In Erik Larson’s award-winning novel, The Devil in the White City, he weaves together the construction of the 1893 World’s Fair and the monstrous “Murder Castle”. The latter’s architect, Dr. H.H. Holmes, rose to fame for luring fair attendees into a hidden labyrinth of chambers on Chicago’s South Side, where he tortured, maimed, and murdered for pleasure and for profit. Yet, he had a much longer criminal history.
With brooding good looks and impeccable manners, Holmes was many things: a savvy entrepreneur, amateur architect, handsome bigamist, con artist, and serial killer. Though the “Beast of Chicago” confessed to his heinous crimes, the true extent of his crimes may never be uncovered.
The Roots of Evil
The man who would be H.H. Holmes was born Herman Webster Mudgett on May 16, 1861 in Gilmanton, New Hampshire. He had a pleasant childhood, as the middle son of a relatively affluent farming family and showed a fierce intelligence at a young age. At 17, he was wed to Clara A. Lovering, who supported his medical education at the University of Vermont and later at the University of Michigan’s Department of Medicine and Surgery.
As he advanced, Herman proved to be an erratic student. Although he graduated in 1884, Clara had returned to New Hampshire due to his violent treatment. Rumors also abounded during his time in Ann Arbor due to his having studied under Dr. Nahum Wight, a dissection advocate. Much later, Herman claimed to have developed an insurance scheme, by which he used stolen cadavers to fake accidents and collect on false claims.
After graduation, Herman moved to Mooers Forks, New York, where he was seen with a little boy who shortly after went missing. He claimed the boy had simply returned home to his family, however, he quickly left town and moved to Philadelphia, where he found work as a pharmacist. When a child died from a prescription issued from his place of work, he moved once more, this time to Chicago, changing his name to Dr. Henry Howard Holmes.
A Series of Scams
In 1885, Holmes wed the daughter of another affluent family, Myrta Belknap, in Minneapolis and filed for a never-completed divorce from his first wife. They arrived in the wealthy Chicago suburb of Wilmette, Illinois, in 1886. According to some accounts, he began a pattern then that would define his fraudulent career, borrowing on fake notes to repay loans, discharging subcontractors without notice, threatening to sue, and stalling any payments.
With a line of creditors behind him, Holmes shifted his focus to the up-and-coming Englewood neighborhood. He took on another pharmaceutical job as a clerk at Elizabeth S. Holton’s drugstore on the corner of S. Wallace Ave. and West 63rd Street. Through hard work, he eventually bought the store from Holton and her husband, a fellow UM alumnus who was only slightly older than Holmes.
Some historians claim that it was during this time that he began marketing a fake alcoholism cure, built up and sold a debt-ridden restaurant, and relocated the drugstore, which he sold by hiring people to shop there. After building his “Murder Castle,” Holmes would also sell a fake invention for producing illuminating gas from water, along with “miraculous” spring water taken from a city water main.
The House of Horrors
In 1887, Holmes purchased a plot across from the pharmacy and began construction of a two-story building with apartments and retail spaces. He was soon up his old tricks, as he refused to pay the architects and Aetna Iron and Steel, who sued in return. Construction was also delayed because Holmes hired and fired laborers to save money with unpaid wages – and to prevent anyone from knowing the full layout.
In preparation of the World’s Fair which Chicago was due to host, in 1892, a third floor was added to the building, and was renamed the World’s Fair Hotel. The event attracted millions of people from all over the world and Holme’s seized the opportunity to lure visitors into his hotel of horrors. Many of which would never be seen alive again.
During the construction, investors pulled out when Holmes made the news for hiding unpaid materials from Tobey Furniture and Schulz and Hirsch Mattresses. Upon coming to repossess the furnishings, both companies found an empty building, until an employee explained that the items were hidden in secret passages and rooms.
By the opening of the World’s Fair in 1893, tourists arrived to handsomely furnished rooms, although the corridors were poorly lit and oddly angled. In contrast, the second floor of 51 rooms held only 35 ordinary bedchambers. The others included airtight, soundproof rooms. One room was sealed up by brick and could only be entered through a trapdoor in the ceiling. Each was rigged with gas pipes controlled through a panel in Holmes’ bedroom. With names like “room of the three corpses,” “hanging secret chamber,” and the “sealed room all bricked in” in which unfortunate victims would be left to die of starvation or thirst. Each room had been designed for torture and Holme’s pleasure.
The devil’s design also included peepholes, trapdoors, secret passages, sliding panels, false partitions, chutes to the cellar, and a custom alarm system that tracked the movement of guests. In the cellar, authorities would discover an acid tank, quicklime vats, and a human-sized kiln, along with a dissecting table for reassembling bodies as skeletons to be sold to medical schools. Still, on the outside, only the building’s design attracted undue attention, with neighbors dubbing it “The Castle”.
The Companions of the Devil
As a skilled businessman and student of hypnotism and the occult, Holmes was practically irresistible. He lured many victims through advertisements for lodging, offers of employment, and even offers of marriage to himself. It didn’t help matters that few if any missing persons were investigated at the time, much less during the World’s Fair. Still, the “Beast” grew close to many people over his criminal career, including several wives and lovers.
The first of his mistresses to disappear was Julia Smythe, who had initially moved into the castle in 1890 with her husband Ned Conner, who staffed the pharmacy’s jewelry counter. Conner moved away upon discovering his boss’ affair with his wife, but Smythe stayed on with their 8-year-old daughter Pearl. Although Holmes claimed later that Julia perished during an abortion, both she and Pearl disappeared on Christmas in 1891.
Emeline Cigrande began working as Holmes’ personal secretary in 1892, and she accepted his marriage proposal unaware of the danger. Shortly after their engagement she disapeared, Holmes claimed that she had run away. However, he later confessed to keeping her in a vault before raping and murdering her. After shipping her belongings back to her family in Indiana, the devilish doctor then prepared and sold her skeleton to a local medical school.
Former actress Minnie Williams then became Holmes’ personal stenographer. He romanced her into transferring ownership of a Forth Worth property valued at $20,000. Although the two rented a Lincoln Park apartment in 1893, neither Minnie nor her sister Nannie were seen alive again after July of that year.
As the World’s Fair drew to a close, Holme’s left his Murder Castle behind and traveled to Denver, Colorado, in 1894 to marry his final wife, Georgiana Yoke, who knew nothing of his crimes.
The End of the Grift
By that time, Holmes had begun work on his second castle on the Williams property. Later, he would con the caretaker of his Chicago castle, Pat Quinlan, into footing the bill there. In 1914 Quinlan committed suicide by ingesting strychnine, subsequently taking whatever horrors he had witnessed during his time working in the castle to his grave. His body was found along with a note that read, “I couldn’t sleep.”
Meanwhile, Holme’s had taken his new bride to Indianapolis, where she and the family of his friend and right-hand man Benjamin F. Pitezel waited while Holmes orchestrated his final grift.
It was during a short stint in prison some months before, that Holme’s had concocted an insurance scam with fellow prisoner Marion Hedgepeth. The plan was for Holme’s to fake his own death after taking out an insurance policy on his life for the sum of $10,000, with Hedgepeth to receive $500 in exchange for a lawyer who could help him if any problems arose. Once Holmes was released from jail on bail, he attempted his plan; however, the insurance company was suspicious and did not pay out. Now Holmes planned to try his hand at insurance fraud once more, except this time he would have Pitezel fake his own death.
Benjamin F. Pitezel had worked as Holme’s right-hand man for years and had aided in several of Holme’s criminal schemes. Later during his own murder trial, Pitezal would be described as “Holmes’ tool … his creature”. The scheme called for Pitezel to set himself up as an inventor under the name B.F. Perry, who would then be killed and disfigured in an accidental lab explosion. Holmes was to find an appropriate cadaver to play the role of Pitezel and together they would split the insurance payout. However, Holmes didn’t stick to the plan and killed his friend using chloroform before setting his body on fire.
After telling Pitezal’s wife the plan had been successful and that her husband was in hiding in London, Holmes convinced her to let him care for three of her five children, while she left town to rendezvous with her husband. Shortly before his own departure, Holmes killed and incinerated young Howard Pitezal, before taking his wife and the remaining children to Canada where he suffocated and buried Nellie and Alice Pitezel before once more departing with the insurance money. However, the insurance company grew suspicious when Marion Hedgepeth, angry that he had never received his $500 promised by Holmes, contacted Police Chief Larry Harrigan with details of their failed insurance scam. And so it was in this way, the “Beast of Chicago” was finally apprehended.
Holmes visited his parents and first wife in New Hampshire before heading to Boston, where he was arrested and quickly confessed. Dr. Holmes took responsibility for at least 27 murders, though his confession often changed. Meanwhile, in Chicago, authorities opened Murder Castle and discovered a box of female skeletons, piles of bloody clothes, and a mound of bones including those of a child, likely Pearl Smythe. The case seemed closed.
An End to the Evil
Holmes’ 1895 trial was one of the most sensational of the times, as it provided a terrifying window into a serial killer’s world. Throughout, the “Beast of Chicago” remained charming, intelligent, and unrepentant. At one point, he claimed, “I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing.” After losing an appeal, Holmes was hanged at Moyamensing Prison in 1896. It’s said that his neck didn’t snap when the trap was sprung, and it took 15 minutes for him to be finally pronounced dead.
The Murder Castle, meanwhile, was mysteriously destroyed shortly after authorities had searched it. While purchased by A.M. Clark in hopes of creating a tourist attraction, the building was set alight by two men one night, with fire destroyed the upper floors. Only the first floor survived and served as a sign shop and bookstore until 1937, when the building was razed to the ground to make room for the Englewood Post Office, which still stands to this day.
Despite its fast resolution, nothing about this case is truly resolved. Not only was the Murder Castle itself destroyed before all evidence could by recorded, but even Holmes’ confession raised more questions than it answered. In the end, his mad schemes were never fully explained. Yet, perhaps it is best that we remain unsure how such a place could exist – and that we remain unaware of the full brutality of what occurred in that insane labyrinth of hidden rooms, lest they ever be repeated.
Read more from Mystery & Murder
You may also enjoy these stories: