by Darcia Helle
You’ve probably fantasized about your dream home. Most of us do. You might want a spacious mansion, a decadent penthouse, or an old farmhouse. Chances are you won’t be fantasizing about a Murder Castle. It’s even less likely that you’ll be designing and building one. But H.H. Holmes did just that.
Holmes was born Herman Webster Mudgett, on May 16, 1861, in Gilmanton, New Hampshire. His parents, Levi Horton Mudgett and Theodate Page Price, were farmers and devout Methodists. We don’t know a lot about Holmes’s early life. Some reports state that his father was a violent alcoholic, though it’s unclear how much, if any, abuse Holmes endured during his father’s drunken outbursts. Holmes claimed to have been bullied as a child, brought on in part by his fear of the local doctor. Hoping to terrorize him, the bullies forced Holmes to look at and touch a human skeleton. This scheme apparently backfired and instead sparked his lifelong obsession with death.
Holmes began his adult life with a con job. On July 4, 1878, he married Clara Lovering with the sole intent of using her money to put himself through medical school. Their son, Robert Lovering Mudgett, was born on February 3, 1880 in Loudon, New Hampshire. We don’t know what kind of relationship Holmes had with his wife and son in those early years. Holmes struggled in medical school, all the while resenting the wealthy, carefree students who didn’t need to work to support a family.
While in medical school, Holmes was exposed to the questionable practice of buying and selling skeletons and freshly dead bodies. Medical schools needed intact skeletons and cadavers for their students, and their methods for supplying those bodies were not monitored by law enforcement or any agency. Though they didn’t flaunt their practices and were careful not to purchase obvious murder victims, their questionable methods were a kind of open secret. Holmes paid attention and soon found ways to use this to his advantage.
Holmes’s descent into the macabre began with stealing dead bodies from the medical school laboratory. He’d take out life insurance policies on the dead under false names, disfigure them so they were unrecognizable, then claim they’d died accidentally so that he could collect the insurance. Not long afterward, he realized it was smarter to use newly dead bodies, since they had yet to be embalmed. This afforded him a double scam. After collecting on the life insurance, he could sell the body to the medical school. And so began Holmes’s career as a killer.
In June of 1884, Holmes managed to pass his final examinations. He’d done so poorly at the medical school that the board had to vote twice before agreeing to give Holmes his license. The problem wasn’t that Holmes lacked intelligence, but rather he lacked the focus and desire to perform well on exams. Not long after receiving his medical degree, he left Clara Lovering, changed his name from Herman Mudgett to Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, and moved to Chicago.
Holmes began his new life working as a pharmacist in a drugstore owned by Dr. Elizabeth S. Holton. She soon sold the business to Holmes, most likely because she’d become pregnant though this is more speculation than fact. By most accounts, Holmes was a well-liked and respected businessman. No one questioned his identity or credentials.
On January 28, 1887, he married Myrta Belknap, despite not having divorced his first wife, Clara. For the most part, Holmes kept Myrta away from his business. Their family home was in Wilmette, Illinois, but he spent most of his time at his pharmacy in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago. Today the travel time is only about 30 minutes by car, but would have been far longer back in the late 1800s. Holmes eventually had three children with Myrta, though again it’s unclear how much time and attention he gave his new family.
Around this time, work began on the World Columbian Exposition – now known as the Chicago World’s Fair – which was expected to be the largest event in history. The site where the fair would be held was only about three miles from the Englewood neighborhood where Holmes worked. Though he had very little money of his own, Holmes managed to con creditors and use further scams to purchase an empty lot across from his drugstore. He immediately began work on the design and construction of what he claimed would be a hotel for the fairgoers. In reality, though, Holmes had other grisly ideas from the very start.
The massive three-story building took up the entire city block, and locals began referring to it as the Castle. Holmes moved his drugstore to the bottom floor, along with various other shops. The two upper floors were a maze containing his office and “guest” rooms. Within this labyrinth were 100 windowless rooms, doorways opening to brick walls, stairways leading nowhere, doors that only opened from the outside, closets with trap doors in the floor, and hallways jutting out at odd angles. Throughout the construction, Holmes repeatedly changed builders, often using workers from out of town, and never shared his completed plans with anyone.
In 1889, during the three-year period of construction, Holmes met the carpenter Benjamin Pitezel. The two formed a relationship of sorts that Pitezel and his family would eventually pay dearly for. Holmes and Pitezel traveled together, sometimes sharing a room. They also schemed together, particularly with insurance fraud. Despite what Pitezel took to be friendship, Holmes seems to have marked his friend as a victim early on.
The city of Chicago was consumed with preparation for the upcoming fair, and so was Holmes. He hired young, single women to work in his Castle as maids and secretaries. All were given life insurance policies as part of their job benefits, which Holmes paid for and was also beneficiary of. While Holmes and Pitezel had plans for insurance fraud, Holmes actually had plans for much more. Although Pitezel believed they were merely scamming the life insurance companies, Holmes was actually murdering the women.
Chicago bustled with activity during the years leading up to the fair. Workers needed to live close by. Supplies were trucked in. The local economy boomed. The surroundings offered the perfect cover for Holmes’s murder spree.
Approximately 27 million people passed through Chicago during the fair’s six-month span. Crime ran rampant. Strangers came and went, filling the city with transients. The fledgling, understaffed police force couldn’t keep up. Holmes found his ideal playground.
The Castle had been made to the specifications of a madman. Secret passages, sound-proofed rooms, and specially greased chutes were only the beginning. Holmes had stocked his Murder Castle with torture equipment, such as an elongated bed with straps thought to be used to see how far the human body could be stretched. Some of the rooms were equipped with gas pipes, so he could slowly poison his guests while they remained locked inside. He’d installed a special furnace that burned hot enough to incinerate bone, and kept vats of acid for eating away flesh. The special chutes gave him a convenient method of moving bodies from the second and third floors down to the basement for disposal.
Of course, at the time no one but Holmes knew the reasons for the odd, maze-like construction. The missing maids and secretaries were easily explained. Young, single women often left to marry. Or went home to visit their families. Guests came and went all over the city. They weren’t known and were rarely associated with a stay at Holmes’s hotel. No one questioned the respected businessman running The Castle.
In October 1893, when the fair shut down, activity in Chicago came to a grinding halt. The economy fell into a slump. Creditors were catching up to Holmes, who’d failed to pay most of the construction costs for his Murder Castle. So he did what he’d become good at, and made plans to scam an insurance company.
Around this time, the Murder Castle caught fire. Dates differ depending on the source. Some cite August 19, 1894 but most claim the fire occurred in November 1893. It’s possible these were two separate fires, with the first being smaller and unsuccessful. Most agree that Holmes was in deep with debt and attempted arson to collect on the $60,000 insurance policy he held on his castle. The insurance company was not as easily scammed as the life insurance companies he’d worked with in the past. Because Holmes constantly changed the building’s ownership papers in order to avoid creditors, the insurance company argued fraud. They refused to pay and Holmes had no choice but to flee. Soon police and firemen were uncovering the gruesome scene Holmes had left behind.
Holmes, unaware authorities were on to him back in Chicago, went blissfully along his murderous path. He traveled to Fort Worth, Texas, where he had property he’d inherited in one of his murder schemes. There is speculation that he attempted to build a second murder castle, but for whatever reasons, he abandoned the project and moved on. He then traveled to Denver, where he married Georgia Yoke on January 17, 1894. The two had met at the fair, and Georgia seems to be the only woman Holmes ever truly loved.
In July, 1894, Holmes – under his new identity of H.M. Howard – was arrested for the first time on charges of horse swindling. While in prison, he met convicted train robber Marion Hedgepeth, and the two of them concocted a plan for insurance fraud. Holmes was to fake his death, Hedgepeth would collect on the life insurance claim, and the two of them would share the money. Hedgepeth gave Holmes the name of a lawyer who was an associate and would happily comply with their scam. But after leaving prison, Holmes quickly forgot about Hedgepeth. Instead he made a similar plan with his friend Benjamin Pitezel, only this time it was Pitezel who was supposed to fake his death.
Holmes and Pitezel devised a scheme, though it’s unclear how much of the plan Holmes intended on sticking. In Philadelphia, Pitezel would assume the identity of an inventor named B.F. Perry. Holmes was to procure a corpse, presumably from a mortuary or medical school. Holmes and Pitezel would then rig a laboratory explosion in which B.F. Perry would be killed, with the cadaver as Pitezel’s stand-in, becoming disfigured and therefore unrecognizable in the blaze. Pitezel’s wife would then collect the $10,000 life insurance policy and they would split the money.
At some point, Holmes came up with a much more elaborate and lucrative plan of his own. Pitezel tended to be melancholy, slightly depressive, and a heavy drinker. Holmes used this to his advantage, feeding his friend alcohol until he’d passed out. After arranging the scene to his liking, Holmes doused his friend in flammable liquid, concentrating on Pitezel’s face, and lit a match. His friend, Benjamin Pitezel, might have been alive when he was set on fire, though this detail is unclear.
Holmes’s wife Georgia had accompanied Holmes to Philadelphia during this time, though she knew nothing about the insurance fraud or the murder. After killing Pitezel, Holmes took his wife back to their home in Indianapolis. He then traveled to St. Louis, where he told Carrie Pitezel, Benjamin’s wife, that Pitezel was in hiding until they’d safely collected on the claim.
In the meantime, on September 4, 1894, a visitor to the Philadelphia office of B.F. Perry arrived to find the door locked. Thinking this strange, she contacted the police who then forced the door open. Inside the office, they found the body of a man with severe burns. A pipe, matches, and a broken bottle with remnants of a flammable liquid similar to benzene, or possibly chloroform, lay nearby. The victim of an apparent explosion, police assumed him to be B.F. Perry, who’d recently rented the office.
About two weeks after the discovery of Perry’s body, Fidelity Mutual Life Association of Philadelphia received a letter from St. Louis claiming B.F. Perry was actually Benjamin F. Pitezel, whose life had been insured by their company. Soon two professional men arrived in Fidelity’s Philadelphia office, claiming to represent the widow Pitezel. One introduced himself as Dr. H.H. Holmes, with the explanation that Mrs. Pitezel was too ill to travel. The other man was Jephtha Howe, Mrs. Pitezel’s attorney. With them was one of Pitezel’s children, 14-year-old Alice. Holmes made the identification, assuring the insurance representatives that Pitezel had certain specific moles and markings enabling him to do so despite the severe burns. The $10,000 insurance claim was paid to Holmes, who was there acting on behalf of the widow Pitezel and her five children.
Fidelity would likely never have questioned any of this if it hadn’t been for an angry, vindictive prisoner Holmes had double-crossed. Marion Hedgepeth, the man Holmes had once share a cell with back in St. Louis, was furious that Holmes had used a version of their scam and the lawyer he’d recommended, but had reneged on his promise to share the money. Hedgepeth gave a detailed account of the scheme to police, who then passed the information on to Fidelity. Though Hedgepeth only knew Holmes as H.M. Howard, it didn’t take long for the insurance company to figure out that Howard was actually H.H. Holmes. They tried unsuccessfully to track him themselves, and soon hired investigators from the Pinkerton National Detective Agency to chase him down.
Holmes now had the money in his pocket and assured Carrie Pitezel that he would lead her to her husband, but they had to be careful not to be followed or caught. He also managed to convince her that it would be best if he took three of the children – Alice, Nellie, and Howard – with him, leaving Carrie to travel only with the oldest and the youngest of her children.
Holmes inexplicably took the three children across country, at the same time traveling with his wife Georgia. And so began Holmes’s game of human chess. He managed to move his wife and the children from one city to the next, together but separately. The children were kept hidden away in rooms, hotels, and sometimes houses, without his wife ever knowing of their existence. Each day the children wrote letters to their mother, detailing their experience on the run. Each day Holmes took the letters with a promise to ensure their mother received them, which of course she never did.
While he shuffled the children and his wife from city to city, Holmes had Carrie Pitezel and her two remaining children moving along a parallel route. Holmes devised an elaborate ruse, supplying multiple forwarding addresses for communications. At various times, he told Carrie that her children were safe with a widow in Indianapolis and a wealthy woman in London, and that her husband was safely hiding, first in Canada and later in London.
Amidst all of this, detectives from the Pinkerton Agency somehow managed to track down Holmes. Finally, on the afternoon of November 16, 1894, H.H. Holmes was arrested in Boston as he reportedly prepared to take a steamship to England. Because the insurance scheme and Pitezel’s murder had taken place in Philadelphia, Detective Thomas Crawford brought Holmes back there. The police in Chicago, where the Murder Castle held his many atrocities, were initially unaware of Holmes’s arrest.
During the time Holmes awaited trial and, later, while awaiting execution, he spun extravagant tales about his escapades. He always claimed innocence, and his stories changed frequently. Months passed and the Pitezel children were nowhere to be found. Finally, in the early summer of 1895, Detective Frank Geyer was assigned to track them down.
For reasons never explained, Holmes had kept all the letters the children had written to their mother. The letters were in his possession when he was arrested. Using these letters as a guide, Detective Geyer took a train to the Midwest to begin his search. In Cincinnati, Ohio, Geyer found someone who remembered Holmes traveling with the children. He’d been using the alias Alex E. Cook, which he’d sometimes used in prior business matters. That contact led Geyer to a woman who’d seen Holmes with a boy in a nearby house. But there was no sign of the children.
When those leads dried up, Geyer continued using the letters to follow the trail. He wound up in Detroit, where Alice had written the last of her letters to her mother. In this letter, Alice wrote, “Howard is not with us now.” This, to Geyer, almost ensured that Holmes had killed the boy prior to arriving in Detroit.
Geyer followed more leads to Toronto, Canada, where he questioned real estate agents about a man traveling with two young girls. He was told about a man who’d rented a home for a short time. A woman identified Holmes from a photograph, stating he was in fact the man who’d rented the house. He’d also requested the use of a spade to plant potatoes in the cellar, and had only brought one mattress into the house.
Inside, Geyer found the cellar had a soft dirt floor that appeared recently disturbed. Almost immediately after he began digging, the specific stench of human decay filled the air. Three feet down, Geyer came upon a small arm bone. He stopped digging and had an undertaker continue the job. Soon they had exhumed the bodies of two girls, both naked, believed to be Nellie and Alice Pitezel.
Detective Geyer was now determined to find the body of Howard Pitezel. He knew Howard had been separated from his sisters before arriving in Detroit, so he backtracked the route laid out in the girls’ letters and went to Indianapolis. Eventually, instinct and luck brought Geyer to Irvington, Indianapolis, where he found a man who’d rented a house to Holmes. The man recalled a small boy had been with Holmes.
Geyer checked the basement but found no disturbed dirt and no body. He did find a trunk in a small alcove and sent the description to Carrie Pitezel via telegram. When she replied that the trunk was hers, Geyer knew he’d found the right place.
In the barn, Geyer found a coal stove with stains that looks like dried blood. A local doctor poked through the ash and showed Geyer pieces of charred bone, which turned out to be part of a skull and femur belonging to a male child. Geyer dismantled the chimney, where they discovered a complete set of teeth and a piece of a jaw. A dentist identified these as belonging to a boy 7 to 10-years-old. More grisly body parts were uncovered at the bottom of the chimney, and Geyer had no doubt he’d found Howard.
By this time, Chicago was battling Philadelphia for the right to try Holmes first. Philadelphia prevailed, and Holmes’s trial for the murder of Benjamin Pitezel began on October 28, 1895. On the first day, Holmes decided to fire his lawyers and defend himself. This was unprecedented in the U.S. where no murder defendant had ever before chosen to represent himself. Various accounts describe Holmes as cool and calm or monstrous and out of control. An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer called his behavior in court “remarkable”.
The trial lasted five days. Despite Holmes’s courtroom theatrics and declarations of innocence, the jury convicted him of Pitezel’s murder and the judge sentenced him to death by hanging. Holmes would not stand trial for the murder of the three Pitezel children or any of the atrocities done at the Murder Castle.
After his conviction, Holmes was paid $10,000 from the Hearst newspaper syndicate to write a public confession. He did so, and the piece was published in The Philadelphia Inquirer. Knowing he had no hope of appeal, Holmes changed tactics and decided to brag about his conquests. Initially he claimed to have killed more than 100 people, though he soon retracted that confession and changed the number to 27. As his hanging loomed ever closer, he wrote, “I was born with the Evil One as my sponsor beside the bed where I was ushered into the world.“
On May 7, 1896, H.H. Holmes was hanged. His final words were a retraction of all his confessions, and a declaration of innocence:
“Gentleman,” he said, “I have a very few words to say. In fact, I would make no statement at this time except that by not speaking I would appear to acquiesce in life in my execution. I only want to say that the extent of my wrongdoings in taking human life consisted in the deaths of two women, they having died at my hands as the result of criminal operations. I wish to also state, however, so that there will be no misunderstanding hereafter, I am not guilty of taking the life of any of the Pitezel family. The three children or the father, Benjamin F. Pitezel, of whose death I am now convicted and for which I am today to be hanged. That is all.”
The two women’s deaths Holmes admitted to being responsible for were, he claimed, a sort of medical malpractice. When the trap was sprung, the gallows malfunctioned and Holmes’s neck did not snap in the fall. He dangled for about 15 minutes, reportedly twitching, before succumbing to death.
Holmes had been terrified that body snatchers would steal his corpse and sell it for a profit, and so he’d made arrangements with an attorney to have his body buried in a coffin filled with cement. Two Pinkerton guards stood over the grave in Holy Cross Cemetery as the coffin was placed and the entire grave filled with cement. No stone was erected to mark the spot.
In the end, no clear answers or motives were ever provided for Holmes’s gruesome deeds. When Chicago officials went over missing persons records and various registries during the time of the fair, they surmised that his victim count could be as high as 200. We’ll never know what drove Holmes or how many lives he really took. He was only 35-years-old when he died on the gallows.
- While researching this case, I came across a variety of spellings for Benjamin Pitezel’s name. An 1895 issue of the Chicago Tribune has it spelled Pitzel, as does a feature story in a 1943 issue of Harper’s Magazine. One 1894 article in the New York Times has it spelled Pietzel, while another spelled it Pitzel. All later articles have his name as Pitezel, which is the spelling I stuck with here.
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