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Murderer Monday: “Dr Death”

Murderer Monday: “Dr Death”
“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.”

Sorry for lack of MM last week, I had an exam on the tuesday, so this week it’s back with a bang. Henry. Howard Holmes was one of the cleverest yet obviously evil serial killers to have lived, definitely with the most meticulous planning. He was born in 1861, so no need to fear him now, but during his life he confessed to 27 murders but the actual number is unknown and several people he claimed to have murdered were actually alive so the real amount is probably much higher. He has been the subject of many documentaries and an upcoming film ‘Devil In The White City’ starring Leonardo DiCaprio, based on a book also written about Holmes.

Basically, this guy built an actual murder house. The ‘Worlds Fair Hotel’, now known as the ‘Murder Hotel’, and he could afford to do so because he was also a scam artist and bigamist. Let’s start at the beginning of the guy who became America’s first documented serial killer.

Early Life:

Born Herman Webster Mudgett, he was one of three children, born to a farming family who were also devout methodists. Some suggest that working with animals allowed him to torture animals and practise slaughter, but this can not be proven as there are no eyewitnesses, but it would make sense as this is a common early trait of murderers. He was bullied as a child and ironically developed a fear of doctors, so was made to stand in front of a fake skeleton. Holmes later said that this experience stopped his fear of death and perhaps led to his fascination with it. He married at 19 and had a son, Robert, at 21, then became an accountant. Pretty standard so far. He then went to University and graduated in Medicine and Surgery, which is where his scams began. After his arrest he also confessed to killing one of his classmates, who was then found to have died years later. He stole cadavers to defraud life insurance companies and claim money for himself. Not long after this, he split with his wife and she moved away. He had a couple of incidents whilst working in pharmacies, one where a young boy died after taking medicine purchased from there. Holmes denied all knowledge and left the city. This is when he changed his name to avoid being exposed by scam victims, maybe a nudge towards Sherlock Holmes? He then remarried and had another daughter. He was married to 3 women at the same time.

Murder House:

Holmes purchased a lot across from a drugstore he worked at, and began building a three-storey building for mixed use, with apartments and retail space. Throughout this process, he was sued by various companies for not paying for materials that he had hidden in the house and claimed he didn’t have. His firs victim was Julia Smythe, his mistress who (along with her daughter) lived in the hotel and worked at the pharmacy. They disappeared on Christmas Eve 1891, and Holmes claimed Julia died during an abortion. They were never found. More women over the years took jobs at his hotel and gradually all vanished. Most of his victims entered the hotel of their own volition, not dragged kicking and screaming in. (Although they probably kicked and screamed to get out). Some sites claimed he hired over 150 women as his stenographer.  The layout of the house was designed for the purpose of killing people, and contained over 100 rooms. The first floor had shops and storefronts, the third floor was the apartments, and the second floor and basement were where he completed his murders. He switched builders numerous times so no one knew the exact layout or became suspicious, but it was a complete labyrinth. There were stairs to dead ends, hinged walls, soundproof rooms, secret passages, door-less and window-less rooms, trapdoors, chutes, gas fixtures, blow torches fixed to walls, and other horrors. Some doors had alarm systems which triggered an alarm in Holmes’ room, so he always knew where they were. There was also a surgical room, where police found many blood-stained clothes, torture instruments, a crematory, bottles of acids and boxes of bones. He would drop victims down chutes, dissect them, and sell their organs on the black market. Ultimately, only Holmes himself knew how the castle was laid out, and how many died there.

Benjamin Pitezel:

Benjamin was a carpenter with a criminal record, who met Holmes while working in a Chemical bank. He was later described as his ‘tool… his creature’ by a district attorney, as he was his right hand man in his crimes. They managed to persuade an actress, Millie Williams, to accept a job at the hotel and transfer the deed to her house to ‘Alexander Bond’, an alias’ of Holmes, which Holmes then transferred to Pitezel. Minnie and Holmes pretended to be man and wife, and rented an apartment, which Minnie’s sister visited. Neither woman was seen alive in 1893.

Arrest and Death:

Financial schemes were his ultimate downfall. He was known by police for many scams, one being that he concocted a plan to fake his own death and get $10,000 by taking out a policy on himself, yet the policy made the insurance company suspicious. Pietzel then agreed to fake his own death so his wife could get $10,000 and split it with Holmes. He was meant to be disfigured in an accident and Holmes would replace him with a cadaver. Instead, Holmes knocked him out and set him on fire. Forensic evidence showed that chloroform was used after his death to fake suicide so he wouldn’t be charged with murder. He claimed the money, and managed to convince Pietzels wife to give him custody of three of her children, lying about her husbands death. He used various alias’ to lead them all into Canada, where he locked two children in a suitcase connected to a gas line to asphyxiate them. A police detective hired to locate the children, discovered their bodies buried at his Toronto home. Holmes was in a rented cottage in Indianapolis, where he had killed the third child with drugs, then chopped up his body and burned it. He was arrested in Boston in 1894. In his imprisonment, he stated that his appearance had changed so much and he was starting to ‘resemble the devil’. He was hanged in 1896 and buried in a special coffin he had requested. He wanted his body to be encased in cement and buried 10 feet deep as he was worried grave robbers would dissect him. His neck did not snap during the hanging, and he was left suffocating for 15 minutes. Gross, sos. The murder house was set alight when Holmes was in prison, and was eventually torn down in 1938 and is now the Englewood branch of the U.S. Post Office.


Strange things happened to people connected to his case after his death. The man who had initially tipped off the police was shot dead by a police officer. The warden at the prison, killed himself. The office of the district attorney caught on fire and the only item to survive the blaze was a photo of Holmes, fully intact. Patrick Quinlan, caretaker of the castle who knew the most about the haunted building (second to Holmes) committed suicide in 1914. He left a one-sentence suicide note, “I could not sleep.” There are also some theories that Holmes used his connections to swindle the authorities and had a different man hanged.

Holmes was such an interesting character. Clearly charming and clever, almost a people person, as he could persuade anyone to almost anything. There are also theories as to whether he is Jack the Ripper, as he spent some time in the UK.

“I roamed about the world seeking whom I can destroy.”

Jack the Ripper?:

Jeff Mudgett, grandson of Holmes owns some of his diaries which have been proven to have been written by him. He claims that these diaries contain details of a childhood rape, murders, and potentially that he tricked someone into taking his place in his hanging. (This was recently disproved as the family had his body exhumed for DNA comparison). According to the diaries, Holmes and an assailant were in London during the four month long Whitechapel murders in 1888. There was a remarkable lack in Holmes’ documentation during this time, and ship records show a ‘H. Holmes’ was on a ship travelling from Britain to the USA after the final Ripper murder. He instructed a man to murder and mutilate prostitutes to distract from his own murders in the USA, and sell the organs of upper class women. He believed their ovaries had healthier hormones of which he would use to make a youth serum to live a long life. At the time of the killings, there were even rumours in the UK that Jack was actually an American doctor due to the apparent anatomical knowledge, which Scotland Yard began to look in to. Both ‘men’ also had eerily similar handwriting, as was compared using their notes. Linguistic experts claimed that the infamous Ripper ‘Dear Boss’ letter doesn’t seem British and pointed to an American writer, due to Americanisms used. Most victims were also women. Whilst Jack the Ripper didn’t seem methodical at all, he actually was. He would strangle the women, lie them down, then carefully mutilate them. As investigator Amaryllis Fox states, the Ripper murders may represent Holmes’ “adolescence as a killer”. Sketches drawn of the pair also look surprisingly similar.

Adam Selzer in his biography wrote that Holmes’ story is “effectively a new American tall tale – and, like all the best tall tales, it sprang from a kernel of truth”

“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.”

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