As you know already, considering you are here, certain people have always had an obsession with death and murder. It’s no secret that we, as a society, enjoy a good horror story. Whatever it is that draws us to watch people suffer and die is questionable, but without a doubt comes from a place of demented curiosity. Hence the popularity of horror themed movies, books, and television programs. You’re probably familiar with the popular FX series American Horror Story. A show which chronicles tales of horror, based loosely on real life people, places, and historical events. The fifth season of this particular show, titled Hotel, centers around a hotel owned by the late James Patrick March, played by the eerie Even Peters. This hotel however, is no ordinary hotel, as it was built by March for much more nefarious purposes than providing lodging. If you haven’t seen the show, I will warn you that this article will be somewhat of a spoiler as to the purposes of which I speak. If you have seen the show, you may be interested to learn that Mr. March’s character is based off a real man by the name of H.H Holmes, and believe me when I say that Mr. March and his crimes don’t hold a candle to the depravity H.H Holmes.
Henry H. Holmes, as he is now known, is considered America’s very first serial killer. His crimes are, to this day, some of the most brutal and sadistic in American history. Holmes was born Herman Webster Mudgett in Gilmanton, New Hampshire on May 16, 1861. He was considered a bright child, graduating high school at sixteen, but from an early age showed signs of an interest in death. Reportedly performing surgery on small animals. After high school Holmes attended a small school in Vermont before going to study medicine at the University of Michigan. While there he would steal cadavers and use them to trick insurance companies into believing the people had died in accidents. He would then collect money from life insurance policies he’d taken out on the cadavers.
In 1885 Holmes moved to Chicago, Illinois and took a job as a pharmacist at a drug store. It was at this time that he adopted the alias Henry H. Holmes. Some reports say it was the name of a wealthy family in the area, while others claim it was meant as a homage to Sherlock Holmes. After the death of the owner, Holmes convinced the owner’s widow to sell him the drug store. Not long after acquiring the store, the widow went missing, Holmes claiming she had moved to California, though this was never confirmed.
Holmes soon purchased a lot across from the drugstore and in 1889 began construction on a three story hotel. This hotel would later be nicknamed the “Murder Castle”.
The Murder Castle
During the construction of his hotel, Holmes hired and fired many different construction companies. The reasons for this being to both swindle them out of pay and also to ensure no one crew was ever aware of what it was he was actually building. After the hotel was finished in 1891, Holmes began advertising job openings in the local papers, specially requesting young women for employment. Holmes also advertised himself as a wealthy bachelor looking to wed. It was reported that everyone Holmes associated with; employees, guests, wives, etc; were required to have life insurance for which Holmes would pay, under the condition he be made beneficiary. It was not long before people in the hotel began disappearing and neighbors began to report seeing women go inside and never come out.
In 1893 Chicago hosted the World’s Fair, a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America. Holmes immediately took this as an opportunity and began luring women from the fair to stay at his hotel. None of them would ever make it out.
On the outside the hotel looked like any other building in the area, with shops lining the street level, but it was the two top floors that hid the insane structure of the Murder Castle. The second floor of the building contained Holmes’ personal office, as well as several of the hotel’s lodgings. The third floor was entirely rooms. The hotel was dubbed the Murder Castle for very good reason. The rooms that filled the second and third floors were designed to trap and torture Holmes’ victims. There were several staircases and doors along the hallways that lead to nowhere in order to confuse anyone who may try to escape. Tiny secret chambers were placed in several spots and used to trap people in coffin like confinement. There were completely closed off and sound proof rooms that were only accessible through trap doors in the ceiling. These rooms had peepholes in the walls so that Holmes could watch his prisoners go insane with fear. Rooms without windows were used to keep victims in complete darkness for days on end. One room contained a maze that Holmes would watch terrified women attempt to navigate, hoping for a way out.
There was a room with five doors that all led to brick walls and another called the “Hanging Room” where Holmes would hang women and watch them choke to death. One room in particular was completely sealed and had gas lines running into it. Holmes would pump gas into the room and watch as the victim asphyxiated from lack of oxygen. There was also a room with an oven inside which Holmes would turn on and watch as his victim slowly died of heat stroke. All around the top floors were shutes that dropped straight into the basement. These were used to quickly dispose of the bodies of the dead people.
The basement of the hotel was as terrifying as the top floors. Serving as both a disposal room and Holmes person laboratory. Down there he would put the bodies on tables or racks and dissect and dismember them completely. Stripping them down to skeletons that he would then sell to unsuspecting medical schools for research. The basement was equipped with a cremator, lime pit, and acid baths Holmes used to dispose of many of the remains.
Leaving the Castle
Holmes never stopped committing insurance scams, even in the height of his hotel murder spree, but once the World’s Fair ended he decided to leave the “Murder Castle” and focus on his career as an insurance thief. He had a partner in these scams by the name of Benjamin Pitezel. In addition to committing insurance fraud, Holmes went to Texas and began stealing horses and selling them to buyers in St. Louis. It was this crime that first got Holmes arrested. While in jail, Holmes conspired with his cellmate Marion Hedgepath on a plan to fake Holmes’ death once he was free and collect insurance money. He was meant to give Hedgepath five hundred dollars for his part in the crime, but when the insurance company refused to pay because they suspected fraud, Holmes abandoned the plan of faking his own death and attempted to instead fake the death of his partner Pitezel. Unfortunately for Pitezel, Holmes decided to actually murder him and take all the money for himself.
In 1894 Hedgepath, angry at Holmes for abandoning him, told police about the scam they had planned. The police tracked Holmes down in Boston and arrested him on an outstanding warrant relating to the Texas horse thefts. Police then began a full investigation of Holmes and eventually made their way back to his hotel in Chicago. There they discovered the multitude of secret rooms and various trap doors throughout the building. They also found, when they searched the basement, a pile of dismembered body parts so abundant that there was no sure way to determine how many victims it contained.
While investigating in Toronto, they discovered the bodies of Pitezel’s two children and it was for these murders that Holmes was finally convicted. Holmes confessed to twenty-eight murders, but based on the evidence and missing persons reports it is suspected that he could have been responsible for as many as two hundred murders.
In May of 1896, H.H Holmes was hanged for his crimes. His body, upon his request, was encased in three layers of concrete during burial. Ironically, according to Holmes this was to stop grave robbers from digging him up and dissecting his remains. Rumors have persisted though, that Holmes bribed his lawyers and guards to help him fake his death and escape to South America. These rumors have become so popular that just last month, May 2017, his descendants petitioned to have his remains exhumed and tested to prove they are indeed Holmes himself and not a decoy body. The results of this have yet to be published.
The now infamous Murder Castle burned down in 1895 and then was torn down completely in the late 1930’s to build a post office building.
H.H Holmes was undoubtedly one of the world’s most prolific serial killers. His crimes are considered some of the worst in history along with names like Jake the Ripper, Ted Bundy, and Jeffrey Dahmer. If you would like to learn more about Holmes and his crimes, I highly recommend reading Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City.