H.H. Holmes’s House of Horrors

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Holmes's Murder Castle, as re-imagined through a virtual reality puzzle game.

Christina Anderson, Staff Writer

Danger can lie anywhere, even where you may least expect it, and  it’s not always hidden in the shadows of street corners. The Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 was a joyous celebration, but beneath the laughter and majesty of its exhibits, it housed the Murder Castle, home of America’s first serial killer. Outside its walls, it seemed like just another hotel, but inside it housed horrors never seen before. 

Herman Webster Mudgett is a name few people will recognize in history, but crime and horror aficionados know him as none other than  H.H. Holmes, America’s first serial killer. Mudgett was born in 1861 in New Hampshire. He grew up in a privileged family and was said to have been very smart for his age. He showed a strong interest in medicine from a young age, which transferred to his jobs in the future. 

Holmes’s sketchy actions started from a young age as,  according to the H.H. Holmes Biography from Biography.com, “Some accounts indicate that he may have been responsible for the death of a friend.” Things only escalated after his childhood. 

As a young adult, he attended the University of Michigan and studied medicine. While there, he would steal corpses from the school and use them to file false insurance claims. Some also suspect he used the bodies to experiment with human anatomy. 

Holmes was a charming man, often described as handsome. At one point, it was rumored that he was married to multiple women at once, without their knowledge. Allison Hirschlag, in an article from Mental Floss, said that Holmes never divorced the three women and “Holmes was still married to Clara, Myrta, and Georgiana when he was put to death in 1896.” His charm allowed him to lure in most of his victims, who were mainly women. 

In 1886, he moved to Chicago where he took up a job working in a local pharmacy. John Phillip Jenkins, in the Biography of H.H. Holmes from Encyclopedia Britannica, writes, “Soon afterward he apparently began killing people in order to steal their property.” From there, his plan began to develop into the horror we know of today. 

After acquiring a block of property, Holmes began constructing his house of horrors. He would hire and fire architects and carpenters frequently, to ensure none of them caught onto his mischievous plan. 

The first floor contained a series of shops and pharmacies where people shopped daily. On top was a hotel where many fairgoers would spend their nights, not knowing the secrets that the hotel hid. Within the hotel, guests may have found staircases that led to nowhere, or rooms with gas leaking from the vents. Multiple chutes could be found around the hotel, but they weren’t for laundry. These chutes led down to the basement, which held its own horrific secrets.

In the basement, Holmes would conduct experiments and mutilate the bodies of his victims. Within the cold, stone dungeon, Holmes would sever the limbs of his victims, and collect any valuable body parts from their corpses. Whatever was left, he dumped into his large pot of acid, which would dissolve the bodies.

Holmes is said to have killed anywhere between 10 and 200 victims. His crimes went unknown until he was wanted for stealing a horse in Texas, according to Hirschlag. From there, his crimes were further investigated, and lead to his demise. Authorities didn’t have enough evidence as it was to convict Holmes of his murders and insurance fraud scandals, but they were able to arrest him for the horse, and further examine him. Eventually, they discovered the Murder Castle and the hidden chambers within. 

Holmes’s life ended on death row where he was put to death by hanging. However,  his neck did not immediately snap when he was first hung and it took twenty minutes for him to die. Before being executed, Holmes accepted his death, often bragging about how many victims he had prior to being hung. “I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing.”

The hotel no longer stands in Chicago. The remains stood for years until a fire burned the broken building down. It was never determined how the fire started, although according to History.com, one witness saw two men flee the scene the night it burned down. Now in its place, an average post office stands, but the land still holds the secrets and spirits of the Murder Castle that no one may ever unveil.