For whatever reason, America’s media, and perhaps that of the entire world, has long shown a fascination if not an outright obsession with true crime. The more severe and heinous the crimes, the more people want to hear every last detail, hence the incredible popularity of police-based television shows and movies. It also explains why news coverage explodes when real crimes start matching the most bombastic ones seen in entertainment, and nothing catches a reporter’s attention quite like a serial killer.
In one shape or another, the crime of murder has been around forever, and it didn’t take long before the most terrifying criminals started to get good at it. That said, most spree killers throughout history were either committing crimes of passion or acts of tyranny, meaning they killed their own families or were using their power to get away with such acts. Most historians point to H.H. Holmes as the first true serial killer, a man who chose victims at random and committed his deeds for the mere satisfaction of taking a human life.
Despite the fact his killing spree mostly took place in the early 1890s, Holmes’s story has only just begun entering the public consciousness. Several books have recently been written about his life and trial, one of which is in the process of being adapted into a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Martin Scorsese. Tentatively titled The Devil in the White City, this movie is still a long time coming, but for anybody who wants a preview, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to brush up on the man DiCaprio will be playing in it. Keep reading for 15 shocking facts about America’s first serial killer, H.H. Holmes.
15. His Childhood Was Totally Normal
In the modern era, the first thing people look at when discussing serial killers is how their lives began. Being the first serial killer in the country, psychologists would have had no idea where to begin with Holmes, and, in fact, there’s no record any contemporary doctors even gave him much thought. Retrospectively, modern scholars have attempted to examine Holmes’s childhood for any warning signs, only to come up entirely flat. Aside from being born with the goofy name Herman Mudgett, everything about life during the future madman’s youth was entirely normal for the time. His parents, Levi and Theodate, were loving and kind farmers who gave him and his two siblings everything an 1860s farm kid could want. While rumors claimed Holmes may have tortured animals at this time or that his father may have been abusive, both ideas have since been proven highly unlikely, cementing the fact no one could have seen his crimes coming in any era.
14. He Ran A Deadly Fraud Scam In Med School
Though there was nothing in H.H. Holmes’s youth to suggest he would later become a killer, the potential for serious deviance would inevitably start to reveal itself when the man enrolled in med school. It was also around this time he changed his name from Herman Mudgett to Henry Howard Holmes, allegedly inspired by Sherlock Holmes, who might’ve considered him a worthy adversary. Holmes also got into the habit of changing lots of names in this time frame, including those of the cadavers he was entrusted as a student. After stealing these corpses, Holmes would take out insurance policies on fictional people listing himself as beneficiary, mutilate and burn the cadavers, and then use their remains to collect the money. How exactly the University of Michigan Medical School never noticed is a huge mystery, as he somehow earned his medical degree in 1884.
13. He Was Married To Three Women—At The Same Time
In addition to his many violent and fraudulent crimes, H.H. Holmes’s long history as a con man meant there were also a literally uncountable number of petty crimes he committed along the way. That said, one crime we can quantify is bigamy, something Holmes committed twice over by getting married to three women at the same time. In defense of the women, they probably had no idea the others existed, though they also all apparently rushed into marriage without knowing much about their husband. Holmes’s first wife, Clara Lovering, married him when they were still teenagers, which, granted, was quite common at the time. In any event, the two never got along well, and Holmes abandoned her leaving only a vague story about how he had “lost his memory” and thus probably wouldn’t remember her. Later attempts to get divorced were denied, also commonplace for this era. That might explain why Clara had no objection when Holmes then married Myrta Belknap, though an explanation on how Myrta let him get away with marrying Georgiana Yoke has been lost to time.
12. He Was A Con Man Who Constantly Moved To Avoid Getting Caught
Born Herman Webster Mudgett, the Devil of the White City later changed his name to Henry Howard Holmes, or H.H. for short, though his intentions weren’t entirely to sound more professional. Were that the case, Holmes would’ve stopped at two names, while, in fact, he would go on and create more aliases for himself than we have room to name. Before he even began killing, Holmes was running into legal issues for his constant fraud scams, not to mention the cross-country bigamy, and knew the easiest way to escape capture at that point in history was to stay on the move. It was all too easy for a man to uproot his life, hop via train to a different state, and start all over again, maybe switching his name a little bit in the process if there was anyone looking for him. Originally hailing from New Hampshire, Holmes would spend time in Vermont, Michigan, New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, Minnesota, Colorado, and even Ontario, Canada, with each state/province experiencing some aspect of his crimes along the way.
11. He Later Tried Opening A Hotel…Or Did He?
Forget about the bigamy and the fraudulent acts of a master con artist; the real terror of H.H. Holmes began in August of 1886, when he moved to Chicago, Illinois. Initially, Holmes managed to find work as a pharmacist, hired by a man roughly his age who also happened to be a former University of Michigan alum. Though rumors persisted for years Holmes later murdered the man, new reports reveal they actually got along reasonably well, and Holmes definitely excelled at his job well enough to earn several promotions. Eventually, he had the necessary funding to purchase a hotel that happened to be across the street from his pharmacy. The plan was to open a pharmacy on the first floor and rent out the rooms on the second and third floors, yet constant troubles between Holmes and his building companies brought suspicion to the idea from the start. Builders were constantly fired in the middle of the job and replaced, furniture was purchased only to disappear, and it simply didn’t look like a place people would pay to live in.
10. His Building Was Later Called The “Murder Castle”
Alright, so this giant hotel H.H. Holmes purchased wasn’t actually a hotel… so, what was it? Well, its purpose was fairly unique, and there’s no official name for such an establishment, but the media would later dub his building the “Murder Castle.” As the name would imply, the sole reason Holmes purchased and renovated this building was to use it as a place to kill his hapless victims and stash their bodies. Far more than simply a location for these deeds to happen, however, the building itself was, in many respects, Holmes’s most terrifying weapon. There were soundproof rooms that slowly filled with gas, trap doors and chutes that led victims either to vats of acid or his basement laboratory, and countless disorienting staircases that ultimately led to brick walls. After killing his victims, Holmes would then either commit his old insurance scams with their bodies or sell their skeletons to universities, none of which ever asked him where the bones were coming from.
9. The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair Attracted Countless Hapless Victims
In stark contrast to the terror invoked by H.H. Holmes and men of his ilk, the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, better known simply as the Chicago World’s Fair, was supposed to bring joy and hope to the United States unlike any previous event could ever provide. The exhibition included a massive symposium on world history, highlighting cultural and societal achievements, and there was also an early version of an amusement park to keep the kids entertained, including the first ever Ferris Wheel. The downside to some 27 million people visiting Chicago over the six-month period the Fair lasted is that a large number of these attendees went missing. Obviously, it’s a stretch to say every last one was a Holmes victim, but the alleged 50 missing persons who stayed at his hotel during this time easily could be just that. While still trying to convince people he was building a hotel, Holmes claimed the World’s Fair would be great for business, and he may have meant that in more ways than one.
8. He Tried Faking His Own Death, Then Killed His Accomplice
Believe it or not, though H.H. Holmes was eventually captured, his arrest was entirely unrelated to the events transpiring inside his “Murder Castle.” Like everything else in his life up to that point, Holmes decided to cut and run the second his money started running out, leaving Chicago behind and going down south to attempt a bizarre horse-stealing plan. This landed him in prison for a few years, where he concocted his next scheme, which was to fake his own death. To this end, Holmes needed a partner, and after his cellmate Marion Hedgepeth refused, he settled on an easily manipulated patsy named Benjamin F. Pitzel. Holmes also slightly changed the plan so that it would be Pitzel faking his death instead, using one of Holmes’s seemingly unending reserve of cadavers to collect the insurance money. At the last minute, Holmes changed his mind yet again and settled on simply killing Pitzel outright, followed by doing the same to Pitzel’s entire family when they suspected something fishy was going on.
7. He Was Officially Charged With Only Nine Murders
Now having murdered countless strangers and a small family he was known to be connected to, H.H. Holmes was officially wanted in several states and two countries with absolutely nowhere to hide. Tracked by several Philadelphia detectives investigating the Pitzel crimes plus members of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, Holmes was finally caught in Boston, Massachusetts. In addition to being a murder suspect, there were several outstanding warrants to Holmes’s name in relation to his early horse thefts. While police in every state Holmes used to live in searched the various residences he left behind, none of them included evidence of any further bodies. That said, the “Murder Castle” indeed received plenty of sensational coverage over what was found inside, albeit with the caveat none of it actually implicated Holmes in his crimes nor could be used in court.
6. He Confessed To Murdering 27 People
Murdering nine people is already a heinous act, yet H.H. Holmes wasn’t content with people merely thinking he killed one small family. For that matter, nor were the public ready to let the story go with what the police had told them alone, which is why several newspapers offered him thousands of dollars for his story. Remember, this was the late 1800s, and thus, the amount inflates to six figures today. Always willing to cash in on his crimes, Holmes accepted the offer and gave a confession to more than one newspaper, most notable among them, however, to The Philadelphia Inquirer. Given the fact he confessed for a price and did so to a newspaper, this news is probably something to be taken with a grain of salt. That said, in his confession, Holmes would admit to 27 murders and six more attempted murders on top of that, which is a hefty claim, even for a fee. Truth or not, it wouldn’t hold up in court, and there were too many holes in Holmes’s story for police to investigate his claims further.
5. Some Of The People He Claimed To Kill Were Still Alive
As unfathomable as it is for normal people, serial killers actually have a tendency to inflate their numbers a bit, so the fact H.H. Holmes confessed to more crimes than he was accused of is hardly rare amongst his kind. As a matter of fact, since he was the first infamous killer in America, it might even be said Holmes started the trend. This isn’t to say he was particularly good at it, though. While some of the murders Holmes confessed to definitely happened, authorities would later discover quite a few of them would have been impossible, largely for two reasons: either the victims he named never existed or even more bafflingly, they were still alive at the time of his capture. It’s very likely that the explosion of Holmes’s own legacy was due to these lies, as adding to his victim count made him seem like an even greater monster to a society that had no idea what a serial killer was in the first place.
4. He Claimed He Was Possessed By Satan
Given what they’re famous for, many serial killers have made statements so terrifying they’ve become etched in the mind of anyone who heard them as amongst the vilest things ever spoken by humans. H.H. Holmes set the bar extremely high in this regard, with a chilling quote long claimed to be part of his confession. In his own words, Holmes claimed, “I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing—I was born with the “Evil One” standing as my sponsor beside the bed where I was ushered into the world, and he has been with me since.” To put it plain English, Holmes was claiming to be the devil incarnate, possessed by Satan at the moment he was born. in prison, he also claimed to believe his appearance was “taking a Satanical Cast” and that he was physically transforming into the hell beast. Of course, maniacal killers will say just about anything to remove blame from themselves, especially before the public understood what they were.
3. He Was Executed For His Crimes
Regardless of how much of what H.H. Holmes said was true, police were nonetheless able to charge him with the Pitzel murders and several smaller crimes. Lawyers of the day had never represented a man as vile as Holmes, and as it would turn out, they wouldn’t have to, as his first act during the trial was firing his counsel and serving as his own counsel. Holmes proved less adept at the law than he was at medicine or murder, easily getting convicted and sentenced to death for his crime. The primary method of execution at the time was hanging, although they had not yet become as relatively quick an affair as they would ultimately become. In fact, it took Holmes a full 15 minutes of swinging from the gallows before his life finally ended, though the terrifying man was said to have accepted his fate with an unsettling calmness.
2. Rumors Persisted For Years That He Had Faked His Death
Because of H.H. Holmes’s long history as a con man, people almost immediately cast their doubts he could get caught and executed so easily. After all, the man had plotted to fake his death with two co-conspirators, not to mention successfully faking the deaths of countless others in his insurance scams, so he clearly had an interest in and an understanding of the concept. On top of this, Holmes had asked for a highly specialized coffin to be built, which he claimed was to fend off body snatchers but may have been involved in a complicated escape attempt. Almost a full century later, distant descendants of Holmes decided they wanted to know the truth, commissioning his body to be exhumed and tested to discover if it was really him in the coffin. The science is now clear, and it can be confirmed that Holmes actually did die through the aforementioned execution.
1. How Much Of The Story Is Fact Versus Fiction?
Truth be told, it was a little difficult composing an article about H.H. Holmes based entirely on things that have been factually proven. While everything on this list was indeed reported somewhere, the fact is, the life of America’s first serial killer has unsurprisingly been sensationalized to such an extent it’s hard to know the full truth of his actions today. For example, though Holmes confessed to 27 murders and was convicted of committing 9, some publications long printed that he killed upwards of 200—basing these claims on almost nothing except the fact no one was around to dispute them. Holmes’s legacy was kept alive almost exclusively through pulp magazines and horror novelists using his story as an inspiration until very recently, when historians have painstakingly searched for actual evidence of exactly whom he killed, how he killed them, and most importantly, why he committed these crimes. Will the upcoming movie clear things up or make it a whole lot more confusing? The world won’t know until the film is released.
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