H. H. Holmes: America’s First Serial Killer

H. H. Holmes mugshot captured during first arrest. | Courtesy of Google Images

Herman Webster Mudgett, commonly known as H. H. Holmes, was born in 1861 in New Hampshire.1 Mudgett was born into an affluent family and lived a very privileged life as a child. Many thought that Mudgett was unusually intelligent as a child; Mudgett showed an interest in medicine, which was one of the first signs of his psychotic behaviors, for Holmes practiced surgery on many helpless animals.2 Mudgett began his criminal life with petty acts of fraudulence and scams. One criminal act that Mudgett committed is haunting. Holmes stole corpses while as a medical student at University of Michigan in order to perform experiments on the bodies.3

This is a photo of Herman Mudgett, also known as H. H Holmes, America’s first serial killer. | Courtesy of Google Images by the Dallas Morning News

Holmes later became one of America’s first serial killers. Mudgett is most commonly known for his brutal killer tactics in a specially constructed home nicknamed the “Murder Castle.” What flaws did he make? Who would commit such crimes? We are going to find out… Through criminology, specialists investigate the criminal’s mind, and acts of crime. What were the possible motives of H. H. Holmes and the flaws he made in his murders?

Mudgett was said to be an affluent, privileged child; although, there is more evidence to look for in his childhood years to show the cause of his crimes. Holmes’ mother was said to have had a terminal illness that traumatized the family. Many serial killers encounter psychological trauma early on in their life that creates a mental disorder leading to their twisted thoughts and actions. Mudgett’s mother’s illness could have been a possible cause for his psychotic behavior. Another could be that Mudgett’s mother was unable to be saved from her illness, so he wanted to join the medical field due to his hatred of doctors.

Mudgett was an extremely intelligent man, which makes him an even more terrifying figure. In 1885, Mudgett moved to Chicago and came across Elizabeth S. Holton’s drugstore at the southwest corner of South Wallace Avenue and West 63rd Street in Englewood, where he found work at a local pharmacy, and where he began using his infamous name, Dr. Henry H. Holmes.4 He worked at the pharmacy for about two years, and eventually took over the business. Holton said he proved himself to be a hardworking employee, and eventually bought the store.

This sketch is of interior of the notorious Holmes “Castle” that shows the design of the castle of death, including all trap doors and secret rooms. | Courtesy of Google Images by Movie Pilot 2016

With the money collected as the new owner of the local pharmacy, Holmes purchased an empty lot across from the drugstore, where construction began in 1887 on a two-story mixed-use building, with apartments on the second floor and retail spaces, including a new drugstore on the first floor.5 When Holmes declined to pay the architects or the steel company, they sued him in 1888. In 1892, he added a third floor, telling investors and suppliers that he intended to use it as a hotel during the upcoming World’s Columbian Exposition, though the hotel portion was never completed. Furniture suppliers found that Holmes was hiding their materials, for which he had never paid, in hidden rooms and passages throughout the building.6 Their search made the news, and investors for the planned hotel pulled out of the deal when a jeweler in the building showed them the articles.7 When the third floor caught fire on the night of August 13, 1893, only a few people were in the building, all employees and long-term residents. Holmes had taken out insurance policies on the building with at least four companies, all of which promptly sued rather than pay. During the 1893 Columbian Exposition, Holmes opened up his home as a hotel for visitors. Unfortunately, many guests did not survive what became known as the “Murder Castle.”8

This is an exterior photo of the Hotel of Horrors that Holmes used as a hotel to trap his victims | Courtesy of Google Images by The Line Up 2016

Many of these victims were women who were seduced, lured into the “Murder Castle,” and then killed. Other victims were lured there by the offer of employment.9 Holmes did not live in Chicago for long, because many people began to catch on to his trail. With insurance companies pressing to prosecute Holmes for arson, Holmes left Chicago in July 1894 to construct another “castle” along the lines of his Chicago operation.10 If Holmes would have kept out of the many building issues of the Murder Castle, he might have been able to get away with more killings in Chicago.

In July 1894, Holmes was arrested for the first time, on the charge of selling mortgaged goods in St. Louis, Missouri.11 He was bailed out, but while in jail he met a convicted outlaw named Marion Hedgepeth, who was serving a 25-year sentence. The two planned a wild scheme to deceive an insurance company out of $10,000 by taking a policy out on Holmes and then faking his own death to receive the money. The plan became too elaborate and involved too many people, which meant a greater split of money among the group. Holmes became outraged and killed a member of the group, Benjamin Pitezel, and his entire family. Frank Geyer, a Philadelphia detective, found the decomposed bodies of the two Pitezel girls in the Pitezel house cellar after co-wrokers were suspicious that Mr. Pitezel had missed two days of work.12 After removing the bodies, Geyer noticed that one of the girl’s feet had been removed. After discovering that the girl had club foot, he theorized that the killer had cut off her feet to prevent a distinctive identification of the body.13 Holmes was reported to have visited a local pharmacy to purchase the drugs that he used to kill another member of the Pitezel family, and a repair shop to sharpen the knives he used to chop up the body before he burned it.14 The boy’s teeth and bits of bone were discovered in the home’s chimney. Holmes’ murder spree finally ended when he was arrested in Boston on November 17, 1894, after being tracked there from Philadelphia.15 In October 1895, Holmes was put on trial for the murder of Benjamin Pitezel, and was found guilty and sentenced to death.16 By then, it was evident that Holmes had also murdered the Pitezel children. Following his conviction, Holmes confessed to 27 murders in Chicago, Indianapolis, and Toronto.17 Holmes gave various contradictory accounts of his life, initially claiming innocence and later that he was possessed by Satan. On May 7, 1896, Holmes was hanged at the Philadelphia County Prison, for the murder of Pitezel family and countless other murders.18

This newspaper clipping of H. H Holmes describes the questioning of Holmes motives | Courtesy of Google Images by Did You Know Facts 2016

All in all, Holmes let his impatient manner and greed get the best of him. If Holmes had been able to keep to himself, he would have been able to get away with more than he did. His motives were unclear, but the illness of his mother and his unhealthy interest in medicine have a strong correlation with the monster that was created in Chicago. Serial killers are a breed of monsters, and understanding the minds of a different breed is almost impossible. Relations and inferences can be made, but no one will ever understand why one would commit such crimes to another form of life.

  1. David Goldman, “Castle of Horror: The Gruesome Story of H.H. Holmes,” Biography 7, no. 5:28 (2003): 787.
  2. David Goldman, “Castle of Horror: The Gruesome Story of H.H. Holmes,” Biography 7, no. 5:28 (2003): 789.
  3. David Goldman, “Castle of Horror: The Gruesome Story of H.H. Holmes,” Biography 7, no. 5:28 (2003): 793.
  4. George M. Ebehart, “New Publications,” College & Research Libraries News 64, no. 10: (2011) 680.
  5. George M. Ebehart, “New Publications,” College & Research Libraries News 64, no. 10: (2011) 681.
  6. George M. Ebehart, “New Publications,” College & Research Libraries News 64, no. 10: (2011) 681.
  7. George M. Ebehart, “New Publications,” College & Research Libraries News 64, no. 10: (2011) 681.
  8. Salem Press Encyclopedia Research Starters, 2016, s.v. “Mass and serial murders,” by Phyllis B. Gerstenfeld.
  9. Salem Press Encyclopedia Research Starters, 2016, s.v. “Mass and serial murders,” by Phyllis B. Gerstenfeld.
  10. Salem Press Encyclopedia Research Starters, 2016, s.v. “Mass and serial murders,” by Phyllis B. Gerstenfeld.
  11. Salem Press Encyclopedia Research Starters, 2016, s.v. “Mass and serial murders,” by Phyllis B. Gerstenfeld.
  12. Salem Press Encyclopedia Research Starters, 2016, s.v. “Mass and serial murders,” by Phyllis B. Gerstenfeld.
  13. J.P. Shalloo, “Criminology,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (2004), 333.
  14. J.P. Shalloo, “Criminology,”, Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (2004), 333.
  15. J.P. Shalloo, “Criminology,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (2004), 334.
  16. J.P. Shalloo, “Criminology” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (2004), 334.
  17. J.P. Shalloo, “Criminology,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (2004), 334.
  18. J.P. Shalloo, “Criminology,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (2004), 334.
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38 Comments

  • Wow. I have never heard of H. H. Holmes and what he had done. Even after all of the occurrences of serial killers throughout history I still can’t believe that people would do this. Although, I found it extremely interesting how intelligently Holmes went about his horrific endeavors. His reasoning behind his delusional acts was not anywhere close to a reasonable excuse. Everyone will eventually lose someone important in their lives. This was a well written article!

  • This article was interesting in that it talks about one of the first serial killers and his unclear motive. What I found to be most interesting was Holmes’ use of a hotel for many of his first victims. The author did a good job of explaining the illness of Holmes’ mother and how it had an effect on him in the long run. Overall the author’s use of different details helps deliver a great article.

  • As someone who has read and heard the stories of many serial killers, I was surprised to find that I had not heard of H.H Holmes. Out of curiosity, I wanted to know more about the Murder Castle and its design, so I searched for it online. I found out that it had a complex design that featured soundproof walls, a maze, and trapdoors leading to acid vats. It is strange that he murdered his victims in this way.

  • Holmes’s intelligence and privileged childhood is the clear source for how well he lived as a serial killer. The attention to detail and caution that went into each of his killings are the reason he was able to last so long without being caught. It is impressive and yet at the same time very frightening. While I did enjoy learning about this psychotic man, the writing style definitely needs work starting with paragraph two.

  • H. H. Holmes seems very smart to pulling acts like this, however we don’t really see a lot of educated killers in the early centuries. Which to me was very interesting to be reading about, Holmes knew what he wanted and didn’t let anyone get in his ways with his plans. He’s got determination for one fellow however, that didn’t help him avoid a hanging. Overall the author did very well executing this story.

  • This was a very interesting and informative Article. Before reading this article I did not know much about H.H Holmes. I remember reading about the hotel Holmes trapped his victims in but this article sheds a lot more light as to when it was built and how it became the horror hotel. This article was detailed and helped explain H.H Holmes’ story.

  • It is hard to believe that Holmes was the first american serial killer considering americas dark beginnings but never the less I thought this article was really good. Having your mother die from an illness is no excuse to be a serial killer there are a lot of people who go through this same experience without any backlash on society.

  • Interesting article, I remember being a kid when I saw a documentary on H.H. Holmes and while at the time didn’t understand much of what they were discussing in it, I do remember thinking how a person could do such things. Now that I am older, it is interesting to think that he was reacting to trauma that he had sustained from his mother’s metal illness could have been the cause of his murders. When I was taking criminal justice classes one of my professors told us that while mental illness may not always be present in serial killers it is H.H. Holmes may have fall into the category as one who had a mental illness that drove him to do what he did.

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