H.H. Holmes was a businessman, a con artist and a methodical, organized killer with a diabolical penchant for experimentation. His mastery of charm and persuasion made him excellent at all three. People trusted him... until it was too late.
Born: May 16, 1861, Gilmanton, NH
Died: May 7, 1896, Moyamensing Prison, PA
M.O.: Asphyxiation, although he also explored other methods of killing often based on convenience or fancy
Signature: Crimes resulting in monetary gain, including insurance fraud
Victim Count: Had motive and opportunity to kill hundreds; confessed to 27; confirmed 9; convicted of only 1
Best known for: Building the “Murder Castle” in Chicago and luring out-of-town guests during the 1893 World’s Fair
“Where others’ hearts were touched with pity, mine filled with cruelty, and where in others the feeling was to save life, I reveled in the thoughts of destroying them. Not only that, I was not satisfied in taking it in the ordinary way. I sought devices strange, fantastical and even grotesque. It pleased my fancy. It gave me play to work my murderous will, and I reveled in it with the enthusiasm of an alchemist who is hot on the trail of the philosopher’s stone.”
Born Herman Webster Mudgett, H.H. Holmes changed his name to escape a tarnished reputation and a troubled past. His propensity for violence was exasperated by the tyranny of an abusive father and the unfeeling treatment of a cold and distant mother. He often felt powerless as a child and endured prolonged isolation, food deprivation and cruel punishment for showing his emotions. He was also bullied in school. To escape his school and home life, Holmes regularly snuck off into a nearby forest to torture and experiment on animals.
The abuse he suffered as a child stunted his development process, desensitized him to violence and made him incapable of forming emotional bonds and empathizing with others. People, even the ones he was supposed to care about such as friend and lovers, were inanimate objects to him. He used them for perverse gratification and making money. While he enjoyed killing all on its own, his murder victims were often closely tied to his scams and money making schemes. He took more pleasure from his kills when they made him richer.
The “Murder Castle” he built in Chicago exemplified his obsession with killing and money making. It not only had various shops and residential apartments, it also contained hidden rooms and secret death chambers that he would lure his victims into. For the most part, Holmes killed women, including lovers and employees, whom he believed were easy targets. Some, he manipulated into naming him as the benefactor of their life insurance policies. Others, he trapped inside one of his hidden rooms, falsely promising freedom in exchange for their property and wealth. It made him feel powerful to be able to give his victims whatever they wanted – jobs, money, freedom, even romance – and then just as easily take it away.
When Holmes was finally caught, he adamantly professed his innocence until police found too much evidence for him to deny his macabre proclivities. Then, in a very H.H. Holmes fashion, he took money from a local newspaper in exchange for a full confession. He gave two other completely different confessions before his death, even admitting to crimes he did not commit, to amuse himself, confuse the police and feel powerful in an otherwise powerless situation. For someone as warped as H.H. Holmes, it was a kind of victory knowing that people would question what was fact and what was fiction for generations to come.