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H H Holmes: America’s first serial killer: Who he murdered, the way he operated, and how he was caught

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America's first serial killer, H H Holmes Who he murdered, how he operated, and how he was caught

A brief introduction to serial killer H H Holmes: The torture doctor

Ah, the Good Old Days. Bicycles built for two. World’s Fairs, “Daisy Bell” and H H. Holmes, the Monster of 63rd Street.

Books like David Franke’s “The Torture Doctor” serve to remind us that our own age has no monopoly on horrific crime.

Richard Speck and the Boston Strangler have nothing on Herman Webster Mudgett, alias H H Holmes, probably the greatest mass murderer in American history.

In his strange “castle” on Chicago’s 63rd St., Mudgett made away with a remarkable number of human beings, women being his particular favorites, though he was not above bashing in an occasional masculine head or throttling or gassing little children.

Mudgett (or Holmes as he was more commonly known) admitted to 27 murders at his trial in 1895, though he was convicted only of one killing — that of his associate Benjamin Fuller Pitezel.

HOLMES, WHO claimed to be a medical school graduate, began his career more as a simple swindler and insurance-fraud con man than murderer, though once he tried killing, he liked it so well that his mania quickly got the better of him.

H H Holmes murder case - 1896 -Writing confession

The second floor of Holmes’ “castle” contained 35 rooms. Half a dozen were fitted up as ordinary sleeping chambers, and there were indications that they had been occupied by the various women who had worked for the monster, or to whom he had made love while awaiting an opportunity to kill them,” writes Franke, quoting one Herbert Asbury, who was among those who discovered the castle’s awful secrets.

“Several of the other rooms were without windows, and could be made air-tight by closing the doors. One was completely filled by a huge safe, almost large enough for a bank vault, into which a gas-pipe had been introduced.

ANOTHER WAS LINED with sheet iron covered by asbestos, and showed traces of fire… In all of the rooms on the second floor, as well as in the great safe, were gas pipes with cut-off valves in plain sight. But these valves were fakes. The flow of gas was actually controlled by a series of cut-offs concealed in the closet of Holmes’ bedroom.

Apparently one of his favorite methods of murder was to lock a victim in one of the rooms and then turn on the gas: and the police believed that in the asbestos-lined chamber he had devised a means of introducing fire, so that the gas-pipe became a terrible blowtorch from which there was no escape.

H H Holmes was hanged at 10:12 a.m. on May 7, 1896. in Philadephia, the city in which Pitezel’s body was found. He was pronounced dead after 15 minutes.

“The most fiendish killer in the annals of American crime” was himself killed by the state in retribution for his crimes.

From a review of THE TORTURE DOCTOR, By David Franke, reviewed by Michael Walsh of the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle (January 16, 1976)

1937 Philadelphia Inquirer H H Holmes murder illustration - Strangest tangle of tragic horrors

Murder Castle: Record of H H Holmes’ sensational crimes (1937)

by Frank Cipriani, Chicago Tribune (March 21, 1937)

Eugene A Smith, businessman, was quite amazed on stepping into the office of B. F. Perry at 1316 Callowhill Street, Philadelphia, to find Perry lying still and quiet on the floor. He called for help.

Policeman George Lewis of the 5th district responded. Lewis glanced at the recumbent figure.

“This man is dead,” he said.

His appraisal was correct. Perry was very much dead. He had been dead at least one day, perhaps two days. His face and left arm were severely burned, the face almost beyond recognition.

Near his body lay broken pieces of a bottle that had contained benzene. Inches away lay a pipe primed with tobacco, the surface of which had been seared. Not far away lay several scattered matches. Elsewhere were signs of a fleeting fire. Policeman Lewis studied the mute evidence.

“Obviously an accident,” he said. “He tried to light his pipe near the benzene bottle.”

Lewis did notice, though, that Perry lay in an altogether unusual position, perfectly straight on his back, his legs together and his arms at his sides. From long experience, he knew that victims of accidents did not die in such a symmetrical posture.

Illustration of H H Holmes buyrning Pitezel's clothing at the Callowhill Street house

However, the other facts were plain. A coroner’s jury thought so, too, and Perry, pronounced an accident victim, was speedily buried in potter’s field.

But —

Ten days later, Sept. 15, 1894, to be exact, the Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance association received a letter from St. Louis. It came from Jephtha Howe, a lawyer.

Attorney Howe announced that he represented a Mrs. Carrie A. Pitezel, and that in her behalf he was claiming $10,000 life insurance on the death of her husband, Benjamin F. Pitezel.

Howe explained that the B. F. Perry killed in Callowhill street, and who was insured with the Fidelity Mutual, was really Benjamin F. Pitezel.

Drawing of the Callowhill Street house where B F Pitezel's body was found - murdered by H H Holmes

Insurance company investigators found this was true. They also found that Pitezel, alias Perry, a former detective, had once been arrested on a bad check charge in Terre Haute, Ind., and bailed out by his good friend, H. H. Holmes.

They found that Mr. Holmes, too, had had difficulties. He had been locked up in jail in St. Louis a while back on a minor charge. And both men had been together in Philadelphia shortly before Pitezel’s death.

These were not sufficient causes, however, to withhold payment of a just insurance claim. So when Holmes sadly but firmly called on the insurance company for payment in behalf of his friend’s family, and Attorney Howe and Pitezel’s 15-year-old daughter, Alice, called later and established the identity of Perry’s body as Pitezel’s, the company paid.

On behalf of Widow Pitezel, Holmes wrote a thank-you note, which the company subsequently reproduced proudly in advertisements.

That was all matter-of-fact, sound business.

Yet strange things sometimes happen in that kind of business.

1939 H H Holmes one-man murder ring

Serial killer H H Holmes’ insurance swindles and schemes

Down in the St. Louis jail sat one Marion Hedgepeth awaiting trial for a sensational train robbery, which was eventually to send him to prison for twenty-five years. He had read an item in the papers about Pitezel’s death and the payment of $10,000 insurance.

What he read reminded him that somebody owed him $500.

Thus reminded, he addressed to Police Chief Harrigan of St. Louis the following note:

“There has been a $10,000 swindle worked upon the Fidelity Insurance Company.”

Chief Harrigan asked for more information, and Hedgepeth penned the following:

“When H. H. Holmes was here some months ago, he told me he had a scheme to make $10,000, and needed a lawyer who could be trusted. He told me he’d give me $500 for introducing him to such a lawyer. He told me he had B. F. Pitezel’s life insured for $10,000, and that Pitezel and he were going to work the insurance company for that sum.

“In a few days, Howe came to me and told me that Holmes had introduced himself on my recommendation, and that Holmes had laid the whole plot open before him. I was to get $500 if it worked. It is hardly worthwhile to say I never got the $500 Holmes held out to me for introducing him to Howe.”

This letter generated action. On Nov. 17, 1894, H. H. Holmes was seized in Boston, Mrs. Pitezel in Burlington, Vt., and Attorney Howe in St. Louis. The blanket charge was fraud, preferred by the insurance company.

Benjamin F Pitezel - H H Holmes murder - book

President Fouse of the insurance company gave newspapers full details.

Holmes had insured Pitezel, he said, and had set him up in the Callowhill street office. The two had plotted a fake fatal accident.

Holmes was to doctor Pitezel’s face with simulated burns as though received in an explosion, and give him a drug that would make him unconscious. Company doctors would be deceived into thinking he was dead. They would certify death.

Holmes would then revive Pitezel and substitute a corpse whose face was to be burned in the fashion Pitezel’s had been. The corpse would be buried. The insurance would be paid. Everybody would be happy.

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This, President Fouse said, was a first-class fraud.

But police declared it was even worse. They said it was murder!

It was murder, they asserted, because Holmes did not use a corpse as a dummy for his macabre plot. He used a living man — Pitezel. And thus, they added, the crime was not so much against the insurance company as it was against Pitezel.

Police had some foundation for their theory. An autopsy on Pitezel’s exhumed body showed death from chloroform. The benzine explosion was bogus.

As further proof, they recalled how Pitezel’s body had been laid out carefully after death — a circumstance Policeman Lewis had noticed.

In Boston, Holmes laughed at the accusation. Down in St. Louis Attorney Howe vehemently denied it.

Up in Burlington, bewildered Mrs. Pitezel said there must be some mistake. The strange story made the front page of every newspaper in the land.

1937 map of H H Holmes murder locations

Looking for an explanation from serial killer H H Holmes

Fort Worth, Texas, gave the first response. The authorities said they would like Holmes down there to explain about a horse theft and, more important, to explain a few things about the Williams sisters.

Holmes frowned at mention of the Williams sisters, and grinned at the horse thief allusion. But suddenly he announced he’d rather face a “foolish murder charge” in Philadelphia than any kind of a charge in Fort Worth.

In 1894, Texans sometimes hanged horse thieves unceremoniously. Perhaps Holmes realized that.

“After all, the worst they can get me for in Philadelphia is insurance fraud,” he explained.

Yes, he said, the entire affair was a fraud, but no murder was involved.

Pitezel was not dead. Pitezel was alive. He was now in Salvador, or South America; he wasn’t sure.

Holmes agreed to go to Philadelphia, and did so, although on the way offering a detective $500 to permit his escape.

What about the Pitezel family?

Mrs. Pitezel also was taken to Philadelphia. She seemed to be a nice, motherly woman who reposed the simplest and greatest faith in all mankind — but mostly in Holmes.

“I know this is all a mistake,” she told detectives. “And I know my husband must be alive. How do know? Why, Holmes tells me so. Only I’m worried a little about my children — ”

Her children were Alice, 15 years old; Nellie, 13, and Howard, 10. She had last seen them on Sept. 24. She had turned them over to Holmes; she was ill then and had a twenty-month-old boy to care for.

Mr. Holmes had been very kind to take them off her hands temporarily, she said. Only she wished she knew where they were. She had been in Burlington looking for them when she was arrested.

O, of course they were alive. She was not worrying about anything like that. Holmes had told her they were alive.

H H Holmes murder victim Alice Pitezel

Serial killer H H Holmes murder victim Nellie Pitezel

Murder Mudgett/HH Holmes entertains the newspapermen

In the Philadelphia jail, Holmes cordially received newspapermen. They found him a convincing talker and a man who was not handsome, but certainly not ugly. His thick lower lip gave a sensual cast to his countenance, but his slightly aquiline nose was good, and his quiet blue eyes set off nicely a thatch of slightly curly brown hair. His hands and feet were small, but his shoulders were remarkably broad, indicating unusual strength.

To one reporter, he seemed almost a dandy, and at the same time as if he had missed half his night’s sleep.

Serial murderer H H Holmes - Portrait illustration

Holmes talked casually and freely. Too bad his insurance racket was ended, he half complained. But it had been a good one.

It was an old one with him, he said. Back in 1882, when he was a medical student at Ann Arbor, he had insured a fellow student for $12,000. Then they had purchased a corpse in Chicago, passed it off for the body of the student, and collected the insurance.

Together they had worked the same trick with other companies. Once they made $20,000.

“And that was all this case was, gentlemen,” concluded Holmes. “A corpse was substituted for Mr. Pitezel, Mr. Pitezel most certainly is alive today. I believe he’s now in Mexico.”

Holmes’ statements then and afterward made entertaining reading, and pretty soon, not only his stories but his pictures were familiar to newspaper readers throughout the country.

And it was not long before police of cities other than Fort Worth realized that they, too, had some claim on the man. They knew him as Pratt, as Howard, as Holmes, as Jones, and as Adams — but not by his real name, Herman Webster Mudgett.

Of all the cities that wanted him, Chicago wanted him most. Chicago wanted him for fraud, about $40,000 worth, imposed on furniture and other business houses. To Chicago, he was plain H. H. Holmes, druggist.

Serial killer H H Holmes and his house – or “Murder Castle”

Chicago had been Holmes’ stamping ground from 1888 to early 1894, and his immediate habitat was 63d and Wallace streets. On a corner there — 701-03 West 63d street — Holmes had built a house.

1895 illustration and map of the Chicago H H Holmes Murder Castle from St Louis newspaper

O, what a queer house it was!

In all America, there was none other like it. Its 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.

There were rooms that had no doors. There were doors that had no rooms. A mysterious house it was indeed — a crooked house, a reflex of the builder’s own distorted mind.

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In that house occurred dark and eerie deeds, but in November, 1894, all that could be said of it was that it had been used by Holmes in promotion of his several ingenious schemes. In 1895, a more terrible exposition could be rendered.

Holmes was a many-sided man at times a saint self-advertised, others a devil incognito. He was a druggist, a pseudo-physician, an inventor, a reformer, and a bigamist.

But above all, he was a swindler. His motto was, “Never put off till tomorrow the man you can do today.”

This house of his — it was more a strange castle — he furnished well. Of course, he seldom paid for the furnishings.

His system was simple. Buy on credit, and sell merchandise. Time and again, furniture houses sent agents to the house to reclaim their goods, but time and again, the agents returned empty- handed.

“The house is empty,” was their report. What they did not know was that the furniture was always stored in a secret room, with doorless and windowless walls.

The Holmes murder castle in Chicago - 1896

Once in a great while, Holmes was caught. But even then, he often emerged victorious.

Take, for instance, the time the vault manufacturing companies agents, all big fellows, swarmed into his place to carry away a huge safe. There was no secret room for that.

The agents unbolted the safe from the walls and floors and commenced to move it out. But — there was neither door nor window large enough to move it through.

Holmes did a Portia — Take your pound of flesh, but shed not one drop of blood.

“Take your safe,” he said, “but do not mar a single inch of this house in doing so.” He kept the safe.

H H Holmes murder case - 1896 - Stove and false safe in the castle

H H Holmes as a con artist inventor

As an inventor, Holmes carved his own niche. He built a machine in the basement which he claimed would make gas out of water.

He ran it for ten hours steadily one day before a utility company inspector, impressing that man so much he gave it his scientific blessing. The company did not buy the machine, but on the inspector’s endorsement, Holmes managed to sell the rights on it to a Canadian for $2,000.

The company higher-ups were more worldly. They investigated scientifically, and quickly exposed Holmes’ machine as a fake. They showed that it made gas out of water by the simple trick of tapping the gas main.

The company charged Holmes 10 cents for the gas thus stolen, but, worse yet, dug the machine out of the basement, leaving a yawning hole in its place.

Holmes studied this excavation thoughtfully. It was too good to waste. It gave him an idea. He filled it with soda water, and next day was selling “natural soda water from a natural spring in his basement” to gullible Englewoodians.

After this enterprise had petered out, Holmes manufactured a harmless concoction which he called the “Silver Ash Liquor Cure,” and crusaded for temperance at so much a bottle.

And he had other tricks, too. Once he sold the stock of a restaurant which he did not own to a Mr. Phillips of Aurora for $900. At the end of his Chicago career, he sold his drug store to a Mr. Jones of Peoria.

This Mr. Jones was no verdant. He put his own clerk in the store to check on sales. For two weeks, sales were stupendous, colossal. Even Holmes had not predicted such volume.

What Mr. Jones didn’t know was that the army of customers was Holmes’ own paid friends who just bought and bought and bought.

Serial killer H H Holmes - Mudgett slaughterhouse and disposal plant - Murder Castle in Chicago

Serial killer H H Holmes and his many women

To the residents around 63d and Wallace, Holmes was a familiar sight. Also familiar to their sight was the tall, blonde, and brown-eyed young woman with the baby face and southern accent whom he had installed in the castle.

They knew her as Mrs. Holmes.

She was Minnie Williams of Fort Worth.

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Miss Williams, a niece of the Rev. Dr. W. C. Black of New Orleans, editor of the Methodist Christian Advocate, was a graduate of the Conservatory of Elocution, Boston, and, more important to Holmes, the owner of $60,000 worth of real estate in downtown Fort Worth; rather, she had been the owner.

Miss Williams and Holmes, then known as O. C. Pratt, met about 1891. Not long afterward, he brought along a friend, Benton T. Lyman.

Mr. Lyman was none other than Benjamin F. Pitezel.

What fairy tales Holmes told her, he alone knew, but he induced her to sign away her property to the pseudo Mr. Lyman. Then he brought her to Chicago.

Serial killer H H Holmes murder victim and wife Minnie R Williams

Holmes attempted grandiose dreams with Miss Williams’ fortune, principally an office building in Fort Worth. This fizzled out as his cash fizzled, and to placate the irate unpaid construction workers — and to escape them — he imported his Chicago janitor, Pat Quinlan, to assume charge.

Quinlan remained long enough to wire his wife for railroad fare back home.

“I think,” said Quinian later, “Mr. Holmes wanted to get me out of Chicago for a spell.”

Englewood knew Holmes mainly as a druggist. He seemed always quite busy, and no one was surprised on seeing periodically a new secretary in his employ. In order, they were Emaline C. Cigrand, Emily Van Tassel, and Mrs. Julia L. Conner, the latter with an 8-year- old daughter, Pearl.

Miss Cigrand did not remain long; she was too often visited, Holmes thought, by her sweetheart, Robert E. Phelps. Holmes hated Phelps. He did not call long, either.

H H Holmes murder victim Emeline Cigrand

Miss Van Tassel remained several weeks, Mrs. Conner longer. Holmes exhibited romantic affection for her — so much, indeed, that he caused a divorce between her and her husband, Icilius.

Holmes liked women: too much, in fact, for Miss Williams’ peace of mind. Many times she had sneaked down from the third floor to find him embracing some charming customer in a back room of the store.

And this had disturbed Holmes’ own peace of mind. But he finally settled this difficulty. He installed a soft-sounding buzzer in his store and ran a wire from the buzzer to the third step from the top at the third floor.

Thereafter every time Miss Williams attempted to sneak down on his clandestine affairs, she sounded the buzzer at the third step, giving him ample warning.

Holmes really liked Miss Williams, and in the summer of 1893, he proposed marriage. It mattered not that years ago he had married a Miss Lovering of Gilmanton, Vt., his hometown sweetheart, and some time afterward, a Miss Belknap of Wilmette, Ill.

1940 images of H H Holmes Mudgett murder victims Minnie Williams and Benjamin Pitezel

Anyway, Miss Williams wrote a glowing letter to her sister, Nannie, then a teacher in Midlothian, Tex., telling her she was to be married and to go on a European honeymoon, “Please come to Chicago,” Minnie urged Nannie.

Nannie came to Chicago and settled with her sister and Holmes. Life went on smoothly except for a fire that half destroyed the roof of the castle one night, and, to Holmes’ distress, revealed several secret upper rooms.

In that instance, Holmes sought to collect part of the $60,000 insurance on the building, but failed because fire officials pronounced the fire incendiary.

This did not bother the sisters, Minnie and Nannie. Both were seen often strolling around 63d and Wallace. They were last seen on Dec. 15, 1893.

Not long afterward, Holmes moved out, and in January, 1864, stopped in Denver, Colo., long enough to marry Miss Georgie Anna Yoke of Franklin, Ind., who was worth $3,000.

Serial killer H H Holmes murder victim Nannie WIlliams

Getting back in touch with Pitezel

The two went to St. Louis, then Indiana, and back and forth, Holmes meanwhile renewing old contacts with his friend Benjamin F. Pitezel.

It was during this period that Holmes landed in the St. Louis jail and met Train Robber Hedgepeth, and Pitezel landed in a Terre Haute jail.

Late in 1894, Holmes’ trail led to Philadelphia. His bigamous third bride, Miss Yoke, and his stooge, Pitezel, accompanied him.

There Holmes established Pitezel in an office and insured him. There Holmes remained until the night of Sept. 2, when he took Miss Yoke with him on a hurried flight out of the city. There Pitezel’s body was found three days later. He had apparently been dead about two days when found.

Weeks passed, and Holmes remained in the Philadelphia jail awaiting trial for fraud. Mrs. Pitezel and Attorney Howe had means time been exonerated. The authorities were attempting to perfect a certain case of murder against him. Holmes sneered at their efforts.

Serial killer H H Holmes murdered Mrs Pitezel's family

“Fraud is all you can prove, my, bucks,” he reminded detectives, They were smarter than he thought, however. They had found two weak spots in his armor. These they battered incessantly.

“Where are the three Pitezel children?”

“Where are Minnie and Nannie Williams? ”

These questions finally provoked Holmes to exclaim wrathily:

“O, those Williams girls! Why, Minnie killed her sister during a jealous quarrel. To save her, I put Nannie’s body in a trunk, threw it into Lake Michigan, and sent Minnie to Europe. She’s there now. I think the Pitezel children are with her.”

Next day, he repudiated this “confession.”

But it did something. It gave the detectives hope. It shook Mrs. Pitezel’s faith in him.

Holmes had led her to Detroit, Chicago, Toronto, Indianapolis, New York state, and other places in vain hopes of finding her children. She had often written them; Holmes had taken the letters to mail.

It is not difficult to imagine the frantic mother’s emotions when, one day not long after Holmes’ repudiated “confession,” detectives handed her a packet of letters they had found in his trunk.

They were the letters she had written to her children — letters that Holmes had not mailed.

Unknown to Holmes, an ace detective, Frank Geyer, was devoting every conscious moment to the case. Geyer was satisfied Perry was really Pitezel, and that Holmes had murdered him.

Now what he wanted to know was what had become of the three Pitezel children.

Irvington cottage Holmes rented and where Howard Pitezel's ashes were found

Detective Geyer traced Holmes and the youngsters to Indianapolis.

Holmes, as Mr. Howard, had registered them at the Indianapolis hotel there on Sept. 24, 1894. On Oct. 4, he had registered with them at the Circle house. A few days later, he had registered at a small place in Irvington, an Indianapolis suburb. On Oct. 8 he had checked out. With him were Alice and Nellie. Howard was missing.

Geyer next traced Holmes to Detroit. There Holmes stayed temporarily at 241 East Forest Avenue. Holmes dug a hole in the basement, but did not use it. Geyer then followed the Holmes trail to Toronto, Ontario.

In July, 1895, this ace of sleuths, Geyer, was in Toronto. Now, mind you, Holmes had been under arrest eight months, and no complete proof of murder had yet been developed against him!

H H Holmes murders - Vincent Street house in Toronto - scene of killings

Geyer carried photographs of Holmes. In Toronto, he canvassed hotels and stores, showing the pictures around.

Finally, a chance clue led Geyer to Frank Nudel, chief clerk for the Toronto department of education. “O, yes, I remember that man!” exclaimed Nudel. “Last October I rented my house on Vincent street to him.”

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Geyer hurried to the place, at 16 Vincent street. Next door, at 18 Vincent, he found T. W. Ryves. Mr. Ryves also remembered the man Holmes. “He borrowed a spade from me; I don’t know why,” related Ryves.

Ah, here was something definite! Within an hour, Geyer and Toronto police were digging in the basement of 16 Vincent street. Geyer knew now he had reached the trail’s end.

A few minutes later, his shovel bared to view the shoulder and arm, and then the nude body of a little girl, and presently the body of another naked girl.

The girls were Alice and Nellie Pitezel.

H H Holmes murder case - 1896 - Killing the sisters

The newspapers that day, July 15, 1895, hashed the story over the land. They told that the girls had been suffocated, and, according to Geyer’s theory, in a large trunk months earlier found in Holmes’ room.

The nation was shocked. Papers called Holmes a modern Bluebeard.

Elsewhere but in Philadelphia, he might have been lynched. Meanwhile, every city that Holmes had ever visited began great activity.

The activity was a search for bodies!

Searching for H H Holmes’ victims in Chicago

The greatest search began in Chicago. It centered in and around Holmes’ abandoned castle at 623d and Wallace. Then and there for the first time, its marvelously mysterious interior came to light.

There were rooms within rooms, trap doors, hidden passageways and panels on each floor.

A narrow staircase led ingeniously from a concealed bathroom on the second floor to a point beneath the floor of Holmes’ secret office. The office could be reached only through a trap door.

H H Holmes murder case - 1896 - Closing the vault on a victim

The bathroom had no windows nor means of lighting. The trap door leading to the staircase could not be found without a strong light.

Three hidden rooms formed a part of the first floor. A narrow passageway led from one of these rooms to the foot of a dummy elevator. This elevator, big enough to carry a human, led to a basement hideout.

Visually, the basement appeared like other basements — until a clumsy policeman broke through a fake wall and stumbled into a large secret room.

Here, undoubtedly, was where Holmes had operated. In the center was a large stove, and nearby a thick wooden table which bore the fine marks of a sharp knife, like a butcher’s table.

In that big stove, police found ashes. They found a woman’s watch chain. They found the buckle of a woman’s garter. They found bones!

The watch chain was identified as Minnie Williams’. The garter buckle was identified as Nannie Williams’. The bones… There was no doubt what had happened to these sisters, who were last seen on Dec. 15, 1893.

Police continued the search. They came upon bloodstained garments, identified as Mrs. Conner’s; upon a shoe that resembled the shoes Miss Van Tassel had worn; upon an article of clothing that resembled Robert E. Phelps’ clothing.

They found bloodstained ropes, blood-stained tables, a bench with human hair upon it, and here and there they found bones, bleached bones– some those of a small girl, probably Pearl Conner. Almost buried in the ground they found a large tank, with evidence in it of human bodies.

Day after day the search brought forth some new little evidence of foul, murderous deeds.

As if this were not enough, one C. M. Chappel voluntarily told police that Holmes had paid him $36 each for preserving three bodies.

Chappel’s family called him a romancer, but he led police to a west side house, where, in a trunk, they found the half-articulated body of a woman, identified as Miss Cigrand’s.

The jolt of this discovery was not yet over when Indianapolis police went to a house in Irvington, and in a stove, found toys and clothing and the moldering bones of little Howard Pitezel.

The machinery of justice needed no further gearing.

Holmes was indicted for the Benjamin F. Pitezel murder in Philadelphia. On Oct. 28, 1895, he went on trial before Judge Arnold.

At the outset, Holmes dismissed his lawyers, Samuel Rotan and William A. Shoemaker, and undertook to defend himself.

Serial killer H H Holmes murder victim Howard Pitezel

The H H Holmes murder trial

The trial was quite drab except for the testimony of Holmes’ third wife, Georgie Anna Yoke, and Widow Pitezel.

Miss Yoke told how Holmes had taken her out of Philadelphia hurriedly the night of Sept. 2. Prosecutor Graham had already established Pitezel’s death as occurring that day.

Holmes cross-examined her in a severe voice; she replied in a whisper. When, to a question, she asserted, “You came into the house Sept. 2 looking worried and disturbed,” he abruptly dropped further examination. The remark hurt him.

Holmes recalled Attorneys Rotan and Shoemaker. Mrs. Pitezel was then called. Shabbily dressed in black, and her face a mourning mask of sorrow, she presented a pathetic picture. Even the hardened prosecutor, Graham, could not restrain tears.

Only Holmes remained dry-eyed. She told how her husband had left with Holmes, and said that was the last time she had seen him; how her three children had left with Holmes, and said that was the last time she had seen them.

Judge Arnold at this point refused to permit evidence of the murders of the children in Toronto and Irvington, or the several murders in Chicago.

This silenced thirty witnesses, and ruled out as exhibits the trunk in which the girls had been smothered, and the stove in which Howard had been partially cremated. Only Benjamin Pitezel’s murder was at issue, Judge Arnold held.

Scene of the investigation as imagined in 1937

An early victory for Holmes, and then…

This was a victory for Holmes. His lawyers sought to spread the case with doubts.

The body wasn’t really Pitezel’s. Even if it was, perhaps he killed himself accidentally. Perhaps he killed himself intentionally. And finally, even if it was murder there was no proof Holmes had killed him.

The defense seemed so sufficient that Holmes did not testify, and his lawyers waived closing arguments.

On the cold facts, it did not appear that the prosecution had beyond a reasonable doubt proved murder or that Holmes had committed murder, and when the jury retires to deliberate on Nov. 2, 1895, the betting was preponderantly on Holmes’ acquittal.

H H Holmes confesses 27 murders - Philadelphia Inquirer April 12 1896

The jury’s verdict

The jury was not out long, and the clerk sang out: “Jurors, look at the prisoner; prisoner, look at the jurors. Do you find the prisoner guilty or not guilty?”

“Guilty of murder — in the first degree,” was the answer.

Holmes coughed slightly, then sat down. Court fans agreed maybe he hadn’t been “proved guilty, but he had it coming to him anyhow.”

Two hours later, Holmes issued a formal statement declaring, “In the name of Almighty God, I state that I have not taken human life.”

Holmes immediately began a series of appeals.

Police, meanwhile, continued to discover fresh evidence of old or new murders; one, indeed, near Columbus, Miss. Once in a reckless, or more likely cynical, moment Holmes announced:

“O, sure, I’ve killed twenty-seven people!”

12 of the victims of H H Holmes

Police said this was an exaggeration, but that he had killed at least twelve, whom they listed finally as follows:

Minnie Williams, Holmes’ sweetheart.

Nannie Williams, Minnie’s sister.

Mrs. Julia L. Conner, secretary.

Pearl Conner, Mrs. Conner’s daughter.

Miss Emaline C. Cigrand, secretary.

Robert E. Phelps, Miss Cigrand’s fiancé.

Benjamin Pitezel, Holmes’ tragic stooge.

Alice Pitezel, Pitezel’s daughter.

Nellie Pitezel, another daughter.

Howard Pitezel, a son.

Emily Van Tassel, secretary.

George H. Thomas, an insurance dupe, killed on the banks of the Tombigbee river below Columbus, Miss.

Denying all charges

Holmes denied each and all of these killings. The denials did no good. Nor did his appeals to escape hanging for the Pitezel murder do any good.

And thus on the morning of May 7, 1896, after the last appeal had been refused, Holmes, his face pale but his stride sturdy and his spirits high, walked upon the gallows in Moyamensing Prison, Philadelphia.

As Alex Richard, assistant sheriff, prepared to put the noose around Holmes’ neck, Holmes objected.

“Don’t be in a hurry, Alex,” he said.

Richard stopped. Holmes turned to the sixty spectators.

“Gentlemen,” he said, “I have very few words to say. In fact, I would make no remarks at this time but for my feeling that in not speaking, I would appear to acquiesce in my execution.

“I wish to say only that the extent of my wrongdoing in taking human life is the killing of two women — they having died by my hands as the result of criminal operations. (He did not name them.)

“I also wish to state here, so there can be no chance of misunderstanding hereafter, that I am not guilty of taking the lives of any of the Pitezel family, the children or the father — of whose death I was convicted, and for which I am to hang today.”

As he stopped talking, Richard slipped the noose over his head, tightened it, and asked, “Are you ready, Holmes?”

In a clear voice, Holmes replied, “Yes, don’t bungle; good-by!” Sheriff Samuel Clement sprung the trap.

Floor plan of H H Holmes Murder Castle in Chicago from 1896

The Holmes ‘Murder Castle’ as of 1937

The Holmes castle in Chicago today bears little resemblance to its once awful grandeur. In ordinary light, it is difficult to tell what its original color was. The soot and grime of several decades have blighted its old hues.

But one need not examine the building long to see that it was sturdily built, and built with a somewhat selective taste. The windows, one never-failing feature of good architecture, are high and according to the fashion of Holmes’ time. But many of them now sag a bit. Just age.

The house rises three floors and stands on the southwest corner of Wallace and 63d streets, close to the railroad tracks. The main entrance is on 63d street and splits the structure in two.

On the east side, at 603 East 63d, is the establishment of a sign company. That used to be Holmes’ drug store. The old tile floor still remains. On the west side of the staircase is a book store.

Mudgett - H H Holmes photograph of murder castle - 63nd Street in Chicago


New report: Murderer H H Holmes Hanged for many crimes (1896)

Murderer Holmes’ career comes to an end on the gallows.

Stubborn to the last, he died as if entirely indifferent to his awful fate

Declaring his innocence.

The execution passed off without any incidents of a sensational nature.

May 8 1896 - H H Holmes execution scene

Philadelphia, Pa., May 7 — Herman W Mudgett, alias H H Holmes, was hanged this morning in the County Prison for the killing of Benjamin F Pitezel.

The drop fell at 10:12 o’clock, and twenty minutes later, he was pronounced dead by the prison officials, Dr Sharp and Dr Batcher.

The execution was in every way entirely devoid of any sensational features. To the last, Holmes was self-possessed and cool, even to the extent of giving a word of advice to Assistant Superintendent Richardson as the latter was arranging the final details.

He died as he had lived, unconcerned and thoughtless, apparently, of the future, even with the recollection still vividly before him of the recent confession in which he admitted the killing of a score of persons of both sexes in different parts of the country.

Almost his last words were a point-blank denial of any crimes committed except the deaths of two women at his hands by malpractice. Of the murder of several members of the Pitezel family, he denied all complicity, particularly of the father, for whose death he stated he was unjustly suffering the penalty.

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With the prayer of the spiritual attendants still sounding in his ears and with a few low-spoken words to those about him, the trap was sprung.

There were comparatively few persons gathered on the outside of the prison during the early part of the morning and the morbid throng which the prison officials expected would be drawn there by the execution was lacking. Access to the prison prior to the entrance of those permitted to witness the execution was not allowed.

All the arrangements for the burial of Holmes were entrusted by the murderer to Mr Rotan. The place of interment has, it is understood, been selected, but those who are most likely to know where the grave is to be will not divulge the location.

1943 San Francisco Examiner H H Holmes murder depiction

MORE: Read more about H H Holmes in the book, “The Devil in the White City

Holmes retired about midnight and slept soundly during the entire time until called at 6 o’clock this morning. So sound were his slumbers, in fact, that twice was he called before awakening. When the arrival of the Rev Fathers Dailey and McPake to administer the sacrament was announced he greeted them warmly, but with no show of emotion.

For nearly two hours they remained in the cell and then were succeeded by Lawyer Rotan, the legal adviser of Holmes, who was also greeted pleasantly.

There were several matters pertaining to Holmes’ worldly affairs that will yet have to be settled and this time was taken in giving the final details and explanations. While discussing his affairs breakfast was served, consisting of eggs, toast and coffee.

When the meal was ended, shortly before 9 o’clock, Holmes dressed himself in trousers, vest and cutaway coat of some dark mixed goods of a pepper and salt effect he had worn frequently.

At 10 o’clock, the doors leading to the long corridor in which was placed the gallows were opened and, two by two, led by the Sheriff’s jury, the spectators passed down. The last man had just passed through the doors and the latter closed when from behind was heard the slow and measured tread of the death party.

Serial killer H H Holmes hanged - Reported in the Phillipsburg Herald, August 22, 1895

News report from the hanging of serial killer H H Holmes (1896)

The suspense was almost painful, brief though it was, when, preceded by Sheriff Clements and Superintendent Perkins, Holmes appeared and stepped on the trap. On the right was Father Dailey, to the left Father McPake, and behind them Lawyer Rotan and Assistant Superintendent Richardson.

The little party stood a moment looking down, and then, in response to a signal from one of those beside him, Holmes stepped forward. He spoke slowly and with measured attention to every word — a trifle low at first, but louder as he proceeded, until every word was distinctly audible.

“Gentlemen,” he said, “I have very few words to say, in fact, I would make no statement at this time, except that by not speaking I may be made to acquiesce in my execution. I only want to say that the extent of my wrongdoings in the taking of human life consisted in the death of two women, they having died at my hands as the result of criminal operations.

“I wish to state also, however, so that there will be no misunderstanding hereafter, that I am not guilty of taking the lives of any of the Pitezel family, the three children or the father, Benjamin F Pitezel, of whose death I am now convicted, and for which I am today to be hanged. That is all.”

H H Holmes' own story - Mudgett, Herman W., 1861-1896

As he ceased speaking he stepped back, and kneeling between Fathers Dailey and McPake, he joined with them in silent prayer for a minute or two.

Again standing, he shook hands with all about him and then signified his readiness for the end. Holmes was the coolest of the whole party. He even went to the extreme of suggesting to Assistant Superintendent Richardson that the latter should not hurry himself.

“Take your time; don’t bungle it,” Holmes remarked as the official exhibited some little haste, the outcome of nervousness.

These were almost his last words. The cap was adjusted, a low-toned query, “Are you ready?” and an equally low-toned response, “Yes, good-bye,” and the trap was sprung.

Holmes’ neck was not broken, and there were a few convulsive twitches of the limbs that continued for about ten minutes. “But he suffered none after the drop,” said Dr Scott, the prison physician.

The trap was sprung precisely at 10:12-1/2, and fifteen minutes later, Holmes was pronounced dead, though the body was not cut down until 10:45. When it was laid out on the stretcher occurred the only incident approaching the revolting in connection with the affair.

The knot bad become jammed, and the efforts of the doctors failed to loosen it as they attempted to remove the noose from about the neck. The head was twisted about from side to side in the attempt, and finally it was decided to cut the rope. Superintendent Perkins objected, however, and the knot was undone after several minutes of trying work.

After the body had been viewed by the physicians and the manner of death determined, the stretcher on which it lay was wheeled out of the corridor into the jailyard. Here it was placed in an ordinary cheap pine coffin, wide enough and deep enough to have held two men of Holmes’ size.

The coffin was put aboard an undertaker’s wagon and conveyed to the Roman Catholic Cemetery of the Holy Cross. The only persons at the cemetery were the undertaker and his assistant, two grave-diggers, two watchmen and a couple of newspapermen. The little company acted as pallbearers, and carried the coffin to the receiving vault. The last act in the receiving vault was performed at Holmes’ express command.

The lid of the coffin was taken off and the body was lifted out and laid on the ground. Then the bottom of the coffin was filled with cement. The body was then replaced in the coffin and covered with cement.

It was Holmes’ idea that this cement would harden around his body and prevent any attempt at grave robbery. The coffin was left in the receiving vault under the guard of two watchmen, who will remain on duty all night.

Tomorrow afternoon, the body will be interred in a grave in the cemetery, and it is probable that at the time religious services will be conducted by Father Dailey. Holmes made no will and left no confession. This is according to Mr Rotan.

He says he knows Holmes made no will, and, while the murderer gave him this morning a big bundle of papers, the lawyer says that he is confident that these papers relate only to private business matters. As yet, Mr Rotan has had no opportunity to examine them.

Mrs Pitezel was seen after Holmes was hanged. All she could say, between her sobs, was that she was glad that he had received her just desserts, but that his death would not return to her husband or her children. Mrs Pitezel will return to her home, at Galva, Illinois, next week.

The two women referred to by Holmes in his confession from the scaffold were Julia Connor of Chicago and Emily Cigrand of Anderson, Indiana.

Holmes serial killer case - 1896


H H Holmes’ many crimes (1896)

He had a ready “confession” to clear himself of each.

Herman W [Webster] Mudgett, better known as H H Holmes, was one of the most conspicuous criminals of modern times, and if the “murder confessions” which he has written can only partially be believed, he was without a peer as a bloodthirsty demon.

His recent ingenious “confession,” wherein he claimed to have killed twenty-seven persons, was disproved, partly, at least, by the appearance of several of the so-called victims: but Holmes’ object in making the “confession” was realized — the obtaining of a sum said to be $7500, and which amount is said to have been settled upon the criminal’s 18-year old son.

While the “confessions” have served to increase the sensationalism of the case, the only capital crime for which Holmes had to answer was the killing in this city on September 2, 1884, of Benjamin F Pitezel, his fellow-conspirator.

The murder was committed in the dwelling, 1316 Callowhill Street. Holmes’ conviction of murder in the first degree, the affirmation by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court of the verdict and the recent refusal of Governor Hastings to grant a respite, are so well known that a narration of these facts is unnecessary.

Serial killer H H Holmes portrait from c1896

Holmes was captured in Boston, Mass., in the latter part of 1894 by Owen Hanscom, the Deputy Superintendent of upon the strength of a telegram from Fort Worth, Texas, where he was wanted for horse-stealing and for other charges of larceny.

At that time, officials of the Fidelity Mutual Life Association of Philadelphia were hot on Holmes’ trail for defrauding the concern out of $10,000 in connection with Pitezel’s death, the latter being insured for that amount, and as the accused believed horse-stealing to be a high crime in Texas be voluntarily confessed to Deputy Superintendent Hanscom to the insurance fraud.

He did not for a moment dream that he was then suspected of the murder of Pitezel and he came to Philadelphia without requisition papers. He expressed a willingness to be tried here on the conspiracy charge in preference to that of horse-stealing at Fort Worth.

Before leaving Boston, Holmes made this “confession” to Mr Hanscom:

“When I concluded it was time to carry out our scheme to defraud the insurance company, I secured a ‘stiff’ in New York and shipped it in a trunk to Philadelphia. I turned the check for the trunk over to Pitezel on the Sunday nearest the 1st of September. I instructed him how to prepare the body, and in three hours we were on our way to New York. Ten days after the payment of the money, I saw Pitezel in Cincinnati. I took the three children to that city, where the father saw them.

“Pitezel agreed to go South and he took one child, Howard. I took the two girls to Chicago because I had business there. We all met again in Detroit. Pitezel took the children and went to South America.

“During all this time, Mrs Pitezel knew her husband was alive, but she did not know he had the children. If she was aware of that, she would insist that the crooked business be wound up right away. In order to keep Mrs Pitezel away from her husband, I had to tell her he was here and there, traveling from one city to another.”

This was the first of a number of alleged admissions that Holmes subsequently made. In fact, he acquired a penchant for making “confessions” that surprised the authorities.

The insurance officials had good ground for believing Holmes had murdered Pitezel and the three children, so when the prisoner arrived in Philadelphia he was urged to make another “confession.” And he did so without any hesitation, but it varied somewhat from the one made in Boston.

It graphically narrated how the body was substituted for Pitezel in the Callowhill Street house and its identification by Alice Pitezel as that of her father a week afterward.

Sketch of Serial killer H H Holmes' tank where he disposed of his victims' bodies

Confessing to insurance fraud

Holmes also related how the money was received from the insurance company and its subsequent division between Mrs Pitezel, Jephtha D Howe, the St Louis lawyer, and himself. It was in this “confession” that Holmes accused Howe of receiving $2500 for his share in the transaction.

Howe was indicted for conspiracy, but recently the case against him was dropped. Soon after Holmes was brought to Philadelphia, Detective Geyer visited him in the County Prison in relation to the finding of the body at 1316 Callowhill Street on September 4, 1894.

After an hour’s conversation with the wily Holmes, the detective emerged from the prison with a “confession,” in which the accused said the body was not that of Pitezel, but was one substituted to defraud the insurance company.

A week later, Holmes honored Geyer with another “confession.”

“Mr Geyer,” he said, “that story I told you about the substituted body is not true. It is the body of Benjamin F Pitezel, but I did not murder him or his children. On Sunday morning, September 2, I found Pitezel dead in the third story of the Callowhill Street house. I found a note in a bottle, telling me that he was tired of life and had finally decided to commit suicide.

“He requested me to look after the insurance money and take care of his wife and family. I then fixed up the body in the position it was found. These children you speak of are all right. They are with Minnie Williams in London. I gave Howard to Minnie Williams in Detroit, and I sent Alice and Nellie to her from Toronto. They met Miss Williams in Niagara Falls, and sailed for Europe from New York.”

H H Holmes murder castle on a corner in Chicago Illinois

Between this time and his trial for conspiracy to defraud the insurance company, to which he pleaded guilty, Holmes made many other “confessions,” but they differed very little from those already given.

Each time he pretended to tell the truth, but he suddenly avoided doing so.

Nobody believed what Holmes said about Pitezel, and he would not say anything about the children, except that they were all right.

In his many interviews with District Attorney Graham, Holmes persisted that the three missing Pitezel children were with Minnie Williams in London. He even persuaded Mr Graham to have an advertisement in the shape of a cipher puzzle inserted in a New York paper for the purpose of bringing Minnie Williams and the three little Pitezels back from Europe.

The District Attorney placed little faith in what Holmes had told him, but the “ad” was published as a sort of last and hopeless effort. When the bodies of Nellie and Alice Pitezel were unearthed in Toronto, Holmes denied having killed them. When Howard’s charred remains were located in a superannuated stove in Irvington, Ind., Holmes calmly denied any knowledge of the lad’s death.

1939 map of Serial killer H H Holmes sites - Mudgett murders in US

When the murders of Minnie Williams and her sister were discovered, Holmes said Minnie killed Nanny in a jealous frenzy, and he buried the body in Lake Michigan.

He vigorously denied having put Minnie to death so as to secure her property. The disappearance of Emily Cygrand was traced to Holmes, but the criminal said he knew nothing of the girl’s fate. The partially consumed bones that were found in the Chicago “castle” are known to be those of some of Holmes’ victims.

About the last time that Holmes was taken to the District Attorney’s office to “confess,” Mr Graham lost patience with him. Holmes gave a repetition of his picturesque falsehoods. He actually gave the District Attorney a veritable “jolly” about the Pitezel family and Minnie Williams being still alive. The scene that ensued was extremely dramatic.

Mr Graham said: “Holmes, you are an infernal, lying murderer. I will hang you in Philadelphia for the murder of Benjamin Pitezel.”

Holmes’ nerve was still with him and he said: “I defy you. You have no evidence to prove me guilty.”

Mr Graham looked with disgust and determination at Holmes and said: “You will surely hang in Philadelphia for murdering Benjamin Pitezel.”

The trial and conviction followed. The District Attorney endeavored to prove during the trial through Detective Geyer, that Holmes also killed the Pitezel children, but Judge Arnold, before whom the case was tried, declared this to be irrelevant.

Geyer had unearthed the murder of the children after a prolonged investigation, and the Commonwealth was prepared to prove that Holmes also committed these crimes.

Holmes embraced the Catholic faith when it became evident to him that he must hang, and Rev Father Dailey ministered to his spiritual wants.

Throughout his trial and subsequent imprisonment, Holmes maintained a nonchalance that was remarkable.


Herman Webster Mudgett, alias H H Holmes
Born May 16, 1861, in Gilmanton, New Hampshire
Died May 7, 1896, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (age 34)

America's first serial killer, H H Holmes


Follow-up, 50 years later (1946)

Excerpted from the San Francisco Examiner (California) October 27, 1946

Holmes went on trial for the murder of Ben Pitezel on October 28, 1895. Convicted, he died on the scaffold at Moyamensing Prison, and his body was interred in a specially-constructed grave in Holy Cross Cemetery in Philadelphia.

This heartless man, known as the Criminal of the Century, had uttered a few words before he plunged to his death. Instead of forgiving all who had “wronged” him, he pronounced a curse upon all who had participated in his conviction.

Six months after the hanging, Howard Perkins, superintendent of Moyamensing, killed himself with a pistol in the shadow of the same gallows.

His successor, Robert Motherwell, was dismissed from office, became separated from his wife, and later killed himself on her doorstep.

Richard A. Johnson, one of the jurors, killed himself with gas.

The Rev. Henry J. McPake, a young priest who had accompanied Holmes to the gallows, was found dead in an alley a year after the execution. His skull had been fractured — how it had occurred could never be determined.

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