The Case of Hermann Mudgett (Dr. Henry Holmes)
Hermann Webster Mudgett was born into a strict Methodist family on May 16, 1860, in Gilmanton, an isolated village in New Hampshire’s Lake District. His father, Levi, was a strict disciplinarian. Hermann was a “delicately built boy, blue-eyed and brown haired, with a reputation as ‘the brightest lad in town’ ... his father ... beat the boy with savage regularity” (Schechter, 2003, p. 180). The beating was often followed by a day of confinement in the attic with neither food nor speech. Hermann was also often bullied by his peers. On one occasion they grabbed him, dragged him into the office of the village doctor, who was out on a call, and forced his face into the hands of the skeleton the doctor used for demonstrations. Though hysterically traumatized, Hermann later said this incident led to his interest in anatomy. By age 11, he was “experimenting” by dissecting live animals and keeping a collection of their bones. His closest and possibly only childhood friend was killed in a suspicious “fall” while the two of them were playing in an abandoned house. Hermann was standing just behind him before he fell.
Hermann graduated from high school at age 16 and at age 17 married Clara Lovering, who had some wealth. He used much of her money and rather quickly abandoned her. Hermann decided to become a physician. He enrolled in a small college in Burlington, Vermont, but quickly transferred to the University of Michigan when he learned they had begun using the then-controversial practice of dissecting cadavers. While there, he developed a scam wherein he would purchase insurance policies on a faked individual, steal a corpse, and then claim the settlement when these “family members” suffered disfiguring “deaths,” preventing accurate identification of the bodies. After graduating in 1884 with a medical degree from Michigan, he moved around, first running a business, working as a “keeper of an insane asylum,” and then working as a pharmacist. As he traveled around, an uncommon number of unexplained deaths occurred in his vicinity, but he was never suspected.
He eventually settled in Chicago. At age 26, he formally registered himself as Henry Howard Holmes when he passed the licensing exam as a pharmacist and used that name from then on. He started to work at the Holton Pharmacy in Englewood, a section of Chicago. Eventually, he bought the business from Mr. Holton’s widow but reneged on the payments. She took him to court, but then, although she was old and frail, he reported that she suddenly “moved out West,” never to be heard from again.
Holmes then bought the land across the street in order to build his “Castle.” He employed over 500 workers in order that, with the exception of his “assistant” Benjamin Pitezal, no one worker had any real idea of the purpose of the Castle. The Castle had many hidden peepholes, various soundproof chambers, hidden gas jets in the guest rooms, several rooms ideal for surgery, a 3′ × 3′ × 8′ oven that would fire at 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit “for bending glass,” various body-sized chutes leading to the cellar, which had several steel-lined acid vats and a lime pit. He obtained most of his victims (most commonly young females) through want ads, or he killed those visiting the Castle, including at least 50 visitors to the Colombian Exposition (or World’s Fair) in 1893. He eventually killed most of the people who were close to him at one point or another. Although no one knows for sure, it is estimated that he killed at least 200 people. Many were used in his insurance scams or were rendered down to bones that were then reassembled as skeletons and sold to physicians or medical schools or were simply killed and discarded, which he later admitted was for the pleasure of killing.
Dr. Holmes’s many scams and his consistent avoidance of paying his bills finally caught up with him in the fall of 1893. A collection agent arranged a meeting with Holmes and over 20 of his creditors. He was charming and responsive during the meeting and then left Chicago the next day. He moved from city to city until he was arrested in Boston in November 1894. During the period he moved about, he killed numerous people, including the person who had been closest to him, Benjamin Pitezal. He had taken out an insurance policy on Pitezal, telling him he would fake his death. Instead, he poured gasoline on Pitezal, burned him alive, then poured a caustic solvent on his face and left him in the sun to make it look like an accident. He went on to kill Pitezal’s three children separately, over a period of time. Shortly thereafter, Holmes was arrested but was relieved to realize it was for insurance fraud and not murder. He pled guilty on May 28, 1895, and faced only a few months in jail.
Meanwhile, however, a Philadelphia police detective, Frank Geyer, continued the investigation of Pitezal’s missing children. He visited various cities Holmes had moved through, including Fort Worth, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Toronto, and several smaller cities. Geyer was able to find evidence that the children had been killed in separate cities, and based on this evidence the Chicago police searched the Castle. In addition to the horrors included in the original building, they found that Dr. Holmes continued to devise and use new torture devices, including an “Elasticity Determinator” designed to stretch the human body to twice its normal size. Holmes did confess to killing 27 people (Schechter, 2003) but as noted here, it was likely many, many more. Philadelphia indicted and convicted Holmes for killing Benjamin Pitezal and hanged him on May 7, 1896. As the hangman prepared the noose, Holmes joked to him, “Take your time, old man. I’m in no hurry.”