All Photos Courtesy of the Wikimedia Foundation using a share/share alike agreement.
On the first day of school every year, I tell my students that “history isn’t always pretty.” I explain to them that there is a dark side to our past, and I usually am referring to popular and historically important events such as battles and political assassinations. Recently, I have noticed a massive increase in the interest in the dark side, which is why I have collected these stories and begun working on my website. Some of the most popular and most researched historical figures are serial killers. Why are we obsessed with learning about serial killers? I have a theory; I feel that the “normal” folks in life become obsessed with learning about these people because we want to know what makes them tick. What causes a person to go so far off the deep end? I don’t pretend to be a psychologist, but I do know that there are many of you out there who enjoy learning about these black sheep of society. One of my good friends, Lindsay, loves learning about serial killers. When I told her that I was doing a feature on early serial killers, I asked her why she loves learning about them so much? To paraphrase her response, she feels like there is something to be learned from these dark people, the psychology involved in understanding the truly twisted can maybe help us spot killers before they strike. With her background in psychology, she finds it fascinating to explore how people can be so truly twisted. Today, we will discuss someone believed to be one of the earliest American serial killers, Dr. H.H. Holmes.
Herman Webster Mudgett was a failed medical student from the University of Michigan when he discovered that he could use his access to medical cadavers to his advantage. One of Mudgett’s favorite swindles was to take out life insurance claims on cadavers and pocket the premiums. While this did work a few times, Mudgett soon became a person of interest for these frauds, and he began his transformation. Changing his name to Henry Howard Holmes, Mudgett married three women and remained married to them for the rest of his days. Three wives spread throughout the Midwest and the eastern United States, Holmes was drawn to the center of the United States in the early 1890s, Chicago.
When Holmes arrived in Chicago, he soon found work at a local drug store and was a model employee. Soon, Holmes bought the Drugstore and the property across the street from his employer and began work on his grand idea for the upcoming World Fair in 1893; he would have a giant “castle” near the Fair that would have lodging upstairs and a drug store and retail shops on the bottom floors.Holmes went through dozens of contractors during the construction, in an attempt to keep people in the dark about the grand design. The bottom floors were quite ordinary, but the lodgings upstairs were a labyrinth of doorways to nowhere, rooms that only locked from the outside, and chimneys that didn’t belong in certain rooms.
Throughout the construction, Holmes kept his swindling ways and began working for an ex-con by the name of Benjamin Pietzel. Pietzel became his right-hand man, helping in insurance schemes and the design of the Castle. Though Holmes was married to his three wives, he had an insatiable appetite for women, and soon recruited young ladies to work in his retail spaces in the castle. Soon, he killed his first victim, his mistress who disappeared after a “failed abortion.” Soon after, another woman, Minnie Williams, began working for Holmes and soon fell in love with him. Holmes and Pietzel convinced Williams to sign over the deed to her property in Texas to Pietzel under an assumed name. Williams and her sister soon took a trip to Texas with Holmes, and they were never seen again.
Here we see something that boggles the modern mind; Holmes has killed, we believe, four women up to this point, but there aren’t any detectives or investigators on his trail. If Holmes was brilliant in any way, it was his choice of victims, they were all single women, far away from family, living in a big city. When these women disappeared, it was nearly impossible to track their whereabouts or talk to anyone that knew them personally. Holmes and Pietzel continued their insurance swindles and their construction of the Castle, but soon insurance companies and debtors became rabid in their pursuit of Holmes. It wasn’t the murders that caused Holmes to make his fatal mistake; it was cheating insurance companies and construction companies out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Holmes was desperate and soon turned his attention to Pietzel and his family. Pietzel convinced his wife to pack up their children and go on the run with Holmes to the eastern states. Soon, Pietzel was murdered by Holmes with Holmes attempting to cash in his insurance policy.
The ploy didn’t work, and Holmes took off, kidnapping three of Pietzel’s children and train-hopping to the east. While Mrs. Pietzel and two of her children were led on a wild goose chase, Holmes eventually murdered the three kidnapped Pietzel children while Mrs. Pietzel continued looking. The Pinkerton Detective Agency was now on his trail, and it was only a matter of time. Finally, in November 1894, Holmes was arrested. The “Castle” was investigated, and the discoveries of the torture devices and the weird death chambers became public. Holmes was eventually hanged for his single murder conviction for killing Pietzel. While the courts didn’t bother with the other counts of murder, it is believed that throughout his crime spree, Holmes murdered nine people before meeting the hangman’s noose.
“Chicago’s First Serial Killer” Chicago Tribune October 24, 2014