Fear and death were two common themes in Herman Webster Mudgett’s childhood. Born in Gilmanton New Hampshire to Levi H. and Theodate P. Mudgett 1 , Herman was one of three Mudgett children who grew up in the Mudgett’s strict Methodist house. Due to the “religious mania” of Herman’s mother, she often insisted that he join her in prayer in her room then proceeded to fill the air around him with a “trembly passion”. 2 Religious content can be scary for children and can lead to fearful and anxious adults. This kind of fear may have played a significant role in Mudgett’s life.3
When Herman was young, he developed a fear of the grinning skeletons, which were common place in doctor’s offices.6 This fear was exploited when two children discovered Herman’s fear of the skeletons. According to Mudgett’s autobiography, they “dragged me struggling and shrieking in the doctor’s office and didn’t stop until I had been brought face to face with one of the grinning skeletons, which with arms outstretched, seemed ready in its turn to seize me.” Mudgett later reflects that, “It proved a heroic method of treatment, destined ultimately to cure me of my fear and to inculcate in me, first, a strong feeling of curiosity, and, later a desire to learn, which resulted years afterward in my adopting medicine as a profession”.2
According to some modern experts, this overriding fear of death became so great in Mudgett’s life that this fear was so great that his brain would transition from fear to fascination in order to gain some control over what was a traumatic experience. Power also played an important role in Mudgett’s later life. It may be that he wanted to control death like he wanted to control his emotions. 3 Mudgett could not choose to not be afraid of death, but he could learn how to control how death appeared in his life and try to maintain a powerful hold over it.
On July 4, 1878, Mudgett met and married Clara A. Lovering.1 After they were married, he left her in New Hampshire to attend medical school at the University of Michigan, never to return or divorce Clara. 2 At the University, there was an emphasis on dissection, which was common for post-Civil War. Due to this emphasis, there was a high rate of demand for corpses and medical students and often had to resort to stealing bodies from graves to practice on.6
Desperate for money while in medical school, Mudgett along with a fellow student, devised a plan to commit insurance fraud by faking the death of a family of three and replacing the bodies with cadavers from the medical school collecting $ 40,000. 2 This was just the start of what proved to be a promising and profitable career for Mudgett.
After graduation, Mudgett then moved to Chicago. He took on a new name of Henry Howard Holmes, or H.H. Holmes. He got a job in the surrounding city of Englewood, IL at Holton Drugs, working with Dr. Holton. Soon after Mudgett’s arrival, Dr. Holton died, leaving his pharmacy and his widow behind. Holmes, appearing to be charming and charismatic, comforted the widow and made her an offer for the pharmacy in the air of trying to alleviate her burden. Soon after the pharmacy was sold, Mrs. Holton disappeared “to California,” or so Holmes told inquirers. 2
In 1887, Holmes then married Myrta Z. Belknap, and they had a daughter named Lucy. Myrta and Lucy disappeared; their fate is unknown but we can only assume what horrors they experienced. When Myrta Belknap’s uncle visited Holmes he remarked that “Holmes was missing an important element of humanness.”2
In 1888, Holmes acquired the lot across the street from his drug store under an assumed name, and began building what his neighbors called “The Castle.” During the construction, there was a high rate of turnover amongst the workers, only three being kept on long term. These three: Charles Chapell, Patrick Quinlan, and Benjamin Pitezel, would later be called Holmes associates. 2
When “The Castle” opened up for business, it contained a barbershop, a restaurant, and the Warner Glass Bending Company. In 1891, Holmes transformed the building into a Hotel. 2 The genius of turning “The Castle” into a hotel did not only appeal to Holmes need for money but also to satisfy his “habit.”
In 1893, Chicago hosted the World’s Fair, giving Holmes a new hunting ground. It was conveniently located just a couple blocks away from Holmes’s hotel, which he in turn named “The World’s Fair Hotel.” 6 During the duration of the fair, hundreds of people who came to visit the exhibitions were never heard of again, and their fates are still unknown. 2 Many people were in need of lodging, so Holmes could pick and choose whom he wanted to stay at the hotel, selecting naïve young women who quickly fell under Holmes’s charm and charisma. 6
Then the Connors family, Ned, Julia, and their daughter Pearl, moved to Chicago and were employed at the Holmes drugstore. Holmes took advantage of the fact that Ned and Julia were having marital troubles and persuaded Ned to take out an insurance policy on Julia and Pearl. Shortly after this, Ned divorced and then left Julia and Pearl. 2This left Holmes to begin a new life with Julia and Pearl.
In November of 1891 Julia Connors announced to Holmes that she was pregnant. He convinced her that he would marry her if she would permit him to perform an abortion for her, being that a child borne out of wedlock was completely inappropriate. On Christmas Eve, he appeared to perform the abortion and instead killed her. When friends asked about Julia, he said that she left for Davenport earlier than they had planned.Coincidentally, shortly after Charles Chappell, a long-term associate of Holmes bought a body from Holmes and sold it to a local institution.2
In 1892, Benjamin Pitezel, another associate of Holmes, met the beautiful Emiline Cigrand at an alcohol rehabilitation center and wrote to Holmes about her. Shortly after, Holmes offered her a job as a secretary with a competitive salary in Chicago and invented a fictitious uncle who was an English Lord to explain his money. 2
Although Holmes could appear to be charming and charismatic, it is believed Emiline’s feelings had begun to change after a comment she made to friends about Holmes character. It is possible that she had found out to a certain extent the real character of Holmes and determined to leave him. Shortly after this, Emiline disappeared and LaSalle Medical college of Chicago received a female skeleton.2
Holmes soon began to reconnect with an old acquaintance from Boston named Minnie Williams. Holmes had introduced himself to her as Henry Gordon, but he easily explained his new name away and asked Minnie to refer to him as Holmes. Minnie and Holmes were then married and Holmes convinced Minnie to transfer the deed of her Fort Worth Texas Home to a Mr. Alexander Bond, another alias that Holmes was using. Holmes then invited Annie, Minnie’s sister, to join them in Chicago. She arrived in June of 1893. 2
During Annie’s visit, Holmes locked her in the airtight vault he had installed in his private office, killing her. Shortly after Annie’s murder, he sold a mysteriously heavy trunk and gave dresses to Carrie Pitezel (Benjamin Pitezels wife) stating that they belonged to his “cousin” Minnie Williams.2 We can only assume what unfortunate fate the sister met after their stay in “The Castle.”
According to several sources, Holmes then lived abroad for a few years, living off the Williams sister’s estate. During this time he was arrested for horse theft and spent some time in jail. Shortly after his release from jail, Holmes returned and then married a Georgiana Yoke under the name Henry Mansfield Howard. He set fire to the top floor of his castle to collect the insurance money in the sum of $6,000, which he was unable to collect. Shortly after this Holmes decided to leave Chicago to avoid creditors.2
George B. Chamberlin, a lawyer hired by the creditors Holmes owed money to, arranged a meeting with two dozen creditors that Holmes also owed money to. Holmes, after attending this meeting and witnessing the number of attendants, fled. After this, Holmes conspired with Pitezel to take out an insurance policy for Benjamin Pitezels life for $10,000. The intent was to fake his death. According to several suspicions, Holmes then killed Pitezel, but his family was told he had gone into hiding. After Pitezel had “died,” his daughter Alice had identified her father by his teeth, and Holmes had cut off one of his molars to bring in to identify Pitezel. 2
Holmes then invited the Pitezel children to bring them to their father, who they believed was still alive.6 Instead, he took them on a journey that would end in misery. Throughout this journey, the children wrote letters back to their mother that Holmes never sent. Later these letters would create a map for detective Frank Geyer, one of Philadelphia’s top detectives and a member of the force for twenty years, to trace their trail. The Fidelity Mutual Life Association, which Holmes had collected a large sum of money from in life insurances, hired the “eye that never sleeps,” The Pinkerton National Detective Agency to track him down. 2
Holmes was apprehended on November 17, 1894 and sent to Moyamensing Prison in Philadelphia, 6for attempting to defraud the Fidelity Mutual Life Association. 5While at Moyamensing, he was a model prisoner and made friends with the guards. Due to this relationship, he was able to buy special amenities such as newspaper to keep up on his case. On December 3, 1894, Holmes started writing his memoir in which he still claimed his innocence. Erik Larson, author of “The Devil in the White City,” believes that Holmes’s memoirs are not an accurate representation of his life and are more along the idea of a publicity act to change public opinion of him. 2
Holmes eventually confessed to insurance fraud, but there was rising suspicion that he had not faked Benjamin Pitezels death.2 Carrie Pitzel also confessed to insurance fraud on November 20th. 5 In 1895, Holmes stood trial for the murder of Pitezel and he admitted to not faking Pitezel’s death. 2The trial began at Quarter Session court house on May 28, 1895.4Holmes refused a lawyer and instead defended himself.5
Detective Geyer had to prove that Holmes had also killed Benjamin Pitezel’s children in addition to Benjamin. He set out on June 26, 1895 with Alice Pitezel’s letters in hand to try to find clues as to the children’s fate. He traced them through Cincinnati and Indianapolis, where he learned that Holmes was at this time also moving current wife, Georgiana Yoke. Next, Geyer went to Detroit, where he discovered that Holmes was also moving around Carrie Pitezel without her knowledge that her children were a mere 5 blocks from her. Geyer then traced the girls to Toronto, where Holmes had rented a house. A neighbor of Holmes, Mr. Thomas Ryves, had contacted Geyer when he learned he was in the area to discuss an unusual neighbor he had. Ryves told of a man that had moved in with very little furniture and then asked to borrow a shovel. In the basement of the Toronto house, they found the bodies of the two Pitezel girls Alice and Nellie. Carrie Pitezel was able to identify the girls by Alice’s teeth ad Nellie’s hair. The only problem was that the third Pitezel child, Howard, was still unfound. Geyer eventually found remains that were identified by Carrie as belonging to her son Howard stuffed in a Chimney in the Indianapolis home. 2
After learning that the girl’s bodies had been found, Holmes, while in prison, struck a deal with a Mr. John King to arrange for the publication of his memoir. Holmes further gave King advice on the best way to market his book and make the premium profit. 2 On July 19, 1895, detectives entered “The Castle” which had been turned into a maze of death traps. Inside they found shocking sights such as remnants of bones and various articles of clothing. They also found a woman’s footprint inside the vault in Holmes office, which they believed belonged to Emiline Cigrand. Newspapers said that the crimes were so horrific that “ the public could not look away.”6 On August 2, Patrick Quinlan, who was the main architect on “The Castle,” turned in evidence.5
On September 12, 1895, the Philadelphia grand jury indicted Holmes for the Pitezel family murder. 2During this time, trial by jury was a very frequent practice. The jury was free to apply “unwritten” laws and in theory, tailor them to the individual. During the trial, Holmes displayed many peculiarities, such as showing no emotion, and after a particularly grisly sketch from a Dr. Scott, Holmes asked if they could have a break for lunch. 2Holmes also said he was possessed by Satan but, according to Dr. Davies he did not believe this, due to the fact that he was an intelligent man with a history of lying. 3This was a landmark case because the jury had heard the first expert testimony from Dr. Scott. 6 The jury found Holmes guilty of these heinous crimes, and the judge sentenced him to death by hanging. Holmes’s attorney appealed and lost. Holmes later confessed to killing twenty-seven people, but it was discovered that some of the people he “killed” turned out to be alive. As far as detectives can figure, Holmes killed at least nine people. 2 Because of the number of people Holmes killed, he has been deemed a multi murderer or “Americas First Serial Killer.” 6