May 7, 1896: Serial Killer H. H. Holmes Executed


WHAT HAPPENED?


If you love a good creepy, murderous hotel story a la Bates Motel or American Horror Story: Hotel, well then, you're probably going to be really into the real life story of the hotel creep himself, H. H. Holmes.


Herman Webster Mudgett, also known as Dr. Henry Howard Holmes also known as H. H. Holmes (and wouldn't you change your name if your name was Herman Mudgett?) was a serial killer who killed 9 confirmed victims, confessed to killing 27, and may have killed as many as 2000. Many of the victims were supposedly killed in his "mixed-use building" which was partially a hotel that was never actually open for business.


He was a serial killer, a con-artist, and a bigamist, meaning he was not monogamous in a time that monogamy was the law (oh, by the way, this was all in the 1800s).


Though much of the information about the murder hotel is just lore, more or less an "American tall tale", it did come from at least a partial amount of truth. Ultimately, H. H. Holmes was executed on May 7, 1896 at the age of 34.

A LIFE BEFORE MURDER


Herman Webster Mudgett was born in Gilmanton, New Hampshire on May 16, 1861. He was the youngest of 3 children. He was from a Methodist, farming family. Though he has in more modern times been described as a child who tortured animals and abuse at the hands of his parents, it is believed that is just an attempt for him to fit the mold of a serial killer. Accounts of his childhood from those who knew him do not provide any proof of those claims.


Holmes graduated high school at the age of 16 and began working as a teacher. He married Clara Lovering in 1878 and the couple had a son a few years later.


At the age of 18, he enrolled at the University of Vermont, but didn't like it and left after a year. In 1882, he enrolled in the University of Michigan's Department of Medicine and Surgery, and graduated in 1884, which for those playing at home means he got his medical degree in about 2 years. During his 2 years, he worked in the anatomy lab and apprenticed under a New Hampshire doctor who was into human dissection. (Once Holmes was suspected of murder, he claimed he wasn't a killer, but just guilty of insurance fraud... And admitted to using cadavers in the lab to defraud life insurance companies while in college.)


His wife left him before graduation and moved back to New Hampshire because he was violent towards her. Around the same time, he moved to Mooers Forks, New York, but left town after townspeople remembered seeing Holmes with a young boy who had disappeared.


After New York, Holmes moved to Philadelphia where he got a job at Norristown State Hospital, but quit after a few days. He moved again suspiciously quickly after taking a job at a drugstore where a child died after taking medicine purchased at the store. Though at this point he denied any involvements in the deaths and disappearances surrounding him, he was committing other crimes and fraud regularly, so he changed his name to Henry Howard Holmes.


In late 1886, while still married to Clara, though she had left him years earlier, Holmes married Myrta Belknap in Minneapolis. He filed for divorce from Clara shortly after marrying Myrta. The divorce was never finalized. Holmes and Myrta had a daughter in 1889. Apparently, the marriage to Myrta wasn't so great, because in 1894, he married Georgiana Yoke while still married to both of his previous wives.

THE MURDER CASTLE IS BORN


After stints in New York, Philadelphia, and Minneapolis, Holmes settled in Chicago in August of 1886 and started officially going by the name H. H. Holmes. He got a job at a drugstore, worked hard, and eventually bought the store. Though there is a myth that the owner of the drugstore and her husband disappeared after he bought the store, killed by Holmes, the couple actually lived for the remainder of Holmes' life and was never one of his victims.


With the drugstore purchased, he also bought an empty lot across from it, and construction had begun for a mixed-use building. The building had apartments and retail spaces within it. He was sued when he failed to pay the architects or steel company, but not much became of it. He added a 3rd floor that he told investors he intended to use as a hotel. He continued to scam vendors throughout the building process, hiding furniture materials he had not paid for in hidden rooms and hallways in the building.


His building was a maze that often lead to nowhere. The rooms were soundproofed and they had chutes that dropped down into the basement where he built a crematorium to dispose of the bodies. By 1892, the murder castle was all but complete. The first floor was merely a storefront. The second floor had elaborate rooms for torture, complete with chutes to the basement, and the third floor had more apartment rooms.


With his soundproof torture chamber ready to go, there was just 1 more thing he would need: Victims. And that is what he did next.


Holmes' first victim was a mistress of his, Julia Smythe. Her husband had moved into Holmes' building and worked at the pharmacy. But once her husband learned about the affair, he left Julia and their daughter, Pearl. She stayed in the hotel with her daughter. But on Christmas Eve 1891, the mom and daughter disappeared. Holmes claimed she died during an abortion, but nobody truly knows what happened.


Another early victim of his was Emeline Cigrande, who began working at the building in 1892, disappeared without a trace a few months after starting her job. Edna Van Tassel, another woman with ties to Holmes who disappeared around the same time is believed to be one of his victims, as well.


Holmes began working in the Chemical Bank building and became close friends with a co-worker, a carpenter named Benjamin Pitezel with a criminal record. Eventually, Pitezel became Holmes' right-hand man for his criminal schemes, described by a district attorney later as "Homles' creature".


In 1893, Holmes met a one-time actress Minnie Williams. He offered her a job at the hotel, and she accepted. He used her for some scams, at times posing as husband and wife. But after their scheme was complete, Minnie's sister, Annie, came to visit but neither of them were ever seen again.

HOLMES IS ARRESTED


In the least insensitive way possible, murder seemed to just be a side hustle for Holmes. He was really into fraud and other crimes, like arson. Because some insurance companies were coming after him for arson in 1894, he fled from Chicago and moved to Fort Worth. He had a property there from one of the schemes he had done with Minnie Williams. Once there, he started plans to make a new murder castle in his new city.


Holmes was arrested in July 1894 for selling mortgaged goods, but was bailed out quickly. His next plan was to take out a life insurance policy on himself, fake his death, and collect today's equivalent of about $300,000. He had met a new accomplice, Marion Hedgepeth, while in jail, who was going to help him.


He asked Hedgepeth to find him a trustworthy lawyer, who he provided for the price of $500. He was directed to one Jeptha Howe who was in business with his brother, Alphonso. Though Alphonso had no knowledge of the schemes and scams, Jeptha was down for anything, willing to help with the faked death plan. However, it failed, and he decided to make a new plan, this time with his old criminal buddy Pitezel.


In this plan, it was Pitezel who would fake his own death. His wife would then collect the life insurance money, and she would split it with Holmes and Jeptha. They would carry out the plan in Philadelphia. Pitezel took on the identity of an inventor named B. F. Perry who would be disfigured and killed in a lab explosion. Holmes, with continued connections in the medical industry, was supposed to find a good cadaver to play Pitezel's dead body, but instead, he knocked him unconscious, chloroformed him, and set him on fire while still alive.


At this point, Holmes swindled Pitezel's wife, who apparently still believed her husband was only fake-dead, out of the insurance money, AND convinced him to take custody of 3 of their children - 2 of them stayed behind with the wife. He took little Alice, Nellie and Howard throughout the U.S. and Canada. He also continued lying to Pitezel's wife, saying that he was hiding out in London. He also wouldn't tell her exactly where he was with her kids.


At this point, he was ALSO carrying on a normal life with his wife at the time, who had no idea what was going on with the insurance payout and kind of kidnapping of the Pitezel children. Eventually, he would confess to murdering Alice and Nellie by locking them into a large trunk and putting a hose with gas inside the trunk to asphyxiate the children. He buried their bodies in the cellar of hiss rental home.


When Philadelphia police detective Frank Geyer was assigned to find Holmes and the 3 kids, he found the decomposed bodies of the girls in his home. (This was in Toronto, he moved A LOT.) Then he went to Indianapolis, where he also apparently lived, and found the body of the 3rd child, Howard, who had been killed with drugs from the pharmacy and then chopped up and burned.


Finally, he was arrested in Boston in 1894 and held on a warrant for HORSE THEFT in TEXAS. (There is SO MUCH to this man's story that is just casually thrown in here.)


Once the bodies of the children were found, Chicago police were thinking, hmm, perhaps we should look into his murder castle. However, no evidence was found to convict him. Apparently, stories of his torture chambers are just fiction... But I'm not so sure.


In October of 1895, Holmes went to trial for the murder of Benjamin Pitezel and was sentenced to death. By then, everyone knew that he had murdered 3 of his children as well. While in jail after his conviction, he confessed to 27 murders in Chicago, Indianapolis and Toronto. (However, some of the people he confessed to killing were still alive and most of his confessions were utter nonsense.)


He gave some bananas statements while in jail, from saying he was innocent to claiming he was possessed by Satan. Really, it is difficult to know what is true about his life, given his contradictory statements. He definitely murdered people, but the extent of his torture is unknown. It seems like many of his kills were for money and business, instead of finding joy in torturing the innocent like much of the lore describes.


Holmes was hanged on May 7, 1896 for the murder of Pitezel. He remained calm and never showed any fear, even as his death was looming. His only concern was that his body would be dug up by graverobbers for dissection, so he asked that his coffin be 10 feet deep in cement. This wish was granted. When he was hanged, his neck did not snap and he was slowly strangled to death for about 20 minutes. That seems fair, to be honest.


In 1895, the murder castle was mysterious gutted by a fire. Some reports claim that 2 men were seen running into and out of the building, but no one knows for sure. The Castle went up in flames.


The truth is: there is a chance that the Murder Castle did not live up to the torturous murder chamber that it is often described as in modern history. H. H. Holmes definitely killed people, 9 of them are sure enough to confirm, but the rumors of 200+ people being lured into a death trap with winding hallways and basement chutes is probably not true. But maybe it was. And maybe it is just more fascinating to believe it.


Even if he didn't kill hundreds of people in his creepy murder hotel, he did kill some people, and some of those people were children that he kidnapped (though, it seems like he asked if he could take them? And she said yes?). He killed many people while trying to get more money and scam more people, and for that, it is probably good that he was killed on this day in history.

REFERENCES:

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H._H._Holmes

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