Born Herbert Webster Mudgett in May 1861, he would end up going by Henry Howard Holmes because his real name was extremely dorky. Holmes had a troubled childhood. His father was a violent drunk and his mother did nothing but read the Bible to him. Holmes himself claimed that, as a child, schoolmates forced him to view and touch a human skeleton after discovering his fear of the local doctor. The bullies initially brought him there to scare him, but instead he was utterly fascinated, and he soon became obsessed with death. Way to go bullies.
Holmes graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School in 1884. while he was enrolled there, he stole bodies from the laboratory, disfigured them, and claimed that the people were killed accidentally in order to collect insurance money from policies he took out on each deceased person. After graduating he moved to Chicago to study pharmaceuticals. It was also during this time that he operated shady businesses and real estate offices under the name H.H. Holmes. From 1878 to 1894, Holmes married three different women and took on a mistress, having a child with his second wife. Don't let the mustache fool you, Holmes was considered attractive and was very smooth with women.
So, the guy is pretty crazy already, but it's about to get much worse. While in Chicago during the summer of 1886, Holmes came across Dr. E.S. Holton's drugstore. Holton was suffering from cancer while his wife minded the store. Holmes got a job there and then convinced her to sell him the store. They agreed she could still live in the upstairs apartment even after Holton died. Once Holton died, Mrs. Holton mysteriously disappeared and Holmes told people she was visiting relatives in California. As people started asking questions about her return, he told them she enjoyed California so much that she decided to live there.
Holmes purchased a lot across from the drugstore, where he built his three-story, block-long "Castle"—as it was dubbed by those in the neighborhood. It was opened as a hotel for the World's Colombian Exposition in 1893 (Also known as The White City, picture left), with part of the structure used as commercial space. The ground floor of the Castle contained Holmes's own relocated drugstore and various shops, while the upper two floors contained his personal office and a maze of over one hundred windowless rooms with doorways opening to brick walls, oddly angled hallways, stairways to nowhere, doors openable only from the outside, and a host of other strange and labyrinthine constructions. Holmes repeatedly changed builders during the construction of the Castle so only he fully understood the design of the house, thus decreasing the chance of being reported to the police.
After the completion of the hotel, Holmes selected mostly female victims from among his employees (many of whom were required as a condition of employment to take out life insurance policies for which Holmes would pay the premiums but also be the beneficiary), lovers and hotel guests, torturing and killing them. Why did the women trust him? Like I said, he had a way with women. Some were locked in soundproof bedrooms fitted with gas lines that let him asphyxiate them at any time. Some victims were locked in a huge soundproof bank vault near his office where they were left to suffocate. The victims' bodies were dropped by secret chute to the basement, where some were meticulously dissected, stripped of flesh, crafted into skeleton models, and then sold to medical schools. Holmes also cremated some of the bodies or placed them in lime pits for destruction. Holmes had two giant furnaces as well as pits of acid, bottles of various poisons, and even a stretching rack. Through the connections he had gained in medical school, he sold skeletons and organs with little difficulty.
Realizing that creditors were closing in on him, Holmes decided to leave Chicago. He reappeared in Fort Worth, Texas, where he had inherited property from two railroad heiress sisters, one of whom he had promised marriage to and both of whom he murdered. There he sought to construct another castle along the lines of his Chicago operation. However, he soon abandoned this project, finding the law enforcement climate in Texas inhospitable. He continued to move about the United States and Canada, and while it seems likely that he continued to kill, the only bodies discovered that date from this period are those of his close business associate and three of the associate's children.
Holmes was caught and incarcerated, not for murder, but for a horse swindle. He quickly made bail, but in the time he was there he hatched a plan with an inmate to fake his own death and collect from the insurance company on his own policy. The plan failed when the insurance company became suspicious and wouldn't pay out. Holmes tried the plan again, this time with an associate named Benjamin Pitezel. Pitezel would fake his own death, making it look like a laboratory explosion and having his wife get $10,000 from the policy, which would then be split among Pitezel, Holmes, and their shady lawyer. Holmes then killed Pitezel, using his real dead body for insurance fraud. Holmes then convinced Pitezel's wife to let him have custody of three of her five children. Holmes traveled across America with the children, and escorted Mrs. Pitezel too, but along a parallel route, never telling her where her children were, though they were sometimes blocks away from each other. Law enforcement on his trail eventually found the remains of the two girls in Toronto, and then the little boy in Indianapolis. Holmes had killed the boy, chopped him into pieces and threw him into the fireplace, as police found the boys teeth and parts of his bones there.
In 1894, the Pinkertons had caught up with Holmes, being tipped off by Holmes' former cellmate whom Holmes never paid for part of the suicide deal, and was held for his outstanding horse swindling charge. The custodian for the Castle came forward and claimed that Holmes never let him clean in the upper level, leading to the police finding out about all the murders that happened in the Castle. The Castle then mysteriously burned down in August, 1895, a site that is now occupied by a U.S. Post Office building. Police estimated that Holmes had at least killed 20 people, but might have killed up to 250, as evidenced from missing person reports and testimonies from neighbors who claimed that many women that went in to the castle never came out again. Also, since this was during the World's Fair, there were many people around the area, and some didn't show up back home for one reason or another. Holmes was charged with only 27, though police admit that while going through the basement, some bodies were so badly dismembered and decomposed that it was difficult to tell how many bodies there actually were.
Holmes was put on trial for the murder of Pitezel and confessed, following his conviction, to 27 murders in Chicago, Indianapolis and Toronto, and six attempted murders. Holmes was paid $7,500 ($197,340 in today's dollars) by the Hearst Newspapers in exchange for this confession. He gave various contradictory accounts of his life, claiming initially innocence and later that he was possessed by Satan.
On May 7, 1896, Holmes was hanged at the Philadelphia County Prison. Until the moment of his death, Holmes remained calm and amiable, showing very few signs of fear, anxiety or depression. Holmes's neck did not snap immediately; he instead died slowly, twitching over 15 minutes before being pronounced dead 20 minutes after the trap had been sprung. He requested that he be buried in concrete so that no one could ever dig him up and dissect his body, as he had dissected so many others. This request was granted.
On New Year's Eve, 1910, Marion Hedgepeth, who had been pardoned for informing on Holmes, was shot and killed by a police officer during a holdup at a Chicago saloon. Then, on March 7, 1914, the Chicago Tribune reported that, with the death of the former caretaker of the Murder Castle, Pat Quinlan, "the mysteries of Holmes' Castle" would remain unexplained. Quinlan had committed suicide by taking strychnine. Quinlan's surviving relatives claimed Quinlan had been "haunted" for several months before his death and could not sleep.
Holmes today remains to be one of the lesser known serial killers, though he may be one of the deadliest. Though the story was popular at the time, being covered extensively by Hearst's newspapers, Holmes' story faded until Eric Larson's The Devil in the White City, which was about the building of the World's Fair and Holmes' Murder Castle. Leonardo DiCaprio is even slated as portraying the killer in the movie adaption of the book. Holmes is a complex character, and one seemingly without conscience from a very early age. Many still wonder what drove him to kill and swindle so many.