H. H. Holmes, the serial killer who built a castle to kill people

With a castle built in 1893 and full of equipment to torture and kill people, he managed to make more than 200 victims.

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Known as Henry Howard Holmes, or simply H. H. Holmes, was not only a serial killer, but the greatest of them. He was born in the United States, where made victims in the late 19th century. His name was Herman Webster Mudgett, but later changed to what we know today.

He is known as the biggest serial killer in the world, killing more than 200 victims. Officially, he confessed just 27 murders, when his death sentence had already been handed down by the judge, but there is no doubt that the number is much higher.

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Despite killing so many people, Holmes was convicted for only one crime: killing of his partner as well as his children. He was a cold and calculating man, the clues he left behind were rare, so the total number of victims is uncertain.

The life story of H.H. Holmes

Son of the first settlers to colonize America, Holmes was mistreated by his family. His father was an alcoholic and often beat him. While his mother was extremely religious and punished Holmes with long periods without food or water for each transgression.

But it was not only the family relationship that turned Holmes into a killer. From an early age he showed signs of psychopathy. He was known to kill animals and perform experiments on the dead bodies, and even kept them as a trophy.

There is no evidence that Holmes killed people as a child, but people in his circle died under very mysterious circumstances.

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Holmes as a young man in the 1880s.

In 1882, he entered the University of Michigan, where he studied medicine. There he gained much experience with cadavers, and especially how to dissect them. It was through this practice that he got his first “job”: stealing cadavers, dissecting them, and selling them illegally to colleges.

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After graduating from medical school, his future was uncertain, so he decided to settle in Chicago in 1885 and adopt the name Henry Howard Holmes, or simply H. H. Holmes.

When Holmes arrived in the city, he began working in a pharmacy. Later, he bought the pharmacy where he worked, through installment payments, but he did not honor the debt, so the lady who sold to him called her lawyers. Shortly after, she disappeared and was never seen again.

World’s Columbian Exposition

Chicago at that time was known to be a violent, corrupt, disease-ridden, among others not good characteristics, as a result of its rapid growth. The goal of the politicians was to change this bad reputation. Therefore, in 1893, hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition.

In 1871 the city had suffered a major fire that destroyed much of it, and from this, to everyone’s surprise, it flourished exponentially in the following years. It was a scenario appropriate to an event that would show the growth of the country: in less than a century a village turned into a large metropolis.

To understand the grandeur of the event, it featured some inventions such as the Ferris wheel (or a big wheel in some countries), dishwasher, and various other objects, machines, and foods that we use to this day.

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Ferris wheel presentation at World’s Columbian Exposition.

Great names of that time participated in the event, and more than 26 million people visited it. A total of 46 countries participated. The event was the perfect distraction for Holmes’ plans.

Not by chance, he decided to build a hotel as close as possible to the square where the fair would take place, this would give him the credits to be able to kill people without raising suspicion.

Construction of Holmes Castle, a hotel designed to kill

There was an empty lot in front of the pharmacy where he worked, Holmes bought it and a few months later began construction of his hotel. During the construction, he constantly changed workers and engineers, his intention was that only he knew every detail of the building. Moreover, this constant rotation helped his plan to not pay peoples who worked there.

It was during construction that Holmes met Benjamin Pitezel, an alcoholic man who was looking for a job. He became a great partner of him, and later a key player in this story.

The building had three floors, the first floor was for stores, while the second and third floors were hotel rooms, approximately 30 rooms on each floor.

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Many of the rooms hid a secret passage, hidden closets, peephole so that Holmes could watch from the outside and large shafts that went straight down to the basement where he tortured, killed, dissected and burned his victims.

In the basement was the torture chamber, operating tables for removing the organs of the still-living victims, a piece of equipment for stretching the bodies until they split, an oven for burning the remains, and other gruesome tools.

The oven was one of the key pieces to Holmes be able to reach so many victims. Most serial killers are caught for not being able to hide the bodies of their victims, but with Holmes this was not the case.

Killing in the hotel

During the event the hotel was full, and Holmes had complete control over the rooms. He could fill any room in the hotel with asphyxiating gas, making it even easier to immobilize his victims. Or, in another practiced method, he would enter the room with a piece of cloth with chloroform, and silently take the life of the guest — usually women up to 25 years old.

To get rid of the bodies, he would throw them down the pipes he had built for this purpose, which would fall straight into the basement, where Holmes would dispose of the remains in the acid tank or else in the oven.

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Holmes kept the most valuable belongings of his victims for himself. Despite his castle of imposing size, he had financial problems. During the event it is estimated that Holmes took around 50 victims.

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Second floor of Holmes Castle

Escape plan

For several years, Holmes had been in debt to many people in town, he had built the entire castle practically without spending anything, he bought the materials and hired people, but he never paid them. So several of them got together, hired a lawyer, and gave him an ultimatum: pay his debts or go to jail.

Holmes had a very bad reputation in town. He had classic characteristics of a cheater. And just as most cheaters would do, Holmes decided it would be best not to pay anyone and flee the city.

But he could not leave behind everything he had built. So he decided to set fire to the third floor of his castle in order to collect the fire insurance money. He had signed a policy with four different insurance companies just for this purpose.

But to Holmes’ misfortune, the fire was put out in time by the fire department, making possible a more detailed investigation of what really happened.

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An investigator was sent to the scene. Once there, he was alerted to Holmes’ bad reputation. During the investigation he found that the fire started at several different points on the third floor, and all at the same time, a strong sign of an arson.

Holmes managed to escape the charges, but was unable to collect the insurance money.So he went looking for another plan to try to make money.

Together with his partner, Benjamin Pitezel, they decide to flee Chicago and scam in other places, this would be a better option due to their current reputation in the city. They try scams in several different states, until they come up with what would be Holmes’ last plan.

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Benjamin on the left, and Holmes on the right, in a rare photo found in 2019.

Murder of Benjamin Pitezel

To solve his financial problem, he convinced Benjamin Pitezel to pretend to have died, so they would earn the money from his life insurance and split then the money.

Holmes made sure that he would get a corpse very similar to Benjamin’s, and that would be enough for the insurance company to pay for the widow of the “dead man”.

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But now they needed the cooperation of Benjamin’s wife, for she would receive the money, and then pass on Holmes’ share to him. The woman was very reluctant, but agreed.

What Benjamin and his wife did not know, is that Holmes’ goal was not to get a corpse that looked very similar, but to kill Benjamin himself. But this time Holmes wouldn’t have to just kill Benjamin and then dispose of the corpse, he needed to convince the authorities that the death occurred naturally.

The plan to “fake” Benjamin’s death was successful, but raised several suspicions. At least Holmes had managed to get the insurance company to pay out the policy to the widow. At this point she still believed that her husband was alive.

Holmes had time to convince the widow to transfer all the insurance money to him, in addition, he manipulated her into leaving three of her five children in his custody.

Then he fled to Canada, with the money and Benjamin’s three children. Holmes subsequently killed the three children. At that point the police were doing a major search for him, where they finally found him.

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Death of Holmes

The evidence for Benjamin’s murders was more solid. That is why investigators only tried and convicted him for that crime. Holmes received the death sentence in 1896, and died by hanging in Philadelphia at the age of 35.

Unlike what some books report, the castle remained standing until the 1930s, when the government bought and demolished it, in order to build a post office, which opened in 1938 and functions to this day — at the beginning of the text we posted a photo of the castle in the 1920s, just before it was demolished.

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Post office on the same lot as Holmes’ castle.

This is a brief summary of a very long case; there are large books with thousands of pages that describe this story in great detail, if you are interested in buying them, this is an option that we recommend.

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Juliane Cunha

Brazilian, 27 years old, working in the health field. I love writing and I also love criminal cases, nothing better than combining business with pleasure. Follow me on Instagram @julianesantt | @casocriminal_