So, 12 decades ago this month . . .
. . . If any house in America should ever be legitimately haunted, the one located at 601 West 63rd Street on Chicago’s South Side, certainly could have been.
Before it was leveled in 1938, the building was simply known as “The Murder Castle” to the local folks. To this day, 78 years later, no one knows how many poor souls were murdered by the doctor who built the place and then made it a point to prowl the hallways. Investigators suspect as many as 100 people walked in but never walked out. Most – but not all – were women. It is believed that they were asphyxiated by gas, or choked or beaten to death. Their bodies were destroyed in basement pits poured full of quicklime and acids. Some of their skeletons and body parts were sold to medical schools by their med-school-trained murderer, who became quite the expert in profiting from the deaths of innocents.
And the expert? Well, he went by the name of Doctor Henry Howard Holmes, although his real name was Herman Webster Mudgett.
Seen from the street, what became known as The Murder Castle was simply a huge unattractive building that took up half a city block – one of the architectural monstrosities frequently found in large cities in the 1890s. But the interior – multi-floored with nearly 100 rooms; honeycombed as it was with secret passageways and walled-up rooms and doors that led to nowhere – was the epitome of a seriously nightmarish abode.
It is quite true – looking back – that Doctor H.H. Holmes is well-deserving of his rank as America’s first known serial killer. And the fact that he was trained as a surgeon merely made him a more efficient killing machine. Historians like to reserve the term “monster” for an especially nasty few. A human “monster” ranks above lesser criminals and lesser killers. A monster must meet certain spooky-movie requirements. The poor victims – for one – must be killed over and over in predictable ways; they must be numerous and preferably attractive females; surely the killer will do macabre things to their innocent bodies. The monster ideally inhabits a foreboding house. And finally, he should be some type of “mad scientist” working away feverishly well into the dark of night.
And it just so happened that the monster of The Murder Castle possessed all these qualifications and more. He was – they say – a surprisingly nimble swindler; a cheat and a forgerer. He was extremely well-dressed and always well-spoken. He pyramided money by pulling fraud after fraud on anybody with cash. Young, good-looking and funny, he conned business men and seduced lovely young women right out of their shoes – at least three of whom were unknowingly married to him at the same time. Holmes was a practitioner of hypnosis; a fancier of the occult; a devious liar; a skillful manipulator of surprisingly convoluted scams. But above all, he was a killing machine:
- He caused the disappearance of a little boy in Mooers Fork, New York
- He killed another little boy in Philadelphia with drugs
- He murdered the widow Holton and her young daughter, too
- He killed his mistress, Julie Conner, who was married to one of his employees. He killed her young daughter Pearl too, and sold their skeletons to medical schools
- Killed his fiancée Emeline Cigrand and sold her bones to LaSalle University Medical School
- He murdered his girlfriend Minnie Williams and her sister Annie, too
- He killed his best friend Benjamin Pitezel and all three of his children
- He killed untold dozens of hotel guests
All of this and a whole lot more, accomplished before age 35, when he was finally convicted and hanged.
The best guess is that Holmes’s murder spree began when he was hired by Doctor E.S. Holton, who owned a pharmacy on Chicago’s South Side. Not long after he started working there, oddly, Doctor Holton passed away. Holmes convinced the widow to sell the drug store to him. Once the papers were filed, Mrs. Holton mysteriously vanished. Holmes told everyone who knew her that the widow had moved to California to live with relatives. Unfortunately, she left no forwarding address. He was as sad at her departure as they were. They all agreed she was a wonderful lady.
Historians now believe the Holtons were very likely Holmes first victims. Oh, sure, he had been caught stealing cadavers while attending University of Michigan’s medical school. But those people were already dead. So after he owned the pharmacy, he bought the property across the street. He told everyone he intended to built a hotel in time for the World’s Fair in 1893. And he did. He was really looking forward to filling his hotel with happy guests.
Holmes designed the strange interior himself. He had construction crews install secret passages, trap doors, a dungeon-like basement and torture rooms. Some of the rooms were designed to be air tight so they would function as gas chambers. Others had metal walls and flame-throwers built into them to burn victims to death. There was a crematorium and an acid pit for disposal of bodies. It was all coming together.
After the “hotel” opened, Holmes had to hire more staff – nearly all female. The doctor had them take out life insurance policies, naming him the beneficiary. Most of his unknowing victims were blonde women with no local families. They were excited to work for the handsome young doctor. And he didn’t even charge them rent!
And then he started killing them, one by one. And the insurance checks came rolling in – one by one. Life was grand. The suits and bowler hats he wore were made of the finest materials to be found in Chicago.
The doctor particularly enjoyed getting creative murdering people. And of course he had his gas chambers and ovens for disposal. He frequently used his large, air-tight vault near his office, where he would send staff members in to gather a file, then lock them in until they just stopped breathing. He used poison sometimes too, and when they were dead – usually at night – he would flay their flesh from the bone so he could sell the skeletons to medical schools. The doctor soon discovered he could sell the organs too. Anything he couldn’t use would be cremated or dessicated in the acid pit in the dungeon. After his arrest, police were horrified to discover his basement workshop splattered with blood and bits of flesh. He had shelves with bottles of poisons, acids and some truly nasty chemicals. He had a table “stretch-rack” for torture.
All gleeful endeavors must come to an end, of course, and Holmes’ days as a free man were numbered. The smell of the crematorium had the neighborhood talking, for one thing. He left Chicago after the World’s Fair because he couldn’t afford to pay the creditors. He put caretakers in charge of the building with strict orders not to venture to the top floor, or the basement. That’s where the torture rooms were. He moved to Texas for a time, intending to create another murder hotel, but he really didn’t like Texas much. He ended up in St. Louis, where he was arrested for a previous horse theft, during which time he got the idea to make money by faking his own death. But by this time insurance companies had noticed an awful lot of people had named him their policy beneficiaries.
Holmes’ downfall came when a former cellmate revealed that he was in Boston, where he was arrested on an outstanding warrant for the horse theft in Texas. As police dug into Holmes’s background, they learned from the custodians of the Chicago hotel that they were never allowed to clean the top floor or the basement. The police investigated and found the macabre remains of Holmes’ victims.
In jail for over a year, eventually Holmes grew weary of the cage in which he sat. He knew full well he would never see daylight again. So he confessed to 27 murders. But because of all the missing person reports in the years Holmes was operating the “Murder Castle,” law enforcement believed the true number might be closer to 100-200 victims. He was found guilty of the 27 killings he admitted to, and was hanged on May 7, 1896 at the Philadelphia County Prison.
The doctor’s very last request was to be buried in concrete. He was terrified that he might be dug up by profiteers and dissected after death. After all, he knew how dehumanizing dissection could be. It was downright Satanic.
Stranger than strange to the very end, the top floors of “The Murder Castle” – where the nastiest of deeds occurred – were destroyed by a mysterious fire in August 1895, a year before Holmes was put to death.
Just as strange, the last caretaker of the hotel committed suicide. His family reported to police that the poor man was “haunted” for weeks and weeks. He had to kill himself to stop all the screaming he could hear, behind doors where no one was.
And so he did. And that made the poor caretaker the very last victim of Doctor H.H. Holmes. He was murdered by a Lucifer in a lab coat.
For those interested, here’s more: