You walk into a room, and the door suddenly slams behind you. You hear gas hissing. A sinister eye stares hungrily at you from a hole behind you while you gasp and scream for your life—just before you die. That was H.H. Holmes on a good day. Even before Jack the Ripper stalked foggy streets and black alleys in Whitechapel, “Dr. Henry Howard Holmes” was working on fulfilling his own sinister fantasies in plain sight.
Holmes would become the United States’ first (and some argue worst) serial killer. He was actually named Herman Webster Mudgett at his birth on May 16, 1861, in Gilmanton, New Hampshire. At the time of his execution on May 7, 1896, the police suspected him of nine murders, and he confessed to at least 27. Nobody can be really sure how high his final head count was, since he used so many aliases throughout the Northeast, Midwest, and Canada. Some estimate as many as 200 victims. Local Chicagoans knew the monstrosity on Wallace and 63rd that Holmes constructed as “the Castle.” After he was arrested, they dubbed it “Murder Castle.”
10. Holmes Was Abused And Ridiculed As A Child
Both emotionally and physically abusive toward their son, Herman Webster Mudgett’s parents probably set the boy off on the wrong path right from the start. Although they both deprived him of food and locked him up alone for long periods of time, his father was especially abusive to Herman and his siblings. He would allegedly hold kerosene-soaked rags over his children’s mouths to quiet them down when they cried too much.
Herman would go to a nearby set of woods to escape the horrors at home, and it was there that he is believed to have started cut animals up and develop an unhealthy interest in all things dead. Since most serial murderers never form meaningful relationships and are six times more likely to have experienced abuse at home, many researchers feel that Mudgett’s childhood ordeal most certainly led to his uncanny ability to fool people into falling for his traps time and time again.
Mudgett’s parents weren’t the only source of abuse in his life, either. On the way home from school one day, he was allegedly accosted by some older boys, who took him into a local doctor’s office and introduced him to a human skeleton, making him touch it. Scared at the time, he would later claim that the event not only helped him face some internal demons he had, but it led directly to his interest in human anatomy and to his enrollment in Michigan’s University’s medical school.
9. Holmes Robbed And Mutilated Corpses
While attending medical school at Michigan University, Holmes helped pay his way by stealing cadavers from the morgue and mutilating them to appear as if they had been injured in some violent accident. He’d then attempt to collect life insurance on the corpse by claiming that it died “naturally.”
Dying in an accident is something that would have been very believable in late-1800s Chicago. For instance, from 1889 to 1893, over 1,469 pedestrians were killed in the Chicago area just by trains alone, and the figures increased yearly. In 1889, 257 people were killed by trains, and by 1893, the figure had risen to 431. Dying a horribly violent death in the young, bustling metropolis of Chicago was tragically quite commonplace.
Obviously, this fact wouldn’t have been lost on Holmes, who would perfect his grisly insurance fraud scamming techniques over time, making a reported $12,000 on a single scam, not to mention the $10,000 Pitezel scam he temporarily got away with. These were no small fortunes in the late 19th century, when a skilled laborer made less than $20 a week.