The individual who takes the lives of numerous others in a methodical manner, known as a serial killer, baffles the minds of most people, including behavior specialists. Such is the case of Henry Howard Holmes, the first documented serial killer in the United States.
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Holmes carefully constructed his three-story, block-long building of offices and a hotel in order to carry out the killing, dissection, and disposal of victims. Investigators were confounded as they attempted to unravel the mayhem that took place at that site.
Fascination with Death
Many people attribute environmental causes to people who commit such atrocities, and perhaps that is true in the case of Holmes. He was born Herman Webster Mudgett on May 16, 1861, to parents Levi Horton Mudgett and Theodate Page Price in Gilmanton, New Hampshire. His father was a violent alcoholic and his mother a devout Methodist. Holmes claimed that, as a child, other kids learned of his fear of the local doctor and attempted to scare him by forcing him to touch skeletal remains. As a result, he became fascinated and obsessed with death.
Off on a Wayward Path
Mudgett attended the University of Michigan Medical School, graduating in June 1884. During his tenure at the school, he stole cadavers, took out life insurance policies, and then mutilated the corpses in an attempt to defraud insurance companies. Some people believe he used the cadavers in private experiments as well. After graduating, Mudgett moved to Chicago and entered the pharmaceutical trade. He became involved with shady real estate and other fraudulent business deals under the name of H. H. Holmes, the name he used for the remainder of his life.
The Disappearing Widow
Holmes began working at a pharmacy he later purchased from the owner’s widow. He allowed the widow to live in an apartment upstairs from the pharmacy. Soon after the purchase of the pharmacy, the widow mysteriously disappeared. Holmes covered her disappearance by telling inquirers she went to California to visit family. He later amended the story by reporting that while visiting her family, she decided to stay in California.
A Maze of Trickery
Subsequently Holmes purchased the lot across the street from the pharmacy and constructed an elaborate building. The building housed the pharmacy, as well as offices and private rooms for rent in the form of a hotel. There were doors that opened to reveal only brick walls, and there were staircases that led nowhere. Holmes utilized the services of several contractors in the construction of the building in order to minimize suspicion.
A Stay at the Horror Hotel
Holmes lured single women into his hotel and killed them by asphyxiation and suffocation in rooms that opened only from the outside. He also murdered women who worked for him after he had purchased life insurance policies for them, listing himself as the beneficiary. The hotel rooms had trap doors and chutes that allowed him to dispose of the bodies directly into the basement where he dissected some, selling organs and skeletal remains to medical organizations. He also had a crematory in the basement as well as huge vats where he disposed of bodies using lime and various acids and chemicals.
On the Run
Shortly after the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, Holmes left Chicago and attempted to continue his unlawful practices in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. He did not remain in the area long after discovering law enforcement agencies recognized that he probably was not a legitimate business individual. With mounting pressure and resistance from authorities, Holmes began roaming the U.S. and Canada, randomly seeking a location where he might operate “under the radar.”
A Scheme Hatched in Prison
Authorities arrested Holmes for the first time and charged him with horse-trade fraud. While in jail, he confided in a fellow prisoner that he planned to fake his own death and collect on a life insurance policy. Holmes agreed to pay the inmate money for referring him to a lawyer he could trust with his illegal schemes.
The No-Bounds Murderer
When Holmes’s scam of faking his own death was foiled by his insurance company, he utilized the scheme again. Holmes concocted a plan with Philadelphia associate Benjamin Pitezel and his wife to fake Pitezel’s death. Then Holmes convinced Pitezel’s widow to give him temporary custody of three of her five children while her husband hid. Unbeknownst to Mrs. Pitezel, Holmes killed her husband and disappeared with her children. Authorities found the remains of two of the children in Toronto and those of the third near Indianapolis.
Murky, Murky Details
In 1894 the Pinkerton National Detective Agency tracked Holmes to Boston where he was arrested. After conviction for the murder of Pitezel, Holmes confessed to killing 27 people in Chicago. During his confession, he gave authorities various conflicting accounts of the murders and of his fraudulent dealings. Due to Holmes’s unreliable testimony, authorities are uncertain of how many murders he committed. Some have estimated the number to be as high as 250 victims.
In 1895 a mysterious fire consumed the building Holmes had so carefully constructed, and all forensic evidence was destroyed. The mysterious murders that took place there remain unsolved. The land was unused until the 1930s when the government constructed a post office on the site.
An Unusual Final Request
On May 7, 1896, authorities executed Holmes by hanging him at Moyamensing Prison in Philadelphia. It was a sloppy execution, as Holmes’s neck did not initially snap when the trap floor sprung. He writhed and twitched, taking more than 15 minutes to succumb. At his request, authorities buried him in concrete. His worst fear was that someone might illegally exhume his body and dissect it.