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

While Jack The Ripper is a mystery to this day – around the same time in America, a man just as skilled captured the nation when his crimes were revealed. Herman Webster Mudgett, as he was known at the time, was a killer who took his crimes to a whole new level.

The man was born on 16 May 1861 in Gilmanton, New Hampshire. He was the third child born to Theodate Page Price and Levi Horton Mudgett.

Herman went to the University of Vermont, but after being dissatisfied with the school he left after only a year of attendance. It was in 1882 that he entered the University of Michigan’s Department of Medicine and Surgery where he found not only his calling but also perfect skills that would assist him with later endeavours.

It was at this school that he studied human anatomy. He was under the instruction of Professor William James Herdman. The professor was plagued with scandals, including collecting cadavers which began prior to Herman commencing at the school. However; with Herman, the professor found an accomplice with his crimes. It is said that the professor employed Herman to do odd chores, but that could easily be a cover story.

After his studies, he headed to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He first got a job as a keeper in a hospital but quit after a few days. He then took a position at a chemist, while there a boy died after ingesting medicine that was purchased there. He denied involvement and in an act that does not look suspicious at all – he left town for Chicago. Before that, however, to make sure authorities wouldn’t be able to find him he changed his name. Herman Webster Mudgett would now and forever be known by the name, Herman Howard Holmes or simply H. H. Holmes.

Not only was he a dubious character, he was also a polygamist. He had married his first wife, Clara Lovering in 1978 – to which he had one child. In 1886, he married Myrta Belknap, he filed for divorce from Clara a few weeks after the marriage, alleging infidelity on her part. The claims could not be proven so the marriage was never annulled officially. He had a child to Myrta called Lucy. His family would live in Wilmette, Illinois while H. H. Holmes spent his time in Chicago. His final wife, Georgina Yoke he took in 1894 in Denver, Colorado.

Once in Chicago, he came across another chemist. It was located on the northwest corner of South Wallace Avenue and West 63rd Street in Englewood. It was owned by Elizabeth S. Holton and she gave Herman a job. He showed he was a hardworking employee and eventually brought the chemist. Although now in procession of the chemist it was, in fact, the vacant plot of land diagonally across from the chemist that Herman was more interested in.

In 1887 Herman began construction of the two-storey mixed-use building, with apartments on the second floor and retail spaces, including a new drugstore. Throughout the building of this place, which would become known as the Murder Castle, it was plagued with concerning incidents. Herman got sued by Aetna Iron and Steel in 1888. It was in 1882 that he added a third floor – the reason he gave to investors was that he intended to use it as a hotel during the upcoming World’s Columbian Exposition. The hotel portion of the building was never completed.


As well as being a polygamist – Holmes was also a womaniser. In fact, one of his early mistresses, Julia Smythe, who was the wife of Ned Connor, a man who had moved into his building and began working at the pharmacy’s jewellery counter. He found out about the affair and left his wife and daughter with Holmes and moved away. Julia and her daughter, Pearl disappeared on Christmas Eve of 1891. Holmes later claimed that Julia had died during an abortion. He claimed to have poisoned Pearl, likely to hide her mother’s murder. A child’s skeleton similar to Pearl’s age was found when excavating his cellar. Ned would end up returning to Chicago as a key witness in Holmes’ later trial.

Another woman who had a similar fate was Emeline Cigrande. She began working in the building in May 1892, she would only be there till December which is when she disappeared. It was rumoured that Holmes had gotten her pregnant and was a victim of another failed abortion.

It was while he worked at the Chemical Bank that he met Benjamin Pitezel. He was a carpenter but also a criminal. Holmes used Pitezel as his right-hand man for several of his schemes. He would later also become Holmes victim.

It was in 1893 that Minnie Williams, a one-time actress moved to Chicago. Holmes had offered her a job as his secretary which she accepted. It was during this time that he convinced her to sign over the deed to her property in Fort Worth, Texas. He used the alias Alexander Bond, and notarised the deed as himself.

The next month, Holmes and Williams, presenting themselves as husband and wife, rented an apartment in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. Minnie’s sister, Annie, came to visit, and in July, she wrote to her aunt that she planned to accompany “Brother Harry” to Europe. Neither Minnie nor Annie were seen alive after July 5, 1893. The sisters’ remains were never found, or if they were – they were never identified.


In July 1894 Holmes was arrested and briefly jailed on the charge of selling mortgaged goods in St. Louis, Missouri. Although he was promptly bailed he made good use of his time. He struck up a conversation with Marion Hedgepeth, who was a convicted outlaw who was serving a 25-year sentence. They hatched a scheme that Holmes would fake his own death and swindle $10,000 from an insurance agency. In exchange for a $500 commission, Hedgepeth gave him the name of a corrupt lawyer who was also let in on the scheme. However, the insurance agency caught on and didn’t pay the money. For once Holmes cut his losses and instead decided to try again – this time however with Benjamin Pitzel.

Holmes convinced Benjamin to fake his own death so that his wife could collect the money. The policy would be split between his wife and Holmes. For the scheme, Pitzel set himself up as an inventor under the name B.F. Perry. He was to be killed and then disfigured in a lab explosion. For Holmes part, he was to find cadavers to play the part of the victim. But Holmes did not do that. Instead, Holmes killed Pitzel by chloroform then set his body on fire – this was all after he was knocked unconscious.

Holmes ended up collecting on the insurance on the basis of having Pitezel’s actual corpse. He then went to Pitezel’s widow and somehow managed to convince her to trust three of her five children (Alice, Nellie and Howard) to be placed in his custody. The eldest daughter and the baby remained with their mother.

Holmes then put himself and the children on a train and began travelling throughout the northern United States and Canada. He would criss-cross extravaganza all over the place, in order to confuse the mother of her children’s whereabouts. At the same time, he was escorting Mrs. Pitezel along a parallel route, all the while using various aliases and lying to Mrs. Pitezel concerning her husband’s death (claiming Pitezel was hiding in London.

DETECTIVE FRANK P. GEYER. Image from Wikipedia.

Mrs. Pitezel would never see her children again. Frank Geyer, a Philadelphia police detective, was assigned to the case of investigating Holmes and finding the missing children. He found the two Pitezel girls in the cellar of the Toronto home. Holmes said later in trial that he had forced the girls into a large trunk. He had locked them inside, drilling a hole in the top he put a house through the hole, the other end to a gas line in order to asphyxiate the girls.

Geyer then went to Indianapolis, to the cottage that Holmes had rented. He found that Holmes had reportedly visited a local chemist to purchase drugs. These drugs he had used to kill Howard Pitezel. He had also visited a hardware store to sharpen the knives he used to chop the body up before he burned it. All the remains Geyer had found left were some of the boy’s teeth and bone fragments that were in the home’s chimney.

The murder spree finally ended when Holmes was arrested on 17 November 1894, in Boston. He had been tracked there from Philadelphia by the private Pinkerton National Detective Agency.

It was only upon the discovery of the Pitezel girl’s bodies that suspicion of his previous years in Chicago fell under the microscope. Both the police and reporters alike began to investigate the building in Englewood, that had locally been referred to as The Castle. No evidence was found which could have convicted him, though sensational claims still persisted.

In October 1895, Holmes was tried and found guilty of the murder of Benjamin Pitezel. He was sentenced to death. By this time it was evident that he had also killed the father’s children.

Following his conviction, Holmes confessed to 27 murders in Chicago, Indianapolis, and Toronto (though some people he “confessed” to murdering were still alive), and six attempted murders. Holmes was paid $7,500[1] by the Hearst newspapers in exchange for his confession, which was quickly found to be mostly nonsense.

Wikipedia page of H. H. Holmes

Holmes was hanged on 7 May 1896, at Moyamensing Prison. However, upon the hanging his neck did not break and instead he was strangled to death slowly, twitching for over 15 minutes. It wasn’t until 20 minutes of the trap being sprung had elapsed that America’s first serial killer was finally dead.

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