When we think of a serial killer, the first thing that comes to our mind is the body count and probably the ways the serial killer used to kill his/her victims. But what makes a serial killer called the “worst” is most likely the ways and not the count. From Richard Ramirez to Ed Gein who went too far to do all kinds of horrific things to their victims, Albert Fish who tortured, killed, and ate children was subsequently titled as “psychiatric phenomenon”, and the list is never-ending in the horrific world history. But what makes Dr. Henry Howard Holmes a.k.a H.H. Holmes a.k.a “Devil in the White City” the “worst” American serial killer? Is it the kill count, or is the way he tortured and killed his victims?

Who was H.H. Holmes

Nobody knows for sure how many people did American serial killer H.H. Holmes killed. Although he confessed to 27 murders, police have ever been sure about only 9 of those. But some people believe that the count was way much higher reaching up to 200 people, but that is very questionable.

h.h. holmes

Born in New Hampshire, on May 16, 1861, H.H. Holmes’ real name was Herman Webster Mudgett. Born to English immigrants, Levi Mudgett and Theodate Page Price, Mudgett had four siblings, 2 sisters, and 2 brothers.

Born into a middle-class family, Holmes, as many other serial killers is said to be a victim of child abuse from his violent father which led him to take out his anger by torturing animals and sometimes dissecting them. As he said to have admitted himself —

I was born with a very devil in me … The inclination to murder came to me as naturally as the inspiration to do right comes to the majority of people.

H.H. Holmes

He graduated from high school at the age of 16 and got married at only 17 years of age. He then had a kid two years later and went to university for his graduation. But eventually dropped out from one university only to went to the University of Michigan’s Department of Medicine and Surgery and finally graduated in 1884.

H.H. Holmes from a con man to a cold-blooded murderer

Things started to take a dark turn when Holmes was found to be violent towards his wife, and if anything other than that point to his wicked behavior, it’s that he studied human dissection.

Holmes didn’t stay in one city for much longer and moved from one to another. There are at least two occasions when he was linked to murders of two young boys. Allegedly, one young boy was seen with H.H. Holmes before disappearing, to which Holmes claimed that the boy went back to his home in Massachusetts. Surprisingly, no further investigation was carried out on the case which gained Holmes enough time to quickly leave New York and move to Philadelphia, where he acquired a position at a drugstore.

h.h. holmes young
H.H. Holmes and other students with a cadaver, 19th Century

There, he was accused of selling medicine to a young boy who apparently died perhaps on its consumption. Although, Holmes denied his involvement in his death and left the city immediately.

This soon became a habit and Holmes started moving from one city to another which could be the reason why most accounts of his life state that before he finally arrived in Chicago, he had become a big-time fraudster.

Notably, it is said that his cons involved insurance fraud with one biography saying “Holmes was stealing and mutilating cadavers and pretending they were victims of accidents only to collect money.”

As for the young kids who died, investigators never linked them to H.H. Holmes, and it’s only in retrospect that one might wonder if he had anything to do with these cases.

A New Beginning At The “Murder Castle”

H.H. Holmes now being in Chicago though, was the place where ghastly stuffs were about to happen, and apparently the place when he finally started calling himself “H.H. Holmes“.

h.h. holmes murder castle
H.H. Holmes’ “Murder Castle” via WikiMedia Commons

He now found a job at another drugstore on a corner of 63rd Street in Englewood, where he proved himself as one of the best employees in the store, and eventually ended up buying the store.

Elizabeth S. Holton, who owned the drugstore was said to be killed along with her husband by Holmes in several historical accounts, but there is no proof that can prove this theory.

Soon, Holmes purchased a huge property across the drugstore, and the construction began in 1887 with an aim to develop a mixed-use establishment containing apartments on its second floor and commercial spaces on its first. Although neither the architects nor the investors knew that there was a con man at his play.

Holmes began to decline payments to the steel company and workers, ending up with a lawsuit only a year later of the beginning of the construction. But this didn’t let Holmes having his “Murder Castle” built, and he came up with another way to trick the investors, telling them about how the place was going to be used as a hotel for the upcoming World’s Columbian Exposition.

Chicago World’s Fair 1893

Although the construction was never finished, Holmes was able to successfully take possession of many free stuffs including furniture, building materials, and an unfinished building that could later convince his victims about his “great” plans.

The shady project that Holmes called “World’s Fair Hotel” was described as queer by Chicago Tribune in a 1937 article, further adding that it had “chimneys stuck out where chimneys should never stick out”. Its stairways ended nowhere in particular, winding passages brought the uninitiated with a frightful jerk back to where they had started from.

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Opening of Chicago’s Columbia Expedition, also known as World’s Fair, 1893

They called it mysterious and crooked, as distorted as the serial killer’s mind, with rooms with no doors and doors with no rooms, some being soundproofed, totally stuff of nightmares.

The thing with this murder castle was that Holmes was the only person who knew how it actually worked. It was kind of a maze, a real horror house that made no sense to a normal human being.

It was this mad kind of place which allowed Holmes to lure many young women to his ‘castle’ to stay. No one knows what exactly he said to those women or what kind of game he played, not even how many of those he actually killed, because the man who was married to three women at the same time was a con man in the skin of what many believed, to be a prestigious man.

So what was the purpose of this “Murder Castle” in the first place ? Why Holmes got it build the way it was ? Well, the answer to these questions were revealed only after the Holmes’ arrest in 1894.

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Second floor layout of Holmes’ “Murder Castle”. via Imgur

Apparently, it was found that Holmes was using his castle in different ways to torture his guests turned victims, only to finally kill them in ways one cannot imagine. In some cases, he would trap the victims into airtight rooms, with only a hole that connects to a gas pipeline. After the victim dies of suffocation, a chute will release the body leading to the basement where Holmes will be ready with his surgical table to dissect the body, remove the organs and later sell those to the black market and even to medical institution.

The Beginning of Murders

Holmes is known for being a bigamist, and often lured young women into his dungeon. It was either his charm or as some speculate to being a hypnotists that he was able to make women stay with him overnight, without knowing how their life will end up.

Julia Smythe, a young married woman and a mother of a young girl Pearl, left her husband to move in with Holmes. Smythe and her daughter Pearl started living at Holmes’ castle, while Smythe worked at Holmes’ drugstore as well. Both the mother and daughter mysterious disappeared on the Christmas eve of 1891 never to be found again. Holmes’ claimed that she died of abortion, but what happened to her daughter remained suspicious.

Nobody knows why further investigation was not carried on the case, but Holmes’ probably yet again went away with a murder.

But this was only the beginning of the mysterious disappearance of young women that were associated with Holmes. Another woman named Emeline Cigrande disappeared a year later who also worked for Holmes at his hotel.

In just a few years, at least 10 young women went missing with no one knowing what happened to them, and Holmes was only suspected to be involved in their disappearance, not proved.

Benjamin Pitezel and his Children — The Final Victims

Although Holmes preferred to work alone, this one time he thought having some company in his crimes, which later turned out to be the biggest mistake ever, he never imagined how this one decision was going to led to the end to his story.

Benjamin Pitezel, a carpenter who became a close friend with Holmes, agreed to work with him in some of his scams for a fair share of course. Pitzel was even described as “Holmes’ tool … a creature” by a district attorney.

Benjamin Pitezel

Holmes’ was finally arrested for selling mortgaged goods in 1894, but was bailed out and this was the time when he came up with an ultimate plan. The plan was to fake Pitezel death so that $10,000 could be collected from his life insurance policy which could be then shared with Holmes and Pitezel’s wife on his behalf.

But this is what Holmes told Pitezel the plan was, he had something else in his mind. Whom he called a friend turned out to be his one more victim. Rather than getting a cadaver like he told Pitezel, he instead knocked him out using chloroform and then set him on fire.

As if that wasn’t enough, he also manipulated Pitezel’s wife into allowing 3 of her children to move in his custody, while 2 other children stayed with Mrs. Pitezel. He also convinced her that her husband is safe and hiding in London.

Holmes later confessed to have kill 2 of the Pitezel’s girls who moved with him and buried their bodies in one of the house he rented in Toronto, Canada.

Pitezal's children that H.H. Holmes killed
Three of the Pitezel’s children that H.H. Holmes killed

The brutal murder of 3 Pitezel children finally ended up H.H. Holmes killing spree when Frank Geyer, a Philadelphia detective kept on his investigation to find the missing children. He ended up finding 2 Pitezel girls in a cellar of the rented house in Tornoto, and the young boy’s body was found in another cottage that Holmes rented.

Holmes was finally arrested on November 17, 1894 after being tracked down by the private detective agency Pinkertons on a warrant for horse theft. Although it wasn’t until 1895 that horrible things at his castle were discovered, but none of these were a solid proof that could have convicted Holmes in Chicago.

Soon the murder of Benjamin Pitezel and 2 of his children were linked with Holmes and he was found guilty. While Holmes’ confessed of 27 murders in Chicago, only 9 were found to be accountable. Surprisingly, his confession was’t really credible as some of the persons he “confessed” to murdering were still alive.

At one point during his trial, he said to have been possessed by Satan and said to be soon turning into Satan himself.

He was finally hanged on May 7, 1896, and remained calm without showing any signs of remorse, anxiety or depression at the moment of his death.

His final wish was that his coffin to be filled with cement so that his body could not get stolen by grave robbers. But ironically his body was exhumed in 2017, when his great-great grandson Jeff Mudgett and a CIA analyst Amaryllis Fox claimed that H.H. was also the famous serial killer, Jack the Ripper and that he was never actually killed of hanging.

Although these claims were proven to be false upon the investigation of his body, where the DNA was found to match with that of the H.H. Holmes.

Holmes’ sketch printed in newspaper, probably depicting how he killed Pitezel’s boy

While some people speculate that H.H. Holmes may have never been quite a sadistic torturer, and his Murder Castle was rather just a badly built hotel, because the only account that he chopped his victims off was because police found knives and that he had a hanging room was only because they found ropes.

While there may not many historical records on Holmes be remaining and the one in existence probably doesn’t hold much credibility, but there is no denying in H.H. Holmes being a dastardly character, a heartless scammer, and a cruel murderer and thief.

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