originally published November 5, 2013
As we collectively shuffle our feet away from the dark shadow of Halloween, some of us can breathe a little easier knowing we’re a year away from those days of spooks and scares. But just because the light has tilted a little doesn’t mean those murky footsteps will recede. The most fantastic horrors in the world don’t sync up with our calendar.
And in honor of that darkness I will be penning today’s unsettling kilograph as a reminder of what might be the creepiest tale from true history that I have stumbled onto over these 675 days. Well okay, the woman who claimed she was giving birth to rabbits was a little creepier. But this one is up there.
Let’s call this the creepiest tale of American lore that I’ve ever come across. If this doesn’t give you a nightmare or two then your imagination just isn’t trying hard enough. Prepare yourself for the bloodthirsty ghoul known as H.H. Holmes.
Born Herman Webster Mudgett to an alcoholic father and a bible-toting mother in 1861, this was a kid who was wrapped in the sooty shawl of doom right from the start. Some bullies tried to scare Herman by forcing him to touch a skeleton when he was a boy. Herman was fascinated by it. While enrolled in the University of Michigan Medical School, Herman swiped bodies from the lab, took out insurance policies on the people then disfigured them, claiming they were in horrible accidents.
It was through this little scam that Herman realized he could make some exquisite money through insurance fraud. All he needed was the stomach for gore, and that was a cinch. In 1885 he and his wife and son (yes, Herman was a family man) moved to Chicago, where he started to go by the name H.H. Holmes in an effort to effectively cover up his illicit activities. He met a Mrs. Holton who ran a pharmacy in the Englewood neighborhood. After buying the business, Holmes picked up a parcel of land across the street. This was where he built the Murder Castle.
From the outside it looked nice, like a little three-story hotel. The main floor featured his relocated pharmacy and a couple of nice shops, and the top two floors were designed for… guests. The two floors contained around 100 windowless rooms, laid out in a complicated maze. It was designed to be a real-life nightmare for his unsuspecting visitors. Hallways featured terrifying angular walls, there were staircases that led nowhere and doors that swung open to reveal nothing but a brick wall.
Holmes was careful to employ a number of different contractors on the job so that no one else knew the full layout. In the middle of the labyrinth was a chute to the basement where Holmes could dissect the bodies for disposal or whatever twisted experiments fluttered through his head. His wife and son were on the outs around this time; Holmes had remarried and had another kid, though without divorcing his first wife. Though in all fairness, if that was the worst of his crimes, he’d have been a pretty alright guy.
Around this time, Holmes hooked up with the man who would be his patsy and unwitting accomplice, Benjamin Pitezel.
With Benjamin acting as his little Igor, Holmes opened up the top two floors of his Castle as a hotel for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, that same World’s Fair in which Aunt Jemima, Juicy Fruit, caramel corn and the Ferris Wheel were introduced. Guests would check in, but their check-out would be somewhat messy. Many perished in the soundproof rooms decked out with gas lines to provide a quick death by asphyxiation. Others were left in a soundproof vault to simply run out of air. Once he was done with them, Holmes would sell their skeletons to medical schools for use in classrooms.
Some of the bodies would be hacked up and tossed in the furnace or dissolved in lime pits. Holmes would dissect them with great care, sometimes plucking an organ or two to sell to those same medical schools. A lot of people came to the World’s Fair in Chicago and simply disappeared – there’s no way of knowing how may had found their way into Holmes’ house o’ hell.
Holmes and Pitezel left Chicago after he’d slipped behind in his mortgage payments. They headed down to Fort Worth, Texas, where Holmes had hoped to build Murder Castle Part II: Now Even Murderier!. But the law enforcement in Texas was a bit too foreboding – they took to the road once more.
Holmes came up with the idea of faking his own death for some life insurance money. While spending a short time in jail for a botched horse swindle, he met Marion Hedgepeth who hooked him up with a sleazy lawyer who could help out with the scam. Holmes would actually talk his goon, Benjamin Pitezel, into faking his death for the $10,000 score. And just to make sure the story was particularly convincing, Holmes killed Pitezel.
Holmes collected his cash and took off. He told Benjamin’s wife that Ben was good, and for some reason he took three of the Pitezels’ five children with him as he fled. The two girls were found buried in a Toronto basement, while traces of the boy were scraped from an Indianapolis chimney. Around this time Holmes married his third wife, still not divorced from either of the previous two. His one mistake was forgetting to treat his fellow criminals with respect.
Holmes was supposed to float $500 to Marion Hedgepeth for having hooked him up with the scummy lawyer. He never did, so Marion ratted Holmes out in exchange for immunity. Holmes was picked up in Boston, and held at first for a horse theft in Texas. Around this time the custodian for the Chicago Castle was questioned, and he advised the authorities that he’d never been allowed to clean the upper two floors. They went to investigate.
And just like that, they had some new charges to slap on H.H. Holmes’ file.
Holmes was charged and convicted with Benjamin Pitezel’s murder, and he subsequently confessed to 30 additional killings. Three of those he claimed to have butchered were actually alive and well, so the official amount of confirmed bodies on Holmes’ shoulders was 27. But with accounts of neighbors who saw a myriad of (mostly women) guests scoot up the stairs of the hotel yet never saw them leave, and with the scads of people who went missing in Chicago around the time of the World’s Fair, it’s estimated that as many as 200 lives came to an end in Holmes’ Murder Castle.
Holmes himself was hanged in a gruesome 15-minute struggle for breath in Philadelphia in 1896. There is a post office currently standing on the site where Holmes committed his many atrocities. I wonder if the workers who clock in there every day feel the slight icy chill of all those restless departed souls.
Probably not though… well, maybe around Halloween.