The strange story of H. H. Holmes


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?

Comments

  1. jrkrideau says

    It is hard to imagine the mindset that makes someone a serial killer.

    You would need to talk to a forensic psychologist or perhaps Eliot Leyton though I think Leyton is more a pattern of killers researcher as one would expect from an anthropologist.

    I honestly thought you were joking when you used the name “Herman Webster Mudgett”. It sounded so like some of the strange names Sir Arthur Conan Doyle applied to his American characters.

    BTW, I seldom watch TV and have only seen a couple of the first Sherlock episodes but I am very impressed that the writers know the Canon. I am still laughing over the “three patch problem”.

  2. says

    I learned about him just a week ago from S1.E11 of Timeless, which came out on Jan 16. I was talking to my brother about this and he thought H H Holmes was referenced on an episode of Supernatural as well, but wasn’t fully sure.

  3. Marshall says

    Leo: you should check out the Netflix show Travelers if you like weird time-travel shows. It ended up being surprisingly good!

  4. deepak shetty says

    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?

    We should be able to take a reasoned guess for this(atleast as a correlation). How many serial killers actively served/killed someone in action ?

  5. jrkrideau says

    How many serial killers actively served/killed someone in action?

    I am not up on the research by I’d say no one. We get suicides and some horrible family killings/suicides but no serial killers that I have heard of.

    Essentially when one fails to support veterans we get horrible results but no serial killers. God, I hate Harper.

  6. John Morales says

    jrkrideau, um. What’s a sniper, if not a serial killer? Aren’t they “in action”?

    (You hardly need research!)

  7. Mano Singham says

    jkrideau,

    The trouble with serial killings is that they are hard to identify since the victims have no connection to each other and there is no obvious motive. The main clue is if there is a pattern to the form of deaths or disappearances or victims, and a clever serial killer might vary those enough to remain undetected.

  8. sonofrojblake says

    a very small fraction of [soldiers] 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?

    And if they seek it, they will find it, as “private military contractors”, “security consultants”, and other euphemisms for “mercenary”. And the fraction isn’t that small.

  9. says

    sonofrojblake@#10:
    And if they seek it, they will find it, as “private military contractors”, “security consultants”, and other euphemisms for “mercenary”. And the fraction isn’t that small.

    Don’t forget CIA torturers. The CIA has created some extremely creepy people. They continue to hire and create creepy people. When you look at things like the phoenix program in Vietnam, it straddles (with one toe in and the rest out) the line between sociopathic murder/terror and warfare. I would argue that killing people in the prosecution of a war of aggression is murder, which makes a lot of US soldiers who went to Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq serial killers. Ditto all the special operations guys who are basically assassins in uniform. (aka “illegal combatants”)

    Most totalitarian regimes have a chief executioner, who (by definition) is a serial killer. I believe the record for most people personally killed in a day is held by Stalin’s hatchetman Blohkin who won the order of the red banner for his efforts. From the sound of it, he was the perfect guy for the job, loved his work, etc.

  10. deepak shetty says

    @John Morales

    What’s a sniper, if not a serial killer?

    fair enough – but the question was about such a sniper coming home , after the fighting is over

  11. sonofrojblake says

    killing people in the prosecution of a war of aggression is murder

    If your army is made up entirely of volunteers, maybe. How many Vietnam vets were draftees? The draft was dodgeable, but I’d still maintain it represents strong duress. Agree on Afghanistand and Iraq though.

    Re: snipers coming home – in the Winter War Simo Häyhä killed on average eight Russians every single day for three months, most of them with an iron-sighted sniper rifle. He died in 2002 at the age of 96, having (as far as I can make out) never killed another person. In any case, if one for some reason actively enjoys the experience of being a sniper, I can’t imagine shooting unarmed unsuspecting civilians would in any way replicate the experience satisfactorily.

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