America’s First Serial Killer: How Henry H. Holmes Used a World’s Fair to Lure Victims Into His Castle of Horrors

Henry H Holmes

At the tail-end of the nineteenth century, Chicago was home to the 1893 World’s Fair, and the nearby upscale neighborhood of Engelwood, Illinois hosted many tourists flocking to a celebration for the ages. A fair chunk of those fair-goers, however, picked the wrong hotel and, as a result, never made it home.

Instead, they became permanent guests at Dr. Henry Howard Holmes’s unique castle of horrors. Holmes was a serial killer before the term even came into existence — an original, in the worst sense of the word, but with many of the benchmarks of those who followed.

He was a respectable gentlemen, sporting a walrus mustache and fashionable fedora that matched his high regard as a man of considerable charms. Born Herman Webster Mudgett in Gilmantown, New Hampshire on May 16, 1860, he grew up a prodigy, graduating high school at the age of 16 and married only two years later. A noted womanizer and eventual bigamist, his first wife would not be his last.

Throughout childhood and adulthood, Mudgett was always fascinated with surgery — a fact that seems menacing only in hindsight. It was this fascination that drove him to abduct bodies of the school laboratory at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor. In a clever scheme, he disfigured the stolen corpses, claiming they had died by accident, and collected the dividends on insurance policies that he personally took out. His knack for fraud would come in handy later in life.

Mudgett eventually took up residence in Engelwood, securing a job at a local drugstore belonging to Dr. E.S. Holton. When Dr. Holton died, his widow left Mudgett, now Dr. Holmes, with more responsibility in running the shop. Eventually, he asked to buy the store, and she agreed on the condition that she still be allowed to live upstairs.

Holmes agreed, but when he didn’t pay, Mrs. Holton sought legal action. Then, she disappeared. When asked about her disappearance, Holmes explained that living alone had depressed her so much, she took off for California. He took up residence above the drugstore himself not long after.

After purchasing the lot across the street from the drugstore, he began construction on a dream home of sorts. It would later be known as his castle of horrors — and with good reason. He designed and supervised the construction himself, constantly cycling in new builders to make sure no one knew the floor-plan.

The first floor held a line of exclusive shops, but the top two floors and the basement were filled with sinister secrets. There were hidden passageways connecting 71 soundproofed bedrooms that could only be locked from the outside. There were gas pipes connected to each, controlled via a panel in Holmes’s bedroom. There were trap doors, stairs to nowhere, sliding panels, and doors that opened into solid brick walls.

Worst of all, the guest quarters were attached to large greased chutes that led through the walls and into the basement. Down there, Holmes kept a fully-equipped operating table, an acid tank, and a crematorium.

The dapper Holmes kept up his flirtatious ways, taking up with Julia Conner and then Emmaline Cigrand. Both disappeared soon after. Emmaline wound up locked in a personal vault, whereas Conner met her demise on her lover’s operating table when he offered to abort the baby she was carrying. Holmes turned a profit selling female skeletons to separate medical schools.

The Chicago World’s Fair opened in 1893, only a few blocks from Holmes’s castle, which sported 71 luxurious rooms for rent. Holmes was a murderer already, but the World’s Fair made it all too easy for him. He simply had to switch on the gas and let the chutes carry his guests’ fresh corpses down to his basement to be disposed of via the acid vat or the crematorium.

Around the same time, Holmes cooked up another insurance scheme with his personal assistant Benjamin Pitezel. The plan was derailed for a short time when Holmes served time for fraud, where he met a fellow inmate, who supplied him the name of a shady lawyer to help carry out his con. The inmate, a notorious bandit named Marion Hedgepeth, aka the “Handsome Bandit,” demanded a $500 cut of the insurance payout in exchange for his information. Holmes agreed.

After his release, Holmes and Pitezel took out a $10,000 insurance policy in the latter’s name, naming his wife the beneficiary. The pair of co-conspirators headed to Philadelphia to fake Pitezel’s death, but Holmes went off-script. He killed his long-time partner — a father of five. One of his daughters came to Philadelphia to identify the body. She was to be watched by Dr. Holmes, who put her, along with two other siblings placed in his care, up in an Indianapolis hotel.

It didn’t take long for the children to disappear.

Holmes collected the insurance money, but his selfishness became his downfall. He never sent the agreed-upon $500 to Marion Hedgepeth. Furious, Hedgepeth wrote a letter detailing the scheme and Holmes’s involvement. An organized manhunt captured Holmes in Boston in October, 1894.

The prosecutors had no clue of the full extent of Holmes’s crimes. When he pleaded guilty to fraud on the second day of his 1895 trial, it looked as if he would be free once more in just a few short months. The only loose end, it seemed, were Pitezel’s three missing children.

Detective Frank Geyer of Philadelphia took up the investigation, singularly driven by a need to forget a recent personal tragedy that had claimed his wife and only daughter. He traveled throughout the nation in search of answers before he finally hit pay dirt in Toronto.

There, he met Thomas Ryves, who told Geyer that Holmes rented the house next to his, where he lived with two girls — having already disposed of the third Pitezel child. He said that Holmes came to his home at one point asking to borrow a shovel, giving the flimsy excuse that he was digging a hole in the cellar for his “sister” to keep potatoes.

Geyer and a Toronto police officer went into that cellar, shovels in hand. They hardly had to dig two feet before the remains of a human arm turned up. They uncovered the bodies of Alice and Nellie Pitezel.

Before long, detectives paid a visit to Holmes’s castle in Engelwood, wholly unprepared for what awaited them. For starters, they found a lock of human hair and a piece of a rib cage in the stove of his personal office, along with a child’s skeleton stowed behind a basement wall.

Suddenly, police noticed more and more missing persons who were, in one way or another, associated with Holmes —  their bones likely among those unearthed in the castle’s basement.

An unremarkable case of insurance fraud had suddenly turned into the trial of the century, with citizens flocking outside the courthouse to get a glimpse at the murderous doctor and daily newspapers reporting the trial’s every painstaking detail. In the end, Holmes was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. This punishment was one that would stick.

Holmes was hanged on May 7, 1896, and buried according to his bizarre wishes — his coffin was filled with cement and nailed shut before they buried it ten feet underground, with another layer of sand and concrete between his resting spot and the surface.

The number of his murders is still subject to debate. Holmes, a psychopath and compulsive liar, claimed he killed 27 in a lurid confession penned while he awaited his execution, but he was a compulsive liar and later amended the number to only two. Police conclusively proved he’d murdered at least nine. Some estimates put his death toll at a whopping 200, which would make him not only America’s first documented serial killer, but the most prolific too.