“Understanding does not cure evil, but it is a definite help, inasmuch as one can cope with an comprehensible darkness.” –Carl Jung
I’m currently reading a book about the founding and beginnings of America’s first behavioral science unit—the first attempts to understand the minds of criminals. The book is co-written by one of the men who first sought to enter the dark minds of serial killers–John E. Douglas.
I also happen to love the show Criminal Minds. While I know it’s highly dramatized for ratings, the concepts they explore are horrifyingly fascinating to me. I don’t understand what would make someone do such horrible things.
Except…for me…the fascination I have with serial killer stories aren’t the stories of the killers at all. If it were, I might be strange. Some might begin to doubt my motives. Hah. Thank goodness this isn’t the case. Why do I continue learning about these killers? Because I want to know how they were discovered. I want to know how they affected the societies they terrorized. I want to know the mystery that led to them being caught. I want to hope that we will learn from these mysteries, and will have the power to not let this be repeated ever again. I can always hope. Then I hear stories like Ariel Castro–that held women captive for over ten years undiscovered–and I wonder how we let these things happen!!
“Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.”
That brings me to today’s post. Who was H. H. Holmes. Why was he important? No. He wasn’t important. I won’t gratify him with that. Let me rephrase that. Why do we need to know his story? What can we learn from it? Why did it happen?
Who Was H. H. Holmes?
“Holmes was born as Herman Webster Mudgett in Gilmanton, New Hampshire, on May 16, 1861, to Levi Horton Mudgett and Theodate Page Price, both of whom were descended from the first English settlers in the area.” –Wikipedia article
When I watch documentaries on serial killers, they always want to know what traumatizing events led to such a monster. Well, if you believe in “childhood traumas” as a justification or reason for becoming a serial killer, Herman had those. He was purported to have an alcoholic, abusive father and was tormented by schoolyard bullies because he excelled in school. –Wikipedia article
What Was His Life Like?
As I read about H. H. Holmes, it seems he had a normal life from the outside. He graduated high school at 16, became a teacher, married at 17, and had his first son by age 21. In 1882, he began medical and surgical school at the University of Michigan and graduated 2 years later. Holmes worked in various drugstores and traveled around after some bad luck, and also proceeded to be married to several women at the same time (a bigamist).
When Did The Murders Start?
It is suspected that Holmes’s first murder was during his school years. According to a Wikipedia article I read, “he committed his first murder by overdosing a former classmate with laudanum to collect his insurance money.” –Wikipedia article This was in 1878–the same year he got married. He was only 17 years old at the time. He had realized that murder was profitable…
While enrolled at the University of Michigan, Holmes was stealing cadavers to dismember them “and claimed that the victims were killed accidentally in order to collect insurance money from policies he took out on each deceased person.”
Hmm…. I’m seeing a trend here. I’m not sure why strangers were allowed to take out and collect on insurance policies on other people. Maybe this was a “loophole” back in the late 1800s that society didn’t expect anyone to exploit, so there wasn’t a need to prevent it?
At this time, Holmes was not Holmes yet. He was still known as Herman Mudgett. There were a few scandals that began to haunt him–such as a little boy that went missing after being seen with him, and another little boy dying after taking medicine given to him at the drug store where Mudgett was working. He denied having anything to do with either of these things, but he did leave New York shortly after, and changed his names to Henry Howard Holmes. He didn’t want these scandals or the insurance money claims to be tied to him. The new Holmes moved to Chicago.
In 1886, Holmes moved to Chicago and got yet another job in a drugstore. He purchased the drugstore from the widow of the owner–and she was never seen again. –Wikipedia article
Hmm. I’m seeing a second trend here. People “talked” about people going missing, such as the little boy in New York, and the missing widow, but they never really followed through. They probably trusted Holmes as a decent, law-abiding citizen, since almost everyone in that day was! I think he had the perfect culture for getting away with what he wanted.
It was time for Holmes to begin his full-fledged murdering spree. He bought an empty lot across from the drugstore he now owned, and began building a grand hotel. “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.” –Wikipedia article
I was going to describe some of what Holmes did in this horrid hotel. But I can’t say it better than the Wikipedia article that I’m using as a source. “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. Holmes would also lock his victims in a room where the walls were covered with iron plates and had blowtorches installed to incinerate them. 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 dummy elevator 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.”
I’m seeing another trend. The medical community was so desperate to learn, that it seems they were not questioning where their bodies were coming from. Holmes essentially disposed of several of his victims without anyone batting an eye, because he didn’t keep them! He gave them away “to a good cause.” He was not questioned about this. Yikes.
*Again, I’m going to make a distinction. While some people are fascinated by serial killers because of their awful, disgusting, horrid crimes…. that’s not why I’m writing this. It’s not why I’m interested. So, I’m not actually going to go into detail on more of what he did to his victims. I don’t want to sensationalize what he did. He doesn’t deserve that. I still just want to know why…. and how….. these things happened. *
The Beginning of the End
Holmes hired a man named Charles Chappel to “articulate” some bodies for him. I believe this meant to dispose of the skin, tissues, muscles, etc., down to the bone. Basically, clean the human off the skeleton. I wonder if it was so he could turn in bones to the medical community. Anyway, he’d hired Chappel to do several bodies for him, but at one point stopped paying him. In frustration, Chappel wouldn’t turn over one of the bodies back to Holmes. This was later given to the police for their investigation. You see, Holmes brought an outsider into his plot, and didn’t do what it took to keep him loyal. He’d opened up a vulnerability. Probably because he was so cocky and had gotten away with so much to this point. Hubris.
“In 1894, the police were tipped off by Holmes’ former cellmate Hedgepeth, whom Holmes had neglected to pay off as promised for his help…. Holmes’ murder spree finally ended when he was arrested in Boston on November 17, 1894, after being tracked there from Philadelphia by the Pinkertons. He was held on an outstanding warrant for horse theft in Texas, as the authorities had little more than suspicions at this point and Holmes appeared poised to flee the country in the company of his unsuspecting third wife” –Wikipedia article
Once the police had Holmes in custody, they began to unravel his deeds by interviewing staff from his hotel–the site of most of the murders–and searched the hotel itself. The number of artifacts left behind was staggering. He hadn’t even bothered to undo the murder room setups or even remove personal articles from his victims from the rooms.
How Many Murders Did He Commit?
“Only nine murders were confirmed, but the number of his victims has been estimated between 20 and 100, and even as high as 200, based upon missing persons reports of the time as well as the testimony of Holmes’ neighbors, who reported seeing him accompany unidentified young women into his hotel, whom they never saw leave. Holmes initially confessed to killing up to 100 victims, but later claimed only 27 victims. Many people came to Chicago to see the World’s Fair but, for one reason or another, never returned home. Holmes personally confessed to 27 murders, and right before being hanged, claimed he’d only murdered two people. Some of the names listed in the confession, for which The Philadelphia Enquirer paid him, turned out to be those of people still alive, although police had commented that some of the bodies in the basement were so badly dismembered and decomposed that it was difficult to tell how many bodies there actually were. Holmes’ victims were mainly women (and primarily blonde), but included men and children.” –I guess this means it’s really unknown.
What Can Be Learned From This?
This is the all-important question. And I don’t think I can answer it. I’m not a criminal behavior expert.
This happened a LONG time ago. These were horrific crimes that happened in a time of innocence and unsuspecting society. I’d like to think this couldn’t happen today.
But…in some ways, our society is just as unsuspecting. Not because we’re innocent and think no one would do this. But because we’re so dang “busy” all the time.
When was the last time you said hello to your neighbors? When was the last time you got to know someone a few blocks away? Would you notice if your neighbor went missing? If they did, what would you do about it? Would you ask a question, accept the answer, and drop it? Are we willing to stick our necks out for others in our day and age?
Are we doomed to allow things like this to repeat because we can’t be bothered to look away from our screens and really notice things around us? Oh, I sincerely hope not.