Warning: Article contains descriptions of torture and murder as committed by HH Holmes, which may be disturbing to some readers.
When HH Holmes and his Chicago Murder Castle were finally discovered in 1894, police couldn’t tally the victims. He likely killed 200 people in his day, but Dr. Holmes admitted to 27. Words attributed to him before he was executed, explaining his murderous impulses, are chilling.
“I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than a poet can help the inspiration to sing.”
Though HH Holmes is America’s first and perhaps the most prolific serial killer, the name isn’t on the tip of the tongue like Jack the Ripper, Jeffrey Dahmer, or Ted Bundy. That will soon change with the recently announced — and sixth — collaboration between Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio.
The pair will bring Holmes back to life in a film version of Erik Larson‘s 2003 book on the killer, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, Vanity Fair reported. The project has been in the works for a decade.
But who was HH Holmes? The story starts in the same place it begins for many serial killers — with early warning signs in childhood. According to Biography, he was born in 1861 in New Hampshire as Herman Webster Mudgett to a wealthy family. At early age, HH was very smart and interested in medicine, indulging his interest by performing surgery on animals. Some believe he killed a childhood friend.
Smart as he was, Holmes managed a medical degree, paying for his education at the University of Michigan through insurance scams by stealing corpses to make false claims.
By 1886, at age 25, he moved to Chicago where he worked in a pharmacy, History.com reveals. The original owner vanished mysteriously, and he bought the business from his widow. She then vanished. With the proceeds from more scams, HH paid for the construction of a huge house across the street that locals dubbed the Castle.
Just in time for the 1893 Columbian Exposition, or World’s Fair, HH opened his Castle as a hotel to the fair’s visitors. But behind closed doors was a horror few could imagine, an elaborate building designed for murder. The details are disturbing.
A drugstore and other shops were contained on the ground floor. On the upper floors, Holmes kept his living quarters and a series of rooms in which he tortured and killed women. He’d designed 100 windowless rooms with doors opening to brick walls — and some with gas jets to asphyxiate victims — stairways leading nowhere, doors opened only from the outside, as well as trapdoors and chutes that would catapult bodies to the basement for disposal and a lab for dissection.
What is most bizarre and disturbing about HH Holmes’ so-called Murder Castle is the variety of ends his victims could meet once lured inside. He gassed some, incinerated others with blowtorches built into the wall, hanged some in a “secret hanging chamber,” suffocated others, had pits of acid and a stretching rack. He buried the bodies in lime pits, burned others to ash, and sold the skeletons of others to medical schools.
His victims were young women he seduced and swindled, as well as tourists, who took rooms in his castle and never came home after they set out to visit the fair. His other victims were employees — who were forced to take out insurance policies for which Holmes was the beneficiary — and lovers.
Holmes left Chicago after the World’s Fair and traveled the U.S., possibly leaving a trail of more victims in his wake. By the following year, another insurance scam that ended in the murder of an associate and his three children tipped off police. They found his Murder Castle back in Chicago much as he left it: the torture chambers and passageways, skeletons in the basement, dried blood on the dissection table, bloody clothes, human hair, and remains of possibly 200 victims.
HH Holmes only confessed to 27 murders and was ultimately hanged for the death of only one victim, on May 7, 1896, in Philadelphia.
Dicaprio will, of course, play Holmes himself.
[Photos Courtesy Wikimedia Commons]