In 1886, Dr. H. H. Holmes, born Herman Mudgett, purchased a drugstore building in the Chicago suburb Englewood from a man who was dying from cancer. When the previous owner died, Holmes bought all of the property surrounding the drugstore and soon owned the whole block, which he would renovate into a hotel, just in time for the World Fair of 1893, which took place in Chicago. In that year, Holmes confessed to killing 27 people, mainly women, although the actual number could be much higher. From that point on he became one of America’s first documented serial killers.
He was born on May 16th, 1861 in Gilmanton, New Hampshire. He attended Gilmanton Academy, where he quickly became prey for his peers. His parents were devoutly Methodist and they forced their beliefs upon him and never let misbehavior go unpunished. Small, odd, and terrified of the doctor, Mudgett was dragged by older boys to the doctor’s office on one day that would stand out in memories of his childhood. On that day he realized how fascinating cadavers and skeletons could be. This interest followed him throughout his childhood and to medical school. As a young boy he kept a small box of treasures, in which were items such as his first tooth and items such as small animals skulls. Mudgett also worked for a photographer who had an artificial limb, which Mudgett was extremely fascinated in. Mudgett finished school at 16 and he took a job as a teacher in New Hampshire where he met Clara A. Lovering, his first wife. Eventually Mudgett disappeared from New Hampshire, never to return.
At 19 he went to college in Vermont and then Michigan, where he studied medicine. When he graduated he realized that he needed more money, and, along with his former classmate in the University of Michigan, devised a plan to con life insurance companies to give him money. Mudgett and his friend faked the death of a family of 3 and substituted the bodies with cadavers; because the “family” had life insurance, Mudgett was paid $40,000 as a death benefit, which he would split with his friend. The cadavers were stolen from graveyards, an act that became common for teachers and profesors who needed skeletons in the classrooms but could not afford to pay for them. Soon after, Mudgett caught a train to Chicago, where he registered his name as Holmes, and the serial killer was born.
In Chicago, Holmes moved to Englewood where, using his charm and manners, persuaded an old woman to sell him her dying husband’s drugstore. She reluctantly agreed and Holmes renamed the drugstore to H.H.Holmes Pharmacy. He attracted many customers and made a large profit. Even when her husband died, the widow continued to live in the building above the drugstore, which Holmes also owned. She was known to ask many questions. One day, she disappeared, and, when asked by the police what had happened to her, Holmes replied that she spontaneously moved to California; however, the widow was never seen in California. Holmes continued to expand his property, buying all the territory on the block of his pharmacy.
With the opening of the World Fair of 1893 looming overhead, Holmes quickly transformed his property into the World’s Fair Hotel, a quick train ride to the Fair. The Hotel would later be dubbed “The Murder Castle” by a Chicagoan police officer. Holmes mainly hired young female workers to work in the pharmacy; many of them disappeared. Holmes had many relationships with women,all of which also disappeared. When the World Fair opened in May 1893, many young people stayed at Holmes’s hotel. They described it as “gloomy” and “dreary at night”, but the charm of the handsome owner kept them at the hotel. What the travelers did not know about the hotel was that it had a gas chamber and an almost sound-proof vault, some of ways that Holmes killed his victims.
Holmes was finally arrested in Boston on November 17th, 1894 for his fraud. He was imprisoned in Philadelphia and then tried. Holmes initially claimed that he was innocent, but then told the judge that he was possessed by Satan. Holmes finally confessed to killing 27 people on May 17th 1894 in exchange for money, but the number could have been as high as 200.
I was inspired to write about Dr. Holmes after starting my summer reading book, The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. It tells the story of both H. H. Holmes and Robert Burnham (architect in charge of building the World Fair) in a fictional manner, with non-fictional information. Check it out!
– Maria Tokarska