H.H. Holmes: First and Worst

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The depraved, widespread acts of lawlessness perpetrated by H.H. Holmes is in a serial-killing class of its own. Disguised by his charming, upper-class demeanor the sadistic, sociopathic druggist/hotel owner cheated, scammed and killed at an unrivaled pace. ‘America’s first serial killer’ earned the distinction due to the horrific, shocking nature and extensive media reporting of his numerous, high-profile crimes. The nationally infamous case captured the imagination of the American public at the time, but his name is all but forgotten today due to the era of gangsters that followed and the movie venue that glamorized their exploits. Holmes’s abuse at the hands of his father and classmates as a youngster may explain his increased inclination for criminal activity but there must be is an unknown, possibly genetic, psychological, biological and/or chemical imbalance explanation for the intensity and extensiveness of these horrible crimes.

Holmes was born into a financially privileged, well-educated family but experienced a turbulent childhood. His alcoholic father was abusive, and he was routinely the victim of bullying while at school. Holmes early years would set the stage for what was to come. He lured victims for which to unleash his inner rage in a sophisticated, articulate, charming manner. He grew up learning both the cultured mannerism and the internal fury. Holmes was intelligent, graduating high school at age 16 then college with a medical degree in 1884. At college, Holmes was involved in a macabre insurance scam. He was caught filing insurance claims on dead bodies he stole from the medical school. Prior to putting in a claim, Holmes used the cadavers for his own twisted experiments. Upon leaving college, Holmes spent two years doing odd jobs and grifting in Philadelphia and New York then moved (fled) to Chicago in 1886 after being questioned by police in the death of a boy in Philadelphia and mysterious disappearance of another in New York. Born Herman Webster Mudgett, he changed his name to Henry Howard Holmes when he reached Chicago. (Editors, 2017)

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Holmes gained employment at a Chicago pharmacy owned by the Houlton’s. Mr. Houlton disappeared soon after Holmes arrived and was assumed dead. Distraught, Mrs. Houlton sold the store to Holmes then she inexplicably disappeared without a trace too. An adept and experienced con-artist at this point, Holmes ran scams using the store as a legitimate front until he “earned” enough to by a plot of land across the street where he built a hotel. Locals referred to it as “The Castle” but it’s official name was ‘World’s Fair Hotel.’ Holmes built his ‘Castle’ knowing it would be in the same area as the Columbian Exposition coming in 1893. He designed the hotel as a sort of maze with confusing hallways, stairways and deceptive doorways among other misleading architectural aspects. It was his plan from the beginning to build a hotel in what would become a busy area and constructed in a manner that his future victims could not find their way out if they attempted to escape. The rooms were specifically designed by Holmes as chambers for murder. (Editors, 2017)

Holmes’ hotel opening coincided with the fair’s opening in 1893. Using his charming mannerisms, he lured predominantly young women to stay in ‘The Castle’ then murdered them by bizarre, inhumane methods. He locked some in room vaults leaving them to die of starvation and thirst. Others he suffocated or killed by hanging. He typically tortured his victims as they slowly perished. Holmes conducted experiments of a, thankfully, unknown nature then disposed the corpses by selling body parts and skeletons to nearby medical schools or by burying them under lime to dissolve the evidence. During this time, Holmes continued in his lucrative insurance fraud schemes but now with partner Benjamin Pitezel who faked his own death with the intent of splitting the money with Holmes. However, Pitezel met a mysterious and untimely end just prior to the $10,000 insurance payoff, so all of it, about $250,000 in today’s money, went to Holmes. Worried that Pitezel’s children might attempt to take revenge for their father’s murder, Holmes killed the three oldest of Pitezel’s five children. (Benzkofer, 2014)

The ‘Strain Theory’ in conjunction with its subcategory ‘General Strain Theory’ could at least partially explain Holmes’s criminal actions. According to General Stain Theory, introduced by Robert Agnew in 1992, children who experience ongoing stressful, traumatic situations are more likely to “act out” aggressively, succumbing to delinquent behaviors. Holmes was beaten at home by a drunken father and at school by bullies. He spent his entire childhood immersed in fear which fed a growing bitterness and resentment, a developed and deeply ingrained sociopathy. The Strain theory suggests that children who grow in in a privileged environment, as Holmes did, puts pressure on them to succeed thus reducing positive stimuli as negative stimuli increases. Of the two categories, the General Strain Theory is likely the most influential in this case. “Within these two categories there are multiple situations that can cause stress or strain to juveniles which in return makes them engage in delinquent activities, some more than others. The situation that contributes tremendously to the strain placed on juveniles is child neglect and abuse which falls under the gain of negative stimuli category.” (Puzzanchera, 2011).

A prison inmate who was previously a partner in one of Homes’ insurance scams tipped off police as to his deceitful financial activities in 1894. He would later be convicted of insurance fraud but while investigating this crime, police had become increasingly suspicious of ‘The Castle.’ Upon further investigation they found lots of grisly evidence confirming scores of murders were committed there, evidence that left no doubt as to the perpetrator. Holmes confessed to killing 27 people and was convicted of nine. Upon interviewing neighbors of ‘The Castle’ who witnessed everyday activities, the comings and goings of people at the hotel, police estimated more than 100 people were killed in the most heinous of ways there.

H.H. Holmes, ‘America’s first mass murderer,’ was put to death by hanging in 1896. His killing spree lasted just a couple of years before he was betrayed by one of the few people who lived following an association with him. If not for his fraudulent business schemes, minor infractions compared to mass murder, Holmes likely would have continued his carnage but maybe in another city as the World’s Fair ended in fall of 1893. Holmes was deeply imbittered by a brutal childhood and took revenge, unleashed his inner pain, on innocents. Though not as well known as gangsters with catchy nick-names or more recent mass murders, H.H. Holmes by many measures, may have been not only the first but the worst mass murderer in American history.

  • Benzkofer, Stephan. (2014). Chicago’s first serial killer. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from http://www.chicagotribune.com/
  • Editors, TheFamousPeople.com. (2017). H.H. Holmes Biography. TheFamousPeople.com. Retrieved from https://www.thefamouspeople.com
  • Puzzanchera, C. (2011). Juvenile Arrests 2009. US Department of Justice
    Retrieved from https://www.ojjdp.gov/

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