He was born Herman Webster Mudgett, but he was better know as Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, or H.H. Holmes, and he was one of the first documented serial killers in modern America. He was born in 1861 in New Hampshire, and it’s reported that his father was a violent alcoholic. He graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School in 1884, and while he was enrolled he stole cadavers and mutilated them, claiming they were victims of accidents, collecting insurance polices on them.
Holmes moved to Chicago in 1886 to pursue a career in pharmaceuticals. He got a job at, and later purchased, a drug store. He then bought the lot across the street. It was on this lot that he proceeded to build a three story “murder castle” that spanned the entire block. It opened as a hotel for the Chicago World’s Fair, with the ground floor housing his relocated drug store and various other shops, while the upper two floor house his personal office and a virtual maze of over 100 bizarre, windowless rooms. He switched contractors periodically throughout the building process so that no one ended up understanding the final layout of the building.
It was during construction that Holmes met a carpenter named Benjamin Pitezel, a guy with a criminal past which Holmes took advantage of. He basically utilized Pitezel as his lackey, doing much of the leg work for his crimes.
When construction was complete, Holmes began selecting victims, mostly female. Many were employees, hotel guests, or women he took as lovers. He often took out life insurance policies on his employees and collected the benefits after he killed them. Some victims were locked in soundproof rooms fitted with gas lines to asphyxiate. Others were left in a giant vault by his office, left to suffocate. The bodies were dropped into the basement by secret chutes. The basement served as dissection room where he would strip the bodies of their flesh and then, with his medical connections, sell off organs and skeletons. The basement also housed a furnace for cremation and two lime pits to destroy unwanted remains.
After the World’s Fair, Holmes left Chicago and ran scams in other cities. He married several women and courted several others, managing to keep secrets from all of them. He pulled another insurance scam, killing Pitezel, and then managed to manipulate Pitezel’s wife into allowing Holmes custody of three of Pitezel’s five children.
Holmes killed them as well. The bodies of two of the children were found buried in a basement in Toronto, and the teeth of the other child were found in the furnace of a cottage Holmes rented in Indianapolis.
He was eventually caught. He confessed and was put on trial for 30 murders in Chicago, Indianapolis, and Toronto. His accounts of the murders and scams were inconsistent. One moment he would proclaim his innocence, the next he claimed to be possessed by Satan. His erratic behavior and claims made it impossible to know the exact scope of his crimes.
Though most think the body count was around 27, the actual number could be as high as 200.
Holmes was finally hanged in 1896 in the Philadelphia County Prison.