H. H. Holmes - The Most Horrific Serial Killer in US History?
What makes a serial killer the worst of his/her kind? Well, it’s probably a few things, such as the body count, but for most people it would more likely be the nature of the killing. The UK’s Harold Shipman, aka, Doctor Death, may have killed well over 200 people, but you could say his modus operandi wasn’t as depraved as some killers’. Richard Ramirez, the American Satanist, got up close and personal to his victims, and did all manner of horrific things to them. Albert Fish tortured, mutilated, killed, and ate children, and he was subsequently called a “psychiatric phenomenon”. The list goes on, and the total depravity of killers can chill your spine. Today we are going to feature one person who often receives the superlative of “worst”, in this episode of the Infographics Show, H. H. Holmes - Is He the Worst Serial Killer in US History?
Where do we start? Well, what about the fairly recent revelations that the killer who is the focus of today’s show may have been none other than Jack the Ripper. It’s an outside chance, and no indisputable evidence has been seen, but the great-great grandson of Herman Webster Mudgett, aka, H. H. Holmes, aka, the “Devil in the White City”, came forward in 2017 and said he had evidence that proved his deceased relative was London’s infamous ripper. The great-great grandson, Jeff Mudgett, believes Holmes was never actually executed, having found a way out of it after employing his well-known trickery. He also claims that Holmes’ diaries (which he is now the owner of) describe viciously mutilating and murdering prostitutes in London. Could the man said to be “America’s first serial killer” be much worse than we thought? This is very likely not the case, because in 2017 his body was exhumed and was found to be largely preserved due to the fact Holmes got his wish and was buried in a coffin filled with concrete. A DNA test was performed and indeed, it revealed that the preserved body was that of H. H. Holmes.
So, what about H. H. Holmes, why is he said to be one of the worst, if not the worst in history?
What exactly did he do to get that epithet?
First of all, we don’t know how many people he killed. He confessed to 27 murders, but police have only ever been sure about nine of his murders. Some people believe that he may have killed in the region of 200 people, but that is very questionable. It isn’t how many people he killed, however – as we say, Dr. Shipman is never regarded as the worst killer – but the manner in which he supposedly killed people. He was said to be a sadist, a fella with a brutal propensity for watching people suffer and feel pain, and he would do this when they were locked inside one of his torture rooms. But let’s start from the beginning.
He was born in New Hampshire on May 16, 1861, and his childhood has been written about extensively. Did he torture animals, as many serial killers have been said to do, or was his childhood fairly normal? He is said to have admitted himself, "I was born with the very devil in me…The inclination to murder came to me as naturally as the inspiration to do right comes to the majority of persons."
His early life fits the pattern of regular folks. He graduated high school, got married, had a kid, went to university. He then dropped out of one university and later went to another from which he graduated. If anything does point to his wicked ways, it’s that he studied human dissection, and as a young man was said to be violent towards his wife. But then things got out of hand.
He started to move from city to city, and on at least two occasions was linked to the murders of young boys. One boy disappeared after allegedly being seen with Holmes, and another died after taking drugs from the pharmacy where Holmes worked. He certainly liked to keep moving, which could be the reason why most accounts of his life state that before he finally arrived in Chicago, he had become a big-time fraudster. Notably, it’s said his cons involved insurance, with one biography saying, “Holmes was stealing and mutilating medical cadavers and pretending they were victims of accidents to collect money.” As for the dead children, police never linked them to Holmes. It’s only in retrospect that we might wonder if he had anything to do with them. In Chicago, though, that’s where the ghastly stuff really took place, when Holme’s created his sick piece de resistance that become known as his “Murder Castle.”
This was a three-story building on Chicago’s 63rd and Wallace streets. A huge place, it took up an entire block. He called it the World's Fair Hotel, built for the upcoming World's Columbian Exposition, but it never really became a proper hotel. Holmes had all manner of problems with suppliers and was accused of possible insurance fraud when part of it burned down. It was always a shady project, only because Holmes seemed to have a difficult relationship with anyone involved with it. In 1937, long after Holmes’ arrest, the Chicago Tribune described the place as queer, stating it had “chimneys stuck out where chimneys should never stick out. Its stairways ended nowhere in particular. Winding passages brought the uninitiated with a frightful jerk back to where they had started from.” They called it mysterious and crooked, as distorted as the killer’s mind, with rooms with no doors and doors with no rooms. The stuff of nightmares.
The thing with the house, is that Holmes was the only person who knew how it actually worked. It was kind of a maze, a house of horrors that made no sense to other people. It was to this mad place that he invited mainly young women to stay. Some say it’s hard to tell exactly what he did, though, or who he killed, only because the man who was married to three people at the same time liked to tell a lot of lies.
Benjamin Pitezel was a friend of Holmes, and also an accomplice in some of his crimes. Pitezel had agreed with Holmes to do a scam, whereby Pitezel’s death would be faked and they would share a $10,000 life insurance payment. However, Holmes never got a cadaver which he would say was his friend’s, rather he knocked his friend out with chloroform and then set him on fire. Holmes later said he murdered three out of five of Pitezel’s children. Two of their bodies were found buried in the hotel.
Holmes is also said to have murdered his mistress Julia Smythe, as well as her daughter Pearl. No one knows exactly what happened to them, but they went missing while staying at the hotel. This was not the first young woman who’d fallen for Holmes who would die when staying with him, with several young women said to be his victims.
One of the reasons why Holmes is so notorious is because of the stories that surfaced about his home being a massive torture chamber. Some skeptics, though, have said this has been greatly exaggerated. These supposed exaggerations tell us that some of the rooms would have instruments of torture hidden in the walls, such as blowtorches, tools for tearing apart bodies, hidden poison, and corrosive acid. It’s said there was a “hanging room”, a “torture rack,” and that there were “gas chambers,” a “quicklime pit,” and also that the walls were ironclad to prevent people from escaping. Once they died, there were chutes from which the bodies could easily be disposed.
But, at the time, newspapers were well-known for their exaggeration, and later others said perhaps Holmes was not as bad as first thought. In the “Gem of the Prairie: An Informal History of the Chicago Underworld,” by Herbert Asbury, he writes that perhaps Holmes wasn’t quite the sadistic torturer others had said he was. Maybe even his house of horrors was less of a trap made by a demented man than it was a badly built hotel. We can find many websites that write sensational stories about him, but more serious journalism is skeptical about his deeds. Some people even doubt he said, “I was born with the very devil in me.” In fact, it was later revealed that he was said to have a hanging room only because police found a rope, and that he chopped his victims up only because they found knives and a worn-out table. Mr. Holmes was no doubt a dastardly character, a heartless scammer, and a cruel murderer and thief, but as for the rest of the story, maybe, just maybe, there has been some embellishments.
Do you know more about HH Holmes that we neglected to mention here? Can you think of a serial killer more heinous that he? Let us know in the comments!