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

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.

H.H. Holmes arrives in Chicago

In May of 1886, H.H. Holmes found his way to Chicago, where he intended to find work in a drug store. To do this, he needed a pharmacy license. So he went to Springfield and sat through a 3-day examination after which it was announced in the press that Henry H. Holmes had passed the bar. This was the first time that Herman’s new alias was used.

It is unknown why he chose the name, Henry Howard Holmes, but it is certain that it is not, as some have claimed, a nod to Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous creation Sherlock Holmes, as that character would not appear until a year later.

Holmes decided that the way to celebrate his new identity was to become a bigamist. While on his way to Chicago, he had spent some time in Minneapolis, where he met and married a young woman named Myrtle Belknap. Myrta was no great beauty, however, she came from wealthy parents which might have had something to do with why Holmes married her.

Shortly after moving to Chicago, holmes used the wealth from his marriage to purchase a parcel of land on what was, at the time, 701-703 63rd Street in Englewood, Chicago. He put ownership in his wife’s name, and later into her mother’s name, to keep creditors at bay.

Holmes then found employment in a pharmacy owned by a bedridden pharmacist, whose wife was run ragged trying to cope with the business on her own. Holmes was hired to take over running the business, and it wasn’t long before the couple disappeared. Now you would obviously think that Holmes got rid of the couple in some violent way, but the truth is at least as interesting.

After Holmes took over, the business became an even greater success, and young women would come from all over the city to be served by the charming and handsome new doctor. The success meant that Holmes began taking on assistants, most of whom were young beautiful women who came to Chicago in droves at the time.

Dr. E.S. Holton, the pharmacist, was, in fact, the wife. Her husband, who was supposedly on death’s door, was a robust longshoreman. Dr. Holton, when she became pregnant with her second child in 1887, decided to sell the pharmacy to Holmes. The couple didn’t disappear but actually lived well into the 20th century, staying in that very same neighborhood.

The Murder Castle

H.H. Holmes' Murder Castle
H.H. Holmes’ Murder Castle

While working and running the pharmacy, Holmes turned his attention to the vacant lot he had purchased in the same street as the pharmacy. There, he planned to build a 2 story building with retail space on the first floor and residential apartments on the second.

The building, however, was a little different from other buildings. There was a hidden compartment between the first and second floor, which could only be reached via a trap door in the second story bathroom.

Despite being a successful business owner, Holmes still had trouble remembering to pay his bills, or more likely, he simply refused. He was sued by builders from Aetna Iron and Steel in 1888, and Holmes claimed he wasn’t liable since his mother-in-law owned the building. Lawyers from the building company then began to chronicle Holmes’ involvement in the project, which prompted Holmes to claim that since one of the steel beams provided by the company, was too short, it negated the whole contract.

The fact that he had to defend himself in court did nothing to stop Holmes from continuing his fraudulent ways. His favorite trick was to buy goods on credit, then selling them for cash, and not paying the original bill.

In one case he purchased and extremely heavy safe on credit, and had it installed on the first floor of his building, after which walls were built around it. When, once again, repossession agents came knocking, Holmes told them they were welcome to take the safe, but they had better not damage the building. The agents struggled for hours, but since they couldn’t get it out without tearing down walls, they were in the end forced to leave without it.

In July of 1889, Holmes employed a young couple, Ned and Julia Connor. They worked at the pharmacy and lived on the second floor of the recently completed Englewood building. It didn’t take long before Holmes and Julia started an affair, even though Myrtle, his wife, lived under the same roof. In the end, quite understandably, Ned filed for divorce and quit his job at the drugstore.

Julia now became roped into Holmes’ financial web. She was listed as a co-founder on several businesses and he took out numerous loans in her name.

By 1890 Holmes decided to sell the pharmacy business so he could focus on real estate. To no one’s surprise, the sale of the business turned into another scam. Once the new owner took over the business, he quickly learned that most of the stock had not been paid for, as repossession agents came to claim them back. But Holmes once more managed to talk his way out of trouble.

Despite no longer owning the drugstore, Holmes still spent quite a lot of time there. One day, the new investor showed up with some important information to share. The man collapsed just outside the drugstore and Holmes was the first person to be at his side. He poured a dark liquid down the man’s throat, and within minutes he was dead.

H.H. Holmes likely poisened the new investor
Bottle of poison

On July 4th, 1891 Julia Connor and her 8-year-old daughter Pearl disappeared. Their bodies were never discovered and Holmes never confessed to killing them, but it does seem likely that they too were victims of the deadly doctor.

It was around this time, that H.H. Holmes decided to start a completely new business, the Warner Glass-bending Company, even though he didn’t know anything about glass-bending. Despite this, he still managed to convince those who would listen, that he had invented a new glass-bending technique. To perfect this new method, he built a furnace in the basement of his building. He made a great show of setting to work, however, no one ever saw him bend any glass.

It was after this furnace was built, that the disappearance of young women in Holmes’ circle became more frequent.

Emmeline Cigrand, hired by Holmes to be his stenographer, soon became his mistress too. She began hearing rumors around the neighborhood about Holmes’ penchant for buying things on credit, and not paying for them, and her own meager savings disappeared mysteriously. Then she disappeared without a trace. According to Holmes, she had gone to Europe to get married.

By 1892 the entire city of Chicago was abuzz with excitement they were preparing for the approaching World’s Fair in celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovering America. Holmes, of course, instantly spotted another opportunity, and hurriedly added a third story to his building, which was to serve as a hotel. Or at least, that’s what he told people. You see, there was more money to be made by convincing people he was opening a hotel, compared to what he would make by actually renting out rooms. He could raise money from investors who of course would never see a return on their investment.

American Celebration

He could also buy massive amounts of goods on credit, which he, of course, would then sell on without ever paying the original seller. And finally, he could really cash in on the insurance when the building mysteriously caught on fire.

There is absolutely no evidence that he ever had any paying customers to his hotel, and when the building was set on fire on August 13th, 1893, the only people in the building were the long term residents. The insurance claim would be going through the courts for years, and when it was finally settled, the claimant was already in jail.

After the fire, with mounting lawsuits against him, Holmes decided it was time to move on from Chicago. He traveled through Denver, Fort Worth, St. Louis and finally Philadelphia. While travelling he managed to get married once again, this time to a 23-year-old with a 2000 dollar inheritance. He also found a partner in crime in Fort Worth, in the like-minded fraudster Benjamin Pietzel.

Benjamin Pietzel joined forces with H.H. Holmes.
Benjamin Pietzel

Pietzel got himself thrown in jail for passing bad checks, and while he was behind bars, Holmes started paying the premiums on his life insurance policy. Once he was released, the two joined forces and purchased a vacant lot in Fort Worth. They then began building a replica of Holmes’ Chicago building.

The new building was built with all the strange twists and turns that the old one had, but it is unclear what exactly Holmes planned to do with the building since he didn’t stay long enough to actually use it. However, he and Pietzel did take out mortgages worth thousands of dollars, after which they disappeared without making more than a few token payments.

They moved to St. Louis where Holmes bought a drugstore. Pietzel then contacted a supplier and convinced them that he wanted to buy the drugstore from Holmes. If they would just lend him the money, he would use them as his main supplier. Unfortunately, they agreed. But the supplier’s rep stopped by the store the next day only to find it boarded up. This, of course, made him suspicious and he called the authorities. Police found Holmes, and he was arrested and spent 3 days in jail.

After his release from jail, Holmes headed to Philadelphia. While there he planned on faking Pietzel’s death, to get the insurance money for the premiums he had paid for Pietzel a few months back. The plan was for the 2 men to split the money. But Pietzel got cold feet, so they agreed to meet up to discuss the issue further.

When Holmes arrived at Pietzel’s house, he proceeded to get him drunk, then he knocked him out with enough chloroform to kill him. Holmes made off with the insurance money himself.

Pietzel however had three kids, and since he couldn’t risk them coming after him later on, Holmes also killed them.

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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