H.H. Holmes is America’s first serial killer

By Lily Angel

Herman Webster Mudgett was a man of many names. Some knew him as Henry Howard Holmes or H. H. Holmes, but many know him as America’s first serial killer. 

In the podcast “Lore,” which is dedicated to exploring creepy horrors, Aaron Mahnke describes Holmes’ obsession with death beginning with how his schoolmates bullied him into touching a skeleton. Rather than being afraid of the skeleton, Holmes developed an interest. The fascination with death translated into a desire to become a doctor and perform unsanctioned surgeries on animals.

According to Mahnke, Holmes continued to pursue this passion at the University of Michigan. This is where Holmes officially changed his alias to Henry Howard Holmes. As a medical student, Holmes needed access to more funds, so he developed a way to make money fast. 

Holmes had turned to a life of crime. 

 According to Mahnke, he began to steal bodies from the medical lab. Once he obtained the bodies he would disfigure them and plant them in different areas. From there he would go to a life insurance company and claim that the body was his family member. He would then collect the life insurance money in cash. 

This illegal act provided Holmes with the funds he needed to continue his studies, but it also foreshadowed the horrific crimes he would later commit in his infamous “murder hotel.”

In the 19th century, to collect one’s life insurance all you needed to do was show the body. Identification systems were far less sophisticated, so it was easy to claim that he was related to the bodies, according to the Guardian.

Holmes continued this fraudulent and grotesque process until he found it easier to murder people and claim relation to them rather than searching out corpses. 

Once he amassed enough money, he purchased an empty lot and started the construction of his hotel. 

“The World’s Columbian Exhibition was scheduled to be hosted in Chicago 1893 and he envisioned a hotel that could house the countless visitors that would travel to the area. This project was lovingly called the Castle, which… eventually would have over 100 rooms inside its walls. Holmes ever the micro-manager took on the task of project architect refusing to share the plans with anyone else,” Mahnke said.

Erick Larson’s “The Devil in the White City” revealed that Holmes contracted construction workers to build his hotel and then continually laid the workers off after just a few weeks. Construction workers were only allowed to see the blueprints for the part of the hotel that they were working on, keeping the majority of the build a mystery. While this sounds like an obvious red flag, this process continued until the hotel was complete. 

“Workers on the building asked questions naturally but when they did Holmes would replace them. Most of the Men working on the project never lasted more than two weeks, all told over 500 carpenters and craftsmen worked on the Castle,” Mahnke said.

However, despite the success of his murder hotel, Holmes’ greed and lack of ethics eventually caught up with him. Many of the workers who had contributed to the construction of the hotel were left unpaid, as Holmes used a variety of excuses and delays to avoid paying them for their work. As a result, a number of lawsuits were filed against Holmes, though he was able to postpone them for a considerable amount of time. In the long run, he was able to complete his gruesome enterprise at minimal cost, thanks in part to the high volume of tourists flocking to the nearby World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. The bustling city, which was a major destination for tourists at the time, provided the perfect cover for Holmes’ crimes, as the high volume of people coming and going made it easy for him to dispose of his victims without drawing suspicion.

Ultimately, Holmes created his hotel because of his unquenchable obsession with death and violence.

“Holmes’s fascination with dead bodies had apparently lasted long past college, as had his surgical skills… He reportedly dissected them, cleaned them, and then sold the organs or skeletons to medical institutions or on the black market,” All that’s interesting (a news organization that focuses on highlighting the lesser-known facts of human history reported.) 

According to “All That’s Interesting” for those unfortunate enough to book the Castle Hotel, they could find themselves trapped in the hotel, in a labyrinth of hidden rooms and dungeons where Holmes would starve them, poison them, experiment on them, or just torture them for his own twisted delight.

However, it wasn’t his Murder Hotel that led to Holmes being caught by the authorities: it was his old schemes. According to Britannica, Holmes had worked with Benjamin Pitezel together; they faked Pitezel’s death and traveled to several states committing various acts of fraud. Everything was looking up for Holmes, however, Holmes was arrested in Missouri for fraud, while Pitezel had moved to Pennsylvania and committed his own acts of fraud. Holmes was in jail for only a short period of time but once he got out of jail Holmes traveled to Pennsylvania and killed Pitezel.

“Holmes killed Pitezel and, after telling his widow that her husband was still alive and in hiding, convinced her to let him travel with three of her five children, who also became his victims,” Biography.com wrote.

After the murder of Pitezel’s wife and three children, Holmes was arrested for their murders. However, according to biography.com Holmes was not caught for several weeks. History.com wrote that Holmes was arrested and put on trial for the murdering of the Pitezels after he was caught trying to use another dead body for his insurance scheme.

 According to Mahnke, following Holmes’ conviction, his Murder Hotel was mysteriously set on fire. Prior to that, the officers were able to search the hotel and discover the numerous rooms.

“There were alarms in all of the rooms which would alert Holmes in his quarters if any of his prisoners tried to escape,” Mahnke said.

Although the exact number of victims remains unknown, it is clear that HH Holmes was a ruthless and calculating killer. As Mahnke notes, he had taken steps to ensure that his prisoners could not escape, installing alarms in all of the rooms to alert him in the event of any attempted breakout. 

“Mudgett confessed to 27 murders (he later increased the total to more than 130), though some researchers have suggested that the real number exceeded 200,” Britannica wrote.

Regardless of the exact figure, it is clear that HH Holmes’s murder hotel was a site of immense horror and suffering. Soon after his confession, Holmes was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

 According to “Explore All as History,” upon his death, Holmes requested to be buried in cement to prevent vandalism or people taking his body for scientific research.

According to  “The Devil in the White City”, in his final days, Holmes was asked why he chose to kill. He responded, “I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than a poet can help the inspiration to sing.”