Wednesday, October 12, 2016

HISTORY’S RICH WITH MYSTERIES: "H. H. HOLMES – A Man and His Murder Castle" by Earl Staggs

Texas author Earl Staggs is back this month with his latest “History’s Rich With Mysteries” guest blog. This time he considers the case of H. H. HOLMES – A Man and His Murder Castle. 


When I look at the past, I find stories about people which fascinate me, particularly those in which there is a curious mixture of fact, legend, and mysterious uncertainty. In this series of articles, I want to explore some of those stories. I think of them as mysteries swaddled in legend. While truth is always desired in most things, truth easily becomes staid and boring. Legend, on the other hand, forever holds a hint of romanticism and an aura of excitement borne of adventure, imagination and, of course, mystery.

H. H. HOLMES – A Man and His Murder Castle
by Earl Staggs

H. H. Holmes confessed to killing twenty-seven people, and some feel he may have killed two hundred or more in the US and Canada. He began his life of crime as a bigamist and a successful scam artist, but he would progress to become one of America’s first serial killers and possibly the most prolific. 

He was born Herman Webster Mudgett on May 16, 1861, in Gilmonton, New Hampshire. Considered a highly intelligent boy, he expressed an interest in medicine. There were early signs of what he would become. He reportedly practiced surgery on animals. It is also possible he was responsible for the death of a friend. After graduating high school at the age of sixteen, he took teaching jobs in nearby towns and soon married Clara Lovering, the first of his three wives.

At the age of eighteen, he enrolled in the University of Vermont, but left after only one year and entered the University of Michigan's medical school. He graduated in June 1884. While attending school, he took out life insurance policies on people he knew, presented cadavers he had stolen as their remains, and collected on the policies. He may have also used the bodies for experiments.

His marriage quickly fell apart, and he abandoned his wife and their son. He spent the next couple of years working various jobs in several cities and continued with his scams. When he feared he might get caught, he moved to Chicago in 1886 and changed his name. While he used a number of aliases, he was most commonly known as Henry Howard (or “H. H.”) Holmes.

In Chicago, he found a job in a drugstore owned by Everett Holton. Not long after Holmes went to work for him, Holton died, allegedly from natural causes. Within weeks, Holton's wife sold the store to Holmes, and then she mysteriously disappeared. The store provided Holmes with cash to continue scamming. One of his enterprises was selling an “elixir” out of the store which was nothing but tap water.


In 1888, he began building a massive, elaborate, block-long hotel which local residents called “The Castle.” Later, when it became known that Holmes murdered a large number of people inside it, the imposing structure became known as “The Murder Castle.”

Holmes hired carpenters, electricians, and other workers to complete the building, but fired them after they completed one room. That way, no one knew all the features he designed into the place.

While the third floor seemed normal for a hotel, other floors featured narrow, maze-like hallways with doors and stairways leading to nowhere. There were blind passageways, hinged walls, false partitions, rooms with no doors and rooms with many doors. There were other doors leading to various kinds of torture chambers. One secret room could only be entered through a trapdoor in the ceiling. Victims were locked in and left to die of hunger. Another door opened onto a chute which went to the basement. This provided for easy and convenient body disposal. He installed an alarm system on all the bedroom doors which alerted him whenever someone left their room. Holmes also had gas lines inside the walls running to the bedrooms. He would turn on the gas at night when his victims were asleep. The bedrooms walls were lined with asbestos to silence their screams.

The basement was described as a medieval torture dungeon with chains and other means of restraints, a stretching rack, acids vats, and lime pits. There was also a crematorium disguised as a glass furnace, and many of his victims are believed to have been burned to ashes. He stripped the bodies of some victims down to skeletons and sold them to medical schools and universities.

There was no shortage of victims. In 1893, The World’s Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair, opened and from then on, millions of tourists per year came to see the amazing exhibits and buildings which were left in place. Holmes' hotel offered attractive lodging for unsuspecting tourists, especially elderly men and women. Some left the castle unharmed while many were tortured and killed. He reportedly seduced a number of women, became engaged to them, and after he took all their money, his fiancees would suddenly and strangely disappear.

Others were lured in by the offer of employment. He chose victims from his female staff. They were required to take out life insurance policies with Holmes as the beneficiary. He paid the premiums and collected on the policies after he killed them.

Though slight of stature, he was well-educated and mannered, and had no problem attracting female admirers. In fact, he was quite the lady’s man. At one point, he was married to three women at once and somehow kept each unaware of the others. Strangely enough, no harm came to his wives, but several mistresses disappeared without a trace.

One of his mistresses, Julia Smythe, became pregnant and pressured Holmes to marry her. He said he would, but first she had to agree to let him perform an abortion. Instead of an abortion, he gave her an overdose of chloroform, killing her.

Shortly after that, Holmes sold a skeleton to the university for $200.

Another mistress, Emmaline Cegrand, also worked as his personal secretary. After he grew tired of her, he asked her to retrieve a document from an airtight, sealed room, and locked her inside it so she would suffocate.

Once again, Holmes had a skeleton to sell.

Holmes kept busy with his various scams during the day and slaughtering people at night. His adventures eventually led him to spend time in Fort Worth, St. Louis, Indianapolis, and other cities as well as in Canada, usually with a mistress or an accomplice along for assistance. His big mistake came when he failed to pay one of his accomplices. The accomplice told all he knew to the police. Holmes was pursued by the Pinkerton Detective Agency to Boston where he was arrested on November 17, 1894, and charged with murder and fraud.

When the police entered the Murder Castle, they found piles of bones, blood-stained torture implements, and other evidence of the horrors that took place there. They had a long list of names of people who had gone missing from the World's Fair and traced fifty of them to the Murder Castle. They suspected even more had lost their lives there, but identifying them was impossible because of the manner of death and disposal of the victims.

During his sensational trial, Holmes was dubbed the Monster of 63rd Street, The Torture Doctor, The Modern Bluebeard, The Mighty Murderer, and The Beast of Chicago. At the time, he was more famous than Jack the Ripper.

During his trial, Holmes confessed to twenty-seven murders. The correct number may well have been two hundred or more. No one knows for sure.

On May 7, 1896, H. H. Holmes was hanged, nine days before his thirty-fifth birthday.

It's interesting that when the gallows trap sprung, his neck didn't snap as it was supposed to. He twitched for more than fifteen agonizing minutes as he slowly strangled to death. Some people felt it was a just end for a monster.

There have been a number of books and movies on the life of H. H. Holmes. One book, The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, will be the basis of a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Holmes. Martin Scorcese will direct.

The author/editor/critic Anthony Boucher (after whom Bouchercon, the annual mystery conference sponsored by Mystery Writers of America was named) used the pseudonym H.H. Holmes for some of his works. When asked why he used that name, he explained, “. . .most of my friends assumed that ‘H.H. Holmes’ was derived from the great Sherlock. Not so. Holmes was an alias for one of the outstanding criminals of the century, Herman W. Mudgett. Later, I used Mudgett’s real name for some of my printed verse.”

An attempt to burn the Murder Castle to the ground took place in 1895. Some felt it was an attempt by Holmes' supporters to destroy evidence of his crimes. Others felt a few enraged citizens wanted to destroy the building so it could not be turned into a tourist attraction. The castle survived the fire, however, and remained in place until 1938 when it was torn down. A branch of the US Postal Service now occupies the space.

If it's true H. H. Holmes killed two hundred or more people, he surpassed the total killed by Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, Gary Ridgway, and Ted Bundy combined. How can one human being take the lives of so many others? Perhaps the answer to that question is hidden somewhere in our DNA. Or maybe there's a code imbedded in our brain waves.  Whatever it is, we might someday know the answer and be able to determine very early in their life if someone is predestined to becoming a serial killer. Hopefully, we would also have the ablity to cure that person and prevent it from happening.

Earl Staggs ©2016
Texas author Earl Staggs earned all Five Star reviews for his novels MEMORY OF A MURDER and JUSTIFIED ACTION and has twice received a Derringer Award for Best Short Story of the Year. He served as Managing Editor of Futures Mystery Magazine, as President of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, and is a frequent speaker at conferences and seminars.

He invites any comments via email at

He also invites you to visit his blog site at to learn more about his novels and stories.


Susan Oleksiw said...

That's quite a story. I'd heard the name but not the rest of it. The fact that he built that creepy, horrid castle, with all those details and features, suggests he was truly deranged.

Kevin R. Tipple said...

It boggles the mind.

Kaye George said...

I was spellbound by The Devil in the White City, having been to many of those Chicago places. In fact, we went to the place that housed the Columbian Exposition almost every summer as children to see the museums there. I'm glad I didn't know this then!

Polly Iyer said...

I know The Devil in the White City was praised, but I quit halfway through. Maybe, like Kaye, I needed a familiarity to Chicago to ground me in the story. I'd be interested in seeing the movie though.

jrlindermuth said...

Another interesting tale, Earl. I, too, was familiar with it from Devil in the White City.

Reine said...

Excuse me, please, while I go have a nightmare.

Jacqueline Seewald said...


That is truly chilling. I'd never heard of this creepy character before.

Earl Staggs said...

Susan, he was deranged, for sure. Oddly, enough, it didn't show. He had no trouble charming people into his various scams, and women seemed to find him attractive. He had three wives (at the same time)and a number of mistresses.

Earl Staggs said...

Kaye, it's easier for you to visualize since you've been there. I'd like to visit there someday, but I'd be looking over my shoulder the whole time.

Earl Staggs said...

Polly, I haven't read the book, but I understand it's as much about building the White City as it is about Holmes. The movie should be a good one.

Earl Staggs said...

Kevin, are you saying your mind is more boggled than usual?

Earl Staggs said...

John, I'm anxious to see the movie. DiCaprio and Scorcese make a great team.

Earl Staggs said...

Sorry for the nightmare, Reine. I'll probably have a few myself just thinking about what this guy did.

Earl Staggs said...

Jacquellne, I wasn't familiar with him myself until recently. He certainly was creepy and chilling. It's sometimes hard to believe what he and a few others did.

Barry Ergang said...

Robert Bloch of Psycho fame was among those who wrote novels about Holmes. In Bloch's case it was American Gothic.

Earl Staggs said...

A lot has been written about Holmes, Barry, yet most people have never heard of him. That could change when DiCaprio and Scorcese get the movie done.