Experience the Ghosts, Local Legends & Best Kept Secrets of
the Windy City!
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
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
See the Independent Film about Holmes &
the Murder Castle from John Borowski!
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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
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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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
© Copyright 2003 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.