Serial Killers · True Crime

America’s First Serial Killer – H. H. Holmes

I’ve recently decided to switch up my blog to focus on what I’m most passionate and interested in – true crime. It seems to make sense that I write about something I enjoy researching. As my first post, it made sense that I’d write about the first serial killer I heard of: the one that first sparked my interest in true crime – H. H. Holmes.

H. H. Holmes was an infamous serial killer and sometimes referred to as “The Beast of Chicago” and “America’s first serial killer”. He was active during the late 19th century and confessed to having committed 27 murders, although the police could confirm only 9 of the 27. His confessions were filled with inconsistencies and would be changed a lot, and many of the people who he claimed to have killed were still alive. Because of this, the actual number of murders he committed remains a mystery to this day.

Early Life

H. H. Holmes was born as Herman Webster Mudgett on May 16, 1861, to Theodate Page Price and Levi Horton Mudgett in Gilmanton, New Hampshire. He was born into an affluent family and was one of five children, with two older siblings (Ellen and Arthur) and two younger siblings (Henry and Mary). Herman’s parents were devout Methodists and demanded total obedience from their children. His mother was described as cold and distant who used religion as a guide for parenting. His father was abusive and often used prolonged isolation and food deprivation as disciplinary methods.

Herman was not only abused at home, but also bullied at school because of his odd behaviour and good grades. When Herman was thirteen, he was dragged into the local doctor’s office. This was a place that he was terrified of because of the stories he’d heard of body parts left around the area. His bullies forced him to face death by bringing him face to face with a human skeleton. However, the skeleton began to fascinate Holmes and later aspired him to study medicine.

Education and Early Adulthood

Herman graduated from high school at the age of 16 and became a teacher. He met a woman named Clara Lovering, who was working on her father’s farm. He later saw Clara at a church social, however, she was flirting with another boy. Herman angrily marched up to them and threatened to punch the boy if he didn’t leave. Clara was impressed by Herman and was later escorted home by him, arm in arm. The following day Herman claimed that they were engaged. They married on July 4, 1878, with the first six months of the marriage kept a secret. They had a son who was born on February 3, 1880, in Loudon, New Hampshire.

Clara Lovering (source: legendsofamerica)

At the age of 18, he enrolled in the University of Vermont but left after one year. However, he returned to university in 1882 and enrolled in the University of Michigan’s Department of Medicine and Surgery. While enrolled in the university, he worked under Professor Herdman in the anatomy lab.

During his time at medical school, he began to obtain cadavers to dissect and use in his research. He would also rob graves and sell the corpses to medical schools or used them to trick insurance companies. Herman would create a fake name for himself and take out a life insurance policy on people who did not exist. He would then name himself as the beneficiary. A cadaver that he had been working on would then be the body of this fictitious person. Holmes would work on it to leave the corpse unrecognisable. While performing these scams he would ignore his wife and son. He later wholly abandoned them after receiving nearly $12,500 on one scam.

He graduated in June 1884 and used his new title to create a new alias: Dr Henry Howard Holmes (H. H. Holmes) before moving to Chicago. In August 1886 he took a position at a drugstore owned by Elizabeth S. Holton, and he eventually settled down and married Myrta Belknap in 1887, despite having never divorced his first wife, Clara. They had a daughter in 1889 named Lucy Theodate Holmes.

Myrta Belknap.
Myrta Belknap (source: legendsofamerica)

After the death of Mrs Holton’s husband, he left the responsibilities of running the shop to his wife. Holmes convinced the widow to let him buy the shop from her. Mrs Holton was never seen or heard of after this incident, although Holmes claimed that she had moved to California to live with her family. He ran a few scams from this business to save up some money for his plans.

The Murder Castle

With the money he had saved up from his scams at the drugstore, he bought a lot opposite the shop and began designing and constructing a three-story hotel. While it was being built, he would hire and fire multiple employees after a small section was built. This trick made sure that nobody but himself would know what the full building looked like on the inside or have an idea of what he was doing. He was building a “murder castle”, known to the public as The World’s Fair Hotel.

The “murder castle” (source:

When the hotel opened, he started to place ads in newspapers advertising the hotel as a place to stay and offered jobs for young women. He also placed many ads introducing himself as a wealthy man looking for a wife. All of the employees and guests at the hotel were required to have life insurance policies and would offer to pay the premiums if they listed Holmes as their beneficiary. Most of his employees and guests would suddenly disappear, and many people claimed that they would see people entering the hotel and never coming out.

Holmes would lure his victims into various rooms of the hotel to kill them. Some of his victims were locked in soundproof rooms and gassed to death. Some were left in an airtight vault and left to suffocate, while others were left to starve in places with no door or windows. The bodies were later transported to the basement via chutes or dumb-waiters. In the cellar, Holmes would either dispose of the bodies in acid pits or the furnace. He would also perform experiments on them before selling their skeletons and organs to medical schools.

One of Holmes’ victims was Julia Smithe; a woman whom he’d been having an affair with and the wife of one of his employees. He had hired Ned and Julia Connor in July 1889 and was engaging in a relationship with Julia within a month, even with Holmes’ current wife living under the same roof. Eventually, Julia’s husband found out about the affair and left Julia and her daughter at the hotel. Julia started to get involved in Holmes’ businesses, listing herself as the co-founder and taking out debts in her name. On Christmas Eve of 1891, Julia and her daughter, Pearl, disappeared.

Julia Connor/Smythe.
Julia Connor / Smythe (source:
Capture and Arrest

Holmes was arrested for the first time in July 1894 on the charge of selling mortgaged goods. Before he was bailed out, he met Marion Hedgepeth, a convicted outlaw serving a 25-year sentence. Holmes has designed a plan to trick the insurance company out of $10,000 by taking out a life insurance policy on himself and then faking his death, He promised Hedgepeth a $500 commission if he could give him the name of a lawyer that he could trust. Hedgepeth gave Holmes the name of a young attorney named Jeptha Howe who was in practice with his older brother, Alphonso Howe. However, Holmes’ plan failed when the insurance company became suspicious and refused to pay. Holmes instead decided to try out a similar strategy with Benjamin Pitezel – a man who he had been helping him with scams in the past.

Benjamin Pitezel. (source: thenerdmentality)

Pitezel would fake his death so his wife could collect a $10,000 life insurance policy in his name. The plan was for Pitezel to set himself up as an inventor named B. F. Perry and to be killed and disfigured in a lab explosion, and Holmes was to find a corpse that would fit Pitezel’s measurements. However, instead of following the plan, Holmes ended up killing Pitezel by knocking him out with chloroform and setting his body on fire. Holmes kept Pitezel’s actual death quiet and proceeded to collect the insurance payout, while his wife believed that her husband was hiding in London.

Holmes manipulated Pitezel’s wife into allowing him to take three of her five children into his custody, claiming that it would be better if they split up. He travelled with three of Pitezel’s children around the northern United States and into Canada. He would take Mrs Pitezel along a similar route while using different aliases. Holmes was also lying to her about the whereabouts of her children. He was staying at another location with his wife, who had no idea about the plan.

Two of the three children in which Holmes had in his custody were asphyxiated after he forced and locked them inside a trunk. He drilled a hole into the chest and put a hose through the hole, attaching it to a gas line. He later buried them in the cellar of his rental house in Toronto.

Holmes’ mugshot.

The bodies were later found by a Philadelphia police detective who was assigned to investigate Holmes and the missing children. On November 17, 1894, Holmes was arrested in Boston. He was put on trial in October 1895 for the murder of Benjamin Pitezel and was sentenced to death. After his conviction, Holmes confessed to 27 murders and six attempted murders. However, some of those who he claimed to have killed were still alive. Newspaper reporters paid him $7,500 in exchange for his confession, but it was seen to be mostly nonsense as he first claimed innocence but later claimed to be possessed by Satan.

Holmes was hung at Moyamensing Prison on May 7, 1896. Holmes showed very few signs of fear or anxiety, but asked for his coffin to be contained in cement and buried 10 feet deep. He feared that grave robbers might dig him up to dissect him. While being hung, Holmes’ neck did not snap so was left hanging there while he slowly strangled to death for over 15 minutes.

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