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Herman Webster Mudgett aka H.H. Holmes.

Herman Webster Mudgett aka H.H. Holmes.

“The Castle”

The Room Service In His Hotel Was To Die For

“I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than a poet can help the inspiration to sing

Dr. H.H. Holmes

In the summer of 1886, evil stepped into the Englewood community. A growing suburb of Chicago, Englewood flourished with business opportunities due to its proximity to the railroads.

H.H. Holmes managed to secure a Chicago pharmacy by defrauding the pharmacist, and built a block-long, three-story building on the lot across the street. He called this building “The Castle,” and opened it as a hotel for the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. The bottom floor of the Castle contained shops, the top his personal office, and the middle floor a maze of over one hundred windowless rooms.

Over a period of three years, Holmes selected female victims from among his hotel’s guests, and tortured them in soundproof and escape proof chambers fitted with gas lines that permitted him to asphyxiate the women at any time.

Holmes had repeatedly changed builders, to ensure that no one truly understood the design of the house he had created who might report it to the police. Once dead, the victims’ bodies went by chute to the basement, where they were either sold to medical schools or cremated and placed in lime pits for destruction.

Holmes married Myrta Z. Belnap, a young, pretty woman with an innocent face framed by blond curls. Her sweet brown eyes and shy manners contrasted with Holmes’ self-assured flirtatious charm. Myrta’s devoted demeanor soon changed as she worked side by side with Holmes. His romantic interest in other women made Myrta angry. Yet this shy woman protested meekly to Holmes.

People noticed that after a year of putting up with her husband’s behaviour, Myrta’s gentle protest became angry outbursts in front of customers. Divorce was not possible because she had become pregnant. Holmes made an effort to divorce himself from his first wife Clara A. Lovering Mudgett of Alton, New Hampshire.

Mudgett was his real name and Holmes one of his many aliases. Finally, Holmes sent Myrta to his parents. Now rid of a nosy wife, Holmes had an open field to pursue his needs.

Benjamin Pitezel, of Galva, Illinois married Carrie Canning after impregnating her at eighteen. Handsome, over six feet tall, with big shoulders and muscular arms, Benjamin cut a good-looking figure in those days. His face was fine featured with light blue eyes, dignified angular nose, black hair and a neatly trimmed mustache.

Benjamin worked as a janitor, lumber mill worker, railroad worker, circus roustabout and had done several stints in jail for petty crimes. No one knew when Benjamin met Holmes. Their symbiotic relationship began in November 1889. Benjamin bound himself to Holmes like a parasite. He fed off Holmes’ bigger than life persona, gave himself up to his bidding without question and in the process lost his soul.

At 63rd and Wallace, Holmes began the construction of his castle. The 50-foot x 162-foot corner lot took on a mystery of its own. When the workers started to ask questions, they were replaced, usually within a week or two. In fact, by the end of the construction over 500 carpenters, labourers, and other craftsmen had been employed. An amazing fact considering the building was only three stories.

Holmes took advantage of the workers. After they worked a week or two, he had accused them of inferior work, fired them, and did not pay a penny in wages. If they sued, he would ask for one continuance after another until out of frustration, the worker gave up.

Holmes had installed an enormous walk-in safe in his office but stalled in paying. When the safe company sent over a couple of workers to remove the safe, Holmes threatened to sue. He built a room around the safe and warned them that they would pay for any damage. His tactic worked, the safe stayed.

Not only did Holmes cheat the workers out of their wages, but also he kept them in the dark about the building’s design. He did not want anyone to question the enormous kiln with its cast iron door, or the vats of corrosives like quicklime and acid, or iron-plated rooms, secret passages, hidden chutes that ended in the basement directly above zinc-lined tanks, sealed rooms with gas-jets, stairways that led nowhere, and a secret room only Holmes could enter. Fifty-one doors and corridors snaked around like some mad house, trapdoors, closets with secret passages, dissecting table, surgeons’ tools and even an invention Holmes said could stretch a human to twice their height. Truly, the modern looking building was a Castle of Horrors inside.

A year later, the castle was finished. Holmes sold the drugstore and opened another in the castle. The new drugstore captured the whole community’s attention with its elegant design; roman columns, gold-lettered signs, polished wood panelling, frescoes, and arched ceilings. Next to the drug store he had a jewellery shop, restaurant, and barbershop. An astute businessman, Holmes invested in one of the first copier companies and even manufactured glycerine soap. In 1890, Holmes was 30 years old. His empire grew at a tremendous rate and he put an ad in the newspaper for more help.

Ned Conner had the same lifestyle as Benjamin, foundering from job to job, dragging his wife and daughter along. When he answered the ad for manager and got the job, Ned thought all his problems ended. He had married Julia Smythe, a 6-foot-tall, green-eyed woman with reddish brown hair piled in curls on her head. Holmes noticed her talent for detail and quickly fired his cashier, giving the position to Julia.

Holmes turned his attention to Julia. In a short time, it was noticeable to the people around them that the two had become lovers. Ned seemed to turn a blind eye to his wife’s infidelity and took comfort in the fact that he was working a good job and had a place to stay, after a stream of failures. One day everything changed when several friends cornered Ned to let him know about his wife’s behaviour. In a saloon down the street from the castle, Ned slugged back a few after work. This day, some of his bar buddies decided to let him know what everyone else knew.

By the time Ned heard everything, he was pretty liquored up. Slamming down his drink, sending the whiskey splashing all over the bar, he stormed out.

Julia continued her affair with Holmes and inevitably became pregnant. By that time, Ned had moved out of the castle, filed for divorce, and was about to marry another woman.

Julia had entrenched herself into Holmes’ business so deeply she had become a threat. He convinced her she was the love of his life and wanted to marry her only if she had an abortion. When she thought of her daughter, Pearl, she could not bring herself to do it. Holmes persisted and assured Julia he had performed many such procedures during his time as a medical student. Julia kept putting it off.

Finally, on December 24, 1891, Julia agreed to an abortion. Too upset to put Pearl to bed, she asked Holmes to do it. Afterwards, he led her down to the dark basement and makeshift operating room. Gripping his arm and sobbing she had no idea she would never see another Christmas again, and neither did Pearl.

Charles M. Chappell worked for Holmes doing a variety of jobs around the castle for about two years. His previous job was in the same building that housed the Bennett Medical School. Curious by nature, and good with his hands, Chappell picked up a rather unusual skill — articulating skeletons. He first observed the procedure and, after a short time, he actually did the work. In the winter of 1892, a few months after the disappearance of Julia, Holmes summoned Chappell to his office.

“Charles, would you like to pick up some extra money?” asked Holmes.

Charles stood in front of his desk and smiled. “Of course, Mr. Holmes.”

“I would like to use your special skills…to articulate a skeleton.”

Chappell thought Holmes was doing an autopsy on one of his patients. After stripping the flesh off and articulating the bones the body was prepared. Chappell was paid $36 for his work.

The skeleton was sold to Hahnemann Medical College for $200. Dr. Pauling, a surgeon, had the skeleton placed in his private offices in his home. Fascinated with the skeleton he often would show visitors his unusual female skeleton that was over six feet tall.

Emeline Cigrand was a stenographer in her hometown of LaFayette, Indiana at the County Recorder Office. In July 1891, she began working in Dwight, Illinois, home of a sanatorium for alcoholics. Dr. Keeley, the director, had discovered a treatment for alcoholism by giving injections of bichloride of gold, a mixture of gold salts and vegetables.

Emeline’s stunning beauty caught the eye of Benjamin Pitezel, a patient in for “the Cure.” Tall, blond, with piercing blue eyes and a captivating smile, she fascinated Pitezel. Emeline enjoyed conversations with Pitezel about his job and his interesting, wealthy employer, Dr. Holmes.

Intrigued with Pitezel’s description, Holmes wrote Emeline, enticing her with a job paying over 50% more than the sanatorium. She accepted the job working for Holmes and lived in a boarding house one block from the Castle.

Holmes began his seduction: sightseeing, flowers, dinner, jewellery, and compliments. By summer they were lovers and Emeline had written back home about her fiancé, Robert E. Phelps, an alias Holmes told her to use so as not to jeopardize his eminent divorce from Myrta. Emeline wrote her sister Philomena, that they might be moving to England to share an estate with her beloved’s father, an English lord.

Holmes planned the wedding for December — a civil ceremony with just his witness. “Simple, quick and then a long trip abroad, so I may spend all my time with you, only you”, Holmes said.

Holmes planned to kill her, not for money, but for lust. Only in a dead state could he achieve the ultimate sexual thrill. In early December, probably a few days before the wedding, Holmes summoned Emeline. He sat at his desk, papers stacked, looking busy. “My dear, can you fetch me the white envelope in the vault marked property deeds?”

“Of course,” Emeline said. She unspun the lock and stepped into the vault. Standing on her tiptoes, she slid her hand back and forth along the shelf as she looked for the envelope. The light from the other room dimmed. She did not hear Holmes walk up to the vault door. She did not notice the door slowly begin to close until darkness surrounded her. Then, Emeline froze, as the vault door shuddered close, the lock spun, and the room became her tomb.

Holmes stood near the vault excited at what he had done. He pressed his cheek against the metal, feeling the coolness and the tiny thumps on the door as Emeline pounded for her life. Emeline’s screams were deep and guttural.

Holmes went back to work, occasionally listening to Emeline’s screams, which according to Holmes, “continued for hours.”

Several weeks after the incident, the LaSalle Medical School bought a skeleton from Dr. H.H. Holmes — a young female.

One of the requirements of employment with Holmes was a life insurance policy for $5000 naming Holmes as beneficiary. This was money in the bank in case his other swindles slacked off.

When Jennie Thompson, 17, blond, blue eyed, small-town girl from Eldorado, Illinois came to work in the Castle, Holmes saw another opportunity. Jennie confided in Holmes that she had not written her family. Originally, she told the family she was going to New York to live. They had no idea she landed such a good job in Chicago. Again, he used the vault trick. Jennie suffocated in the vault; her body was stripped of flesh, skeletonised and sold to University of Illinois Medical School.

Another victim, Mrs. Pansy Lee, a widow from New Orleans, took a room in the Castle. Holmes used his usual charm after learning Pansy had $4000 in a false bottom of her trunk. He asked her to let him put it into his vault for safekeeping. Pansy refused, insisting she could take care of the money as she had done travelling all over the United States. Holmes killed her and cremated her body in his custom built oven.

In the early 1890’s, Chicago became the site of a kind of world’s fare celebrating the four hundred year anniversary of Columbus’s voyage to America. Holmes’s castle was a perfect place to lure tourists, steal their money, and murder them.

There were gas jets in the rooms to asphyxiate the victims and the kilns below to cremate the bodies. Fifty tourists who visited the Columbian Exposition and took rooms in the Castle never returned home. Many of those who met their doom in the “Castle of Horrors” were young women.

In the midst of his murderous pursuits as a hotelkeeper, Holmes fell in love with a young woman named Georgiana Yoke. To keep her interest, Holmes told Georgiana lies upon lies. First, he told her both his parents were dead as well as his brothers and sisters. His only family left was a bachelor uncle, Henry Mansfield Howard, telling her this to justify the reason he sometimes used two names H.H. Holmes or H. Howard — his adopted name as opposed to his birth name.

When he asked her to marry him, she accepted him and his two names. Little did she know he was considered married to Myrta, who continued to live in Wilmette with their child Lucy. Technically, he was married to his first wife, Clara Lovering, who lived in Tilton, New Hamphsire where Holmes’ parents lived.

Holmes and Georgiana decided to wed in the winter of 1893, but the stress of his murderous and larcenous past began to take its toll. Creditors caught up to Holmes, threatening to take the Castle.

Holmes, always several jumps ahead, planned a quick retreat with Georgiana. A few weeks after Georgiana accepted Holmes’ proposal, Pat Quinlan set the Castle on fire. The fire destroyed the top floor. As usual, he had insured the building with several companies for a total of $25,000. An astute investigator noted the fire started in several places. After investigating Holmes, his report that Holmes tried to defraud the insurance companies did not pan out. Holmes was not charged and was free to go. However, he did not collect the insurance.

Holmes had concocted a plan to bilk an insurance company out of $20,000 by taking out a policy on himself and then faking his death. Holmes promised Hedgepeth a $500 commission in exchange for the name of a lawyer who could be trusted. He was directed to Colonel Jeptha Howe, the brother of a public defender, and Howe found Holmes’ plan to be brilliant. Holmes’ plan to fake his own death failed when the insurance company became suspicious and refused to pay. Holmes did not press his claim; instead he concocted a similar plan with his associate, Pitezel.

Pitezel had agreed to fake his own death so that his wife could collect on the $10,000 policy, which she was to split with Holmes and a shady attorney, Howe. The scheme, which was to take place in Philadelphia, was that Pitezel should set himself up as an inventor, under the name B. F. Perry, and then be killed and disfigured in a lab explosion. Holmes was to find an appropriate cadaver to play the role of Pitezel.

Holmes then killed Pitezel, although some have argued that Pitezel, an alcoholic and chronic depressive, might in fact have committed suicide. Forensic evidence presented at Holmes’ later trial, however, showed that chloroform was admistered after Pitezel’s death, presumably to fake suicide. Holmes proceeded to collect on the policy on the basis of the genuine Pitezel corpse.

He then went on to manipulate Pitezel’s wife into allowing three of her five children (Alice, Nellie, and Howard) to stay in his custody. The eldest daughter and baby remained with Mrs. Pitezel. He travelled with the children through the northern United States and into Canada. Simultaneously he escorted Mrs. Pitezel along a parallel route, all the while using various aliases and lying to Mrs. Pitezel concerning her husband’s death (claiming that Pitezel was in hiding in South America) as well as lying to her about the true whereabouts of her other children—they were often only separated by a few blocks.

A Philadelphia detective had tracked Holmes, finding the decomposed bodies of the two Pitezel girls in Toronto. He then followed Holmes to Indianapolis. There Holmes had rented a cottage. He was reported to have visited a local pharmacy to purchase the drugs which he used to kill Howard Pitezel, and a repair shop to sharpen the knives he used to chop up the body before he burned it. The boy’s teeth and bits of bone were discovered in the home’s chimney.

In 1894 the police were tipped off by his former cell-mate, Marion Hedgepeth, whom Holmes had neglected to pay off as promised for his help in providing Howe. Holmes’s escapade ended when he was finally arrested in Boston on November 17, 1894, after being tracked there from Philadelphia by the Pinkertons.

He was held on an outstanding warrant for horse theft in Texas, as the authorities had little more than suspicions at this point and Holmes appeared poised to flee the country, in the company of his unsuspecting third wife.

After the custodian for the Castle informed police that he was never allowed to clean the upper floors, police began a thorough investigation over the course of the next month, uncovering Holmes’ efficient methods of committing murders and then disposing of the corpses. A fire of mysterious origin consumed the building on August 19, 1895, and the site is currently occupied by a U.S. Post Office building.

The number of his victims has typically been estimated between 20 and 100, and even as high as 250, based upon missing persons reports of the time as well as the testimony of Holmes’ neighbours who reported seeing him accompany unidentified young women into his hotel—young women whom they never saw exit.

The discrepancy in numbers can perhaps best be attributed to the fact that a great many people came to Chicago to see the World’s Fair but, for one reason or another, never returned home. The only verified number is 27, although police had commented that some of the bodies in the basement were so badly dismembered and decomposed that it was difficult to tell how many bodies there actually were. Holmes’ victims were primarily women (and primarily blonde) but included some men and children.

While Holmes sat in prison in Philadelphia, not only did the Chicago Police investigate his operations in that city, but the Philadelphia Police began to try to unravel the whole Pitezel situation—in particular what had happened to the three missing children. Philadelphia detective Frank Geyer was given the task of finding out. His quest for the children, like the search of Holmes’ Castle, received wide publicity. His eventual discovery of their remains essentially sealed Holmes’ fate, at least in the public mind.

Holmes was put on trial for the murder of Pitezel and confessed, following his conviction, to 27 murders in Chicago, Indianapolis and Toronto, and six attempted murders. Holmes was paid $7,500 by the Hearst Papers in exchange for this confession. He gave various contradictory accounts of his life, initially claiming innocence, and later that he was possessed by Satan. His facility for lying has made it difficult for researchers to ascertain any truth on the basis of his statements.

On May 7, 1896, Holmes was hanged at Moyamensing Prison, also known as the Philadelphia County Prison. Until the moment of his death, Holmes remained calm and amiable, showing very few signs of fear, anxiety or depression.

Holmes’ neck did not snap immediately; he instead died slowly, twitching over 15 minutes before being pronounced dead 20 minutes after the trap was sprung. He requested that he be buried in concrete so that no one could ever dig him up and dissect his body, as he had dissected so many others. This request was granted.

On New Year’s Eve, 1910, Marion Hedgepeth, who had been pardoned for informing on Holmes, was shot and killed by a police officer during a hold up at a Chicago saloon. Then, on March 7, 1914, a story in the Chicago Tribune reported the death of the former caretaker of the Murder Castle, Pat Quinlan. Quinlan had committed suicide by taking strychnine, and the paper reported that his death meant “the mysteries of Holmes’ Castle” would remain unexplained. Quinlan’s surviving relatives claimed Quinlan had been “haunted” for several months before his death and that he could not sleep.

Connie Filippelli

H. Holmes


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