When you hear the word “serial killer,” what name jumps to mind? If you are like most, you probably think of names like Ted Bundy, or Jeffrey Dahmer, or John Wayne Gacy. Which leads many people to think that serial killers are a relatively modern phenomenon. But the truth is there is a long a gruesome past of serial killers stretching way back to Jack the Ripper.
Jack the Ripper (who was never identified) first made his presence known in London’s Whitechapel district in 1888, where he brutally murdered five women—all prostitutes—and mutilated their corpses. Across the pond some five years later, America’s “first serial killer” – a man by the name of H.H. Holmes put Old Jack’s count to shame, killing what some accounts say was as many as 200 people in an elaborate “Murder Hotel” during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
Holmes was born Herman Webster Mudgett on May 16, 1861. After graduating high school at 16, Mudgett changed his name to Henry Howard Holmes, and later in life would be known as H.H. Holmes. In 1884 Holmes passed his medical exams, and in 1885, he moved to Chicago, where he got a job working at a pharmacy under the alias Dr. Henry H. Holmes.
Making a Killing at the World’s Fair
Just in time for the crowds of people that would be arriving in 1893 for the World’s Fair, it is said that he outfitted a three-story hotel with all manner of nefarious contraptions, including gas lines, secret passages and trapdoors, hallways to dead ends, chutes to the basement, soundproofed padding, and torture devices strewn throughout a maze.
It is said that he used the gas to knock out his guests before the worst of what was to happen came next, where like in the scenes from modern films such as “Hostel,” his victims were tortured before being dismembered alive on his surgical tables.
The nefarious chemist admitted to at least 27 murders in the Hotel of Horrors. Police had evidence of far fewer, about 10, yet sensational journalists at the time say Holmes could have had as many as 200 victims.
It was also said that when he was done toying with his prey, he burned their bodies in the building’s furnace. He also was known to be selling skeletons and body parts to medical schools before he was caught and hanged in 1896.
The Truth About Holmes’ Horror Hotel
Since Holmes’s horrific crimes were some of the first of their kind and most of the newspapers of the time were nothing more than cheap tabloids, his story was sensationalized and may have been more than a little exaggerated. Holmes himself spun many lies and inconsistencies about his supposed crimes. 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 and the true number of victims remain unclear.
What we do know is that he killed at least nine people, which does make him one of America’s first “serial killers.”
However, it seems the lurid tales of traps, gas chambers, and dozens of victims tortured to death in his “Hotel of Horrors” seemed to be just that tall tales.
There’s no real evidence that Holmes trapped strangers inside his hotel in an attempt to kill them. The nine people he likely killed were all people he already knew, but we should not let that obscure the awfulness of his crimes.
Two of his earliest known actual victims were Julia Connor and her six-year-old daughter, Pearl. They disappeared around Christmas of 1891 after Holmes had an affair with Julia and involved her in his business schemes. During his life, Holmes alternatively denied killing Julia and confessed to accidentally killing her while performing an abortion. It’s still unclear what happened to her and Pearl.
Over the next two years, Holmes may have murdered Emeline Cigrand, Minnie Williams, and her sister Nannie Williams. Both Emeline and Minnie appear to have had personal and business relationships with Holmes when they disappeared. But as with Julia and Pearl, it’s difficult to say for sure what happened to Emeline, Minnie, and Nannie.
What We Do Know About America’s First Serial Killer
Holmes was a known fraudster and scammer. When he 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 kinds of insurance scams and supposedly became the beneficiary on the policies of several women who worked for him, many of whom mysteriously died shortly after.
Police suspected him of murdering his “business partner,” fellow conman Benjamin Pitezel in an insurance scheme. Pitezel was supposed to fake his death so that his $10,000 life insurance payment would 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.
Holmes traveled the country, committing many frauds and possibly more murders. At one point, he was jailed for illegal horse-trading. While in prison, he apparently told a cellmate about his plot to kill Pitezel and collect his insurance money. That cellmate, Marion Hedgepath, ratted him out to the police.
Despite the various murders Holmes was alleged to have committed, he was eventually only tried and convicted for Pitezel’s murder. At the time of his arrest, 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.”
Holmes received the death sentence in 1896 and died by hanging in Philadelphia, about a week before his 35th birthday.
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