Herman Webster Mudgett, better known as Dr.Henry Howard Holmes or H.H. Holmes was the first-ever American serial killer to be known by the world. He was born on May 16, 1861, in New Hampshire, United States of America.

H.H. Holmes was born to a wealthy family and showed signs of high intelligence since childhood. He had a huge passion for medicine as a result of which he used to capture animals allegedly and perform surgery on them.

Holmes did his medical school at the University of Michigan. He was a mediocre student there. In 1884 he was almost prevented from graduating because of a widowed hairdresser, who accused him of making a false promise of marriage to her. 

The Perfect Criminal

In 1886, Holmes moved to Chicago and started to work as a pharmacist and he was known among the public as Dr. H.H Holmes. He began his career as a criminal then. Holmes started to kill people to steal property.

He also had built a home which he later called proudly “The Murder Castle”, and it had various secret passages and was equipped with trap doors, soundproof walls, gas jets to asphyxiate victims, and a kiln to cremate bodies.

He had various employees under him in the clinic. He had made a pact to make his name as the beneficiary for their account and later on killed them and stole the money under the beneficiary’s name. Most of his staff bodies were sold by him to medical hospitals affiliated with colleges for students to practice autopsy.

In 1893 Holmes was arrested for insurance fraud after a fire at his home, but he was soon released. He then concocted a scheme with an associate, Ben Pitezel, to defraud an insurance company by faking Pitezel’s death.

After Pitezel purchased a $10,000 life insurance policy, he and Mudgett traveled to Colorado, Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas, where they committed other acts of fraud. Returning to Missouri, Mudgett was arrested for fraud and briefly jailed in St. Louis. In the same year, Holmes made his house an open hotel for visitors during the Columbian Exposition and slowly killed all the visitors who stayed at the house.

Howard later moved on to target women whom he allegedly seduced and gave them false promises of marriages and killed them once he had his hands on their financial properties. Three women who were his employees went missing in suspicious circumstances and the police went to his pharmacy as a part of the inquiry.

However, he informed them that they never applied for leave and he had no idea about it. Similarly, he had killed more than fifty women.

Early Life of H.H. Holmes

Holmes was the third child of Levi Horton Mudgett and Theodate Page Price. At the age of sixteen, he graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy and took teaching jobs in Gilmanton and later in Alton. In Alton on July 4, 1878, he married Clara Lovering.

The housemates near his home described Holmes as treating Clara violently, and in 1884, before his graduation, she moved back to New Hampshire and later wrote she knew little of him afterward. After he moved to Mooers Forks, New York, a rumor spread that Holmes had been seen with a little boy who later disappeared.

Holmes claimed the boy went back to his home in Massachusetts. No investigation took place post which Holmes quickly left town. After performing various jobs in Philadelphia he started to work at a drugstore there.

He had to quit his job after a boy, who bought medicine from his store, died. Holmes denied any involvement in the child’s death and immediately left the city. Right before moving to Chicago, he changed his name to Henry Howard Holmes to avoid the possibility of being exposed by victims of his previous scams.

Modus Operandi and Early Crimes

The earliest crime committed by Holmes was the murder of his mistress, Julia Smythes. Julia Smythes, the wife of Ned Conner, started working at Holmes’ pharmacy after a year since his pharmacy opening.

After finding out about his wife’s affair, Conner quit his job and left the states leaving Smythe and their daughter Pearl Smythe behind. Smythe gained Pearl’s custody legally and remained with Holmes at his building, continuing their relationship.

On Christmas eve of 1981, Julia and Pearl went missing. There was no whereabouts or anything that could link Holmes with the disappearance.

Emeline Cigrande began working in the building in May 1892 and disappeared that December. Another woman Edna Van Tassel vanished and is also believed to have been among Holmes’ victims.

The Modus Operandi of Holmes was more like a variety of dishes scattered on a plate. His home, aka Murder Castle, possessed all the necessities for a house of murder horrors should have.

Some of his victims were suffocated or more precisely asphyxiated using the gas chamber which contained heavy doses of a mixture of chloroform and also certain toxic chemicals such as methane. While some others were strangled using wires.

He also used the corpses for surgical experiments before their cremation in the Kiln. Some of the bodies were sold to local medical schools or colleges. He also kept his victims trapped in the secret passages or trap doors within the building.

The building, after it was opened to be a hotel, was used to trap in the visitors whom he would later kill. He never killed a person whose financial properties or belongings could not be owned by him even after tricking them. 

While working in the Chemical Bank building on Dearborn Street, Holmes met and became close friends with Benjamin Pitezel, a carpenter with a criminal past who was exhibiting, in the same building, a coal bin he had invented.

Holmes used Pitezel as his right-hand man for several criminal schemes. In early 1893 Holmes and Pitezel were known to have tricked a one-time actress Minnie Williams into transferring her account details to them and killing her.

However, Holmes murdered Pitezel soon after he acquired his shares of money from the crimes.

Trial and Death of H.H. Holmes

Holmes was apprehended in November 1894 after he tried outrunning the law several times. His “Murder Castle” and its secret doors were solved and opened up by the police exposing the outrageous, scavenger acts by one of the most intelligent doctors.

It is estimated that Holmes killed around 20 to 200 people. At the various stages of investigation with him under custody, the number of victims kept growing. He was hanged on May 7, 1896, for the Pitezel murder. The body remains buried in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 

Herman Webster Mudgett being the first-ever known serial killer of America, inspired many crime thriller authors to write about him. His story:” The Devil in the White City” was written by Erik Larson. It was also rumored to be adapted into a motion picture produced by Leonardo Dicaprio.

Categories: Case Studies


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