Birthday: May 16, 1861
Died At Age: 34
Sun Sign: Taurus
Also Known As: Herman Webster Mudgett, Dr. Henry Howard Holmes
Born in: Gilmanton, New Hampshire, U.S.
Notorious As: Serial Killer
Spouse/Ex-: Clara A. Lovering (1878–1896; his death), Georgiana Yoke (1894–1896; his death), Myrta Belknap (1887–1896; his death)
father: Levi Horton Mudgett
mother: Theodate Page Price
Died on: 1896
place of death: Moyamensing Prison, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Herman Webster Mudgett (or as he would come to be known later, Dr. Henry Howard Holmes or simply H.H. Holmes) was an infamous American serial killer who was active during the last quarter of the 19th century. Often referred to as ‘America’s first serial killer’, Holmes confessed to having committed 27 murders, while different estimates claim that the number could be anything between 20 and 200. Although only nine of the 27 murders could be confirmed by the police and local authorities at the time, he is one of the most talked about serial killers in history. Due to several inconsistencies and repeated alterations in his confession, the actual number of his victims and the exact procedure of the murders remain shrouded in mystery to this day. His notorious career came to a halt when he was finally taken into custody by the police in 1894. He was later hanged to death by the order of the Court of the land. Although it is impossible to state the exact number of his victims, Holmes’ case has terrorised and fascinated the world at the same time.
Childhood & Early Life
H.H Holmes was born on May 16, 1861, to Theodate Page Price and Levi Horton Mudgett. The third among four siblings, Holmes was named Herman Webster Mudgett at birth, a name which he discarded later in his life.
Although his family was affluent, Holmes had a difficult childhood as his father was an alcoholic and he was also bullied at school. His other siblings, Ellen, Arthur and Henry, also earned their father’s wrath.
He graduated from the local high school in 1877, at the age of 16. Two years later, he went to the University of Vermont but left it midway as he was not satisfied with the curriculum there. Finally, he went to the University of Michigan where he studied Medicine and Surgery and obtained a degree in the same in 1884.
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Major Life Events
While at the University of Michigan, Holmes was involved in a scam of stealing cadavers from the laboratory, performing experiments on them and claiming insurance money for them. After leaving the university, he spent the next two years moving from job to job and running small scams.
From 1884 to 1886, he did a number of odd jobs at various places including Mooers Forks, New York, and Philadelphia before finally moving to Chicago, his notorious hunting ground. He was involved in a few cases regarding the disappearance of a boy in New York and the death of another in Philadelphia. He denied involvement in both these cases and changed his name to Henry Howard Holmes before moving to Chicago.
In the August of 1886, he arrived in Chicago and immediately got a job at a drugstore owned by Elizabeth S. Holton and her husband. Mr. Houston mysteriously disappeared in the months that followed and was believed to be dead. Holmes bought the drugstore from Mrs. Houston who, like her husband, disappeared mysteriously after that. He ran some more scams from the drugstore and when he had enough money for funding his future plans, he left the business.
From the proceeds of his scams at the drugstore, he purchased a piece of land across the drugstore where he went on to build an elaborate three-storied hotel which the locals dubbed as “The Castle”. Built on 601-603 West 63rd Street, this building would go down in history as the site for all the horrors that he would perpetrate on scores of people. The hotel was formally named the ‘World’s Fair Hotel’, as it was meant to host the people who would come to the Columbian Exposition held in 1893.
The hotel, which would later become one of the most infamous buildings in the history of America, was a complete maze with a host of rooms, deceptive doors and hallways, stairways that would mislead people and a number of other confusing and misleading structures. It was constructed in such a way that none of his victims could find a way out in case they tried to escape.
Post the opening of the hotel in 1893, Holmes lured many victims, mostly females, into one of the many rooms in the hotel which he had designed specifically for killing them. His methods were grotesque and ranged from hanging his victims to suffocating them or leaving them in a vault to die of hunger and thirst. After killing them, he would either dispose of the bodies by burying them in lime pits or perform experiments on them and later sell the skeleton and the remaining organs to medical schools.
All this while, Holmes had been running insurance scams from time to time. One of his associates in the insurance scams was Benjamin Pitezel, whom he had met during the construction of the hotel. Together, they ran a scam which involved swindling $10,000 from an insurance company by faking the death of Pitezel and collecting the insurance in his name. However, Holmes killed Pitezel and took all the money for himself. Fearing that they would come after him later, he also killed three of Pitezel’s five children.
Arrest, Trial & Execution
Holmes was finally apprehended by the police on November 17, 1894, in Philadelphia after they got a tip from an inmate named Hedgepeth, who was one of his accomplices in the insurance scams. His first conviction was that of insurance fraud, but the police had grown suspicious of his activities at the ‘Castle’ and decided to investigate there. What they found were skeletal remains of scores of victims, including children, and a number of other evidences which confirmed beyond any doubt that Holmes had killed all those unfortunate people.
By then, it was also clear that he had murdered Pitezel and his children as well and he was convicted of those crimes in 1895. During the trial, he confessed to the murder of 27 other people but his stories were full of inconsistencies and false statements. The police confirmed nine of his alleged 27 murders but based on the evidences found and the account of the neighbours, they suspected that the number could be anywhere between 20 and 100.
Holmes was finally found guilty and sentenced to death by the court of Philadelphia for the murder of Benjamin Pitezel and hanged on May 7, 1896 at the Philadelphia County Prison. His beloved ‘Castle’ was gutted by fire following several explosions in August 1895.
Personal Life & Legacy
Holmes married thrice in his life. His first marriage was on July 4, 1878, with Clara Lovering just after he had finished his high school. The couple had a son, Robert Lovering Mudhett, who would grow up to be the city manager of Orlando, Florida.
His second marriage was to Myrta Belknap in Minneapolis, Minnesota, whom he married on January 28, 1887, while still being married to Clara. They had a daughter together, Lucy Theodate Holmes, who became a public schoolteacher in her adult life.
His third and final marriage took place on January 17, 1894 in Denver, Colorado, with Georgina Yoke. He was married to both Clara and Myrta at the time. He did file for a divorce with Clara in 1887 but it never came through and he remained married to all three women till his death.
Holmes’ case was quite famous during his time. It was reported nationwide and caught the American public’s imagination wildly. However, he was largely forgotten in the wake of the new century with a new breed of serial killers making headlines in America. Interest in him was aroused again in the late 20th and early 21st century with a number of books written and movies made about him.
The most popular books written on him are: ‘The Devil in the White City; Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America’ by Erik Larson (2003), ‘The Torture Doctor’ by David Franke (1975), ‘American Gothic’ by Robert Bloch (1974) and ‘Depraved: The Shocking True Story of America’s First Serial Killer’ by Harold Schechter (1994) among others.
He is also the subject of a few documentaries and films, most notable among which are ‘H.H Holmes: America’s First Serial Killer’ (2004), ‘Havenhurst’ (2017) and Devil in the White City (scheduled to release in 2019, starring Leonardo Di Caprio and directed by Martin Scorcese). His name has also featured in many other popular media outlets such as television series, songs and even comic strips.