In the episode The Lying Detective of the latest season of Sherlock, one character referred Sherlock Holmes to the case of a famous serial killer named H. H. Holmes who had constructed a building with secret rooms that enabled him to kill his victims in various ways and dispose of the bodies undetected. I had never heard of H. H. Holmes but the reference seemed to be factual and my curiosity was piqued so I looked it up (on Wikipedia of course!) and the case is truly bizarre. Holmes’s real name was Herman Webster Mudgett and he was a bigamist and conman who adopted various names of which H. H. Holmes was one.
Holmes can lay claim to the dubious honor of being the first documented serial killer. He went to remarkable lengths to carry out his crimes., such as constructing an entire building in Chicago just for that purpose.
Holmes purchased an empty lot across from the drugstore where he built his three-story, block-long hotel building. Because of its enormous structure, local people dubbed it “The Castle.” The building was 162 feet long and 50 feet wide. The address was 601-603 West 63rd Street. It was called the World’s Fair Hotel and opened as a hostelry for the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, with part of the structure devoted to commercial space. The ground floor of the Castle contained Holmes’ own relocated drugstore and various shops, while the upper two floors contained his personal office and a labyrinth of rooms with doorways opening to brick walls, oddly-angled hallways, stairways leading to nowhere, doors that could only be opened from the outside and a host of other strange and deceptive constructions. Holmes was constantly firing and hiring different workers during the construction of the Castle, claiming that “they were doing incompetent work.” His actual reason was to ensure that he was the only one who fully understood the design of the building.
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 was also the beneficiary), as well as his lovers and hotel guests, whom he would later kill. Some were locked in soundproof bedrooms fitted with gas lines that let him asphyxiate them at any time. Some victims were taken to one of the rooms on the second floor, called the “secret hanging chamber,” where Holmes hanged them. Other victims were locked in a huge soundproof bank vault near his office, where they were left to suffocate. There was also a secret room that was completely sealed by solid brick that could only be entered through a trapdoor in the ceiling; Holmes would lock his victims in this room for days to die of hunger and thirst. He also invented a unique alarm system and installed it to all the doors on the upper floors to alert him whenever anybody was walking around in the hotel. The victims’ bodies were put inside either a secret metal chute or a dumbwaiter, which led to the basement where some were meticulously dissected, stripped of flesh, crafted into skeleton models, and then sold to medical schools. Holmes also buried some of the bodies in lime pits for disposal. Holmes had two giant furnaces used to incinerate some of the bodies or evidence, as well as pits of corrosive 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.
His killing spree lasted roughly ten years before he was caught and executed in 1896 at the age of 35. Only nine murders were confirmed to be his victims and while he confessed to 27, the estimates of the total number went as high 200. His victims were mainly blonde women but also included some men and children.
It is hard to imagine the mindset that makes someone a serial killer. Do they start out with a compulsion to kill many people or do they commit the first murder for a more common reason and find that this gives them such pleasure that they feel the need to repeat it, like taking drugs? How common is the latter tendency? I would imagine that most people who fantasize about killing for pleasure do not act on those fantasies.
When we train soldiers and send them to war, it is found that many are actually traumatized by what they did and there are many cases where they deliberately avoid hitting the target. But are we not also taking the risk that a very small fraction of them might well discover that they enjoy the act of killing for its own sake and seek to continue it after the fighting is over and they return home?