Creepy Month: H.H. Holmes


In light of all these new serial killer documentaries and movies coming this season, namely the new Jeffrey Dahmer film, I wanted to make this edition about serial killers. A specific one, really. We all know Dahmer, his arrest and death being in the not too distant past for us. But lets go further back into the dark depths of the victorian era. Where everything was pretty damned creepy as it was. Back to H.H. Holmes. One of the men who started it all.

This is probably gonna be one of my favorites, call me weird, but I've always been interested in serial killers. What motivates them? Why do they think the way they do? What do they feel? The psychology alone is fascinating. I mean, I feel awful stepping on an ant. What in their mind makes it okay to take another person's life? Yet even more so, these people were normally ridiculously educated, crafty and cunning. Like  our H.H Holmes as an example. The man created a maze in his building for the sole purpose of trapping and killing his victims. Today we're gonna learn a little more about him, and possibly uncover some introspect as to why he was what he was.

Humble Beginnings

Holmes was born as Herman Webster Midgett in a small town of New Hampshire. Born to a Levi Horton Midgett and Theodore Page Price, both parents being descended of the first english settlers in the area. His father was a violent alcoholic, he excelled in school but was bullied out of jealousy by his classmates. In an attempt to scare him, his bullies forced him into the local doctor's office and made him stand face to face with a human skeleton and, placed the skeletons hands on his face. Holmes later recalled that at first he was frightened, but then he found the experience fascinating. He also noted that the experience cured him of his fears. He soon became obsessed with death and later started a hobby of dissecting animals.

At 16 he graduated high school, and a few years later he was entered in the University of Michigan's Department of Burlington, and graduated after two years. While enrolled, he stole cadavers from the laboratory, disfigured the bodies, and claimed the victims were killed accidentally in order to collect insurance money from policies he took out on each dead person. Consequently, his first marriage fell apart, and he abandoned his wife and son. 

After leaving his family, he continued going to various places where he could continue his scams. While he was in New York, a rumor spread that he was seen with a little boy, and that the little boy had later disappeared. Holmes denied this and quickly left town. More incidents like this seemed to occur everywhere, with the same outcome. Holmes leaving as soon as he could. He actually changed his name to "Henry Howard Holmes" (the name we all know well) to avoid the possibility of his previous scam victims catching up and reporting him.

 

The Murder Castle

Holmes Arrived in Chicago in August 1886 and came across Elizabeth S. Holton's drugstore, where he was given a job, and proved himself to be a hardworking employee. After the death of Holton's husband, Holmes offered to buy the drugstore from Holton, and she agreed. He financed his purchase mainly by mortgaging the store's fixtures and stock. It is worth noting that Holton was never seen again after this, and whenever Holmes was asked where she went, he stated that she went to California with relatives.

He continued to make money with his drugstore until he accumulated enough money to fund his activities, and purchased the empty lot across from the drugstore, where he built his three story, block long building. It was called the "World's Fair Hotel" and opened as a hostelry for the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893. Because of it's enormous structure, locals dubbed it "The Castle". The ground floor contained Holmes relocated drugstore and various shops, while the upper two floors contained his personal office and a labyrinth of rooms with doorways opening to brick walls, oddly angled hallways, stairways leading to nowhere, doors that could only be opened from the outside and a host of other strange and deceptive constructions. Holmes constantly hired and fired different workers during the construction of the castle. claiming that "They were doing incompetent work" his actual reasoning was that he would be the only one who fully understood the design of the building. 

During the period of building construction in 1889, Holmes met and became close friends with Benjamin Pitezel, a carpenter with a criminal past. He used Pitezel as his right-hand man for his criminal schemes. 

After the completion of the Hotel, Holmes selected mostly female victims from among his employees (many of whom were required as a condition of employment to take out life insurance policies, for which Holmes would pay the premiums, but was also the beneficiary) as well as his lovers and hotel guests, whom he would later kill. The methods were vast, and included gas lines hidden behind walls to asphyxiate his victims, hanging chambers, soundproof/airtight bank vaults to suffocate his victims, trapdoor rooms to starve his victims, and many more. He used various methods and tricks to coerce his victims into playing into his scams, and then subsequently murdering them, collecting their insurance payout, and then ripping their bodies apart to craft skeleton models, selling them to medical schools. 

 

Arrest, Conviction, and Execution

After the worlds fair, Holmes found himself in debt, and the economy was in a slump due to the Panic of 1893, so he left Chicago. He reappeared in Fort Worth, Texas, with plans to construct another one of his Castles along the lines of his Chicago operation, however he abandoned this project. He continued to move throughout the United States and Canada  until he was arrested for the first time on the charge of selling mortgaged goods in St Louis, Missouri. (Likely the same mortgaged goods he used to finance the purchase of the drugstore) He was promptly bailed out, but while in jail, he struck up a conversation with convicted Train Robber, Marion Hedgepeth who was serving a 25 year sentence. They concocted a plan to swindle 10,000 dollars by taking out a policy on himself and then faking his death. Holmes promised Hedgepeth a 500 dollar commission for the name of a lawyer who could be trusted. Holmes was directed to a young St. Louis attorney named Jeptha Howe. Howe thought this scheme was brilliant. Nevertheless, Holmes' plan failed when the insurance company became suspicious and refused to pay. Holmes did not press the 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 a 10,000 dollar life insurance policy, which she was to split with Holmes and the unscrupulous attorney, Jeptha Howe. The scheme, which was to take place in Philadelphia, involved Pitezel would set himself up as an inventor, under the name B.F. Perry, and then to be killed and disfigured in a lab explosion. Holmes was then to find a cadaver to play the role of Pitezel. He didn't. He killed Pitezel by knocking him unconscious with chloroform and setting his body on fire with the use of benzene. He proceeded to collect the insurance payout on the basis of the genuine Pitezel corpse, and shortly after manipulated Pitezel's unsuspecting wife into allowing three of her five children to be in his custody. Holmes and the three Pitezel children traveled throughout the United States and into Canada. Simultaneously, he escorted Mrs. Pitezel along a parallel route, all while using various aliases and lying to Mrs. Pitezel concerning her husband's death (claiming that her husband was hiding in London) as well as lying to her about the true whereabouts of her missing children. In Detroit, just prior to entering Canada, they were only separated by a few blocks. Later, Holmes killed two of  the Pitezel children in his custody via locking them in a trunk, drilling a hole in it, and pumping in gas, causing them to asphyxiate.

A Philadelphia detective, Frank Geyer, had tracked Holmes, finding the decomposed bodies of the two Pitezel girls in Toronto. He then tracked Holmes to Indianapolis, where Holmes had rented a cottage, where reports say drugs bought from a local pharmacy were used to kill Howard Pitezel, the remaining child in Holmes' custody, he then burned the body. Fortunately for Detective Geyer, the boy's teeth and bits of bone were discovered in the home's chimney. In 1894 the police were tipped off by Holmes' former cellmate, Hedgepeth, whom Holmes had neglected to pay off as promised for his help in providing attorney Jeptha Howe. 

His murder spree finally ended when he was arrested in Boston on November 17th 1894, by the Pinkerton detective agency. He was held on an outstanding warrant for horse theft in Texas, as the authorities had little more that suspicions at this point and Homes appeared poised to flee the country. The police began interviewing the employees of his castle, and thoroughly investigated the castle, uncovering Holmes torture chambers, secret passageways, and constructions within, along with bones, personal effects of his victims, several torture devices covered in dried blood, and lime pits to decompose bodies. Some of these personal effects police were able to align with his victims.

Holmes personally confessed to 27 murders, Police confirmed 9 bodies, but the number of his victims have been estimated between 20 and 100, some even say as high as 200. He was hung on May 7, 1896 in Moyamensing Prison. His neck didn't snap, instead he flailed for 15 minutes, being strangled, before being pronounced dead 20 minutes after the trap had been sprung. 

 

The First Serial Killer

This one may seem a little long, but It really is worth it. This guy was a doozy, and due to his propensity to lie, it's almost impossible to truly know the brutal nature of his work was, his case is extremely interesting, not just because he was the first, but because he was an incredible mind. Although some may find his story disturbing, I look at serial killers a different way. I look at them as an interesting opportunity to explore the human mind. These are things we are all capable of, but our conscious stops us. What makes these people so different from us? Do they choose to listen to their conscience? How did they feel? How much of this is really human nature? We study these people to answer these questions. This has been a truly chilling edition of Creepy Month.

 

Check out past editions of creepy month:

Memento Mori

Stigmata