Picture this – a hotel with secret rooms, hidden passages, and an insane proprietor who tortures his victims and in some cases cuts them up in bizarre surgical experiments. Imagine that this hotel owner has killed at least 27 people and maybe dozens more, including the nice old couple that ran the drug store across the street. It sounds like the makings of a summer slasher flick, right? Maybe Saw 6 or 7 or whatever they are up to now. But here’s the thing – this all really happened.
The murder hotel existed in Chicago from about 1889 to 1894. The psychopath in charge of the place was Dr. H.H. Holmes (that’s a lot of H’s), though he wasn’t a real doctor and that’s an alias he used. His real name was Herman Webster Mudgett, but most people knew him as Holmes.
Holmes’s murder spree began when he was working for Dr. E.S. Holton at the doctor’s pharmacy in Englewood, a suburb of Chicago. After Dr. Holton passed away, Holmes convinced his widow to sell the drug store to him. She then mysteriously vanished, likely one of his first victims. Holmes bought the building across from the pharmacy, a long building known as “the Castle” by neighborhood residents. He intended to refurbish it into a hotel in time for the World’s Fair in 1893.
Holmes designed the new interior of the building himself, including the hidden passages, trap doors, dungeon-like basement, and torture rooms. Some of the rooms were designed to be air tight so they could be used like a gas chamber. Others had metal walls and flame throwers built into them to burn victims to death. There was a functional crematorium and a lye pit for disposal of bodies. Holmes thought of just about everything.
Once the hotel opened, his victims were mostly female, and most came from his own staff as opposed to guests. He made his employees take out life insurance policies with him as the beneficiary, and then killed them, gaining the insurance money while feeding his murderous appetite. Most of his victims were blonde women, though he also murdered men and children.
Holmes was very creative in his killing. As mentioned above, he had makeshift gas chambers and ovens. He also had a large air-tight vault near his office where he would put victims and let them asphyxiate. He used poison on some, and most were dissected after death, their flesh flayed from the bone so that he could sell the skeletons to medical schools. Dr. Holmes was nothing if not business savvy, and eventually began selling organs as well as skeletons. The corpses he couldn’t use he would cremate or bury in the lye pit. His basement workshop was splattered with blood and bits of gore, the shelves lined with bottles of poisons, acids and all sorts of nasty chemicals. It really was like stepping into a horror movie, though there weren’t such things back then.
All good things must end, of course, and Holmes was eventually caught. He left Chicago after the World’s Fair; he couldn’t afford to pay the creditors on the hotel and he was tired of the city. He left caretakers in charge of the hotel with strict orders not to go to the upper floors (where the torture rooms were). He moved to Texas for a time, intending to create another murder hotel, but he eventually decided he didn’t like it in Texas. He ended up in St. Louis where he was arrested for a horse swindle, during which time he got the idea to make money by faking his own death.
He eventually convinced a long time friend of his, Benjamin Pitezel, to help with the scheme. Pitezel would pretend to be an inventor injured in a lab accident, and then they would fake his suicide for the insurance money. The only problem for Pitezel was that Holmes didn’t fake the death – he killed the man and collected the insurance. He then convinced Pitezel’s widow to allow three of her children to travel with him, and then simultaneously traveled with the widow. He eventually killed two of the girls in Toronto, prompting a search for him. He was tracked to Indianapolis, having recently killed the young son of Benjamin Pitezel, dismembered the corpse and burnt the remains in a cottage fireplace. Bits of teeth and bones from the boy were found. They did not catch Holmes, however.
His final downfall came when a former cellmate revealed that he was in Boston, where he was arrested on an outstanding warrant for horse theft from 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. The police investigated and found the grisly remains of Holmes’s victims. While Holmes only confessed to killing 27, police estimated that the real number might be closer to 100-200 victims, due to all the missing persons reports from that area in the years Holmes was operating the “Murder Castle”.
Holmes was found guilty of 27 counts of murder and was hung on May 7, 1896 in the Philadelphia County Prison. He did not die instantly; the rope failed to snap his neck, and reports say that he twitched for more than fifteen minutes before finally dying. His last request was to be buried in concrete so no one could dissect him as he had dissected his victims.
The hotel burned down in August of 1895, a year before Holmes was put to death. A post office is now located at the site. The last caretaker of the hotel committed suicide, and his family claims he was “haunted” for weeks prior to killing himself.