This Man May be the Deadliest Serial Killer in American History: H.H. Holmes and His Castle of Death

This Man May be the Deadliest Serial Killer in American History: H.H. Holmes and His Castle of Death

Patrick Lynch - April 4, 2017

Herman Webster Mudgett, better known as H.H. Holmes, is often called ‘America’s first serial killer.’ Whether or not that is true, he is possibly one of the most prolific serial killers in history. Although police say he killed up to 10 people and Holmes confessed to 27, it is possible that he has committed over 200 murders.

The problem is that Holmes was something of a fantasist and he made his claims during the height of ‘Yellow Journalism,’ where everything was exaggerated to sell newspapers. On the gallows, Holmes recanted and claimed he only killed two people. This, along with the fact that he killed people in an elaborately designed ‘murder castle’ and disposed of the bodies, makes it impossible to say just how many people died at his hand.

The Making of a Murderer

Herman Mudgett was born in New Hampshire in 1861, and while little is known about his early years, there are suggestions that he was bullied as a child. Apparently, his classmates found out about his fear of doctors, so they made him stand in front of a human skeleton in a doctor’s office. Although he was initially scared, Holmes later claimed the experience eliminated his fear of death and may even have led to his obsession with it as an adult.

Despite his issues with bullies, it is said that Holmes had a privileged childhood and exhibited signs of high intelligence. He showed an early interest in medicine and apparently performed surgery on animals. He enrolled in the University of Michigan’s Department of Medicine and Surgery and graduated in 1884. During his time in college, Holmes stole cadavers from the lab and disfigured them. He claimed the people died in accidents and tried to collect insurance money. It took several years, but he finally perfected his insurance scams and became the beneficiary on the policies of several women who died soon after in mysterious circumstances.

This Man May be the Deadliest Serial Killer in American History: H.H. Holmes and His Castle of Death
Castle of Death outline. Bizarrepedia

Building the Murder Castle

Given his criminal past, the future serial killer changed his name to Henry Howard Holmes in 1886 to start fresh and distance himself from his previous scams. He moved to Chicago and found work in a drugstore in the Englewood neighborhood. Holmes eventually owned the business when the original owner vanished without a trace.

Eventually, he had enough money to begin construction of his legendary castle of death. After purchasing a plot of land across from the drugstore, he designed a labyrinthine building that took 18 months to complete; it was originally supposed to take just six months. In a fiendishly clever move that prevented anyone else from learning the truth about the new building, Holmes routinely hired and fired laborers by claiming their work wasn’t up to standard. It also saved him a lot of money.

The result was an unusually designed hotel with stairways that led to dead ends and doors that opened into brick walls amongst other traps. Some of the doors contained locks that sealed people inside. The bedrooms were equipped with gas lines or were soundproofed and doors were also rigged with alarms, so Holmes knew the movements of guests. There was also a ‘secret hanging chamber’ on the second floor.

This Man May be the Deadliest Serial Killer in American History: H.H. Holmes and His Castle of Death
Benjamin Pitezel, Holmes associate. Creepy Basement

The Killing Spree

The murder castle was completed in 1892 and Holmes announced that he would rent out rooms to tourists during the Columbian Exposition, also known as the World’s Fair in Chicago. Holmes even murdered his employees, and there is no way of knowing just how many guests died because the activity of the Fair was a perfect disguise for his dastardly deeds.

Holmes murdered his victims in a variety of ways. He could asphyxiate them, seal them up in chambers so they died of thirst, or hang them. Holmes typically disposed of the bodies by placing them in a fake elevator or dumping them down a metal chute that ended up in the basement. Once he was downstairs, Holmes would gleefully dissect the corpses, sell their organs to his medical connections, and steal their valuables. The remaining parts of the bodies were disposed of in acid baths, furnaces, or lime pits.

Capture & Execution

Holmes’ fondness for insurance scams led to his capture. With the aid of his friend Benjamin Pitezel, he launched a scam whereby Pitezel faked his death so his wife could collect a $10,000 payout. The two men traveled around the country committing other frauds, and when they ended up in jail in Texas, Holmes asked fellow inmate Marion Hedgepeth to help them with the scam.

Holmes asked Hedgepeth to recommend a lawyer capable of helping him with the insurance fraud and promised a payment of $500. The cheapskate Holmes failed to live up to his end of the bargain, and an irate Hedgepeth went to the police to tell them of the crime. Instead of finding a cadaver to imitate the body of Pitezel, Holmes decided to murder his accomplice by knocking him out and burning the body with benzene. He was able to collect the payout and convinced Pitezel’s widow to give him custody of three of her children. He then proceeded to murder all three.

The net closed in on Holmes, and as he sat in a Philadelphia prison after confessing to insurance fraud, the police traced his trail back to Chicago and entered the castle of death. They located his maze of secret chutes and torture chambers and discovered mounds of animal and human bone,s including those of children as young as six-years-old. Police also found bloodied women’s clothes beside a ‘dissection’ table that was covered in blood.

Holmes was tried for the murder of Pitezel and sentenced to death. After his conviction, Holmes said he committed at least 27 (some estimates say he confessed to 30) murders in Chicago, Toronto, and Indianapolis. The problem was, some of the people he claimed to have murdered turned up alive later on. Holmes’ neck did not snap when he was hanged on May 7, 1896, and it took 20 minutes for him to die. Ironically, he asked to be buried in a cement chamber so his body could not be dissected.

We will never know how many people he murdered because of the chaos of the World’s Fair and the less than sophisticated methods of police detection back in the late 19th century. The murder castle was effectively destroyed in a fire in 1895, although the first floor survived until 1938 when it was razed and turned into a U.S. Post Office.

Interestingly, a man named Pat Quinlan was the caretaker of the castle during Holmes’ killing spree, and while he was questioned about the murders, there wasn’t enough evidence to charge him. However, he committed suicide in 1914 by consuming strychnine. His suicide note said ‘I couldn’t sleep’ so it is likely that he suffered from a guilty conscience. Did Pat Quinlan help Holmes commit murder, did he cover up the crimes, or was he just an unsuspecting associate?