7 May 1896 – Dr. Harry Howard Holmes
Hotelier from hell, Dr. Harry Howard Holmes was a serial killer extraordinaire. He had the nerve to say, ‘Take your time, don’t bungle it’ to his executioner today in 1896 after he was hanged for a prolific spate of killings.
Formerly known as Herman Webster Mudgett, Holmes is credited as being America’s first known serial killer. Indeed he confessed to killing 27 people, sadly, the authorities could only confirm nine. But there are reports that he could have murdered up to 200 people including paying guests, who stayed at his hotel in the run up to the World’s Fair in Chicago.
As a child he was bullied, but an enforced close encounter with a skeleton backfired fuelled his fascination of corpses. In later life he trained to become a doctor, but there was nothing Hippocratic about his aims. He was after the money. Even as he studied, he’d take out insurance policies, then steal corpses that were intended for anatomy, disfigure them so they couldn’t be identified, and claim the insurance payouts.
Holmes’ sweet home
He wound up in Chicago where he set up home and practiced pharmacy. And it was there that his reign of terror was to unfold. Bigamy was his first crime. He was to marry three times in his life, not bothering to divorce before nabbing another spouse. Holmes even had an affair with the wife of one of his employees, who went on from his bed to become one of his victims.
But his murderous spree kicked off after he honed in on a pharmacy – his boss got cancer, so he persuaded the wife to sell him the property in return for accommodation until she died. Little did she know her life was to be cut short sooner than she thought.
Once the pharmacist had dispensed with the sitting tenant, he then slowly bought the entire block, which became known as the Castle.
He turned it into a hotel to house visitors to the World’s Fair – perfect: strangers from out of town who’d be difficult to trace. But it was like no hotel ever known – there were no windows in the rooms, pseudo-doorways with walls behind them, sound-proofed rooms and sinister dead-end stairways. He had hired and fired multiple builders along the way so that not one person, besides him, knew the layout of his death trap.
Holmes would hire female staff with the lure of a paid perk – life insurance policies – which he would eventually cash in when they mysteriously died. He’d fire staff so no-one started to ask awkward questions.
And the crimes just kept coming. Of his guests and staff, he’d torture and murder some, stash some in his bank vault and listen to them as they slowly suffocated. No method was overlooked – burning, poisoning, gassing, dismemberment, you name it, Holmes did it. He even had an illegal abortion room, where he aborted more than just unborn babies. Some bodies were cremated in his specially built furnace or erased from existence in a subterranean lime pit.
There Holmes was able to rake in the money, sending the bodies down a chute to the basement, where he’d dissect them down to their skeletons then carefully remodel them and sell the skeletons on to medical schools.
Life and death
Life was sweet for the serial killer until the economy hit a huge slump, so he moved to Texas in search of more murderous money making scams. But Texans are notoriously hard-line when it comes to crime, so he didn’t want to risk another such operation there, lucrative though it could have been. So he continued to move around – and it was a trail of business associates’ bodies that finally led the authorities to hit Holmes.
The trail led back to the Castle too, which unearthed a whole host of nasties in the basement so Holmes was imprisoned in Philadelphia, where he was finally found guilty and sentenced to death. The ‘New York Times’ was there to cover the maniac’s demise and he is said to have died slowly. Instead of the hangman’s noose breaking his neck, his death was slow and he is said to have twitched for 10 minutes before he finally died just days before he would have turned 36.
Want more? Check out John Borowski’s award winning film: H.H. Holmes: America’s First Serial Killer.