H.H. Holmes—who was born Herman Webster Mudgett on May 16, 1861—would come to be recognized as one of America’s first serial killers. But to this day, because of the nature in which he disposed of the bodies and his wildly inconsistent stories and confessions, much of the facts about his life are unclear. So is his death count: Police at the time suspected around nine or 10 victims, while other estimates are in the hundreds; in his published confession, Holmes himself claimed credit for the deaths of 27 people—but several “victims” were later found to still be alive. To make matters more confusing, Holmes took back his earlier confession while on the gallows and claimed to have killed only two people.
Though nearly it’s nearly impossible to completely verify them because of Holmes’s tall tales—and because he spun them at the height of the era of Yellow Journalism, when nearly everything was hyper-exaggerated—these facts tell the story of his infamous crime spree.
Because of his contradicting lies, not much is known about Holmes’s childhood (he even manipulated the information on his census forms), but it’s believed that when he was young, his classmates teased and bullied him. When they discovered that he feared doctors, they forced him to stand in front of a human skeleton in a doctor’s office and stare at it. While he was certainly scared at first, Holmes later said the experience exorcised him of his fears about death, and may have lead to his fascination—and later, his unhealthy obsession—with it.
Holmes asked to be buried 10 feet under and encased in concrete, because he did not want grave robbers to exhume and later dissect his body. Despite being somewhat odd, the request was granted in the end.
Holmes married his first wife, Clara, in 1878; he was only about 19. Two years later, the couple had a son, but Holmes soon abandoned them and married Myrta Belknap in 1887—even though he had yet to divorce Clara. He filed a few weeks after, but the papers never went through. Finally, he married Georgiana Yoke on January 17, 1894, in Denver, Colorado, not long before he was arrested for insurance fraud. So technically, Holmes was still married to Clara, Myrta, and Georgiana when he was put to death in 1896.
Around the time of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Holmes bought property that he would later use for a hotel, primarily utilized to murder people. In order to ensure that he was the only one who knew the hotel’s true purpose, Holmes hired several different contractors to complete the building’s construction. Every so often, he’d fire one if he thought they were seeing too much. Despite this precaution, the plans must have caused at least a little suspicion among the builders. The blueprints included 51 doorways that opened to brick walls, 100 windowless rooms, stairs that led to nowhere, two furnaces, and body-sized chutes to an incinerator.
As a former medical student, Holmes had many connections that enabled him to sell his victims’ skeletons to local labs and schools. He, and sometimes a hired assistant, were accused of stripping the flesh off the bodies, dissecting them, and preparing the viable skeletons. The rest of the remains would be tossed in pits of lime or acid, effectively breaking down the remaining evidence.
For yet another insurance scam, Holmes had his friend and accomplice, Benjamin Pitezel, fake his own death so that his wife could collect his $10,000 life insurance payment (which would ultimately go to Holmes). However, rather than find a cadaver lookalike for Pitezel, Holmes decided to just kill Pitezel. Holmes rendered him unconscious with chloroform, then set him on fire. Later, Holmes claimed to have murdered three out of five of Pitezel’s children as well.
The police had been suspicious of Holmes ever since a former cell mate (train robber and Wild West outlaw Marion Hedgepeth) started talking. According to the National Police Journal, “While in the prison Howard [an alias of Holmes] told Hedgepeth that he had devised a scheme for swindling an insurance company of $10,000. And promised Hedgepeth that, if he would recommend him a lawyer suitable for such an enterprise, he should have $500 promised him.”
But Holmes never paid up; as payback, Hedgepeth shared the information with the police. While initially the authorities had little evidence with which to convict Holmes, they did have his outstanding warrant for stealing a horse in Texas.
Holmes was terrified of being sent back to Texas where the punishment would be “rough and ready” and confessed to the insurance scam—but not the murder of Pitezel, according to the National Police Journal. He claimed to have gotten a body from a doctor in New York who shipped it to Philadelphia (where he was living at the time), using his medical knowledge to fit the body in a trunk.
Holmes nearly got away with it, but then the inspector remembered that when the body was first discovered, it was in full rigor mortis, meaning the person had died recently. So the inspector asked what techniques Holmes had learned to stiffen a body after rigor mortis had been broken. Holmes had no answer—and the game was up.
When Holmes was in medical school at the University of Michigan, he stole several cadavers from the lab, disfigured them, and tried to collect insurance by saying they died in an accident. Over the years, he perfected these insurance scams, and supposedly became the beneficiary on the policies of several women who worked for him, many of whom mysteriously died shortly after.
Holmes was paid $7500 (about $215,000 today) by Hearst newspapers to tell his story. However, they didn’t quite get what they bargained for—Holmes gave a number of contradictory accounts, which ultimately discredited him. But one thing a contemporary newspaper reported him saying stuck with people, and later inspired the book and upcoming movie The Devil in the White City:“I was born with the devil in me.”