Herman Webster Mudgett grew up to become known as “The Beast of Chicago.” He became America’s first known serial killer. Today, no one has any idea how many people he killed. The body count is estimated to be between 9 to 200 people. If Mudgett’s name doesn’t strike a chord, you may know him as the infamous H.H. Holmes. As a fan of Sherlock Holmes, Mudgett assumed the fictional detective’s surname.
Mudgett was born on May 16, 1861 into a wealthy family in Gilmanton, New Hampshire. As a child he developed a fascination for medicine. A child wanting to study medicine isn’t unusual; Holmes, however, experimented on animals. Furthermore, anyone familiar with serial killer traits knows that tormenting and killing animals is an early warning sign of a troubled individual.
Holmes’ interest in medicine would lead him to medical school at the University of Michigan. He graduated and became a doctor. Instead of using his skills to heal, he became a crook and a killer. He stole cadavers and used them to collect on false insurance claims and for experimental purposes. In 1885, he moved to Chicago and worked at a pharmacy as Doctor Henry H. Holmes. He eventually took over the pharmacy. It was believed he assumed control after killing the pharmacy’s owner. Holmes used his finances to build a three-story home he turned into a hotel in 1893.
The hotel soon earned the nickname as the Murder Castle. Holmes’ guests checked in, but didn’t always check out. His building was specifically built for murder and sadism. It had mazes, trapdoors and booby traps that dropped victims into the basement.
Once victims were in the basement, they were at Holmes’ mercy. He experimented on his victims and then killed them. In the basement, he kept lime and acid to breakdown bodies and get rid of evidence. The ones he didn’t destroy, he sold to the local medical school. The handsome doctor ran two scams. He charmed several of his female guests and then proposed marriage with every intent of looting their bank accounts. His future wives would then disappear. He also lured women to the hotel with job offers.
They also disappeared.
Holmes left Chicago to pull an insurance scam worth $10,000. Holmes and a man named Benjamin Pitezel worked together on the scam. When authorities learned about the crime in progress, Holmes had already murdered Pitezel and two of his children.
Authorities caught up to Holmes in November 1894 and tried him for killing Pitezel. He was found guilty and hanged on May 7, 1896.
Although Holmes has been dead for more than a century, historians and crime experts still consider him an enigma. He came from a good home, was intelligent, handsome, and became a doctor. He had it all. So why did he become a criminal? Whatever the reason, it died with him. While imprisoned, Holmes wrote a book titled Holmes’ Own Story. He admitted to killing 27 people, which included Pitezel and his two children.
In his book, he admitted that he couldn’t help himself when killing people. He compared himself to a poet who must sing. The latest news about this strange man is that he may have bribed a guard into helping him escape. According to the History.com website, another man may have been hanged instead of Holmes. In 2017, his descendants petitioned to have his remains unearthed for DNA testing.
The Murder Castle remained until 1938 before being torn down. The site now houses the Englewood Post Office. If you want to see it, you can travel to Chicago and even mail a letter or buy stamps on the former site of America’s first serial killer.
Marc is a grandparent and longtime resident of Clermont County. Visit his author page at http://www.lifewithgrandpa.com. He also wrote Just Bite Me: A Guide to Zombies, Vampires, Werewolves, and Other Walking Nightmares, which is available on Amazon.com.