A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Did Dr. Henry Holmes kill 200 people at a bizarre "castle" in 1890s Chicago?

July 6, 1979

Dear Cecil:

People talk about John Wayne Gacy having murdered a record number of people, but I'm curious about the official statistics on another famous Chicagoan — Herman Webster Mudgett, AKA "Dr. Henry Holmes."  Holmes supposedly murdered around 200 women at the time of one of Chicago's world's fairs. Yet his name is not mentioned with Manson, Starkweather, or Corona as one of the nation's leading mass murderers.  Holmes first came to my attention in Jay Robert Nash's Bloodletters and Badmen. I doubt Nash's facts, however, and I'm wondering whether any official account of Mudgett's crimes exists.

Cecil replies:

There are several accounts of Mudgett-Holmes's activities, not the least of which is the doctor's own, a lurid confession written in 1896 while he awaited execution. Holmes admitted 27 murders, most of which, he said, occurred in his infamous "castle" on what is now Chicago's South Side. He was a psychopath and a compulsive liar, though, so there's no telling how many he really did away with.  On the gallows he claimed he'd only slain two persons, both of whom he had carved up on the operating table in his macabre basement.  Frank Geyer, a Philadelphia police detective who later wrote a book on the case, unearthed (in a regrettably literal way) enough evidence to pin four killings on Holmes — those of a onetime business associate named Benjamin Pitezel and three of his children.  Holmes — who really was a doctor, with a degree from the University of Michigan — destroyed or hid the bodies of the rest of his victims. Conjecture puts the toll as high as 200.

Holmes was a handsome, intelligent man of great personal charm. By the time he took a job as a chemist at a Chicago area drugstore in 1888, he'd already abandoned two wives and committed a variety of felonies, such as defrauding one of his in-laws.  In 1890 the proprietress of the drugstore disappeared. Holmes took over the business, selling patent medicines of his own invention by mail order.  He also began to build a "hotel" across the street. It was a gaudy three-story building with shops on the first floor and a bizarre labyrinth of windowless rooms, false floors, secret passages, trapdoors, and chutes above.  Holmes changed contractors several times and shuffled the workers around frequently so that no one ever got a clear idea of the floor plan or what the building was for.

In fact it was a death house. Most of the rooms had gas vents that could only be controlled from a closet in Holmes's bedroom. Many were soundproof and could not be unlocked from inside.  A few rooms were lined with asbestos, presumably so the victim could be incinerated. Chutes and passages led to the basement, where Holmes had installed an oven for cremating the bodies as well as several lime pits for disposing of whatever evidence remained.  He also had a well-equipped surgery area equipped with the usual medical apparatus as well as several instruments of torture, such as the rack. Human fragments, including several complete skeletons, were discovered here and throughout the premises.

Holmes was quite the ladies' man, and his victims seem to have been mostly female. He hired dozens of young women from the outback to work as secretaries, many of whom he seduced and many of whom subsequently disappeared. Perhaps as many as 50 visitors to his hotel were also slain. It was the era of the World's Columbian Exposition (1893), the entrance to which was only a few blocks from Holmes's establishment. The thousands of untraceable transients who passed through town in those years may explain how he got away with it for as long as he did.

In late 1893 Holmes left Chicago and traveled around the country, apparently murdering anybody who was handy. He was finally caught in 1895 by the Philly police when he neglected to dispose of the previously mentioned Pitezel's body.

Holmes was hanged on May 7, 1896. Students of the occult may wish to note that within a few years of his death a great number of people associated with the case — prison officials, lawyers, relatives — died suddenly, some of them under unexplained circumstances.  The castle burned down on August 19, 1895. The cause of the fire was never determined. Who knows, maybe somebody forgot to turn off the gas.

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