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       August 06, 2011 4:00 PM

 America's Worst Serial Killer?


His name was Herman Webster Mudgett. Some believe he killed as many as 200 people. Born in 1861 to an affluent family in Gilmanton, NH, he enjoyed a privileged childhood. His mother, a devout Methodist, often read the Bible to him, but some say his father was a violent alcoholic. Herman was described as unusually intelligent, but his childhood activities may have been a portent of things to come. Obsessed with death and intensely interested in medicine, he sometimes practiced surgery on animals. 

Early crimes

After enrolling in medical school at the University of Michigan, he stole corpses and used them to file false insurance claims. His crimes went undetected, and he graduated in 1884. Two years later he moved to Chicago. Adopting the name Dr. Henry H. Holmes, he found work at a pharmacy. The owner had cancer so his wife ran the store. An accomplished con-artist, Holmes convinced her to sell him the pharmacy, saying she could live in the upstairs apartment after her husband died. However, soon after her husband died, she mysteriously disappeared. When people asked about her, Holmes told them she was living in California.

  After purchasing a parcel of land across the street from the pharmacy, he constructed an elaborate three-story, block-long building and moved his drugstore into the first floor. The two upper floors became his Murder Castle: 100 windowless rooms, stairways to nowhere, and doors that opened only from the outside. Holmes opened his hotel in 1893 to house visitors who flocked to Chicago to visit the World Colombian Exposition and ride on the huge, newly invented Ferris wheel.

Many of Holmes’ guests did not survive his hospitality. Women found him suave and charismatic. He seduced them and swindled them. Then he killed them. Some rooms in his hotel had gas jets which he used to asphyxiate his victims. Others he locked in a soundproof vault and left them to suffocate. Trapdoors and chutes sent the corpses down to the basement. Some he cremated in giant furnaces. Others he sold to medical schools.

Many marriages, no divorces

In 1978, he had married Clara Lovering in Alton, NH. In 1887, while still married to Clara, he married Myrta Belknap in Minneapolis, MN; their daughter was born in 1889. After marrying Myrta, he filed for divorce from Clara, but the divorce was never finalized. Soon after the Exposition closed, Holmes left Chicago. Creditors were after him and the economy was in a slump. In 1894, while still married to Clara and Myrta, he married Georgiana Yoke in Denver, CO. Later that year he surfaced in Fort Worth, TX, having inherited property from two sisters, one of whom he had promised to marry. He killed both of them.

A stint in jail and a new scheme

In July 1894 Holmes was jailed for the first time in St. Louis for a horse swindle. Before being released on bail, he met convicted train robber Marion Hedgepeth. They concocted an insurance scam. Holmes would take out a life insurance policy for $20,000 and then fake his own death. He promised to give Hedgepeth $500 for putting him in touch with a lawyer who could be trusted. Hedgepeth sent him to Colonel Jeptha Howe, who thought Holmes’ plan was brilliant. But the insurance company became suspicious and refused to pay the claim.

Holmes then devised a new scam with an acquaintance.  Benjamin Pitezel would fake his own death in a laboratory explosion; Holmes would find an appropriate cadaver to act as Pitezel’s corpse. Pitezel’s wife would collect $10,000, which she would split with Holmes and his shady lawyer Colonel Howe. To execute the scam Holmes and Pitezel went to Philadelphia.

Holmes then killed the unsuspecting Pitezel and  collected the insurance money himself. He convinced Mrs. Pitezel that her husband was still alive and talked her into giving him custody of three of her five children. Using various aliases, he took them to Canada, having convinced Mrs. Pitezel to meet him there with her infant and her eldest daughter.

But all was not well in Texas. Marion Hedgepeth, angry that Holmes had not paid him as promised, tipped off the police. After a nationwide manhunt, Holmes was arrested in Boston on November 17, 1894. Held on an outstanding warrant for horse theft in Texas, he planned to flee the country with his unsuspecting third wife, Georgiana. But his elaborate life of deception began to unravel. Philadelphia police arrived and charged him with the murder of Benjamin Pitezel. After the custodian of Holmes’ hotel told Chicago police he had never been allowed to clean the upper stories, police discovered Holmes’ gruesome methods of murder and body disposal.

A sensational murder trial, a macabre execution

Holmes’ Philadelphia murder trial caused a sensation. By then a private detective had tracked Holmes to Toronto and found the remains of two Pitezel children in a rented cottage. The teeth and bits of bones of a third child were later found in the chimney. This sealed Holmes’ fate in the court of public opinion. The Hearst Newspapers paid him $7,500 for his confession. Although he admitted to 27 murders, some estimated there were as many 200 victims. The actual number was impossible to determine, thanks to Holmes’ efficient disposal of the corpses.

Convicted of murder, Holmes filed an appeal. He lost. On May 7, 1896, he was hanged for the murder of Benjamin Pitezel. In a garish twist, his neck did not snap immediately. Instead, and perhaps fittingly considering his many victims, he died slowly, twitching for several minutes before he died. His request to be buried in concrete so no one could ever dig him up was granted.

For more details on this and other cases, see DARK DEEDS, Volume 1


Rumor has it that Leonardo DiCaprio may make a film about Holmes’ depraved life of crime. Can you see Leonardo as Holmes, a suave twisted monster with a sadistic streak lurking beneath his handsome exterior? Please leave a comment!


Citations: Biography.com: H.H. Holmes. Books: Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City (2003); Harold Schechter’s Depraved: The Definitive True Story of H.H. Holmes (1994); Rick Geary’s The Beast of Chicago (2003); Frank Geyer’s The Holmes-Pitezel Case (1896).

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[ Posted by Earl Staggs, August 07, 2011 11:51 AM ]
     Susan, I watch a lot of true crime shows on TV and enjoy seeing killers get caught and punished, something that doesn't always happen these days. I wasn't familiar with Holmes' story, so thanks for telling it.

[ Posted by Art Smukler, August 07, 2011 1:42 PM ]
     Wow! What a great blog. Very informative and well written. Thanks! Art

[ Posted by Barb Ross, August 11, 2011 11:15 AM ]
     Susan--what a great blog!

[ Posted by Susan, August 15, 2011 6:30 PM ]
     Thanks for your terrific comments and my apologies for the "down time" and lag before they were posted due to "new computer" and software issues.

[ Posted by Susan Vaughan, June 23, 2013 8:42 AM ]
     As a writer of romantic suspense, I've read a lot about serial killers, but have never heard of H. H. Holmes. Fascinating. Let's hope for the movie!

[ Posted by admin, June 23, 2013 6:15 PM ]
     Thanks for the comment, Susan. the story of H.H. Holmes is one of the more macabre tales in US history. He is featured in Eric Larson's The Devil in the White City, contrasted with Daniel Burnham, the famed architect who designed The White City for the Chicago Worlds Fair.

posted by SUSAN FLEET   August 06, 2011 4:00 PM  Serial Killers 


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