THE MURDER CASTLE OF H.H. HOLMES

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In 1893, Chicago, Illinois was host to a spectacular World’s Fair -- The Columbian Exposition -- that celebrated the anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America. It was a boom time for the city and thousands of people came from all over the country to attend. Unfortunately though, the list of those “gone missing” at the end of the fair was extensive and as the police later tried to track down where these people had vanished to -- the trail turned cold on the south side of Chicago. Everything was not as shiny and beautiful as the advertising for the Exposition’s “White City” would have everyone believe, for “a devil” that became known as America’s first real serial killer was alive and well on the city’s south side, luring visitors to his "hotel", where scores of them vanished without a trace --- never to be seen again.

THE DEVIL COMES TO CHICAGO
Today, the neighborhood of Englewood is a part of Chicago but in the late 1800’s, it was a quiet, independent community on the southern outskirts of the Windy City. It was a tranquil place and the abode of housewives and shopkeepers. Among these decent folk was a "Mrs. Dr. Holden", as the newspapers mysteriously referred to her, who ran a drugstore at 63rd and Wallace. There was almost too much trade for the woman to handle, as Englewood was rapidly growing, as so many of Chicago’s suburbs were in those days. She was delighted, therefore, to find a capable assistant who said that his name was Dr. Henry H. Holmes. He turned out to be a remarkable addition to the place.

In 1887, a druggist was a chemist and most drugstores were rather crowded places that were stocked with all manner of elixirs and potions. When Dr. Holmes compounded even the simplest prescription, he did so with a flourish, as if he were an alchemist in the midst of some arcane ritual. His long, pale fingers moved with a surgeon’s skill, his handsome face grew intense and his blue eyes grew bright. But he was no means a socially inept scientist, he was a gentleman of fashion and charming of manner. His politeness and humorous remarks brought many new customers into the drug store, especially the ladies in the neighborhood. In addition, he kept a sharp eye on the account books as well and was concerned with the profit the store was making. He was, in short, the perfect assistant to the proprietress.

 It was not long before Holmes seemed to be more the manager of the store and less the prescription clerk. He began to spend more and more time working with the ledgers and chatting pleasantly with the ladies who came into the place, some of whom took a very long time to make a very small purchase. Dr. Holmes became a familiar figure as he strolled with his stick down 63rd Street, the main thoroughfare of Englewood. He appeared to be heading for a leading position in the local business community.

Trade at the drug store continued to improve, making Mrs. Dr. Holden exceedingly happy. But as for Holmes, he was still not satisfied with his lot and he had many plans and visions that drove him onward. Strangely, in 1887, Mrs. Dr. Holden vanished without a trace. A short time after, Holmes announced that he had purchased the store from the widow, just prior to her "moving out west". The unfortunate lady had (not surprisingly) left no forwarding address.

Two years later, he acquired a large lot across the street from the drug store and began construction on an enormous edifice that he planned to operate as a hotel for the upcoming Columbian Exposition in 1893. There are no records to say what Holmes decided to call this building but for generations of police officers, crime enthusiasts and unnerved residents of Englewood, it was known simply by one name -- "The Murder Castle".

Henry H. Holmes, whose real name was Herman W. Mudgett, was born in 1860 in Gilmanton, New Hampshire, where his father was a wealthy and respected citizen and had been the local postmaster for nearly 25 years. Early in life, Mudgett dropped his given name and became known as H.H. Holmes, a name under which he attended medical school and began his career in crime. He was constantly in trouble as a boy and young man and in later years was remembered for his cruelty to animals and smaller children. His only redeeming trait was that he was always an excellent student and did well in school.

In 1878, Holmes married Clara Lovering, the daughter of a prosperous farmer in Loudon, New Hampshire and that same year, began studying medicine at a small college in Burlington, Vermont. He paid his tuition with a tidy legacy that had been inherited by his wife. Even as a student though, Holmes began to dabble in debauchery. In 1879, he transferred to the medical school of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor while there, devised a method of stealing cadavers from the laboratory. He would then disfigure the corpses and plant them in places where it would look as though they had been killed in accidents. Conveniently, Holmes had already taken out insurance policies on these "family members" and he would collect on them as soon as the bodies were discovered.


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Also: See the Strange Case of H.H. Holmes, the original books about Holmes, including the pursuit of Holmes by Detective Frank P. Geyer.
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H.H. Holmes, regarded as America's First Real Serial Killer
 

A few months after he completed his most daring swindle, insuring a corpse for $12,500 and carrying out the plan with an accomplice who would later become a prominent doctor in New York, he left Ann Arbor and abandoned his wife and infant son. Clara returned to New Hampshire and never saw her husband again.

After that, Holmes dropped out of sight for six years. What became of him during most of this period is unknown and later on, even Pinkerton detectives were unable to learn much about his activities in these years, although they did come across traces of his trail in several cities and states. For a year or so, he was engaged in a legitimate business in St. Paul and so gained the respect of the community that he was appointed the receiver of a bankrupt store. He immediately stocked the place with goods, sold them at low prices and then vanished with the proceeds. From St. Paul, he went to New York and taught school for a time in Clinton County, boarding at the home of a farmer near the village of Moore’s Forks. He seduced the farmer’s wife and then disappeared one night, leaving an unpaid bill and a pregnant landlady.

In 1885, Holmes turned up in Chicago and opened an office (he was posing as an inventor) in the North Shore suburb of Wilmette. Upon his re-appearance, Holmes filed for divorce from Clara, Lovering but the proceedings were unsuccessful and the case dragged on until 1891. This did not stop him from marrying another woman however, Myrtle Z. Belknap, who father, John Belknap, was a wealthy businessman in Wilmette. Although the marriage did produce a daughter, it was nevertheless a strange one. Myrtle remained living in Wilmette while Holmes began living in Chicago. John Belknap would later discover that Holmes had tried to cheat him out of property by forging his name on deeds. He would also claim that Holmes had tried to poison him when he was confronted about the fraudulent papers. Myrtle ended the marriage in 1889.

Stories claim that the house in Wilmette where Myrtle lived is haunted today. One has to wonder if the spirit who walks here is that of John Belknap or Myrtle herself. It’s possible that her unhappy marriage, and horror as the later crimes of her husband were revealed, has caused her to linger behind.

THE MURDER CASTLE
Shortly after Holmes married Myrtle, he opened another office, this time in downtown Chicago, with the A.B.C. Copier, a machine for copying documents, which was about the only honest device that he was ever connected with. He operated from an office on South Dearborn but the copier was a failure and he again vanished, leaving his creditors with $9,000 in worthless notes.

A few months later, he began working in a drugstore in the Englewood section at the corner of 63rd and Wallace Street. The store was owned by a Mrs. Dr. Holden, an older lady, who was happy to have the young man take over most of the responsibilities of the store. Strangely, in 1887, Mrs. Holden vanished without a trace. Apparently, no one had any reason to doubt Holmes about his "purchase" of her store and she was never found when the police finally began to investigate his activities a few years later.

In 1889, Holmes began a new era in his criminal life. After a short trip to Indiana, he returned to Chicago and purchased an empty lot across the street from the drugstore. He had plans to build a huge house on the property and work was started in 1890. His trip to Indiana had been profitable and he had used the journey to pull off an insurance scheme with the help of an accomplice named Benjamin Pietzel. The confederate later went to jail as a result of the swindle, but Holmes came away unscathed.

Holmes continued to operate the drug store, to which he also added a jewelry counter. In 1890, he hired Ned Connor of Davenport, Iowa as a watchmaker and jeweler. The young man arrived in the city in the company of his wife, Julia, and their daughter, Pearl.  The family moved into a small apartment above the store and soon, Julia managed to capture the interest of Holmes. He soon fired his bookkeeper and hired Julia to take the man’s place.


Holmes' accomplice in insurance fraud, Ben Pietzel.

Not long after, Connor began to suspect that Holmes was carrying on with his wife, and he was right. Luckily for him, he decided to cut his losses, abandoned his family and went to work for another shop downtown.

Now that Holmes had Julia to himself, he took out large insurance polices on the woman and her daughter, naming himself as a beneficiary. Years later, it came to be suspected that Julia became a willing participant in many of Holmes’ schemes and swindles. When he incorporated the jewelry business in August 1890, he listed Julia, along with her friend Kate Durkee, as directors.

By this time, much of Holmes’ interest was going into the construction of the building across the street. The building was an imposing structure of three stories and a basement, with false battlements and wooden bay windows that were covered with sheet iron. There were over 60 rooms in the structure and 51 doors that were cut oddly into various walls. Holmes acted as his own architect for the place and he personally supervised the numerous construction crews, all of whom were quickly hired and fired, discharging them with great fury and refusing to pay their wages. As far as the police were able to learn, he never paid a cent for any of the materials that went into the building. In addition to the eccentric general design, the house was also fitted with trap doors, hidden staircases, secret passages, rooms without windows, chutes that led into the basement and a staircase that opened out over a steep drop to the alley behind the house.


A Rare photograph of Holmes' "Murder Castle" in Englewood (Chicago Historical Society)

The first floor of the building contained stores and shops, while the upper floors could be used for spacious living quarters. Holmes also had an office on the second floor, but most of the rooms were to be used for guests -- guests that would never be seen again. Evidence would later be found to show that Holmes used some of the rooms as "asphyxiation chambers", where his victims were suffocated with gas. Other chambers were lined with iron plates and had blowtorch-like devices fitted into the walls. In the basement, Holmes installed a dissecting table and maintained his own crematory. There was also an acid vat and pits filled with quicklime, where bodies could be conveniently disposed of.

All of his "prison rooms" were fitted with alarms that buzzed in Holmes’ quarters if a victim attempted to escape. It has come to be believed that many of his victims were held captive for months before their deaths.

The castle was completed in 1892 and soon after, Holmes announced that he planned to rent out some of the rooms to tourists who would be arriving in mass for the upcoming Columbian Exposition. It is surmised that many of these tourists never returned home after the fair, but no one knows for sure. The list of the "missing" when the Fair closed was a long one and for most, foul play was suspected. How many of them fell prey to Holmes is a mystery but no fewer than 50 people who were reported to the police as missing were traced to the place. Here, their trails ended…

An advertisement for lodging during the fair was not the only method that Holmes used for procuring victims. A large number of his female victims came through false classified ads that he placed in small town newspapers, offering jobs to young ladies. When the ads were answered, he would describe several jobs in detail and explained that the woman would have her choice of positions at the time of the interview. When accepted, she would then be instructed to pack her things and withdraw all of her money from the bank because she would need funds to get started. The applicants were also instructed to keep the location and the name of his company a closely guarded secret. He told them that he had devious competitors who would use any information possible to steal his clients. When the applicant arrived, and Holmes was convinced that she had told no one of her destination, she would become his prisoner.

Holmes also placed newspaper ads for marriage as well, describing himself as a wealthy businessman who was searching for a suitable wife. Those who answered this ad would get a similar story to the job offer. He would then torture the women to learn the whereabouts of any valuables they might have. The young ladies would then remain his prisoners until he decided to dispose of them.

Amazingly, Holmes was able to keep his murder operation a secret for four years. He slaughtered an unknown number of people, mostly women, in the castle. He would later confess to 28 murders, although the actual number of victims is believed to be much higher. To examine the details of the story, the reader cannot help but be horrified by the amount of planning and devious detail that went into the murders. There is no question that Holmes was one of the most prolific and depraved killers in American history.

In 1893, Homes met a young woman named Minnie Williams. He told her that his name was Harry Gordon and that he was a wealthy inventor. Holmes’ interest in her had been piqued when he learned that she was the heir to a Texas real estate fortune. She was in Chicago working as an instructor for a private school. It wasn’t long before she and Holmes were engaged to be married. This was a turn of events that did not make Julia Connor happy. She was still involved with Holmes and still working at the store. Not long after his engagement became official, both Julia and Pearl disappeared. When Ned Connor later inquired after them, Holmes explained that they had moved to Michigan. In his confession, he admitted that Julia had died during a bungled abortion that he had performed on her. He had poisoned Pearl. He later admitted that he murdered the woman and her child because of her jealous feelings toward Minnie Williams. "But I would have gotten rid of her anyway," he said. "I was tired of her."


A Newspaper illustration of Minnie Williams (Illinois State Historical Library)

Minnie Williams lived at the Castle for more than a year and knew more about Holmes’ crimes than any other person. Police investigators would state there was no way that she could not have had guilty knowledge about many of the murders. Besides being ultimately responsible for the deaths of Julia and Pearl Connor, Minnie was also believed to have instigated the murder of Emily Van Tassel, a young lady who lived on Robey Street. She was only 17 and worked at a candy store in the first floor of the castle. There is no indication of what caused her to catch the eye of Holmes but she vanished just one month after his offer of employment.

Minnie also knew about the murder of Emmeline Cigrand, a beautiful young woman who worked as a stenographer at the Keely Institute in Dwight, Illinois. Ben Pietzel went there to take a drunkenness cure and told Holmes of the girl’s beauty when he returned to Chicago. Holmes then contacted her and offered her a large salary to work for him in Chicago. She accepted the job and came to the Castle -- only to never leave it. Emmeline became homesick after a few weeks in Chicago. She had planned to marry an Indiana man named Robert E. Phelps and she was missing him and her family. Holmes later confessed that he locked the girl in one of his sound-proof rooms and raped her. He stated that he killed her because Minnie Williams objected to his lusting after the attractive young woman. Some time later, Robert Phelps made the mistake of dropping by to inquire after her at the Castle and that was the last time that he was ever reported alive. Holmes described a "stretching experiment" with which he used to kill Phelps. Always curious about the amount of punishment the human body could withstand (Holmes often used the dissecting table on live victims), he invented a "rack-like" device that would literally stretch a person to the breaking point.

In April 1893, Minnie’s property in Texas was deeded to a man named Benton T. Lyman, who was in reality, Ben Pietzel, the already mentioned accomplice of Holmes. Later that same year, Minnie’s brother was killed in a mining accident in Colorado, which is said to have been arranged by Holmes. A visit to Chicago by Minnie’s sister, Nannie, may provide more evidence of Minnie’s murderous ways and her willingness to go along with Holmes. In June 1893, Holmes seduced Nannie while she was staying at the Castle and had no trouble persuading her to sign over her share of some property in Fort Worth. She disappeared a month later, with an explanation that she had gone back to Texas, but according to Holmes, it had been Minnie who killed her. When Minnie found out that Nannie had been consorting with Holmes, the two of them got into a heated argument. Minnie hit her sister over the head with a chair and she died, then she and Holmes dropped the body into Lake Michigan.

A short time later, Holmes and Minnie traveled to Denver in the company of another young woman, Georgianna Yoke, who had come to Chicago from Indiana with a "tarnished reputation". She had applied for a job at the Castle and Holmes told her that his name was Henry Howard and that Minnie was his cousin. On January 17, 1894, Holmes and Georgianna were married at the Vendome Hotel in Denver with Minnie as their witness! After that, the wedding party (which apparently consisted of the three of them) traveled to Texas, where they claimed Minnie’s property and arranged a horse swindle. Holmes purchased several railroad cars of horses with counterfeit banknotes and signed the papers as "O.C. Pratt". The horses were then shipped to St. Louis and sold. Holmes made off with a fortune, but it would be this swindle that would later come back and destroy him.

The threesome returned to Chicago and their return marked the last time that Minnie was ever seen alive. Holmes explained that he believed Minnie had killed her sister in a fit of passion and then had fled to Europe. The police believed him, as he was known for being an upstanding citizen and it was not until much later that he confessed to killing her too. Although her body was never found, it is believed to have joined other victims in the acid vat in the basement.

THE HORROR IS REVEALED
In July 1894, Holmes was arrested for the first time. It was not for murder but for one of his schemes, the earlier horse swindle that ended in St. Louis. Georgianna promptly bailed him out, but while in jail, he struck up a conversation with a convicted train robber named Marion Hedgepeth, who was serving a 25-year sentence. 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 then took a cadaver to a seaside resort in Rhode Island and burned it, disfiguring the head and dumping it on the beach. He then shaved his beard and altered his appearance and returned to the hotel, registering under another name and inquiring about his friend, Holmes. When the body was discovered on the beach, he identified it as "H.H. Holmes" and presented an insurance policy for $20,000. The insurance company suspected fraud though and refused to pay. Holmes returned to Chicago without pressing the claim and began concocting a new version of the same scheme.

A month later, Holmes held a conference with Ben Pietzel and Jeptha Howe and his new plan was put into action. Pietzel went to Philadelphia with his wife, Carrie, and opened a shop for buying and selling patents under the name of B.F. Perry. Holmes then took out an insurance policy on his life. The plan was for Pietzel to drink a potion that would knock him unconscious. Then, Holmes would apply make-up to his face to make it look as though he had been severely burned. A witness would then summon an ambulance and while they were gone, Holmes would put a corpse in place of the "shopkeeper". The insurance company would be told that he had died. Pietzel would then receive a portion of the money in exchange for his role in the swindle but he would soon learn, as some many others already had, that Holmes could not be trusted!

The "accident" took place on the morning of September 4, when neighbors heard a loud explosion from the patent office. A carpenter named Eugene Smith came to the office a short time later and found the door locked and the building dark. For some reason, he became concerned and summoned a police officer to the scene. They broke open the door and found a badly burned man on the floor. The death was quickly ruled an accident and the body was taken to the morgue. After 11 days, no one showed up to claim it and so the corpse was buried in the local potter’s field. Days later, the police learned that the dead man (Pietzel) had come to Philadelphia from St. Louis and the police of that city were asked to search for relatives. Within days, attorney Jeptha Howe filed a claim with the insurance company on behalf of Carrie Pietzel and collected the money. He kept $2,500 and Holmes took the remainder. He later gave $500 to Mrs. Pietzel but then took it back, explaining that he would invest it for her.

The claim was paid without hesitation and everyone got their share of the money, except for Ben Pietzel and Marion Hedgepeth. Holmes never bothered to contact the train robber again, a slight that Hedgepeth did not appreciate.


Train Robber Marion Hedgepeth, whom Holmes made the mistake of crossing

He brooded over this awhile and then decided to turn Holmes in. He explained the scheme to a St. Louis policeman named Major Lawrence Harrigan, who in turn notified an insurance investigator, W.E. Gary. He then passed along the information to Frank P. Geyer, a Pinkerton agent, who immediately began an investigation.

Ben Pietzel never received his share of the money either, but even if he had, he would not have been able to spend it. What Holmes had not told anyone was that the body discovered in the patent office was not a cleverly disguised corpse, but Ben Pietzel himself! Rather than split the money again, Holmes had killed his accomplice then burned him so that he would be difficult to recognize. Holmes kept his part of the plan a secret as he and Georgianna were now traveling with Carrie Pietzel and her three children. She believed that her husband was hiding out in New York. The group was last seen in Cincinnati and then in Indianapolis on October 1. Carrie was then sent east and the children were left in the care of Holmes and Georgianna. Holmes made arrangements for Carrie to meet him in Detroit, where he assured her that her husband was now hiding. He arrived in Detroit several days before the appointed time and put the three children into a boarding house. Then, he went to Indiana and returned with Georgianna and installed her in a second boarding house. When Carrie arrived, she was lodged in yet another establishment. Then, he began moving about the country, apparently aware that the Pinkerton detective was on his trail. The journey lasted for almost two months but on November 17, 1894, Holmes turned up alone in Boston and was arrested and sent to Philadelphia.

As fate would have it though, he was not arrested for insurance fraud but for the horse swindle that he, Minnie and Georgianna had pulled off in Texas. He was given the choice of being returned to Texas and being hanged as a horse thief or he could confess to the insurance scheme that had led to the death of Ben Pietzel. He chose insurance fraud and was sent to Philadelphia. On the way there, Holmes offered his guard $500 if the man would allow himself to be hypnotized. Wisely, the guard refused.

The entire insurance scheme was now completely unraveling. A week later, Georgianna was located at her parent’s home in Indiana and Carrie Pietzel was found in Burlington, Vermont, where Holmes had rented a small house for her to live in while she awaited the arrival of her family. Holmes had lived at the house with her for several days but had left angry when she questioned him about a hole that he was digging in the back yard.


Veteran Pinkerton detective Frank Geyer (Illinois State Historical Library)

The police came to believe that he was digging her grave, but for some unknown reason, he chose not to kill her. Mrs. Pietzel was arrested and was taken to Philadelphia but was soon released. No charges were ever brought against her.

Detective Geyer was slowly starting to uncover the dark secrets of Henry Howard Holmes, he realized, but even the seasoned Pinkerton man was unprepared for what lay ahead. He was beginning to sift through the many lies and identities of Holmes, hoping to find clues as to the fates of the Pietzel children. At this point, he had no idea about all of the other victims. Holmes swore that Minnie Williams had taken the children with her to London, where she planned to open a massage parlor, but Geyer was sure that he was lying. In June 1895, Holmes entered a guilty plea for a single count of insurance fraud but Geyer expanded his investigation.

Throughout his questioning, Holmes refused to reveal any other explanation for what had become of Carrie Pietzel’s three children, Howard, Nellie and Alice. Fearing the worst Detective Geyer set out to try and discover their fate -- and his fears soon came to realization. In Chicago, Geyer learned that all of Holmes’ mail had been forwarded every day to Gilmanton, New York. From Gilmanton, it had been sent to Detroit, from Detroit to Toronto, from Toronto to Cincinnati, from Cincinnati to Indianapolis and then on from there. He followed Holmes’ trail for eight months through the Midwest and Canada, stopping in each city to investigate the house that he had been renting while residing there. In Detroit, a house that Holmes had rented was still vacant and a large hole was found to have been dug in the cellar floor. Geyer was relieved to discover that it was empty.

In Toronto, the Pinkerton searched for eight days before he found the cottage at No. 16 Vincent Street that had been rented to a man fitting Holmes’ description. The man had been traveling with two little girls. Holmes borrowed a shovel from a neighbor, which he claimed he wanted to use to dig a hole to store potatoes in. Geyer borrowed the same spade and when digging in the same location, found the bodies of Nellie and Alice Pietzel secreted several feet under the earth. In an upstairs bedroom, he found a large trunk that had a piece of rubber tubing leading into it from a gas pipe. He had told the girls that he wanted to play hide and seek with them, tricked them into climbing into the trunk and then had asphyxiated them.


Alice and Howard Pietzel

This shocking discovery made Geyer work even harder to find what had become of Howard Pietzel. While questioning the neighbors, he learned that the Pietzel girls had told them that they had a brother who was living in Indianapolis. With this small clue, Geyer went to Indiana and painstakingly searched 900 houses for any clue of Holmes. Finally, in the suburb of Irvington, he found a house that Holmes had rented for a week. The place had been empty since Holmes’ occupancy and in the kitchen stove, Geyer found the charred remains of Howard.

Now the door was open for Geyer and Chicago detectives to search Holmes’ residence in the Windy City. Geyer was sure that the remaining answers that he was seeking could be found inside of the Castle. He entered the place with several police officers -- and neither Geyer nor the veteran investigators would ever forget what they found there!

A diagram that appeared in the Chicago Tribune offered readers a look inside of the "Murder Castle" and lurid illustrations of the crematory, the secret rooms, the quicklime pits and even a map that illustrated the lay-out of the menacing building.

Detectives devoted several weeks to searching and making a floor plan of the Castle. The bottom floor had been used by Holmes himself as a drug store, a candy store, a restaurant and a jewelry store. The third floor of the building had been divided into small apartments and guest rooms and apparently, had never been used.

The second floor however proved to be a labyrinth of narrow, winding passages with doors that opened to brick walls, hidden stairways, cleverly concealed doors, blind hallways, secret panels, hidden passages and a clandestine vault that was only a big enough for a person to stand in. The room was alleged to be a homemade "gas chamber", equipped with a chute that would carry a body directly into the basement. The investigators suddenly realized the implications of the iron-plated chamber when they found the single, scuffed mark of a footprint on the inside of the door. It was a small print that had been made by a woman who had attempted to escape the grim fate of the tiny room.

In addition to all of the bizarre additions to the floor, the second level also held 35 guest rooms. Half of them were fitted as ordinary sleeping chambers, and there were indications that they had been occupied by the various women who worked for Holmes, by tenants during the Fair or by the luckless females Holmes had seduced while waiting for an opportunity to kill them. Several of the other rooms were without windows or could be made air tight by closing the doors. Others were lined with sheet iron and asbestos with scorch marks on the walls, fitted with trap doors that led to smaller rooms beneath, or were equipped with lethal gas jets that could be used to suffocate or burn the unsuspecting occupants.

This floor also contained Holmes’ private apartment, consisting of a bedroom, a bath and two small chambers that were used as offices. The apartment was located at the front of the building, looking out over 63rd Street. In the floor of the bathroom, concealed under a heavy rug, the police found a trap door and a stairway that descended to a room about eight feet square. Two doors led off this chamber, one to a stairway that exited out onto the street and the other giving access to the chute that led down to the basement.

The "chamber of horrors" in the basement stunned the men even further. This subterranean chamber was located seven feet below the rest of the building and extended out under the sidewalk in front. Here, they found Holmes’ blood-spattered dissecting table, his gleaming surgical instruments, his macabre "laboratory" of torture devices, various jars of poison and even a wooden box that contained a number of female skeletons. Built into one of the walls was a crematorium, with a heavy iron grate to hold the fire and another grate, fitted with rollers, by which a body could be slid into the flames. The crematoriums still contained ash and portions of bone that had not burned in the intense heat. A search of the ashes also revealed a watch that had belonged to Minnie Williams, some buttons from a dress and several charred tintype photographs. Under the staircase, Geyer also found a ball made from women’s hair that had been carefully wrapped in cloth.

Buried in the floor, the police found a huge vat of corrosive acid and two quicklime pits, which were capable of devouring an entire body in a matter of hours. A loose pile of quicklime was also discovered in a small room that had been built into the corner. The naked footprint of woman was found embedded in the pile.

Dozens of human bones and several pieces of jewelry were found and could be traced to Holmes’ mistresses. A wood burning stove in the center of the basement contained scraps of cloth and Ned Connor was summoned to the castle to identify a bloody dress that had belonged to Julia. In a hole in the middle of the floor, more bones were found. After being examined by a physician, they were believed to be the bones of a small child between the ages of six and eight. The fate of Pearl Connor was also no longer in question.

On July 20, some city workers began excavating the cellar and started a tunnel underneath 63rd Street. The hazy smell of gas hung in the air and as the men tore away one wall, they discovered a large tank or metal-lined chamber. As soon as they broke through, the basement was filled with the stench of death, driving the crew back. Noting the metal lining of the tank, they sent for a plumber and he struck a match to peer inside of it. Suddenly, the tank exploded, shaking the building and sending flames out into the basement. The men were buried in piles of debris but no one was seriously injured. The tank was lined with wood and metal and was 14 feet long, although thanks to the explosion, no one will ever know that it was used for. The only clue in the room was a small box that was found in its center. When it was opened by Fire Marshal James Kenyon, an "evil smelling" vapor rushed out. The gathered men ran, except for Kenyon, who was overpowered by the stench. According to the New York World, "he was dragged out and carried upstairs, and for two hours acted like one demented."

Following the excavation, and the discovery and cataloguing of Holmes’ potential victims, the "Murder Castle" (as it came to be called) sat empty for several months. Not surprisingly, it drew onlookers and curiosity-seekers from all over the city. The newspapers were not yet filled with stories and illustrations about Holmes’ devious crimes but rumors had quickly spread about what had been discovered there. The people of Chicago were stunned that such things could take place -- and in their glorious city! The people of the Englewood neighborhood watched the sightseers with a combination of fear and loathing, sickened over the terrible things that brought the crowds to their streets.

Then, on August 19, the Castle burned to the ground. Three explosions thundered through the neighborhood just after midnight and minutes later, a blaze erupted from the abandoned structure. In less than an hour, the roof had caved in and the walls began to collapse in onto themselves. A gas can was discovered among the smoldering ruins and rumors argued back and forth between an accomplice of Holmes’ burning down the house to hide his role in the horror and the arson being committed by an outraged neighbor. The mystery was never solved, but regardless, the Castle was gone for good.

As time passed though, many would claim that the horrific memories here would linger.

The lot where the Castle was located remained empty for many years until finally, a U.S. Post Office was built on the site in 1938. There would be many in the area who had not forgotten the stories of Holmes’ castle -- or the tales from people who claimed to hear moaning and crying sounds coming from the grounds. This had been a common tale in the community for years and there were those who stated that the ghosts of Holmes’ victims did not rest in peace. The ground here was believed to be tainted by the death and bloodshed that had occurred on the spot and the overgrown lot was largely shunned and avoided. Most longtime residents would go out of their way to walk on the other side of the street from the area.

Even after the post office was constructed on the site where so much torture and murder took place, strange things were still reported. Passersby who walked their dogs past the new building claimed the animals would often pull away from it, barking and whining at something they could see or sense. It was something that remained invisible to their human masters, but which was terrifyingly real to the animals.

In addition, postal workers in the building had their own encounters in the place, often telling of strange sounds and feelings they could not easily explain. The location was certainly ripe for a haunting and if the stories can be believed, it was, and is, taking place!

THE CURSE OF H.H. HOLMES
The trial of Herman Mudgett, a.k.a. H.H. Holmes, began in Philadelphia just before Halloween 1895. It only lasted for six days but was one of the most sensational of the century. The newspapers reported it in a lurid and sensational manner and besides the mysteries of the Castle to report on, which were reported at length by several witnesses, Holmes created many exciting scenes in the courtroom. He broke down and wept when Georgianna took the stand as a witness for the state and eventually discharged his attorneys and attempted to conduct his own defense. It was said that Holmes’ was actually outstanding, clever and shrewd as an attorney but it was to no avail. The jury deliberated for just two and half hours before returning a guilty verdict. Afterward, they reported that they had agreed on the verdict in just one minute but had remained out longer "for the sake of appearances".

On November 30, the judge passed a sentence of death. His case was appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, who affirmed the verdict, and the governor refused to intervene. Holmes was scheduled to die on May 7, 1896, just nine days before his 36th birthday.

By now, the details of the case had been made public and people were angry, horrified and fascinated, especially in Chicago, where most of the evil had occurred. Holmes had provided a lurid confession of torture and murder that appeared in newspapers and magazines, providing a litany of depravity that compares with the most insane killers of all time. Even if his story was embellished, the actual evidence of Holmes’ crimes ranks him as one of the country’s most active murderers.


A newspaper illustration of Holmes in his cell -- awaiting his execution

He remained unrepentant though, even at the end. Just before his execution, he visited with two Catholic priests in his cell and even took communion with them, although refused to ask forgiveness for his crimes. He was led from his cell to the gallows and a black hood was placed over his head. The trap door opened beneath him and Holmes quickly dropped. His head snapped to the side, but his fingers clenched and his feet danced for several minutes afterward, causing many spectators to look away. Although the force of the fall had broken his neck, and the rope had pulled so tight that it had literally imbedded itself in his flesh, his heart continued to beat for nearly 15 minutes. He was finally declared dead at 10:25 a.m.

There were a couple of macabre legends associated with Holmes’ execution. One story claimed that a lightning bolt had ripped through the sky at the precise moment the rope had snapped his neck -- but this was not the strangest one. The most enduring supernatural legend of H.H. Holmes is that of the "Holmes Curse". The story began shortly after his execution, leading to speculation that his spirit did not rest in peace. Some believed that he was still carrying on his gruesome work from beyond the grave. And, even to the skeptical, some of the events that took place after his death are a bit disconcerting.

A short time after Holmes’ body was buried, under two tons of concrete, the first strange death occurred. The first to die was Dr. William K. Matten, a coroner’s physician who had been a major witness in the trial. He suddenly dropped dead from blood poisoning.

More deaths followed in rapid order, including that of the head coroner, Dr. Ashbridge, and the trial judge who had sentenced Holmes to death. Both men were diagnosed with sudden, and previously unknown, deadly illnesses. Next, the superintendent of the prison where Holmes had been incarcerated committed suicide. The reason for his taking his own life was never discovered. Then, the father of one of Holmes’ victims was horribly burned in a gas explosion and the remarkably healthy Pinkerton agent, Frank Geyer, suddenly became ill. Thankfully though, the diligent detective pulled through.

Not long after this however, the office of the claims manager for the insurance company that Holmes had cheated, caught fire and burned. Everything in the office was destroyed except for a framed copy of Holmes’ arrest warrant and two portraits of the killer. Many of those who were already convinced of a curse saw this as an ominous warning.

Several weeks after the hanging, one of the priests who prayed with Holmes before his execution was found dead in the yard behind his church. The coroner ruled the death as uremic poisoning but according to reports, he had been badly beaten and robbed. A few days later, Linford Biles, who had been jury foreman in the Holmes trial, was electrocuted in a bizarre accident involving the electrical wires above his house.

In the years that followed, others involved with Holmes also met with violent deaths, including the train robber, Marion Hedgepeth. He remained in prison after his informing on Holmes, although he had expected a pardon that never came. On the very day of Holmes’ execution, he was transferred to the Missouri State Prison to finish out his sentence. As time passed, Hedgepeth gained many supporters to his cause, including several newspapers who wrote of his role in getting Holmes prosecuted. In 1906, he finally got his pardon and was released.

Despite the claims that he had made about his rehabilitation, including that he spent each day in prison reading his bible, Hedgepeth was arrested in September 1907 for blowing up a safe in Omaha, Nebraska. He was tried, found guilty and sentenced to 10 more years in prison. He was released however when it was discovered that he was dying from tuberculosis. In spite of his medical condition, he assembled a new gang and at midnight on New Year’s Eve 1910, he attempted to rob a saloon in (of all places) Chicago. As he was placing the money from the till into a burlap bag, a policeman wandered into the place for no reason, realized that a robbery was taking place and opened fire on the thief. Hedgepeth was dead before he hit the floor.

Perhaps Holmes got his revenge after all....

I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing -- I was born with the "Evil One" standing as my sponsor beside the bed where I was ushered into the world, and he has been with me since.
H.H. HOLMES

 

© Copyright 2003 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.