Holmes is dubbed America’s First Serial Killer. This bothers me somewhat because after watching true crime for twenty years and more, I know this not to be entirely true.
First of all, when defining a murderer as a serial killer the authorities and mental health professionals look for three things: victimology, modus operandi, signature. Yes, at the very basic level of the definition they have to kill three or more people but, it’s much more qualitative than quantitative. There’s almost nothing of Holmes murders that overlaps to qualify him under these three categories. His victims were not all the same kind of victim. He killed men, women and children. He did use the same mode of murder each time nor did he use the same ruse to disarm them. Some of his victims he gassed, some he suffocated, others he poisoned and some we have no idea how he came to take their lives. But, as far as I can tell, there was absolutely NO signature, his own personal mark or message, etc., to his murders whatsoever. So by very definition, we CANNOT call him a SERIAL KILLER. People make this same mistake with Charles Manson all the time. If anything Manson was a multiple-murderer. That is what Holmes should be categorized as, a multiple-murderer. One journalist got it right back in 1895, calling Holmes just that after the horrors of his murder castle were discovered and he had been arrested.
Second, there is actually record of an entire family that were true serial killers in 1872 that lived and operated Kansas, the Bender family. Since this is before anyone ever heard of H.H. Holmes (he would have been 11 and hadn’t changed his name to Holmes yet), he CAN’T be the first American serial killer. (This family would also be my argument that Eileen Wuornos is not the first FEMALE serial killer. She’s just the first to get that kind of attention. There were MANY before her. In fact, in the Bender family, the DAUGHTER called the shots and ran things and everyone else followed her orders.)
So, now that I have clearly made my case, moving on because Holmes is STILL one of the most successful and most amazingly competent psychos you will EVER read about.
Henry Howard Holmes was actually born Herman Webster Mudgett in 1861 in New Hampshire. He was a slight, shy child with a strict religious upbringing backed by his disciplinarian father and god-fearing mother. He was often bullied and teased by his older classmates. This bullying would come to a peak with a pivotal event, changing young Herman forever and begin the formation of the monster we now call H.H. Holmes.
When he was ten he was terrified of the skeleton in the doctor’s office. Two older classmates knew this. One day they grabbed him and forced him into the empty office, pushing him closer and closer to the outstretched arms of the skeleton until he came face to face with its creepy, haunting grin. Clearly this could have gone one of three ways. It could have crushed this poor child’s psyche, crippling him forever in some way. It could have had no effect and the child simply might have run out and eventually outgrown the fear with age and education. Or, perhaps it could have backfired, extinguishing the fear, replacing it with a morbid curiosity bolstered by a newfound bravery and lack of empathy or feeling of any kind. This, my friends, IS what happened. Holmes found himself “cured” of his fear and instead incredibly curious about what lies beneath the skin of the human body and the many means that one could wind up dead. He had lost all feeling for fellow man or living things. Now, it was just him and his morbid curiosity. And each time he fed his curiosity, his ego and manipulation skills grew stronger.
Holmes was one of the few multiple murders/serial killers (I know, I know…) that actually finished college. He finished college AND medical school actually and earned himself a medical degree. He was always a good student throughout his entire life and he was an extremely intelligent man. Not only was he formally educated but, the man was a world class snake oil salesman. A real con artist. But, I’ll get to that in a minute.
Now, most serial killers or multiple murderers don’t get medical degrees. For most, it’s hard enough to finish high school let alone get all the way through a four-year college program and then go on to graduate school. There’s a number of reasons but, none apply to Holmes. He got degrees and did well so he’s kind of an anomaly as far as that goes.
Once he obtained his medical degree he immediately began the criminal art of the day known as “scamming” which was defrauding insurance companies for life insurance claims. He would convince someone to take out a large policy for which he guaranteed he could produce an unidentifiable cadaver and then fake the insured party’s death and collect on the policy. This would be a common ruse he would use throughout his life and it would come to make him a lot of money. Some of the people would live to split the life insurance money with him and move on and some would not. Ironically, this very ruse would also be his undoing in the end.
While running this insurance scam across the Midwest, he would also employ scams posing as a drugstore clerk, an asylum attendant, a teacher and a doctor. Eventually, things got too heavy and he needed a fresh start. Too many cons in too many places. He needed a new name, a new persona that nobody knew. And thus, Henry Howard Holmes was born.
He landed himself in Chicago in 1886 years after the Chicago fire and found a city booming with rebuilding and production. Progress was everywhere. So, Holmes decided to take advantage of the new booming growth. He settled in Englewood, a three square mile community in Chicago. (At its height in 1960, over 97,000 people lived in that small area. It has since dwindled. But it was once a very hoppin’ place.) Holmes found himself a job at a pharmacy owned by a man named E.S. Holton. Shortly after taking Holmes on, Mr. Holton sees him to be a valuable asset and eventually sells the business to Holmes. There is some speculation that Holmes killed both the owner, Mr. Holton and his wife but, there is little proof to that.
Once settled in his new business, Holmes purchased the lot across the street, the lot at 63rdand Wallace streets, which would later come to be known as The Murder Castle. Here, he erected a grand building unlike anything anyone had ever seen. He was very careful about how he did it too. First of all, almost everything was done on credit. This man hardly ever paid for anything. He was a true conman. Next, he would hire a number of men to do ONE JOB. For instance, one man would be hired to put in one wall in one room, then fired. The another man would be hired to put in another wall in another room, then fired. Often he would claim the work was substandard and would not pay them. He did this for the duration of the build until the work was complete. Like the Winchester House, he had doors that opened to brick walls, hallways that led nowhere, so on and so forth. It was a maze of doors and halls and rooms meant to confuse and disorient his tenants, making it easier to kill them.
Interestingly, at the same time that Holmes is finalizing his blueprints for his murder castle, Jack the Ripper is finishing his killing spree 4,000 miles away in London. Holmes surely reads about Jack in the papers and his narcissism was almost surely bolstered by the attention The Ripper was getting. Holmes was the kind of man that would not have wanted to be “out done” by any means. He most likely would have felt a need to “top” what Jack the Ripper had already done, seeing himself as a higher caliber of intellect, human, man, killer, entity.
Another brilliant yet dastardly con was how he obtained the vault/safe that he used to kill one of his mistresses. He bought the vault on credit, of course. He put it in the chosen room prior to the room actually being built and then had the walls put in around it. Once the creditors started calling on him and he refused to pay, they, of course, threatened to repo the vault. However, Holmes told them that was fine and to go ahead and take the vault BUT if they damaged his walls or building in ANY way, he would sue them for all they were worth. Now, how are you going to get a bank size steel vault out of a wall that it’s built into without tearing into the wall??? They had to eat it on that deal and Holmes kept the vault. Later, in 1892, he asked his second mistress Emeline Cigrande to go into the vault and get some papers for him. Willingly she did so and he closed the vault door, locking her in the airtight compartment. He then went about his business at his desk, listening to her pleas and cried for him to release her. She eventually suffocated to her death in that vault. Holmes would sell a clean female skeleton to a medical school shortly after her death.
Now, this Murder Castle wasn’t just that. The first floor was legitimate businesses. The second floor held all the murderous horror rooms. He started a third floor but it was never completed.
During all of this Holmes had mistresses and legitimate wives. Multiples of each in fact. His first marriage was to Clara Lovering in 1878. He would have been about 17. They had one child, Robert in 1880. Holmes abandoned this family to move to Illinois in 1886 and though the marriage had been estranged for some time, no one filed for divorce at that time. In late 1886, Holmes married Myrta Belknap, though still legally married to Clara. He did file for divorce a few weeks later citing infidelity on Clara’s part but, since there was no proof of that the petition was denied and divorce was never granted. (Not only a con but a polygamist now. Apparently Clara was most likely never even aware he filed for divorce. Wow, right?) Holmes and Myrta had a daughter, Lucy in 1889. Then, get this, while still married to BOTH Myrta AND Clara, Holmes married Georgiana Yolk in 1894. Wait, it gets better.
So, then his first murders in the castle would have been his first mistress Julia Conner and her daughter Pearl. Julia got pregnant by Holmes in 1891 and required that he marry her. He agreed with the condition that she let him perform an abortion on her. Christmas Eve 1891 Julia and Pearl were never heard from again. Then, poor Emeline met her demise in the vault in 1892. Next, when the World’s Fair hit Chicago in 1893 Holmes had countless victims at his fingertips as he rented rooms to visitors from all over the land as they came to see the the grand fair event. His true victim count is still unknown. Also in 1893, he is thought to have killed Minnie and Nannie Williams (sisters) in order to obtain some property they owned in Fort Worth, Texas.
Now, remember I said that the insurance scams would be his undoing? Well, in 1889 (approximately) Holmes crosses paths with Benjamin Pitezel. Pitezel is a hardworking man trying to take care of his wife and five kids but, just can’t ever seem to get ahead. He has a serious drinking problem that doesn’t seem to help his matters any. But that matters not to Holmes. They quickly strike up a partnership as Holmes is an elegant type of man and Pitezel, well, he functions as more the muscle. They become close and Pitezel learns firsthand of Holmes’ dark and morbid secrets. Over time, Ben does a lot of “dirty work” for Holmes. Eventually, his drinking gets to the point where Holmes thinks Ben is now a liability. So, he puts the squeeze on Ben to run the insurance scam so he and his wife Carrie can have the money they so desperately need. Carrie doesn’t think this is a good idea but, the two men convince her.
But, shortly before this in 1894, Holmes is actually arrested for the Texas property fraud involving the Williams sisters and the actual exchange of the property, though there is also evidence that he confessed to the insurance scam in St. Louis to avoid charges in Texas. So, he’s put in jail in St. Louis while an investigation bears out. While in jail, as almost all egotists do, he starts running his mouth to a cellmate, a man named Marion Hedgepeth (no, I’m not making these names up, I swear.) Holmes tells Hedgepeth the insurance scam in detail and says all he needs is a legit lawyer that’s willing to play ball to push the claim through. Hedgepeth gives him the name of a lawyer and Holmes promises him $500 in exchange for the referral when the claim gets paid. He is quickly bailed out of jail by his third wife Georgiana, who he spun a web of lies to convince her he was in for something innocuous, and away he went to start off in Chicago, met Pitezel, began a partnership and convinced him to be part of the scam.
Unfortunately for Pitezel and his family, Holmes never intended to provide a cadaver and instead killed Pitezel, had his fifteen-year-old daughter identify the body, had Carrie collect the insurance and then swindled her out of all but $500. He also never sent the $500 to Hedgepeth. Herein lies his undoing. When Hedgepeth reads of Pitezel’s death in the paper and he has not received his payment, he immediately goes to police and rats out Holmes. And an investigation gets underway.
Meanwhile, Holmes is shuffling not only himself but, Carrie and ALL of the Pitezel children around the Midwest to keep them away from each other, eventually killing three of children, two of the girls, Alice and Nellie and one of the boys, Howard.
As the police investigated the scene of Pitezel’s death, though forensics was very rudimentary at the time, there were still things that were contradictory to common sense, making investigators raise their eyebrows. They could tell very quickly that the scene was staged. Holmes also made his connection to Pitezel very well known, even when they used aliases. The insurance policy for Pitezel was paid for via money order by way of telegraph on the last possible day before it was to be cancelled just days before his death AND the policy had been open less than a year and opened under an alias, B.F. Perry. All of these things sprang red flags in the eyes of not only the police but also the insurance company.
Eventually, in October of 1895, Holmes was put on trial for Pitezel’s murder. He was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging, which took place at Moyamensing Prison on May 7, 1986. (Apparently, death sentences had express lanes back then and didn’t have the mandatory 7-10 year appeal process. It took less than a year to execute him after his conviction. Nowadays, it’s a minimum of 7-10 because of an automatic appeal on ANY death penalty sentence, period.)
By the end of his trial, investigators had found evidence that he had killed the Pitezel children and others. At various times, Holmes confessed to different numbers of killings. Nine can be proven with a reasonable amount of certainty. He claimed up to 27 at one time.
At one time Holmes managed to juggle three wives, at least four businesses, a business partner, renting rooms to fair goers, scamming the people in his very town, evade creditors in his very town, evade being traced from previous crimes and victims, have mistresses AND kill at will and dispose of bodies, ALL without losing his cool or composure. Guys, I tell you, people think Ted Bundy is some sort of diabolical mastermind…NO. He’s a flopped out amateur compared to Holmes. I mean, any normal person with all that stress would have come unglued. The fact that Holmes was able to keep it together, that these women never questioned him not even once, that he was able to so quickly disarm people over and over again, that he was able to keep running the same scams over and over, that is a different kind of psychopath altogether.
Surprisingly though, for being as intelligent and crafty as he was, Holmes made some really rookie mistakes. The biggest was that he ran his mouth in jail. That ego, that need to brag, that was what ultimately got him caught. Next, he wasn’t much for keeping a low profile. He should have known better. Eventually people are going to know who you are, I mean, you are operating in a three square mile area, people talk. Hello? Next, all the women. I mean my god, did the man not know scorned women are dangerous? While none of them REALLY came back to bite him, Carrie Pitezel DID testify at his trial and she was VERY swaying for the jury, there wasn’t a dry eye in the courtroom when she was on the witness stand. That was VERY damning for Holmes. And again, out of $10,000 she only got $500, a dead husband and three dead children. I’d think she was pretty bitter about getting the very short end of that deal. Plus, he left bones in the basement of the castle. Not smart. That’s evidence. He killed Pitezel with chloroform, enough in fact that it actually showed up in his stomach content at autopsy. Big mistake. And as a medical school graduate with a specialty in dissection, Holmes should have known that would have been possible. For crying out loud, they could smell the chloroform at the crime scene. So, he was really diabolical but, like so many incredibly intellectual people, lacked a degree of common sense due to the inflated ego pushing his thoughts that he was too good and too smart to be caught. Obviously, that wasn’t exactly true. Once the Pinkertons were on his trail, they found him in less than a month.
Still, Holmes is a fascinating character of evil in the annals of our country’s history. It’s hard to think of someone more deserving of the title of Evil or Monster or Madman than Holmes himself. Surely there were many that crossed his path and went on their merry way. But, there were some that we know did not. Holmes had big plans for that “castle” in Chicago. When he moved to Texas he planned to erect another “castle” there to continue his work, fleeing Chicago when things got too hot and he feared he was close to capture. The only way this man was going to be stopped was arrest and confinement or death.
Shortly after his arrest for Pitezel’s murder and the castle was investigated, the building itself was set ablaze by an unknown party. It was not rebuilt in Holmes’ image and was instead repurposed as a city post office until 1938.
Though there is still mystery surrounding much of Holmes true activities today, one thing is perfectly clear. He killed at will, without compunction. He took advantage of men, women and children alike. He ran away when things got to complicated or too hot. He was a master manipulator and he was a well versed conman. In fact, had he used his skills in a more positive way, Holmes could have very well been one of the most successful men in the country of his time. Instead, he’s remembered as one of the most loathed.