Crime + Investigation Podcast
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Herman Webster Mudgett was born in 1861 in Gilmanton, New Hampshire, USA. Growing up he was a gifted student, but this led to bullying by other children. He developed a fascination for animal dissection and a morbid curiosity about death.
Graduating from high school at the age of sixteen, Herman became a teacher, and was married to Clara Lovering soon after. The couple had a son, Robert Lovering Mudgett, in 1880. At eighteen Holmes enrolled in the University of Vermont in Burlington but, unsatisfied with the school, left in 1881.
In 1882, he entered the University of Michigan's Department of Medicine and Surgery. It was while training as a doctor that Mudgett's criminal career began. Stealing cadavers from the medical department, Herman inflicted terrible wounds upon them and then, claiming the people had died in accidents, attempted to collect insurance policies he had taken out in fabricated names. Despite all this, he graduated from University in 1884.
His marriage to Clara soon fell apart and Herman abandoned both her and his son to make his life elsewhere. He worked in various jobs and continued his scams. In Mooers Forks, New York people said they had seen him with a young boy just prior to the child going missing. Mudgett claimed that the boy had gone back to his home in Massachusetts, but quickly left town.
Working in a drug-store in Philadelphia, Herman again skipped town after a boy died after taking medicine he had given to him. It was at this point that Mudgett assumed the name H. H. Holmes and shortly afterwards arrived in Illinois.
In August 1886 Holmes gained employment at Elizabeth S. Holton's drug-store on the south-west corner of South Wallace Avenue and West 63rd Street, in the Englewood neighbourhood of Chicago. He proved to be a dedicated employee, no scandal emerged that forced him to skip town, and soon Holmes was settled enough to re-marry (despite having never divorced Clara Lovering). He and Myrta Belknap were wed in 1887 and had a daughter, Lucy Theodate Holmes, in 1889.
When Holton's husband died, Holmes bought the drug-store from her, raising the funds largely by borrowing money against the value of the fixtures and fittings of the business itself. Mrs. Holton was never seen or heard of after the sale went through however, Holmes claiming she had gone to live with family in California.
Holmes purchased a vacant lot opposite the drug-store at 601-603 West 63rd Street and began construction on a three-storey hotel. During the years it took to build the structure, dubbed "The Castle" by locals because of its size, Holmes systematically hired and fired a string of different contractors, allowing each to work on only a small section of the building.
As a result, when The World's Fair Hotel opened its doors to the public in 1893, only H. H. Holmes himself knew the layout of the place which was later to become known as "The Murder Castle".
Amongst the many peculiarities in its structure, The World's Fair Hotel featured fifty-one doorways which opened onto blank brick walls, scores of windowless rooms, and staircases which led to nowhere. Yet these were the least of the horrors that Holmes had equipped the place with.
Holmes made it a condition of employment that staff should take out a life insurance policy which he would pay the premium on, but also be a beneficiary of, but what he had in mind went far beyond a mere insurance scam.
Some of his victims were locked in sealed, soundproofed rooms and gassed to death, some taken to a room on the second floor which Holmes called his “secret hanging chamber”. Victims were sealed in an airtight bank-vault on the ground-floor and left to suffocate, or left to starve in a door-less, windowless room which could only be accessed via a trapdoor in the ceiling.
Bodies were conveyed to the hotel's basement via specially installed chutes and dumb-waiters, and it was there that Holmes went about his grisly work.
In his basement laboratory beneath his ground level drug-store corpses were dissected, stripped of flesh, and crafted into skeleton models. Lime pits, acid pits, and two furnaces made the disposal of evidence and any unwanted parts easy and convenient. Between his medical school and pharmacy connections, Holmes had no trouble finding buyers for the fine, educational, skeletons and bones he produced.
Some have estimated that as many as two-hundred people were murdered by Holmes in the nightmarish hotel. One of his many victims was Julia Smythe, wife of one of Holmes' employees, whom he had been having an affair with. Smythe's husband found out about the affair and left, leaving Julia and their daughter living in the hotel. When Julia fell pregnant with Holmes' child, he agreed to marry her but said that he would carry out an abortion. Instead, on Christmas Eve 1891, he overdosed her on cholorform. Soon he killed her daughter, Pearl, too and again simply told anyone asking that they had left town.
Holmes hired a man named Charles Chappell to articulate Smythe's skeleton. Introducing himself to Chappell as "Henry Gordon" he took him to a second floor room and showed him her dead body. Apparently unphased by the obvious murder Chappell agreed to the work, and afterwards articulated the bodies of two more of Holmes' victims, although the third was never handed back to the killer owing to a lack of payment.
Holmes met a railroad heiress named Minnie Williams while on a business trip in Boston and again introduced himself as Hanery Gordon. Henry and Minnie exchanged love letters until, in 1893, she moved to Chicago. He offered her a job at the hotel as his personal stenographer, and she accepted. Holmes persuaded Williams to transfer the deed to her property in Fort Worth, Texas to a man named Alexander Bond - another alias of Holmes'. Soon Williams' sister came to live an work in the hotel too, and before long both were dead at the hands of Holmes.
The Panic of 1893, a serious economic depression, put an end to Holmes' busness in Chicago.
He travelled throughout the USA and Canada continuing his scams, and his murders until his eventual arrest in Boston on November the 17th, 1894, after being tracked there from Philadelphia by the detectives from the Pinkerton agency. Although the arrest was related to the faked death and subsequent murder of one of Holmes' long term associates, the police soon began to look into his former business in Chicago.
Interviewing ex-staff at the hotel, it was discovered that the second floor was completley out of bounds to cleaners and maintanniace and this was enough to set alarm bells ringing. It took months for the full extent of the nightmare hotel's grisly secrets to be discovered by the investigators. Holmes personally confessed to 27 murders, only nine of which were able to be confirmed, but some esimate that he may have done away with as many as 200.
While writing his confessions in prison, Holmes described his own appearance as "gruesome and taking a Satanical Cast". Convinced that after everything that he had done, he was beginning to resemble the Devil himself.
On 7th May 1896, Holmes was hanged at the Philadelphia County Prison. His neck did not snap; so he was strangled to death slowly by the rope, twitching for over fifteen minutes, and pronounced dead twenty minutes after the trap had been sprung.
Holmes requested that his coffin be encased in concrete and buried ten feet deep, concerned that grave robbers would steal his body and use it for dissection.