H.H. Holmes – America’s First Serial Killer – Part 1

H.H. Holmes – America’s First Serial Killer – Part 1

H.H. Holmes is commonly referred to as America’s first serial killer. He killed at least 27 women and enjoyed extreme forms of torture and mutilation on his victims. Learn all about who he was and the horrible crimes he committed. In this first article, read about the early life of H.H. Holmes, the man whose infamous murder castle has become a thing of legend.

H.H. Holmes
H.H. Holmes

H.H. Holmes’ Early Life

On May 16th, 1860 or 61, in Gilmanton, New Hampshire, a little boy was born to Levi Horton Mudgett, a farmer/trader/house painter and a descendant of the first English immigrants to the area. The little boy’s mother, and Levi’s wife, Theodate Page Price, was also a descendant of the first immigrants. Herman Webster Mudgett, as the boy was named, was the 3rd of 4 children.

The family was affluent, but Levi was a physically abusive alcoholic, whose methods for discipline included prolonged isolation and food depravation. It has also been reported that he would hold kerosene-soaked cloths over his children’s’ mouths’ when they cried. Theodate, a former school teacher was described as a cold and distant and would use religion as a guide for parenting. Both parents were devout Methodists and would demand total obedience from their children.

Little Herman was a very intelligent child, and when he wanted to escape the abuse at home, he would often wander into the nearby forest, where he soon began dissecting animals to explore their biology.

Though he was a loner, he did have one friend, an older boy named Tom. It is speculated that Herman may have had a hand in Tom’s death. When Herman was 11, the boys were exploring an abandoned home, when Herman saw Tom fall off a landing to his death. The speculation is that Herman was standing close enough to have intentionally pushed Tom.

He was often bullied in school because he was a loner and got good grades. One day, when little Herman was about 13 years old, two older boys wanted to frighten him, so the dragged him, kicking and screaming, into the doctor’s office, and made him come face to face with a human skeleton. To the older boys’ surprise, the bones didn’t frighten little Herman, instead, he found them fascinating.

3 years later, after Herman had graduated High School, he started working odd jobs. He was working on Samuel Lovering’s farm, he met and fell head over heels in love with Clara Lovering, the farmer’s daughter.

Clara Lovering Mudgett
Clara Lovering Mudgett

Clara was a beautiful young woman, who had several suitors. One day both Herman and Clara were at a church social, and so was another of Clara’s suitors. Clara was flirting with the other boy, and Herman flew into a jealous rage, promptly marching over and threatened to beat the other boy up if he didn’t get lost. Clara found Herman’s display impressive, and they ended up walking arm in arm as he escorted her home. The next day, Herman told everyone that they were engaged. Whether they actually were or not, at this point is unclear. Regardless, the young couple was married on July 4th, 1878, in secret.

The marriage of the young couple was kept a secret for the first six months, and they even lived apart. Clara with her parents and Herman with his. When it was finally revealed to their respective parents that they had married, Herman’s mother is supposed to have commented,

She couldn’t have done much worse and will probably have to support you.

Biographies by Biographics

Perhaps to make sure that Herman would be supporting Clara, and not the other way around, Samuel Lovering arranged for a job for Herman in the grocery store owned by Samuel’s brother in East Concord.

It was about nine months later when Clara gave birth to a son. He was given the name Robert, and his birth seemed to inspire Herman to pursue his interest in medicine, which had been awakened all those years before when he was confronted with a human skeleton.

He quit his job in East Concord and returned home to Gilmanton, where he found apprenticeship under Dr. Wight. Dr. Wight was the very doctor who owned the office with the skeleton all those years before.

While Herman studied under dr. Wight, Clara, and Baby Robert moved in with her parents.

After Herman had studied under Wight for about a year, he enrolled at the medical school in Burlington, Vermont. While he was still married to Clara while at school, he started a relationship with the daughter of his landlord. In fact, they became so close, that people thought they were engaged. Herman’s room-mate at the school, Fred Ingalls, finally revealed to the landlord that Herman was already married, and when Herman found out, he beat up Ingalls.

There were other strange things happening while Herman stayed in this boarding house. One day, the wife of the owner noticed a horrible smell coming fra Herman’s room. When she finally investigated, she was shocked to find the body of a deceased baby under his bed. When confronted with the disturbing find, he explained it away as part of his homework, where he was experimenting with dissections. The only consequence for Herman was that he was warned never to bring a dead body into the house again.

University of Michigan Medical School building circa 1882.
University of Michigan Medical School building circa 1882

By 1882, Herman went to Ann Arbor, Michigan to study at the University of Michigan. This time he brought Clara and little Robert with him. But, not surprisingly, the marriage was very much in trouble, and the couple would often argue loudly. And Clara would often be sporting bruises to her face.

Finally, one day, she had enough, and she took baby Robert and moved back to her parents’ house. The marriage was finally over, however, they would never actually get a divorce.

Now that Herman was no longer held down by having his wife and child with him, he threw himself into his studies. Of particular fascination to him, was the dissection of human cadavers. He thoroughly enjoyed cutting into human flesh and removing organs. He also, once again, began bringing home infant cadavers to work on during Spring Break.

Some of his fellow students later commented that they found in fascination with dissection unnatural and unnerving.

He did cause one scandal while in medical school, but surprisingly it had nothing to do with cadavers. Herman began courting a woman whose boarding house he was residing in. He even promised to marry her. However, the woman found a letter in his room, signed “Your wife, Clara.” Having not known that Herman was already married, and believing that he was to marry her, this, of course, shocked her. She complained to the Medical School faculty, citing breach of promise.

Herman appeared at a hearing and claimed that the woman was lying, saying he had never promised to marry her. The faculty sided with Herman and he was acquitted.

When Herman graduated a few months later, he told his professor that the woman hadn’t lied.

It was after earning his M.D. that he created his famous alias Dr. Henry Howard Holmes.

H.H. Holmes' graduation photo. University of Michigan 1884
Herman’s graduation photo. University of Michigan 1884.

Starting His Career

After graduating, Holmes moved back to New Hampshire and lived with his family over the Summer of 1884. When Fall came, he moved to Mooers Forks, New York, and started working as both a physician and a school teacher.

He quickly gained a reputation as a womanizer. He actually proposed to two more women while there. He also had a reputation as a swindler, using any and all excuses to get out of paying his rent.

In the end, he left Mooers Forks in the middle of the night, leaving behind a mountain of debt. Of course, he swindled his way into a train ticket to Chicago.

There is speculation that debt wasn’t the only reason Holmes left Mooers Forks in a hurry. A young boy had gone missing a few days earlier, and rumors were circulating that Holmes might have been involved.

Check back next week for part 2 of the story of H.H. Holmes!

Is there a crime or killer that has always fascinated you? Or maybe there’s a story I should check out? Let me know in the comments!

Sources used for this article:

America’s First Serial Killer – H.H. Holmes – Biographies by Biographics

H.H. Holmes – One of America’s First Recorded Serial Murderers by Jerrod Brown et.al. Forensic Scholars Today 2015, Vol. 1. Issue 2

Britannica Online Encyclopedia

The Famous People

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