Written By: Angela DiLella
Edited By: Grave Reviews Staff
Staying in a hotel or motel can be stressful for some people. There’s the discomfort of being in an unfamiliar bed that probably had strangers in it just a few hours before. Even though there’s room service, hygiene is often at the back of one’s mind. And when one is traveling alone, it can be hard to not wonder how safe you really are.
Fortunately, these concerns are usually unfounded. Well, usually. Notorious serial killer H. H. Holmes killed throughout his adult life, but he’s best known for the murders of his hotel guests during the 1893 World’s Fair: Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Herman Webster Mudgett, better known as Dr. Henry Howard Holmes or, more commonly, as H. H. Holmes, was born in 1861 in New Hampshire. He had an unremarkable upbringing, so much so that reporters seemed to have made up accounts of parental abuse and animal torture during Holmes’s early years. However, we do know he graduated from medical school in Michigan and was far from disturbed by the cadavers. He used them in life insurance scams!
He moved from various places, always under mysterious circumstances. For example, while he was working in a drugstore in Philadelphia, a boy died mysteriously from his prescribed medicine. Holmes denied any guilt, changed his name, and headed towards Chicago to construct his “Murder Castle.”
The Murder Castle
The hotel was supposedly never truly finished, but it would have been hard for guests to discern that. The hallways were mazes, some of which terminated in dead ends, stairs that led nowhere, and trapdoors. Many, if not all, of the rooms, were soundproofed. Some could be sealed airtight and had gas valves that could be opened and used to suffocate victims. Many guest rooms had chutes that dropped into the basement for dissection, a final acid bath, or incineration. Some reporters claimed there were Medieval torture devices in the basement as well, but this is also disputed. H. H.Holmes harvested what he could for the black market, medical schools, and pawn shops. It was easy for him to get rid of any other items he deemed unusable or incriminating.
The notorious hotel was gutted by what was thought to be arson in 1895 and torn down altogether in 1938.
The Murder Crimes
It is also thought he killed several women he was having affairs with. Business partners and accomplices weren’t safe, either. The murder that H. H. Holmes was eventually charged for was that of his accomplice, Benjamin Pitezal. The two had planned to fake Pitezal’s death for a life insurance scam but Holmes, unsurprisingly, flipped the script and drugged Pitezal by burning him alive in 1894. He didn’t let Pitezal’s wife know things had changed and told her that Benjamin was hiding in London. He also convinced the hapless woman to give him custody of three of her children, two of whom he suffocated in a large trunk and one he drugged. He supposedly traveled across the United States by rail with the children in tow, with them sending letters back to their mother, who was also traveling across the country in tangent with Holmes. It appears to be unknown how many of these letters were really written by the children and how many were forgeries by Holmes.
Capture and Arrest
H. H. Holmes confessed to 27 murders originally, but only nine could be proven in court. However, it is thought that the number of murders was much higher, considering people were visiting Chicago for the fair, and some reports claimed that there were at least 200 murders in the hotel. Holmes gave outlandish confessions to papers for high fees and regularly switched his stories up. Some of his murder confessions even involved people who were very much alive and unscathed by the notorious killer.
Holmes appeared to show no remorse for his crimes or fear for his life as his execution date approached in 1896. Ironically, he was worried about his remains being stolen and requested to have his coffin encased in cement.
It seems unlikely that we’ll ever know the true extent of Holmes’s crimes. However, a curious footnote to Holmes’s tale came in 2017: his body was exhumed for inspection and it was found that his 121-year-old corpse was in an unusual state. The corpse had decayed, but it was “not properly decomposed” and so stunk terribly, strange for such aged remains. However, his clothes and even his mustache were in nearly perfect condition. He was identified by his teeth and reburied.
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