True Grue: H.H. Holmes, America’s First Serial KillerBooks/Art/Culture,Features/Interviews,News Christopher La Vigna
Welcome to “True Grue,” a weekly article that dives into real life, harrowing horrors. For the interest of good taste, this graphic feature aims not to be exploitative, but rather informative, and rest assured, there are many different territories that will be strictly off-limits. But for those with a hungry mind and a strong stomach, read on at your own discretion…
America has an unfortunate abundance of noted serial killers: so long is the list of madmen, it would be understandable for one to assume that getting down to the identity of the person to carry the dubious distinction of “first serial killer on American soil” is nearly impossible. This is not the case. One of the most devious killers to ever stalk about the nation was also the first. His name was H.H. Holmes, a/k/a The Monster of 63rd Street.
Born in Gilmanton New Hampshire in May 1861, Holmes (originally named Herman Webster Mudgett), was the third child in his family, raised by a devoutly religious mother and an alcoholic father. As a child, he excelled in school, whilst also being constantly tormented by his schoolmates. One particularly portentous incident involved Mudgett being dragged into the town doctor’s office by his cruel peers, and being forced to confront a display skeleton. A fascination with death itself blossomed and grew from that day forth.
As he entered early adulthood, Mudgett chose to take up medicine as a profession. After a brief stint as a student at the University of Vermont in Burlington, he enrolled at the University of Michigan. Not long after graduating, he started an insurance scam racket in which he secured insurance policies for various persons, then obtained fresh cadavers by unknown means in order to certify their deaths and claim the money.
Mudgett spent the next few years traveling about, spending time in New York and Philadelphia before settling in Chicago in 1886, where he received his license to be a druggist. It was also around this time that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published his first collection of Sherlock Holmes stories. Inspired, Herman Mudgett changed his name and became Dr. H.H. Holmes. Dr. Holmes found employment at a drugstore in Chicago, and soon gained ownership of it when the owner, a widow, vanished mysteriously.
After achieving a fair deal of financial success, Holmes built an elaborate luxury hotel in the Englewood district. The three-story hotel had numerous rooms, corridors, and even several storefronts on the first floor. But it was third floor where Holmes dedicated the greatest level of attention: several rooms were windowless, and fitted with airtight doors. One of them was also fitted with a gas jet, the cut-off valve of which was located in Holmes’ own apartment.
As disturbing as this information is, It was unknown to the public, and so no one yet suspected anything truly sinister about Holmes. Save for the many bankers and creditors he managed to talk down when they came around demanding payment, Holmes was by multiple accounts a well-liked individual, and a serial womanizer and bigamist (At one point having three wives simultaneously, with none of them knowing about the others).
In 1893, The World’s Fair came to Chicago, transforming it from a soot-ridden metropolis to “The White City.” Hundreds of people flooded the city looking for work, especially women. Guests and employees at the hotel began to disappear, and Holmes frequently had to wave off complaints of a strange chemical smell lingering about the building.
Two of Holmes’ earliest known victims were Minnie Williams and her sister Anna. After entering into a faux marriage with Minnie and acquiring a deed to land she owned in Fort Worth, Texas, the sisters disappeared completely.
Holmes then set his sights on Georgiana Yoke, A saleswoman in one of his department stores who soon became another one of his mistresses. When Holmes learned that his mounting debts were to be called upon, he fled with Georgiana and a trusted in employee by the name of Benjamin Pitezel, whom he had just recently bought a 10,000 life insurance policy for.
In the summer of 1895, Holmes was arrested in Philadelphia for insurance fraud. As his background became clear, details of a prior insurance scam came to light, wherein H.H. Holmes tried to claim Pitezel’s policy. When Pinkerton agents arrived to investigate further, Holmes claimed that he had simply substituted a burnt corpse and claimed it was Benjamin, but after Alice Pitezel (age 15), Benjamin’s eldest daughter, was brought forth to identify the body, it was confirmed to be the remains of Benjamin Pitezel, and that the claim had been rightfully paid.
Holmes himself later accompanied Alice back to St.Louis (where Benjamin’s widow Carrie and her other two children Nellie (age 11) and Howard (age 8) resided at the time) and somehow managed to convince her that Benjamin was still alive, and that it would be a good idea to let him take the two children and on a trip.
Alice wrote to her mother regularly during the trips, and when Holmes was ultimately arrested, the letters were all discovered hidden away in a box Holmes kept with him. The dates on the letters allowed Pinkerton agents to trace Holmes’ route, and find that at several key points he, Georgiana, and the two children were staying in different hotels under an assumed name, with Carrie herself staying at hotel only a few blocks away from Holmes and her children when they were in Detroit.
Holmes insisted that the children, who were now missing, were with his friend Minnie Williams in London. However, further digging led Pinkerton agents to Holmes’ last stop in Toronto Canada. There, a resident named Thomas Ryves, who felt Holmes’ description fit a man who had rented the house next door to his, led them to the basement where the buried bodies of Alice and Nellie Pitezel were found. The body of young Howard was later found in a nearby house Holmes had asked about renting.
The gruesome discoveries prompted a search of Holmes’ hotel, which would soon be dubbed the “Murder Castle”. When the police entered the basement, they discovered a truly sick scene: A dissection table caked with dried blood, acid vats and quicklime pits filled with partial skeletal remains, a dumbwaiter used for transporting bodies, piles of burnt women’s clothing and a cremation room. To this day, it is not known exactly how many victims Holmes claimed in total.
Holmes stood trial in Philadelphia in the fall of 1895, and was ultimately found guilty and hanged for his crimes on May 7th, 1896. In an autobiography he penned whilst awaiting his execution, Holmes confessed to all of the killings he was accused of, and curiously enough, expressed concern that he might truly be the devil himself, writing: “…My head and face are gradually assuming an elongated shape. I believe fully that I am growing to resemble the Devil–that the similitude is almost completed.”
Though whether or not Holmes’ evil ways truly were of a demonic nature- the priest who delivered his last rites was later found dead of mysterious causes on church property, and the Warden of the prison that held him committed suicide not long after the execution-, his horrid legacy as one of the first and most famous bloodthirsty manipulators in America is secure, with Erik Larson’s excellent 2003 nonfiction novel DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY exposing Holmes’ sadistic story to a whole new generation, to which Leonardo DiCaprio secured the film rights in 2010).
We can never truly know exactly why most serial killers are compelled to do what they do, but in the case of H.H. Holmes, there is one quote he delivered (in regards to his murder of Benjamin Pitezel) that gives a pretty solid idea: “…for the gratification of my blood-thirstiness, I intended to kill him.”