“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.”
– H. H. Holmes
Herman Webster Mudgett, better known under the name of H. H. Holmes, was one of the first documented serial killers in the modern sense of the term. During the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Holmes opened a hotel which he had designed and built for himself specifically with murder in mind. This would become the location for many of his grisly killings. While he confessed to 27 murders, of which nine were confirmed, the actual body count could be as high as 200.
Holmes arrived in Chicago in August 1886 and came across Elizabeth S. Holton’s drugstore at the northwest corner of South Wallace Avenue and West 63rd Street in the Englewood neighborhood. Holton gave Holmes a job, and he proved himself to be a hardworking employee. After the death of Holton’s husband, Holmes offered to buy the drugstore from Holton, and she agreed. Holmes purchased the store mainly with funds obtained by mortgaging the store’s fixtures and stock, the loan to be repaid in substantial monthly installments of $100 (worth $2,600 in 2015). Holton was never seen or heard from again, and whenever any regular customers asked Holmes about her whereabouts after she sold the drug store to him, he would say that she moved to California to be close to relatives.
Holmes purchased an empty lot across from the drugstore where he built his three-story, block-long hotel building. Because of its enormous structure, local people dubbed it “The Castle”. The building was 162 feet long and 50 feet wide. The address was 601-603 West 63rd Street. It was called the World’s Fair Hotel and opened as a hostelry for the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, with part of the structure devoted to commercial space. The ground floor of the Castle contained Holmes’ own relocated drugstore and various shops, while the upper two floors contained his personal office and a labyrinth of rooms with doorways opening to brick walls, oddly angled hallways, stairways leading to nowhere, doors that could only be opened from the outside and a host of other strange and deceptive constructions. Holmes was constantly firing and hiring different workers during the construction of the Castle, claiming that “they were doing incompetent work.” His actual reason was to ensure that he was the only one who fully understood the design of the building.
During the period of building in 1889, Holmes met and became close friends with Benjamin Pitezel, a carpenter with a criminal past. He used Pitezel as his right-hand man for his criminal schemes. A district attorney later described Pitezel as “Holmes’ tool, his creature.” After the completion of the hotel, Holmes selected mostly female victims from among his employees (many of whom were required as a condition of employment to take out life insurance policies, for which Holmes would pay the premiums, but was also the beneficiary), as well as his lovers and hotel guests, whom he would later kill. Some were locked in soundproof bedrooms fitted with gas lines that let him asphyxiate them at any time. Some victims were taken to one of the rooms on the second floor, called the “secret hanging chamber,” where Holmes throttled them to death. Other victims were locked in a huge soundproof bank vault near his office, where they were left to suffocate.
There was also a secret room sealed by solid brick that could only be entered through a trapdoor in the ceiling; Holmes would lock his victims in this room for days to die of hunger and thirst. He also invented a unique alarm system and installed it in all the doors on the upper floors to alert him whenever anybody was walking around in the hotel. The victims’ bodies were put inside either a secret metal chute or a dummy elevator which led to the basement, where some were meticulously dissected, stripped of flesh, crafted into skeleton models, and then sold to medical schools. Holmes also buried some of the bodies in lime pits for disposal. Holmes had two giant furnaces used to incinerate some of the bodies or evidence, as well as vats of corrosive acid, bottles of various poisons, and even a stretching rack. Through the connections he had gained in medical school, he sold skeletons and organs with little difficulty.
One victim was his mistress, Julia Smythe. She was the wife of Ned Conner, who had moved into Holmes’ building and began working at his pharmacy’s jewelry counter. Holmes began an affair with Smythe. After Conner had found out about the affair, he quit his job and moved away, leaving Smythe and her daughter Pearl behind. Smythe gained custody of Pearl and remained at the hotel, continuing her affair with Holmes. In 1891, Smythe told Holmes that she was pregnant with his baby, and demanded marriage. Holmes agreed to marry her but told her that they could not have a child. He then suggested performing an abortion, and she agreed. The abortion was planned for Christmas Eve. Holmes murdered Smythe by overdosing her with chloroform and later killed Pearl too. When confronted by a tenant in the building, who questioned the whereabouts of Smythe and her daughter, Holmes said that they had left for Iowa to attend a family wedding.
After Christmas, Holmes hired a man named Charles Chappell to articulate Smythe’s skeleton. Holmes introduced himself to Chappell as “Henry Gordon” and took him to one of the rooms on the second floor to show him the body. After some discussion, they agreed that Chappell would put the arms in a bag and take them home to articulate them, and Holmes would do the rest of the body. After Chappell had arrived home with the weapons, Holmes and another man (possibly Pitezel) showed up at the door and gave him the rest of the body, which was cut into two pieces. Holmes later hired Chappell again and took him to the same room to process the body of a victim. The third job was for the body of another woman. After Chappell had finished the third skeleton, Holmes refused to pay the money he owed him, due to some financial trouble; Chappell then refused to give the bones back to Holmes and kept them in his home. After Holmes was caught and his crimes became public, Chappell cooperated with the police and gave them the skull for examination. The room where Holmes kept the three bodies was later identified by investigators as “the room of the three corpses.”
Holmes met a railroad heiress, named Minnie Williams, while on a business trip in Boston. He introduced himself to her as “Henry Gordon”. They started dating and then entered into a relationship. Although Holmes had to return to Chicago, he kept in touch with Williams and sent her love letters. In February 1893, she moved to Chicago and contacted Holmes. He offered her a job at the hotel as his personal stenographer, and she accepted. After rekindling their relationship, Holmes was able to persuade Williams to transfer the deed to her property in Fort Worth, Texas to a man named Alexander Bond (an alias of Holmes). In April 1893, Williams transferred the deed, with Holmes serving as the notary (Holmes later signed the deed over to Pitezel, giving him the alias “Benton T. Lyman”). After proposing to Williams, Holmes encouraged her to invite her sister Annie to Chicago, and she accepted the invitation. Holmes eventually started a friendship with Annie Williams and even gave her a personal tour of the hotel. While working in his office, Holmes asked Annie to go inside his office vault to get a file for him. While she was inside the vault, Holmes locked her inside and turned on the gas line that led to the vault, killing her. About the same time, Minnie Williams also mysteriously “vanished”.