H.H. Holmes – A Truly American Horror Story

Following the Great Fire of 1871, Chicago became a centre of industry and power, as well as a hotbed for crime, vice and debauchery. Racketeering, prostitution, gambling and drugs were ubiquitous, but so was legitimate business, and with that came jobs and opportunities. 

It was with little trepidation that Emeline Cigrand moved from Dwight, Illinois to the bustling metropolis in 1892. Young, blonde and striking, she was eager to explore the possibilities of a thriving new locale. The joys of springtime were everywhere and the booming economy of the Windy City offered limitless chances for the ambitious, of whom Emeline was certainly one.

After a spell working at a rehabilitation clinic for alcoholics, it was through a client that she was offered a job as a personal assistant to a young doctor based in the Chicago suburb of Englewood. Her excitement was immeasurable. In a whirlwind of anticipation she arrived to find her employer a handsome, commanding individual. She greatly enjoyed the work and his company, and it wasn’t long before she fell deeply in love; surrendering herself completely.

Soon, her employer became her world. She would travel every day to his extensive property on 63rd and Wallace; a modern, oddly Gothic structure she found both homely and peculiar. It was gargantuan in size and easy to get lost in. Corridors would taper off at unusual angles for no clear purpose. Light was sporadically fractured throughout, and occasionally she would find herself opening doors that literally led nowhere. Still, who was she to question the design elements of the place? Not when she was so happy.

She paid no mind to the bizarre warnings of a caller named Ned Conner, who had warned her to get away from the building altogether. Nor did she take note of her uncle’s suspicions about both her employer and place of work. It was all immaterial. By the fall, she was even more besotted and now, a proposal of marriage was offered; one she accepted without hesitation.

Emeline dreamed of the honeymoon in Europe she was promised, and the prospect of having children with her beloved, who told her he was the son of an English Lord. She allowed him access to her savings (a sum of around $800) and life seemed to be a dream. Soon she would be wed to a successful doctor; a member of the aristocracy at that. Her family would be ecstatic.

One night, Emeline was asked to retrieve something from one of the rooms; a dark and foreboding chamber with a heavy door. She never felt quite right when she walked past it, but if it was her duty to do so, she would have carried out any task for her man, who was now more of a master. Walking up the silent corridor she paused for a moment, thinking that she heard someone close by.

Upon entering, she felt a slight burning sensation upon her bare feet, but before she could address it, the thick steel door closed behind her with a quiet thud. Swiftly, it became warm; uncomfortably so. As she began to sweat profusely, damp patches built up on her clothes, and she noticed the air becoming scarce; her chest tightened. The acrid smell of an unknown substance burnt the back of her throat. She pounded at the door, calling for her lover; growing frailer by the minute. He, however, would not respond. It was not that he was unaware that poor Emeline was trapped; quite the contrary. He was watching from a peephole as the life drained from her.

He had experienced all the carnal pleasures that her body would allow, but nothing would match the heights of arousal that came to him from observing the slow death of a beautiful woman.

Emeline died in that room. A bank vault which had been cleverly modified to look like a standard office or bedroom. When police investigated the premises years later, they found Emeline’s footprint etched into the steel doorframe; a result of the acid on the floor. A final desperate act, frozen in eternity.

Now it is time. Step inside the Chicago Murder Castle and meet the most dangerously charming man you may ever encounter.

White Collar Wickedness

In American culture, rewards come for the industrious and the bold. Results are more important than how they may be obtained. “Success by any means necessary.” This is what makes it the land of the great and the good.

Perhaps good is the wrong word. Especially when it comes to Herman Webster Mudgett, aka Dr. H. H. Holmes, who found himself in a dank Philadelphia prison cell during the summer of 1895. Holmes had done exceptionally well over the years and, even when locked up, experienced incarceration in a comfortable and pleasant manner. His wealth and affability allowed him to make many friends, including the guards. Benefitted with exclusive luxuries, such as being allowed to wear his own clothes and read the papers, he lived comfortably as he awaited trial for an insurance anomaly. His demeanour was calm and unflustered and he was barely worried about the proceedings which awaited him, viewing them as an inconvenient formality.

Holmes’ achievements contain all the staples of an American success story. An astute businessman who made astronomical amounts of money in the late 1800s, he had an expansive portfolio of property across the country and was liked by all who met him.

Unfortunately, there were truly sinister things at work behind this charming façade. In addition to being a swindler and a bigamist, Holmes was a mass murder, the likes of whom people had neither seen, nor heard of, before. A ladies man with an opportunistic eye, he bedded and slaughtered countless women, with estimates ranging anywhere from a dozen, into the hundreds.

With his business skills, combined with the cold, calculating method of his murders, H.H. Holmes was a true man of the age; a real American Psycho.

H.H. Holmes Castle

H. H. Holmes’ “Castle” in Englewood, Chicago was a labyrinthine exercise in grisly ingenuity. Secret rooms, trapdoors and peepholes were all expertly hidden throughout.

House of Horrors

Holmes’ block-long, multi-storey building, known as his ‘castle’, was built in the run up to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. It was a lucrative and ambitious project, with shops, restaurants, office space and apartments available as part of the complex. Additionally, it was ideal real estate, especially given its close proximity to the proposed World’s Fair site at Jackson Park.

The dark reality was that the 162 feet long by 50 feet wide structure was an industrialised charnel house for unsuspecting victims who fell afoul of Holmes’ manipulative ways. The site of untold amounts of murders and wickedly unspeakable deeds, Holmes’ activities were so horrendous, they would have made Jack The Ripper recoil in fear. This was a man without scruples or morals, possessing no guilt. A true product of the age.

Like Emeline Cigrand, there was no shortage of young women coming to Chicago from all across America looking for work and a fresh start. For many, it would be their first time away from their small town homes. With dreams and aspirations of a brighter future, they were often dazzled by the dark intensity of Chicago. Many were ‘recruited’ by Madams as soon as they stepped off the trains. Filled with promises of riches and an easy life, they would only learn of the true requirements of their new trade when it was too late to back out. Due to the population explosion which Chicago was experiencing, it would be a very long time before anyone noticed if some of these girls went missing. That’s if anyone noticed at all.

For the ones who avoided being tricked into a life of indentured sexual service, they’d need suitable accommodation; something a man such as Holmes was happy to provide. He was also adept at lending a sympathetic ear and other forms of assistance, including companionship on long, lonely nights. A philandering playboy, he was the very type of smooth-talking man that mothers warn their daughters about, but his manipulative ways were not restricted to women.

Holmes hired contractors to carry out work on his building and, after completing a small portion of it, they would be fired for shoddy workmanship or some other claim of incompetence. By doing this, Holmes barely paid a penny for getting the castle built, but more importantly, he kept the workers from finding out exactly what he was plotting. One or two peculiar features wouldn’t have raised too much suspicion, but if anyone had been aware of what Holmes was truly planning, they would have run from the scene in utter terror. The building was leased under a false name and multiple aliases were used to acquire fine furnishings and decorations for the stores and apartments which he housed. The debts began to build.

Getting rid of Emeline Cigrand’s body was not much of a task for Holmes. The castle was constructed for subtlety and discretion. With an array of secret passages, asphyxiation chambers, airtight vaults and an elaborate system created for the disposal of corpses, it allowed Holmes to kill at will, fearing no consequence. Even if a terrified young woman tried to escape, the layout was designed to disorientate and contain. Holmes fit pipes into certain rooms which would allow him to gas his victims, either as they slept or as he watched from peep holes, getting satisfaction from observing their painful suffocation. Hidden, multi-storey chutes lined with grease meant that bodies, such as Emeline’s, could be transported down several floors without guests noticing.

It was the basement, however, that was the most awful of all. Fitted with acid baths for the dissolving of corpses, and an oversized kiln for cremation, it also featured several torture devices, including a medieval style rack for stretching out his victims. He clearly took great pride in his ability to plan such intricate death traps but, for Holmes, murder was often just the first part of a transaction.

Throughout the 1890s, he swindled, stole and scammed his way to a fortune, killing men, women and children in the process. To work in Chicago, young, unmarried women would need a life insurance policy; something which Holmes was only too glad to assist in paying; provided he was the sole beneficiary of course. Not one of Holmes’ victims would ever go to waste without purpose, for he knew that everyone was worth something, even in death.

Aside from the insurance scams, Holmes was aware that medical schools and their students were crying out for fresh corpses to work on, as well as complete skeletons for reference. They were often willing to turn a blind eye to where they came from, as even doctors were creeping around in the hours of darkness robbing graves. Holmes, who attended such an institution in Michigan, would take notice of this. Medical School would also serve to further his macabre sensibilities, and a stint working in an asylum resulted in the solidification of his view that people were simply items; product no different from slabs of meat on a butcher’s counter.

After being prepared and sold, Emeline Cigrand’s skeleton ended up on display at the LaSalle Medical College of Chicago. For years, students would look at her with cold indifference, completely unaware of the brutal nature of her death.

HH Holmes Hotel

Illustration of the Holmes ‘Castle’ (c) Holly Carden, Carden Illustration

Mindset of a Killer

Filmmaker and author John Borowski has dedicated a significant portion of his life to the study of Holmes and his legacy. His book The Strange Case of Dr. H.H. Holmes compiles several publications from the time the events were unfolding. Holmes’ memoirs are included, as are court transcripts, a publication by Detective Frank Geyer (The Holmes-Pitezel Case) and Holmes’ confessions. It’s a chilling collection of horror, the likes of which Stephen King would have difficulty coming up with.

Borowski first discovered Holmes when he was in college and would go on to make a documentary about him, as well as the other notorious killers Albert Fish and Carl Panzram. For him, what began as idle curiosity would send him on a journey into the mind of a maniac.

It was initially difficult for him to procure information: “There had been several books; The Torture Doctor in the ‘70s and then Depraved in the 90s, but nothing much had been done on Holmes,” explains Borowski as he reflects upon why Holmes became such a fascination; “There was no other serial killer in history that designed a building specifically for the purpose of disposing with human remains. You have to admire him for being a genius in everything he accomplished. He knew the limitations of the law, and how to stay one step ahead of it, but then on the other hand, he killed men women and children all for financial gain.”

It appears that Holmes’ allure extends even beyond the grave. Borowski would travel across America in search of records, transcripts and evidence surrounding the case which Detective Geyer put together. What he found out would haunt him forever.

A Mysterious Childhood

Holmes came from New Hampshire, and very little is known about his younger days, other than that religion was aggressively practiced within the household. Born in 1861, he writes in his memoirs about one particular incident that occurred to him as a young man. A group of boys dragged him into a doctor’s office (a place he describes as being of ‘peculiar abhorrence’) where he was confronted with a fully articulated skeleton. The bony hands were placed against his face. This either terrified or transfixed the child and it was the first time he had seen a human being stripped of all flesh and traces of humanity. It certainly wouldn’t be his last.

Like many men of the age, Holmes married young, to a woman named Clara Lovering. They had a child together, but it wasn’t long before Holmes became bored and left them. Clara would be the first of several wives, but Holmes had many lovers in his life. Shortly before moving to Chicago, Holmes married Myrta Belknap, with whom he also had a child. While he had abandoned Clara, he moved Myrta to Chicago with him, but she was kept well away from the castle, and knew nothing about his many sexual indiscretions.

For the many brutal murders which Holmes carried out, his wives were mysteriously never harmed; something which Borowski attempts to shed some light upon. “Holmes was such as forward thinker, who had everything meticulously planned out. Everyone around him was a pawn. He knew that if he were ever caught, he would need someone to say something nice about him; something that wasn’t detrimental to his character. His second wife, Myrta Belknap, was set up in a nice house with her click here child, and she had everything. She was paid for and comfortable. Holmes just went about his business.

One of the first people they interviewed after they went in the Castle and found out about the atrocities in the building was Myrta. Her immediate reaction was “Well, I don’t know what he does at his building in Chicago, but he’s never harmed me or our child.”

For Holmes, it was all planning. He married a third woman, Georgiana Yoke, who said that she never knew of anything strange taking place.

“There would be times when Holmes would come in flustered, or sweating, but again, as someone who’s newly married, your first reaction isn’t going to be that your husband’s just come back from murdering children. It wouldn’t cross your mind,” adds Borowski.

Murder: Industrialized

Holmes knew that he needed some assistance with his nefarious schemes and so enlisted the help of several men. One, Benjamin Pitezel, became a close assistant and confidante, taking part in multiple murders, as well as helping with body removal and disposal. It was Pitezel who brought Emeline into Holmes’ employ.

Charles Chappell was hired to clean the flesh from Holmes’ victims and to reconstruct them as articulated skeletons for medical schools; a lucrative business. Holmes would pay Chappell $36 for each corpse he would strip and prepare. This was, of course, a small fraction of what Holmes would make for himself.

The basement housed two vats, one of bleach and one of carbolic acid, both for the purposes of searing flesh from bone. Chappell recalled stepping into the basement and observing the remnants of Holmes’ work; comparing the bodies he saw to skinned rabbits. Holmes, it appeared, took great delight in toying with the innards of his victims, as if performing some macabre, experimental surgery.

“One thing we know about serial killers and sociopaths in general, is that disconnection exists,” elaborates Borowski on the ease at which Holmes dissected and disposed of his victims: “They see a body as material. Something to be played with. They learn from that. FBI Profiler Tom Cronin, who I interviewed for my film, said that Holmes’ enjoyment when working with the bodies came from the fact that he had complete control. The serial killers’ role is all about power and domination over the victim. He could do whatever he wanted to the body and he tried to maintain that throughout his entire career.”

Ned and Julia Conner, along with their daughter Pearl, came to live in the castle when, after a brief period of employment, Holmes sold Ned his drug store (along with its accumulated debts). Julia, an exceptionally tall and enchanting figure, was enamoured by Holmes. He seemed so gentlemanly, so powerful and successful; everything that she felt her husband was not. Before long they embarked on a passionate affair and Julia fell pregnant. She wanted Holmes to marry her and he agreed, but said that a child would be out of the question at this point. His solution was to perform an abortion on Julia, which would take place on Christmas Eve 1891. As she kissed sweet Pearl goodnight they spoke of the excitement which awaited them both the following morning, a stack of presents lay wrapped and prepared. It was a Christmas that neither of them would ever see. Holmes killed Julia using a rag soaked in chloroform, choking her to death. He skinned and gutted her in the basement. Pearl would be dealt with soon after, joining her mother in eternal sleep during the small hours of Christmas morning.

Guests or residents would, of course, ask questions pertaining to the whereabouts of those who went missing, but Holmes would shrug them off with disinterest and apathy. He was so aloof and casually dismissive that it rarely arose any suspicion. He firmly believed that his shtick could get him out of anything.

Minnie and Anna Williams were two Texan sisters, worth a small fortune in property (Somewhere in the region of $50-100,000.  $1.5 – $3 million by today’s standards.) It was Minnie who Holmes set his sights upon and lured her to Chicago, where he filled her with stories of the remarkable future they would have together. Annie was initially suspicious, but upon meeting Holmes and being treated to the delights of the World’s Fair, was convinced that he was a man of great breeding and honour. This lapse of judgement on both their parts would lead to their deaths.

Anna met a similar fate to Emeline, except this time, Holmes gassed her as she floundered in the airtight vault. Minnie’s fate is a mysterious one, but records show that Holmes sent two large, heavy trunks to Chappell’s house a few days after the Williams sisters disappeared. In a final act of ghoulish magnanimousness, he gave Minnie’s clothes to Mrs Pitezel, and her case to Pat Quinlan, his caretaker.

The Heat Draws In.

The Cigrand and Conner families, as well as several others, hired private detectives to investigate the disappearance of their loved ones. They would inevitably end up on Holmes’ doorstep. Being the master manipulator that he was, Holmes would send them away satisfied that they had all simply moved on, leaving no forwarding address. He realised, however, that his time in Chicago was drawing to a close. His creditors were becoming increasingly aggressive, even banding together with a team of lawyers to confront Holmes and press charges. Holmes literally ran away from the meeting during a brief recess.

He set fire to the castle and fled, hoping to file it as arson and claim on the insurance before moving to Fort Worth, Texas, where he had swindled the Williams sisters out of their property. Plans began to construct a new version of the castle there. He was still up to his old tricks, in more ways than one. An attempted fraud scam soon landed Holmes in prison. He simply picked the wrong mark.

While incarcerated, Holmes decided he would initiate a $10,000 insurance scam that would involve him faking his own death. This would get him off the hook for any previous crimes and allow him to start afresh. Currently arrested and detained with a petty criminal named Marion Hedgepeth, Homes promised to send him $500 upon his release, provided he assisted him in finding a trustworthy lawyer to help complete the scam. Hedgepeth steered him in the direction of someone, but the scheme failed. Holmes failed to live up to his side of the bargain and never sent the $500; something that would have grave repercussions.

Undeterred, Holmes decided that he would carry out a similar scheme with Pitezel. To make it all easier (from Holmes’ point of view), instead of hiding him, he simply murdered Pitezel in a brutal and horrifying manner, using benzene and flame to hideously burn and scar the body beyond all recognition.

Captured!

Holmes then began the most audacious and remarkable period of his murder spree, taking his need for control to new extremes. He wrote to Carrie Pitezel, telling her that Benjamin was still alive, but must remain in hiding, lest the authorities discover their collaboration. She sent her children Alice, Nellie and Howard along with Holmes, who, in an act of incredulous arrogance, also summoned Carrie to follow them. At one point, the children were writing lonely letters to their mother, who unbeknownst to them was only a few blocks away. One of Holmes’ greatest mistakes was to never send those letters.

Holmes was finally arrested in Boston in 1894. Hedgepeth, still bitter about never receiving his $500, had tipped off the authorities. Now in custody, it was simply a case of attributing the suspected crimes to him, although that in itself would also prove to be very difficult indeed. The Pitezel children by now had vanished.

By Any Means

During the blistering summer months of 1895, Detective Frank P. Geyer left Philadelphia on a new case. His heart was broken, for a house fire had just robbed him of his wife and twelve-year-old daughter. Something about this new assignment troubled him greatly, because there were missing children involved. The suspect, a man named Herman Webster Mudgett, languished in a Moyamensing Prison cell after being apprehended for insurance fraud, but Geyer knew there was more to it. One thing was certain; he wasn’t going to let this mystery go unsolved, whatever the cost.

Traveling in stifling train cars and dusty coaches, he journeyed across America and Canada, embarking on a painstaking, frantic search for the Pitezel children. The suspect had allegedly faked the death of their father to collect an insurance premium of $10,000. Not only did Geyer believe that Benjamin had actually been murdered, but was convinced that the children had met a similar fate.

Literally going from door to door in several rapidly expanding cities where transience was the norm; it seemed like a pointless endeavour to try and discover what had happened to the children, but Geyer was a Pinkerton.

The Pinkerton National Detective Agency were feared by criminals throughout the land. If the Pinkertons were after you for something, your cards were marked. Their motto was “We Never Sleep” and it seemed true, for their success rate for cases was phenomenal.

HH Holmes a

The Devil In The White City.

Geyer didn’t stop searching. Using the children’s letters, which had been recovered from Holmes, his journey brought him to Toronto in July. Through hotel records, he discovered that the girls had stayed with Holmes, but there was no mention of Howard. They received a tip that someone remembered Holmes by description and he had rented a house in Vincent Street.

When Geyer interviewed the neighbour of Holmes’ Toronto rental, Thomas Ryves, he was told how someone had arrived at the property with very little furniture. Just a large trunk and a mattress. The new tenant called over and requested the loan of a shovel. Geyer knew exactly what to expect as he asked Ryves if he could borrow it as well.

Calling over to the neighbouring house and investigating the basement, Geyer found a loose patch of earth. Frantically digging into it, using the same shovel Holmes had held a few months previously, he released a plume of toxic gas from the decomposing bodies, as he found what he had been searching for all this time. The nude corpses of the Pitezel girls lay rotting in the basement, to the complete ignorance of the current tenant. One, Nellie, had her feet removed. Born with a club foot, Holmes was trying to disguise her identity. There was, however, no third body. The case continued.

Geyer had investigated thousands of leads and was still getting nowhere in his search for Howard. It was now August and he had travelled as far as Indianapolis. Holmes was in prison, but unless Geyer could tie him to the murders, he could get off lightly. In the meantime, Holmes penned his memoirs, in which he professed his innocence, claiming to have loved the children like a father. Geyer was now a national celebrity, and the case became a popular murder mystery.

Then, with a stroke of immense luck, Geyer met a man who had rented a house to Holmes, in which he had installed a large woodstove. Holmes had also been to a local repair shop, where he had some surgical tools sharpened. When Geyer searched the house, he found the gory remains of Howard Pitezel stuffed into the chimney of the stove. A charred bulk of festering organs was discovered, along with some teeth and a portion of jaw. Howard’s favourite tin toy, a gift from his father, was also found at the scene.

Now Holmes could be indicted on murder charges, everything changed. The police began questioning known affiliates, such as Pat Quinlan and Charles Chappell. Gruesome truths were revealed.

The remains of multiple victims were discovered in the castle. Bones and teeth of men, women and children were found in the basement. It was the most horrifying thing to happen in Chicago’s history, and the case shook the entire world.

Holmes, however, remained nonplussed by the whole affair. Even when he stood trial, in an act of defiant hubris, he chose to represent himself. As Carrie Pitezel stood in the dock weeping as she recalled the barbaric slaughter of her children, Holmes simply sat with a gaze of complete disinterest, barely able to comprehend why even the judge was weeping.

William Randolph Hearst made Holmes a generous offer to write his confessions, in which he admitted to 27 murders; some of which have since been discredited. Holmes was proven to be human after all, when he was hung on May 7th, 1896, the true total of his victims going with him to the grave. In a final act of bizarre control, Holmes requested that his coffin be filled with cement, and that his grave also be sealed, so that no one would interfere with his body in death. For some reason, this request was honoured.

In his confession, with characteristic pomposity he wrote of how he felt he was physically changing as he was incarcerated, becoming more like Satan himself.

I am convinced that since my imprisonment, I have changed woefully and gruesomely,” Holmes wrote. “My features are assuming a pronounced Satanical cast. My head and face are gradually assuming an elongated shape. I believe fully that I am growing to resemble the Devil.”

Conclusion

So, was Holmes the devil, or simply the ultimate American serial killer?

“Oh completely the latter.” agrees Borowski, “From the beginning of the Industrial Age in America we’ve been taught that, you can become famous and rich. If you’re industrious enough and if you’re a hard worker, you can do it too. As we know, it’s definitely not that easy, but it’s a very American thing.

Holmes was one of the first in the country to have a trial and be called a ‘Multiple Murder’ by the Chicago Tribune. Additionally, he literally laid the groundwork, through the construction of his building, for all the other future serial killers to come. With serial killers, they are always trying to increase the body count and their numbers. We still don’t know how many Holmes murdered, but the fact that he went to the trouble of designing and constructing that building and how he went about it was something that many serial killers have cited, including Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer.

In the case of Albert Fish’s psychologist Fredrick Wertham, his files were opened. In it, he quoted Fish as saying he’d read about HH Holmes as well. So again, some of these serial killers do have knowledge of prior killers and maybe they want to top them.

Holmes was a quintessential American. Not only in the sense of trying to achieve financial gain and power by utilizing any means necessary. We see that now in corporate America. So many of the corporations are run by sociopaths. They’re just a different type.”

This story originally appeared in HUSTLER Magazine.