow the trail in the hopes of finding them. Holmes is arrested for fraud and now they suspect him or murder. And once they find the remains of the children this is confirmed. They also find out about his “castle” and go to investigate.
A full investigation is launched as Holmes is now charged with murder. While the police find remains and the secrets of the castle are brought to light, Holmes begins to write down his story while he waits for trial. He wants to be remembered and he wants to persuade people he isn’t the monster that the media is reporting.
The trial becomes a circus as Holmes dismisses his counsel and represents himself. Carrie Pietzel comes into court showing the letters from her daughter and telling how Holmes killed them one by one. The entire court breaks down at the story, except Holmes. To make amends for his callous behavior, he breaks down when his current wife takes the stand and begins to talk about the man he is.
But nothing helps and Holmes is convicted and sentenced to be hanged on May 7th, 1896. More evidence is found at the castle and now Holmes is considered a mass murderer. William Randolph Hearst offers a large sum of money to Holmes to write his “confession”. Holmes sits down and confesses to every crime people thought he was guilty of and even a couple more. He talks about the Pietzel children, the bank vault, turning on the gas and suffocating people, burning bodies and Pietzel himself. He also discussed how he has the devil on his shoulder and it’s not his fault he turned out to be evil. He even goes so far as to say his features are becoming elongated and taking on a shape like the devil.
On the day of the hanging Holmes recants everything and says he was just giving the public what they wanted to hear. He denies all the murders and any wrong doing. It doesn’t matter and he is hanged before a large crowd 9 days before his 35th birthday.
One final request was that his body be encased in concrete and buried 10 feet down. His request was granted. It seems he didn’t want to be dissected or to have his remains sold to a University like he did to so many others.
There is not a true count of how many people Holmes murdered. With so many people coming and going through the Fair it could literally be hundreds. His castle was riddled with bones, flesh and the pieces from multiple bodies, but who knows how many skeletons he sold off or how many people were burned to ashes in his crematorium in the basement. The real body count may be somewhere around nine victims. Holmes claims 27 victims in his own account.
As the fervor and excitement of Holmes began to take hold there was talk of turning the castle into some sort of macabre museum. Before this idea could really take root the building was set on fire. It seems the idea of glorifying Holmes may have been too much for someone.
The story of H.H. Holmes borders on the bizarre and fantastic and seems almost too strange to believe. A doctor who kills his patients and a madman who takes pleasure in the systematic slaughter of his victims. He’s not confined to a gender or age group and kills indiscriminately. He has victims of all ages and even dispatches people he was involved with romantically. It’s a strange case to be sure and one whose real life events are stranger than the devilish productions of a writer’s creative mind.
Other Articles of Interest:
- The Murder Hotel of H. H. Holmes
- Bloodstains – Jeff Mudgett
- Haunted History Season 1, Ep. 3 "Murder Castle"
- Dr. H. H. Holmes and The Whitechapel Ripper – A Review
- H.H. Holmes to be exhumed
- Bloodstains – The Analysis
- Martina Cole’s Ladykillers
- The Devil in White City
- Whitechapel Season 3
- Holmes Own Story