In the lexicon of crime writing the name ‘Holmes’ conjures up deerstalker hats, pipe tobacco and some quite terrible violin playing. We envisage a man of startling intelligence, at the peak of his powers, doing battle with the forces of evil.
But there was another Holmes… one who was equally immersed in the criminal world, except his passion was for committing crimes not solving them. His name was Henry, not Sherlock – Henry Howard Holmes: at best a bigamist and fraudster, at worst possibly one of the world’s most prolific and devilish serial killers.
Dr. Henry Howard Holmes… the name has certain grandeur. It may not be to everyone’s taste but it was a lot better than Herman Webster Mudgett, this criminal’s true identity.
Mudgett was born in Gilmanton, New Hampshire on May 16, 1861. He would die by the hangman’s rope in Philadelphia on May 7, 1896, a week shy of his 35th birthday.
In between those momentous dates he would perpetrate insurance fraud, steal and sell corpses to medical schools, become a bigamist several times over and commit murder… lots of murder In fact, Mudgett could well have been responsible for over 200 killings in a six-year period.
In July, 1878, he married Clara Lovering. They had a son, Robert, who was born in February, 1880. During this time Mudgett was studying at the University of Michigan Medical School. It was while there that he began his life of crime.
The young medical student noted the names of the deceased who lay in the hospital lab. He would then take out insurance policies in their names, steal the bodies and disfigure them before claiming they had died in accidents.
After graduating, Mudgett moved to Chicago to pursue a career as a pharmacist. It was at this point that he began using the alias “H. H. Holmes”.
Despite the small matter of a wife and child, Holmes married again in 1889. Wife Number Two was Myrta Belknap. Their daughter, Lucy, was born the same year. In 1894, he married Georgiana Yoke, even managing to squeeze in a relationship along the way with Julia Smythe (a future victim and the wife of one of his former employees).
During the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, Holmes designed and had built what could only be described as a murder hotel just two miles from the fair itself. The three-story, block-long “Castle” as it was dubbed by those in the neighborhood had a ground floor containing his drugstore and various shops.
But it was the upper floors that were reserved for special activities. Holmes’s office was there but so, too, were a maze of over one hundred windowless rooms.
If ever a building could encapsulate the warped workings of Holmes’ mind then this was it. The hallways were deliberately skewed, some doors opened to brick walls, while others only opened from the outside. There were stairways that lead nowhere and rooms that were completely air tight. Because Holmes changed builders on several occasions during construction, only he fully understood the design.
When the hotel was finally finished, so the killings commenced. He chose mostly female victims from among his staff (as a condition of employment many of them had to take out life insurance policies. Holmes would pay the premiums but he was also the beneficiary). Other victims included lovers and hotel guests.
Some were locked in bedrooms fitted with gas pipes, others were imprisoned in a huge sound-proof bank vault and left to suffocate. Their bodies were then dropped down a hidden chute to the basement, where some were dissected and stripped of flesh, their skeletons and organs sold to medical schools.
I could go on to detail the lime pits he used – the acids, the poisons and the cremation techniques, not to mention the stretching rack – a panopoly of sadistic devices – but I think I’ll stop here.
Following the World’s Fair, Holmes left Chicago. Along the way he murdered men, women and children, but the police were on his trail and he was finally arrested in Boston on November 17, 1894, after being tracked there from Philadelphia by the Pinkerton detectives.
The number of his victims has been estimated between 20 and 100, and even as high as 200, based upon missing persons’ reports of the time. The only verified number is 27, although police said that such was the state of the bodies in The Castle’s basement it was difficult to tell how many there actually were.
On May 7, 1896, Holmes was hanged at Philadelphia County Prison. It may have come as some consolation to the relatives of his victims to learn that it took a full 15 minutes for him to die as he dangled there.
Up until now I’d never heard of this particular Holmes. History is strange in that respect… some heroes and villains are embedded on our consciousness while others, far more worth celebrating or denigrating, are somehow lost to time.
In the case of HHH perhaps that’s a good thing.