Dr. H.H. Holmes & the “Murder Castle”

posted: 5 February 2021 | categories: Conspiracies, Killer Men, Serial Killers

H. H. Holmes.jpg
Dr. H.H. Holmes
mugshot taken c. 1895
image: Wikipedia/public domain

The man built himself a literal killing house. Is it depraved and maniacal? Absolutely. But one has to have a grudging respect for the dedication to his craft. Okay, maybe not. But it is a big part of Holme’s infamy. And is it even true?

First, a little background on Holmes…

Born Herman Webster Mudgett, he was born circa 1861 into a fairly wealthy family. But affluent or not, by all accounts, his childhood was fraught with dysfunction and violence. His parents were devoutly religious, his father an alcoholic. Discipline in the family usually involved beatings and being locked away in the attic for infractions of the family’s strict rules. Holmes also claims to have been bullied throughout his childhood, targeted for his intelligence, small size, and odd interests. [1]“Married to a Murderer, H.W. Mudgett.” New England Historical Society, https://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/married-to-murderer-h-w-mudgett/. Odd interests such as being obsessed with death, medicine, and surgery. Interests that led him both to the study of medicine and several scams of insurance fraud.

The “Murder Castle”

In 1893, Chicago hosted the World’s Fair. That year’s fair was notable for a lot of reasons, not just its connection to H.H. Holmes. It’s sometimes called the “Colombian Exposition” because it celebrated Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the Americas 400 years prior. It also hosted an exhibit that featured the Daimler quadricyle, the country’s first gas-powered motorcar, not to mention a statue of Venus de Milo that was sculpted out of chocolate and weighed almost a ton.[2]“Murder Castle.” History, 13 July 2017, https://www.history.com/topics/crime/murder-castle.

But it was the Murder Castle that became the most well-known. As the story goes, Holmes lured more than 200 people to the Castle during the World Fair.

Holmes purchased an empty lot and built his Murder Castle. Purportedly, it was a veritable maze of hallways, secret passages, staircases, and rooms. There were claims that the entire house was rigged with death traps like acid pits, gas chambers, and more. Some rooms were rumored to have trapdoors that would deliver victims to the building’s basement, where he would surgically experiment on them before feeding them to his own crematorium.[3]“Murder Castle.” History, 13 July 2017, https://www.history.com/topics/crime/murder-castle.


There is very little evidence to support a lot of these “Murder Castle” claims, and a lot to suggest that reports were largely embellished, if not outright fabricated. That period of time has become well known for its indulgence in yellow journalism, the practice of sensationalizing and exaggerating stories.[4]Little, Becky. “Did Serial Killer H.H. Holmes Really Build a ‘Murder Castle’?.” History, 23 Jan. 2020, https://www.history.com/news/murder-castle-h-h-holmes-chicago.

Which is rather disappointing, in my opinion.

However, while the castle and all that happened within its walls may not be accurately known, there is no doubt that Dr. H.H. Holmes is a serial killer, just with a far lower body count of victims to his name. There were likely at least nine victims, all of them known to Holmes. That’s still a significant number of murders, but not quite the 200+ once suggested. They included a mistress and her daughter, his business partner and three of his children, another mistress, and an actress and her sister.[5]Little, Becky. “Did Serial Killer H.H. Holmes Really Build a ‘Murder Castle’?.” History, 23 Jan. 2020, https://www.history.com/news/murder-castle-h-h-holmes-chicago.

A few interesting side notes…

In addition to being a murderer and a con artist, he was also married to three women… at the same time[6]“Married to a Murderer, H.W. Mudgett.” New England Historical Society, https://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/married-to-murderer-h-w-mudgett/.. First came Clara Loverling, whom he married on July 4th, 1878 and later had a son with. Then came Myrta Belknapin 1887, whom he married a few weeks before filing for divorce from Clara. Even then, the divorce was never finalized. And finally, Homes married Georgiana Yoke in 1894.[7]Hirschlag, Allison. “9 Things You Didn’t Know About America’s First Serial Killer, H.H. Holmes.” Mental Floss, 16 May 2017, … Continue reading

H.H. Holmes’ name change came when he moved to Chicago. It is rumored that choice of “Holmes” as a surname was an homage to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes character.[8]Killelea, Eric. “Serial Killer H.H. Holmes’ Body Exhumed: What We Know.” Rolling Stone, 4 May 2017, … Continue reading And why did he change his name? To avoid exposure because of the myriad of scams he’d perpetrated.[9]Schechter, Harold, and Thomas Cronin, writer. H.H. Holmes: America’s First Serial Kill. , Waterfront Productions, 2004.

In 2017, Holme’s coffin was exhumed per the request of his descendents. Although he was supposed to have been executed by hanging just days before his 35th birthday in 1896, there have been long-standing rumors that, the con artist that he was, he escaped execution. Conspiracy theories have abounded in the intervening years. There were stories that soon after the hanging, an undertaker’s wagon took away the body, which was still alive. Another story, authored by a one-time employee of Holmes, claimed that his boss had bribed his way out of the execution. (It’s interesting to note the Holmes had claimed to have murdered this employee… before the accusation was made.) The family wanted those rumors to end. Ironically, Holmes requested to be buried in a “double-deep coffin.” one covered with cement in order to prevent tampering with his remains.[10]Killelea, Eric. “Serial Killer H.H. Holmes’ Body Exhumed: What We Know.” Rolling Stone, 4 May 2017, … Continue reading DNA testing proved that the remains within the grave were indeed those of H.H. Holmes.[11]Associated Press. “Exhumation Confirms Gravesite of Notorious Chicago Serial Killer H.H. Holmes.” Chicago Tribune, 1 Sept. 2017, Chicago Tribune, … Continue reading

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