In Chicago,sometime around 1890, Mrs. Strowers started taking in the laundry of a young doctor on occasion.
One day, the doctor approached Strowers with a business proposition: if she took out a $10,000 life insurance policy on herself, with him as the beneficiary, he’d pay her $6,000. This way, he told her, he’d make a profit of $4,000 whenever she died, and she’d have several thousand dollars to spend in the meantime.
Strowers, of course, was tempted. After all, $6,000 — the equivalent of about $150,000 in 2013 — was quite a windfall for a laundress. And the doctor — a well-regarded local businessman who charmed men and women alike — seemed trustworthy enough. He assured her the entire set-up was perfectly legal.
But then, as she stood there on the verge of accepting his offer, the man leaned in close.
“Don’t be afraid of me,” he whispered.
And Strowers quickly changed her mind.
A few years later — after Dr. H.H. Holmes was caught for insurance fraud, after his “Murder Castle” was raided by police, after the bodies were found — Strowers was no doubt glad of her choice. Many others, unfortunately, were not.
Holmes is thought to have killed anywhere from 20 to 200 men, women and children in his career as one of America’s first serial killers. Many of his victims were employees, tenants and guests in the block-long boarding house and hotel he ran around the time of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. And more than a few held life insurance policies with Holmes named as the beneficiary.
In fact, in an era before CSI, SVU and the FBI, it was life insurance fraud that eventually led to Holmes’ capture — and the grisly revelations that followed.
The makings of a monster
“Holmes” wasn’t even the man’s real name. His parents — Levi, a farmer, and Theodate — gave him the much frumpier moniker of Herman Webster Mudgett when he was born in remote Gilmanton, N.H., in 1861.
There he grew up as a self-described “mother’s boy” and spent most of his days in his bedroom, poring over treasures he hid in small boxes and inventing things. He had one close friend — Tom — who was killed in a fall while the boys were playing in an abandoned house.
At 19, Mudgett enrolled in medical school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. It’s believed he paid his tuition by stealing cadavers from the school’s laboratory, arranging them so they’d look like they’d been killed in accidents and then claiming the life insurance he’d taken out on these “family members” as soon as the bodies were discovered.
Suspicious stories seemed to follow Mudgett wherever he went. In Michigan, he gained a reputation as a cad and, though he was already married, was said to have broken an engagement with a widow there.
After graduating medical school, he was hired as a school principal in Mooers Forks, N.Y., where rumors circulated that a boy seen in his company had disappeared. Mudgett denied the claims but eventually left town in the middle of the night — stiffing his boarding house owner on the bill.
In Philadelphia, Mudgett started working at a drugstore. Later, a child died after taking medicine purchased at the store. Mudgett immediately skipped town.
In 1886, Mudgett arrived in Chicago and adopted the alias of H.H. Holmes. He found a position at another drugstore, Holton Drugs in Englewood, where he worked for Mrs. Holton and her husband, who was dying of cancer.
When Mr. Holton died, Holmes kindly offered to take the burden of the store off his widow’s hands. He’d run everything for her, he said, and she could continue living in the apartment above the store.
Mrs. Holton agreed, and Holmes acquired the business at a bargain price. But when he failed to pay, Mrs. Holton filed suit. It wasn’t long before she disappeared.
Holmes told customers of the newly renamed H.H. Holmes Pharmacy that Mrs. Holton had gone to California to visit family. When she never returned, he told them she’d liked California so much, she’d decided to stay there.
The “Murder Castle”
In 1888, Holmes, using the fictitious name H.S. Campbell, purchased a large parcel of land across the street from his drugstore.
Englewood was booming at the time, and after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, lodging was still scarce. Holmes envisioned building a three-story structure on the lot, with a drugstore and retail shops on the bottom and apartments he could rent out to his employees and lodgers above. And a basement, of course. Definitely a basement.
Ever frugal, Holmes devised a way to have his building constructed cheaply while also keeping questions about extra features — say, hinged walls, trap doors, gas chambers — to a minimum. He’d hire workers through newspaper ads and, once they’d finished a portion of the work, he’d complain that it was shoddy and refuse to pay them. The workers would quit in anger, Holmes would hire new people to replace them, and the whole scenario would be repeated.
Even with the regular turnover, which also worked to keep anyone from learning the entire demented floor plan, Holmes aroused suspicions.
“I don’t know what to make of Holmes,” one bricklayer later recounted. “I hadn’t been working for him but two days before he came around and asked me if I didn’t think it pretty hard work, this bricklaying. He asked me if I wouldn’t like to make money easier than that, and of course I told him yes.
“A few days after, he came over to me and, pointing down to the basement, said, ‘You see that man down there? Well, that’s my brother-in-law, and he has got no love for me, neither have I for him. Now, it would be the easiest matter for you to drop a stone on that fellow’s head while you’re at work and I’ll give you fifty dollars if you do.’”
The bricklayer declined — and moved on to other work as soon as he could.
When the work was complete, Holmes furnished his building by buying fixtures on credit and then hiding them (sometimes in the building’s many secret rooms and passages) when his creditors came to repossess them.
It’s said Holmes once had a safe installed in his building and narrowed the room’s doorway afterward. When nonpayment forced its repossession, Holmes told the man he was free to take the safe back — as long as he didn’t damage the room in the process, of course.
Besides the drugstore, Holmes managed other ventures, as well, most of them fraudulent. He peddled a phony cure for alcoholism. He claimed to have invented a machine that turned water into natural gas. He sold miracle mineral water from a “natural spring” in his basement until the water company threatened legal action for tampering with its mains.
And to run all these businesses, Holmes was in constant need of help. He took out newspaper ads for employees, lodgers and — though he was already married to two different women at the time — potential wives.
He hired women of a certain type — young, pretty girls from small towns, experiencing independent city life for the first time. He often had them photographed “in the pose and dress affected by actresses” and displayed the portraits in his apartments. It’s estimated as many as 150 young women worked for him, usually as stenographers or notaries.
Purchasing a life insurance policy with Holmes as the beneficiary was often a condition of employment. Holmes, very generously, offered to pay the premiums.
When one of the young women would disappear, as would happen on occasion, Holmes would claim she had tired of city life and moved back to the country. Or she had run off with a young suitor to elope, he’d say. He corresponded with at least a few worried parents, assuring them he’d keep an eye out for their daughters.
Sometimes, when new tenants moved into one of Holmes’s apartments, they’d find belongings left behind — things like a sweater hanging on the back of a chair or a half-finished cup of tea — as if the previous owner hadn’t planned on leaving.
The World’s Fair
When Chicago was selected to host the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, a fair marking the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the New World, Holmes saw an opportunity to lure even more people to his lodgings.
With his building located just blocks from the fair site, Holmes hurried to convert it into a hotel for some of the millions of sightseers expected to stream into Chicago for the six-month event.
More than 27 million people attended the fair, marveling at buildings with elevators and dozens of new inventions, including the zipper, shredded wheat and a contraption that terrified many: the Ferris wheel.
Hotels charged exorbitant rates. Criminals took advantage of country folk. And Holmes was able to do both. Accounts vary, but it’s estimated that at least 50 of Holmes’ hotel guests never checked out.
However, the conversion of Holmes’ building into a hotel had put him into debt with even more creditors. And after the fair ended that fall, Holmes set fire to an upper story of his castle and tried to collect on a $60,000 insurance policy — arousing the suspicions of an insurance inspector.
With repo men and insurance reps beginning to dig into his affairs, Holmes fled Chicago.
The end … sort of
Holmes’ ultimate capture came after, like every action movie villain in history, he talked too much. While sitting in a St. Louis jail after a horse swindle gone wrong, Holmes told a fellow inmate about a life insurance scam he was planning to run with a longtime partner of his, Benjamin Pitezel.
Shortly before being bailed out, Holmes promised the inmate a share of the proceeds if he could direct Holmes to a trustworthy lawyer. The inmate, of course, did so.
With the lawyer’s help, Pitezel and Holmes’ first attempt at the scam, using a cadaver, failed. On their second try, the pair decided to give Pitezel an alias, insure him and then fake his death. A knocked-out Pitezel would be used to convince witnesses, and Holmes would switch Pitezel’s still-live body with a cadaver at the first opportunity.
But, Holmes being Holmes, he scrapped the plan, killed Pitezel and made it look like a suicide. Holmes had the insurance payout within days. He gave the attorney his cut; told Pitezel’s widow (who still believed Pitezel was secretly alive somewhere) that he would “invest” her cut for her; and stiffed the St. Louis inmate.
Angry, the inmate tipped off the cops, who reported it to an insurance investigator, who enlisted the help of a Pinkerton detective to track Holmes, who was arrested in Boston on the horse swindle warrant. From there, the case exploded.
Detectives discovered that, following the insurance scam, Holmes had been traveling around the country with three of Pitezel’s young children, who were now missing. Their mother was worried.
As a multi-state manhunt for the missing kids commenced, police in Chicago entered Holmes’ building in Englewood. They were stunned by what they found.
On the second floor, there were staircases that led to nowhere and blind passageways. A trap door in Holmes’ bathroom led to a windowless cubicle between floors — from there, a wooden chute dropped straight to the cellar. There was an airtight gas chamber next to his office. The doors to all the rooms were wired with alarms, which rang a buzzer in Holmes’ apartment.
Things got worse in the basement. A vat of acid held eight ribs and part of a skull. There was a dissection table, some charred high heels, a ball of women’s hair wrapped carefully in cloth. A crematorium had been built into the wall; human hair clotted the stovepipe. Police unearthed two buried vaults filled with quicklime and bodies.
Not long after, detectives found the Pitezel children, who were, perhaps unsurprisingly, not alive. Nellie and Alice were buried side by side in the cellar of a house Holmes had rented in Toronto. Howard’s charred bones were uncovered in the stove of a house in suburban Indianapolis.
Holmes was soon charged with the murder of Benjamin Pitezel, and his trial commenced. According to one account of the case’s proceedings, after a morning of testimony about bodily fluids and body decomposition, Holmes stood and said, “I would ask that the court be adjourned for sufficient time for lunch.” Later, District Attorney George Graham called Holmes “the most dangerous man in the world.”
The jury found Holmes guilty, and he was hung on May 7, 1896. He was buried according to his instructions: in a coffin filled with cement, in a double grave filled with even more cement. No stone marks his plot in Philadelphia’s Holy Cross Cemetery.
But his legacy didn’t end there. Not long after Holmes’ death, the detective who tracked down the Pitezel children’s remains became gravely ill. The warden of Moyamensing prison committed suicide. The priest who delivered Holmes’ last rites died of mysterious causes. The district attorney’s office burned down — though a photo of Holmes survived unscathed. A Holmes Curse, some said.
A post office now occupies the former spot of Holmes’ building, which burned down under suspicious circumstances not long after the police raided it. Postal workers and customers have reported strange noises and sightings. Some Chicagoans say their dogs won’t walk on that side of the street.
Much has been written about Holmes — from his memoir (composed in prison as a stunt to win public sympathy) to the 2003 best-seller “Devil in the White City.” (Leonardo DiCaprio is slated to play Holmes in the movie version of “Devil.”)
Yet, given the number of lies Holmes told, the often-sensational journalism of the era, and the antiquated police work and record keeping of the time, the man is still a mystery. What’s true and what’s myth at this point? Was he Jack the Ripper, as Holmes’ great, great, great grandson now claims? How many people did he kill, exactly?
It’s likely we’ll never know.
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