“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
The World’s Fair of 1893 was the biggest attraction on the planet, a life-changing event for thousands of people from all over the world. The latest technology and inventions were unveiled, business men made fortunes and the country gained first-hand insight on the city of Chicago.
Amidst this fervor was a man who single-handedly peeled back the luster of the American dream to reveal a horrifying and gruesome underbelly, a nightmare he had been working to see come to fruition for years.
H.H. Holmes, born Herman Webster Mudgett, stalked the city’s grounds as a wealthy, albeit shady, business man by day and a heartless murderer by night. By the times Holmes’ crimes were exposed, his reign of terror was seeped in mystery and took the spotlight completely off of the fair and put it right on his Murder Castle.
Holmes was the epitome of pure evil. He was ruthless in his killings, murdering his pregnant mistress with a chloroform overdose and promptly killing the woman’s young daughter, too. He also murdered his loyal assistant as well as three of the man’s children in a spine-chilling insurance policy scam that just confirmed how deep Holmes had spiraled down the homicidal rabbit hole. Holmes was known to dissect the bodies of his victims, stripping them of their flesh and crafting them into skeleton models that he would subsequently sell to local medical schools.
Unlike almost all serial killers and psycho maniacs, Holmes didn’t just attend and complete school- he earned a college degree from the University of Michigan’s Department of Medicine and Surgery, which at that time was considered one of the best medical schools in the country. The man was completely committed to the lifestyle he would soon embrace. He understood what he was and showed no qualms about it.
The man was a ladies man, through and through, with a charming smile and personality to boot. Fellow businessmen only learned of Holmes’ deceitful ways if he owed them money or they were in debt to him. Holmes was exactly the type of man the term “he could sell ketchup popsicles to a woman in white gloves” was coined for.
Perhaps just as historically important as Holmes himself was the sprawling three-story building that ran an entire city block’s length. A drugstore run by Holmes and several other shops filled the first floor of the building while the second and third floors housed numerous rooms that Holmes rented to out-of-towners who were in the city to enjoy the World’s Fair.
During construction of the incredible building, Holmes didn’t make any friends with his less than savory business ethics. Labor crews would work on his property, building random rooms and curious stairwells, for a week or two before getting unceremoniously fired, usually without pay. A new crew would come in the next week and ultimately meet the same fate. Ever the conniving scoundrel, Holmes would complain about the crews’ work and insist on not paying for their efforts.
Holmes also acquired a large bank vault and had a crew install it in the basement of the property, fortifying its place into the foundation of the building by creating cement walls around it. When the crew and company who provided the vault came for their money, Holmes refused to pay and even challenged the bank vault company to remove the vault without damaging his property (an impossible task) or risk a lawsuit that would cripple any business in that day and age.
Following the grisly discovery of what exactly was going on in the building, local media and people all across the nation began to refer to the building on West 63rd Street as ‘The Murder Castle’.
The particulars of the Castle read like a Saw script. Holmes installed an alarm system on the doors of the building that notified the mad man whenever anyone so much as moved around the hotel. The rooms that he rented out to guests were equipped with knobs that only locked from the outside, allowing Holmes to keep whoever he wanted in whatever room he wanted.
Sound proof bedrooms were fitted with gas lines for easy lethal doses to be administered to unsuspecting guests. A “secret hanging chamber” was found, where victims were hanged and watched by Holmes as they died. The bank vault was a suffocation torture chamber that Holmes used almost as often as any other device in the building. A secret room was also found where victims would be dropped into from a trap door on the ceiling and then left to starve to death. Lime pits were used in the basement to get rid of corpses, while two giant furnaces were incinerators for bodies and evidence. Pits of corrosive acid and a stretching rack were also found during the investigation of the Murder Castle.
Holmes became unhinged when he was finally apprehended in Boston for an outstanding warrant for horse theft in Texas. Believing he was beginning to resemble the Devil in appearance as he awaited execution, Holmes penned a confession that paid him $7,500 (which equals to over $200,000 in 2016) from local newspapers. With a victim count ranging from the nine confirmed to an estimated 200 (Holmes confessed to twenty-seven, but his word on this issue should be taken as seriously as his laundry list of lies and deceit he manipulated people with for most of his life), Holmes truly was America’s first serial killer. Holmes was hanged on May 7, 1896 at Moyamensing Prison in Philadelphia, for the murder of Benjamin Pietzel, the former right hand man whose three children were also killed by Holmes.
Ironically, Holmes requested his coffin be buried in cement, ten feet deep, to keep grave robbers from stealing his corpse and using it for dissection. When his neck did not break at the gallows, Holmes ended up suffocating to death, writhing for over fifteen minutes on the noose before finally dying.
The Murder Castle was gutted by fire in 1895, raising the suspicions of many. Was it burnt down to keep other evidence from seeing the light of day? Was it destroyed by heartbroken and emotional locals to rid the city of the heinous crimes that Holmes committed? No one will ever know. The site of the Castle is now a United States Postal Service office.
While the Holmes case was international news after the horrifying revelations at the Castle, media attention cooled considerably shortly thereafter.
Erik Larsen’s 2004 historical novel The Devil in the White City and filmmaker John Borowski’s 2004 film H.H. Holmes; America’s First Serial Killer brought the story back into mainstream consciousness. Larsen’s book was a New York Times Bestseller and Borowski also compiled a fascinating book, The Strange Case of Dr. H.H. Holmes, to go along with his film. I highly recommend all three pieces of entertainment as you will not find a more comprehensive historical recollection of the murderer and the Fair that he overshadowed.
Hollywood is known for taking real-life horror and making it a cinematic event – the Zodiac Killer’s murders, the Black Dahlia, Henry Lee Lucas’s escapades and porn star John Holmes’ implications in a massive homicide all earned the Hollywood treatment but no one has ever touched H.H. Holmes and his Murder Castle. Until now.
News broke last year that Leonardo DiCaprio and his film production company had acquired the rights to Larsen’s novel. DiCaprio would portray Holmes. That excited a lot of people, but then things got even more intense when it was confirmed that Martin Scorcese would direct the film, Devil in the White City.
Finally, after all this time, Hollywood will tell the story of H.H. Holmes. Whether it can trump Borowski’s fantastic documentary is something that will need to be seen to be believed, but with the Scorcese and DiCaprio team driving the vehicle, should audiences have any doubt that they are going to be in for a hell of a treat?