Many are the stories told about H. H. Holmes. He’s been called “The Devil of Chicago” and that about sums up the sort of man he was. It was probably inevitable that such a monstrous life as he lived would get wrapped up in myth and legend.
In Holmes’ case, many of the stories central to his mythos are baseless fantasies and outright lies. They were concocted by reporters of his day as well as later writers. Their accounts tell us more about the susceptibility of the public to sensationalist journalism than they do about Holmes and his crimes.
This isn’t surprising, considering the age in which Holmes became famous. In the 1890s, newspapers were the Alpha and Omega of mass communication. Competition for readership was fierce.
Daily black-and-white warfare was then being waged by publishers like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. Hooking a reader’s interest was considered much more important than reporting the facts. Truth took a backseat to subscription numbers and those sweet, sweet advertising dollars.
Isn’t it swell we’ve moved past all of that?
Remarkably, even when you cut out all the lies told about Holmes, what remains is enough to place him among the vilest villains in American history. He was a murderer, a con-man, and a polygamist. He killed adults and children without showing any hint of having a conscience.
Students of crime can learn much by examining Holmes. Students of history, too, so long as they proceed cautiously, fully aware that they’re wading into murky waters. Holmes was, first and foremost, one devil of a liar.
His autobiography is a tapestry of lies. At last four people he claimed to have killed in a so-called “confession” sold to newspapers turned up alive. His chief legal tactic at trial was to shroud truth in falsehood.
Sifting out that truth is therefore no easy feat. Fortunately, recent popular interest in Holmes has lead to a new wave of excellent historical research. Nearly all the facts I’m about to mention can be found in Chicago crime expert Adam Selzer’s amazing reference, The True History of the White City Devil. (Available at Amazon HERE)
Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City is also a good read. It’s the book that brought Holmes back to the limelight, and though it depicts some events as they could have been rather than how they probably were.
And if you don’t want to read Larson’s book yourself, you can always wait for the film adaptation expected soon from Leonardo DiCaprio.
The man who came to be known as H. H. Holmes was born Herman Webster Mudgett of Gilmanton, New Hampshire in 1861. Contrary to imaginative tales of animal torture, his mother later told reporters that her son had been kind to all creatures. He especially liked dogs.
One challenge Holmes faced in early life was a strabismic left eye. Strabismus is a medical condition that involves poor control of the eye muscles. Many people commented on Holmes’ inability to look them in the eye, but this was a physical deficiency, not a spiritual one.
By all accounts, Holmes was a charming conversationalist. He went on to marry at least three women, so he was attractive enough. A compulsive womanizer, he also carried on several affairs.
It’s possible his embrace of free love was a case of overcompensating. A doctor who examined him in prison went on record to say his sexual organs were on the small side. Make of that what you will.
Though Holmes trained as a surgeon, he practiced medicine only briefly before moving to Chicago, where he made his fortune by running small-time con jobs. The move happened in 1886, which was also when he started signing his name as H. H. Holmes. The initials stood for Henry Howard or Harry H, when he bothered spelling them out.
Changing names was part of a dizzying number of schemes Holmes tried in Chicago. For instance, he often rented bicycles or articles of furniture and hide them away to sell for cash. Obscuring his identity helped him avoid paying bills, though he did become the subject of numerous lawsuits.
Holmes owned a drugstore in the Chicago neighborhood of Englewood, which he did NOT take over after murdering an elderly doctor and his wife. The drugstore was in fact sold to him by a young doctor and HER husband, who outlived Holmes by decades. The murder angle wasn’t only a lie, it was also sexist.
Across the street from the drugstore, Holmes had a building constructed. The second floor comprised a baffling maze of rooms, some of which reporters later assigned names like “Room of the Three Corpses” or “Asphyxiation Chamber”. Popular theory has it that Holmes designed his “Murder Castle” so he could slaughter victims away from prying eyes.
But based on the historical record, it’s more likely he made it complicated to confuse repo-men. There were doors leading nowhere and rooms concealed behind false walls. A businessman who wanted to use the building as a hotel reported finding rooms stuffed with furniture that appeared and disappeared overnight.
This ties into another legend about the castle: that Holmes opened it to guests during the 1893 World’s Fair. Dozens, if not hundreds, of fairgoers were said to have been gassed in their rooms, then lowered by ropes to the basement, where Holmes indulged his passion for dissecting corpses.
The problem with this theory is that there’s no evidence the castle took in a single Fair guest. Prior to the Fair, Holmes rented the building to the aforementioned businessman and his partner. After a month, they got sick of Holmes’ shady dealings and skipped out.
Records indicate that Holmes spent the next several months overseeing construction of a family home in another part of Chicago. In August 1893, a fire at the castle rendered the third floor uninhabitable. The fire was probably set, meaning Holmes cared more about insurance money than anything he’d been doing on the third floor.
Which is not to say he didn’t kill people at the castle. When he was arrested for a murder committed elsewhere, evidence came out that he was guilty of at least eight other killings. The castle played host to five out of the nine murders that scholars consider canonical.
The murder for which Holmes was caught and put on trial was that of Benjamin Pitezel, the most prominent of two men who are thought to have aided him in his criminal enterprise. In a lesson about choosing your friends, Pitezel had plotted with Holmes to defraud an insurance company.
Holmes would obtain and partially mutilate a dead body, using his medical connections. He would claim the body was Pitezel’s and help Ben’s “widow” obtain the insurance money. You’d think, if Ben really knew Holmes, he’d had seen the flaw in this plan.
A drinker and a born stooge, he was probably not the brightest accomplice Holmes ever had. Figuring it was easier to pass off a real body than a fake one, Holmes killed Ben Pitezel. He went on to murder Pitezel’s son and two of his daughters for reasons never fully explained.
Maybe the best thing that can be said for Ben is that his dull wit helped convince Holmes he could get away with a pretty lame scheme. The story of Ben dying in an accidental explosion was challenged by the insurance company. Holmes was investigated and ultimately hanged on May 7, 1896, nine days shy of his 35th birthday.
Though Holmes has been suspected of killing strangers, his canonical murders were all of people he knew. As with Ben Pitezel, Holmes seems to have chosen death for his victims any time it was easier than leaving one alive. He never considered anybody’s feelings but his own, as we can see by looking at the murders committed in the castle.
The first canonical victim was Julia Conner. Holmes employed Julia as a clerk in the jewelry shop that was part of the drugstore. Julia’s husband, Ned Conner, worked as a jeweler and sometimes managed the store.
The couple lived for a time at the Holmes Castle. At some point, Julia and Holmes started having an affair. The marriage broke up and Ned left, leaving Julia and their daughter Pearl behind.
Julia and Pearl seem to have lived fairly happily in close association with Holmes and the castle’s friendly janitor, Pat Quinlan. Like Ben Pitezel, Quinlan later became known as a close ally of Holmes. He was good with tools and had a strong back.
Quinlan reported to his wife and daughter, who were friends of Julia and Pearl, that Julia had moved to California with a new husband. This was around Christmas of 1891. Other tenants at the castle reported seeing the two on Christmas Eve.
After that, they were seen no more. At various times after his imprisonment, Holmes claimed Julia had died on the operating table. He either killed her intentionally, or by accident, while performing an abortion.
Or maybe he killed her some other way. There were no living witnesses, after all. What Pearl Conner, only six years old, had to do with her mother’s botched surgery is anyone’s guess. [Pearl is falsely reported as 12yo in some sources.]
Years later, when the castle basement was dug up, the bones of a child about Pearl’s age were discovered. They were the most incriminating evidence against Holmes ever found at the site. Pearl was likely poisoned, possibly smothered, by Holmes.
Did he have pangs of conscience after killing a child? We can get an idea of how he felt by what he did with Julia and Pearl’s property. Weeks after their disappearance, he tried to rent out the rooms they had occupied.
Clothes and personal items were strewn about. According to the new tenant, these included a doll that Holmes kicked under a bed. He offered to give her the clothes, before having them shipped off, probably to his own home.
Modern accounts of Holmes often call him “America’s first serial killer”, which is reasonable if you’re mostly concerned with the number of people he killed. But we typically imagine serial killers as having some sort of twisted motivation behind their crimes. The Son of Sam said his neighbor’s dog ordered him to kill, Jeffrey Dahmer…had a lot going on.
Again, Holmes may have done killings that fit this mold, but the ones we know about have fairly pedestrian motivations. His third canonical victim, Emeline Cigrand, mirrors Julia Conner except for a few details. She was unmarried, not a mother, and didn’t live at the castle, though she certainly visited there.
Like Julia, Emeline worked for Holmes before becoming romantically involved with him. When she disappeared in December of 1892, Holmes said she’d gone off to get married, like Julia. In his later confession, he said she died in the same way, a botched abortion attempt with Holmes holding the instruments.
Pat Quinlan, the janitor, plays a part in Emeline’s story. The day after she was last seen, Quinlan helped Holmes and another man tote a large crate from the castle. This was reported by one of the same witnesses who saw the clothes left by Julia and Pearl a year before.
Set side-by-side, the murders of Julia and Emeline look like the acts of an narcisist desperate to protect his fake reputation. The killing of little Pearl is harder to fathom, but it does fit the profile of a psychopath. Driving by ego and lacking empathy for others, Holmes killed to get out of hassles and obligations.
If he was a serial killer, you’d expect him to kill for the sake of killing. Did he?
The last of his canonical victims at the castle don’t appear to have presented the same sort of inconvenience that motivated the other murders. There was money to be made from the death of of his mistress, Minnie Williams. An impediment may have been removed by killing her sister, Nannie.
But Holmes never had trouble taking financial advantage of living victims. Holmes and Minnie seem to have been well matched. Her name appears on several deeds for his property, and she’s known to have sold property she owned, very likely to turn the money over to Holmes.
That money would have gone into schemes and swindles, as all his money did. If Minnie was a willing investor, as well as his bit on the side, why kill her? According to Holmes, he didn’t.
Holmes said Minnie was a murderer. He claimed that when Nannie came to visit the castle, Minnie got jealous and struck her sister with a stool, killing her. Holmes disposed of the body and helped Minnie flee the country.
Thanks to a letter Nannie wrote on the Fourth of July, 1893, it’s safe to say she did meet Holmes. She probably went with him to the World’s Fair while Minnie was away. Given that Nannie was female and present, Holmes almost certainly made a pass at her.
So Holmes’ tale of a jealous assault has some credibility. There are reports of a violent barroom brawl in another state involving a viscious woman named Minnie Williams. It’s not known if she was the same Minnie, but still….
On the other hand, telling the truth was so unlike Holmes, it’s easier to believe he killed both sisters. Neither is confirmed to have been seen after July 5th, 1893. The next day, several transactions were carried out on behalf of Minnie, all to the benefit of Holmes.
Aside from his completely bogus newspaper confession, Holmes stayed remarkably consistent in saying he hadn’t killed either Williams. We don’t know HOW the sisters died. And the modest profit Holmes made doesn’t seem like much of a WHY, given how eager Minnie was to help him lie, cheat, and steal. [NOTE: Selzer calls the Minnie Williams episodes the most mysterious part of the story. I’m reading between the lines to say that Holmes wasn’t solely motivated by money. If he was, he could have made a fortune by running the A. B. C. Copier company as a legitimate business. He seems to have cared far more about getting away with crimes.]
One way or the other, though, Holmes turned a corner with Minnie and Nannie. He had always been a schemer. Schemes involving murder now took on a fresh appeal.
If we can believe a minor detail in his autobiography, he had been considering high-stakes insurance fraud for a decade before he took the plunge. There had always been a missing ingredient, the lack of which made his plans too dangerous to implement.
Necessity may have been that ingredient. Chicago had gotten hot for Holmes since the insurance company started investigating the castle fire. Moving would mean leaving several sham businesses behind, so he may have wanted big money, fast.
But the back of H. H. Holmes had been against the wall before. Rather than necessity, habit may have driven him to kill Ben Pitezel. Having gotten away away with a string of murders, he’d learned he didn’t have to make murder a last resort.
If he was careful and smart, he could save himself trouble by planning on murder from the start.
1894 was a busy year for Holmes. In January, he left Chicago and his second family to travel first to Colorado, then Texas. In Denver he claimed some money that had been owed to Minnie Williams.
Also in Denver, Holmes married again. This was his third marriage, if you count only the wives he didn’t kill. Counting Emeline Cigrand and Minnie Williams brings the total to five.
With his new bride, Holmes went to Fort Worth, Texas, where he attempted to reinvent himself as a sort of fast-talking Jesse James. Financial security was to be provided by Ben Pitezel’s life insurance. A $10,000 policy had been taken out months before, with Holmes paying the premiums.
It was at this point that Holmes made two crucial mistakes. The first was stealing horses in Texas [please react to this as appropriate]. The second was blabbing about his insurance scheme in jail.
The horse theft was duller than it sounds. He borrowed horses and sold them, just as he had borrowed and sold bicycles and furniture before. But horse theft, in Texas?
His second mistake happened after he left Fort Worth to hide out in St Louis, Missouri. The same-old hustles that worked so well in Chicago got him into immediate trouble there. Though he had a shot at building up a new drugstore business, he decided instead to rip off his suppliers.
The St Louis establishments weren’t used to shenanigans. Holmes was arrested and jailed. While awaiting bail, he met a criminal hero of his and asked a favor he would come to regret.
Marion Hedgepeth, a train robber famous for the shine on his shoes, shared a cell with Holmes. Probably feeling they were kindred spirits, Holmes bragged about the insurance scheme. He asked if Hedgepeth knew a lawyer filthy enough to want in on the action.
Hedgepeth did. He gave Holmes the referral, but later flipped on Holmes in the hope of getting time knocked off his sentence. It didn’t work, but that was no comfort to Holmes. [Hedgepeth didn’t get time off. He was parolled in 1906, went back to crime, and got shot holding up a Chicago saloon in 1909, a victim of the Holmes Curse.]
Here’s how the murder played out. Ben Pitezel moved to Philadelphia, PA in August, 1894. On September 1st, Holmes visited him, killed him, and rigged the scene to look like an accident.
Or at least, he tried. The murder was done with chloroform. Holmes then broke a bottle, singed Ben’s hair, and left a match nearby to suggest he’d accidentally touched off fumes.
When the body was found three days later, the doctor on scene said it couldn’t have been an accident. A second party had clearly been involved. Still, there was no evidence tying that second party to Holmes.
What happened next is, IMO, the most sinister part of the whole epic. Carrie Pitezel, Ben’s widow, knew about the scheme. Like her husband, she’d been told that the body would not be Ben’s, but a substitute.
To claim the insurance money, Holmes needed a family member to identify the rotting corpse. When Carrie fell ill, he lured 15-year-old Alice Pitezel to do the job. At no point does he appear to have asked Alice to lie.
This can only mean that he meant to kill the girl, if not from the start then from very early on. Alice ID’d her weeks-dead dad by his teeth. The insurance company cut a check for $10,000.
The crooked lawyer Holmes had hired took $2500. Three hundred was spent on expenses. All but $500 of the rest went to Holmes.
His story was that he had financed a purchase for Ben and not been paid back. That purchase? A Fort Worth property owned by Minnie Williams.
If Holmes was driven by greed, he could have walked away at this point with $6700 in his pocket. Instead, he set out to exterminate the Pitezels. Making a clean sweep would free him to resume life with his current wife, under one of his many former aliases.
But again, it’s not like he hadn’t started over before. Was he so taken with Georgiana Yoke, his third-or-fifth wife, that he couldn’t let her go? Was he driven by complicated passions, or simple bloodlust?
Madness or genius was necessary for the chase he kept up over the next several weeks. He moved the Pitezels in two groups. Mom Carrie and two kids were one group; Alice with her brother and sister the other.
Holmes and Georgiana moved separately. None of the groups were aware of any other, though they visited the same cities, often riding the same trains at different times. Only Holmes knew they were on each other’s trail.
Philly to Cinncinatti to Indianapolis to Detroit, with stops in between. Toronto, Canada and Ogdensburg, New York. Carrie went where she was told, because her husband was supposed to be waiting at the end of the tracks.
Holmes said “Minnie Williams” was taking care of 15-year-old Alice, 12-year-old Nellie, and 8-year-old Howard while Carrie rode the rails. Carrie didn’t know Minnie had been dead for more than a year. She also didn’t know her children were staying in hotels within miles of her own.
Holmes kept a collection of letters from mother to children and vice versa. Occasionally, he even delivered letters. Some he likely wrote himself, cribbing phrases he’d heard from the children, whom he soon finished off.
Howard was the first to go. Most likely, he ate poisoned eggs. Teeth and chunks of his skull were found jammed in the flue of a stove in a rented house.
All of Alice and Nellie were found. They had been stripped naked and buried in a shallow half-basement. Holmes described running gas into a trunk he shut them in, but there was no gas in the house.
How did they die? And why did Holmes lie? Only the method of their burial is known. Holmes borrowed the shovel from a neighbor, saying he wanted to make a place for potatoes.
In a move that puzzles investigators to this day, Holmes then took time off from assassination to visit his hometown. His first wife, Clara, was living there, with their son Robert. Robbie was 15, the same age as Alice.
The Mudgetts hadn’t heard from Holmes in six years. He sent a letter saying he’d recovered from amnesia, and was welcomed with open arms. Even the news that he’d married a lovely nurse who tended him after a railway accident didn’t put a damper on the reunion.
Do you get the feeling this guy just wanted to see how much he could get away with? It’s like he spent his whole life trying to glitch the Matrix. If the movie had been made twenty years ago, Jim Carrey could have played him as an evil Truman.
The peace Holmes sought at home didn’t last. Soon after Vermont, he was busted in Boston, where he’d taken Georgiana to finish their vacation. She had enjoyed the trip so far – staying at the best hotels, going for nights at the opera, ignoring the chemical smell her husband carried around.
It was the Pinkerton Detective Agency who brought Holmes down, in cooperation with the Boston P. D. and investigator W. E. Gary of Fidelity Mutual, the insurance company who had paid for Ben Pitezel’s death.
Train robber Hedgepeth had spilled the beans by this time. The crooked lawyer likewise confessed to irregularities. A long list of fraud victims were found who stood ready to condemn Holmes’ character in court.
So quick it might have been a reflex, Holmes confessed to insurance fraud. Ben Pitezel wasn’t Ben Pitezel, he said, just some dumb corpse. Newspapers picked up the cover story and ran.
From November 1894 to July 1895, fragments of truth were uncovered. After being transferred to Philadelphia and charged with murdering Ben, Holmes claimed Minnie Williams was keeping the children. He had the District Attorney place a coded personal ad asking Minnie to get in touch.
This was theater, of course. Minnie never came forward. The Chicago castle’s strange construction was discovered an excavation ordered to started on July 20th, 1895.
Very quickly, the trickle of press interest turned into a flood. Clumps of ash were mistaken for rib bones and reported as such. Lists of possible victims were written that included the living and the dead.
It’s a mistake to think TV invented the media circus. Crowds flocked to the Murder Castle, spurred on by newspaper coverage. On Sunday, July 28th, 4900 gawkers were turned away by police, while a hundred were allowed to trample the crime scene.
Over the months that followed, the bodies of the Pitezel children were found. A lawyer for Holmes managed to convince the judge not to allow evidence about any murder but Ben Pitezel’s to be discussed in court. It was one of the defense’s only victories.
Twelve jurors convicted Holmes of killing Ben. His appeals were denied. When he stood at last on the gallows, he insisted once more that the only lives he had ever taken were Julia’s and Emeline’s, in the botched surgeries.
Then, he was dropped. According to a doctor who observed the hanging, Holmes died instantly of a broken neck, though his body twitched for several minutes after that.
A long-standing rumor held that Holmes escaped his death. He was supposed to have bribed guards and priests to screen him from witnesses while he swapped places with a dead body. He couldn’t leave corpses alone.
Though the story was never taken that seriously, the rumor that he lived to wreak vengeance on people associated with his trial persisted until recently. Jeff Mudgett, the great-great-grandson of Holmes, attempted to prove the rumor in 2017. In a televised excavation, Holmes was unearthed from his grave.
This involved consulting old records of where the grave was, since it wasn’t marked. The excavators had to dig through concrete. Holmes feared his body would be desecrated, so he took extreme measures.
But he didn’t count on his determined descendant. After the excavators dealt with some extra protection Holmes had put in that scholars didn’t even know about, his DNA was found to be a close match to Jeff Mudgett’s. It turns out, he was dead the whole time.
Unsurprisingly, rumors about Holmes didn’t stop when he did. Sloppy reporting and deliberate myth-making continued to mislead the public for decades to come. Holmes is remembered today mostly for what he might have done, rather than the crimes he actually committed.
Ironically, his portrayal as a supernatural figure serves a distraction from his very real and horrible crimes. He destroyed at least a dozen lives, counting the devastated family members his murders left behind. That’s plenty, isn’t it?
Holmes doesn’t need to be a supervillain. He doesn’t even need to be a serial killer. He was kind to animals, and not a bit shy, after all.
The serial killer label is useful when talking about Holmes, but it’s not illuminating. It may also be disingenuous, a comforting self-deception.
Labels mark distance between ourselves and people we don’t want to think we’re anything like. If we say, “That guy’s a saint,” we don’t have to try to be like him. Special goodness can’t be imitated. Neither can special evil.
There’s a last myth I’d like to share about Holmes. It’s a line he’s often said to have written: “I was born with the Devil in me.”
He didn’t actually write that. It’s punched-up summary of a meandering paragraph that had no “devil” talk, at all. However terrible his crimes were, Holmes didn’t need hooves and a tail to conceive them.
He was a man who told lies every other breath, who hated earning an honest buck when a crooked one would do, who thought he was smarter than everybody, just about. How did he get that way?
Clara Lovering Mudgett, his only legal wife, once wrote to a criminologist that the news of the murders had been hard for her to believe, stating “But of course, he has worked himself up to it little by little, and I think, having done some little wrong, he had been driven to a greater one for a cover, and each one growing worse, of course it is easy or more easy to go in the wrong after the first few steps.”
Put that way, it’s almost possible to see how a person could step from one lie to lie, down the devil’s path.