Who was America’s first serial killer? Names like Ted Bundy often come to mind; but although the term “serial killer” has only been around for a few decades, the United States had already had its fair share of serial killers starting in the 1800s. One of the first serial killers to make headlines in America was a doctor - but not just any doctor. He performed work in a “murder castle,” custom-built with torture chambers and various methods for disposing the dozens (if not hundreds) of bodies that he murdered.
The story of H. H. Holmes, America’s “first” serial killer, has been largely documented by Holmes himself. But underneath the sensational stories of Holmes’ killings is a con man who spent his entire life lying, scheming, and tricking people. While Holmes claimed to have killed 27 people, the real number is somewhere between 9 and over 200. We might never know all the details of the country’s earliest serial killer, but what we do know is a wild ride.
The First Years of America’s First Serial Killer
H. H. Holmes was born Herman Webster Mudgett in 1861. His childhood in New Hampshire was spent with devout Methodist parents. As a child who was cross-eyed and relatively quiet, he was the target of older bullies at school. On one occasion, the bullies set up a skeleton to scare Mudgett in one of the schoolrooms. The incident traumatized and fascinated him for years, and the story made it into Holmes’ autobiography, which he wrote after he was arrested for murder.
In medical school, Mudgett remained fascinated by skeletons and all parts of the human body. He enjoyed working with cadavers more than the rest of his classmates, even bringing some home with him. He graduated and returned to New Hampshire. Here is where Mudgett began to start a career in crime. His first scam took place during a smallpox outbreak, posing as a government official to sell vaccines. The money allowed him to open a laboratory where he could create a patent medicine…but that patent medicine was never developed. After racking up a massive amount of debt, Mudgett skipped town to New York and continued scheming. This time, he planned to use medical cadavers to commit insurance fraud, collecting insurance money as the “relative” of three deceased bodies. But this scheme didn’t go through - Mudgett realized that he would need bodies that matched specific descriptions as to not fool insurance companies.
In 1886, Mudgett moved to Chicago with a new name - H.H. Holmes - and a new scam. He became the manager, and then the owner, of a local drugstore. As he began to buy land around the area, he would put his mother-in-law’s name on the deed. The land was supposed to include a two-story building that featured a new drugstore and multiple apartments that he would rent out to various tenants. Included in the blueprints were odd secret rooms, a hidden staircase, and even a trap door. The building was funded by various schemes and cons. Architects and contractors weren’t paid, but when they filed lawsuits against Holmes, he pointed the debts to his mother-in-law who owned the building.
A year after he moved to Chicago, Holmes married Myrta Z. Belknap. Belknap was not his first wife - but neither Belknap nor the state of Illinois knew this. In addition to being a con man and the country’s first serial killer, Holmes is also known as a serial bigamist.
The First Victims
In Christmas of 1891, the family and friends of Holmes’ mistress came to her apartment, finding that she and her young daughter were missing. Although Holmes claimed that they were alive, he started renting the apartment to new tenants. He even tried to sell the clothes of the woman’s child to that new tenant. It took months for the family to assume they would never see the mother and daughter again, and it took years for the body of the child to be found in a secret room in Holmes’ home. Holmes’ story varies on whether or not he actually murdered his mistress, but many believe that these were the two first victims of America’s first serial killer.
From then, H. H. Holmes went on a killing spree. Within six months, he was back to conning and crime. He opened the Silver Ash Institute, in which he created a concoction that was advertised to cure alcohol addiction. By his side was another mistress - Emeline Cigrand. Cigrand started as a typist at the Institute, but eventually became way more involved in Holmes’ life. At his request, she was an expert at keeping their “engagement” a secret. He also told investors that he was building a third floor on his building - a hotel that would accommodate people for the 1893 World’s Fair. The floor was built, but the investors didn’t see a return on that investment.
At the end of 1892, Emilene disappeared. Days later, Emilene’s friends and family received a marriage announcement for Emilene and a man named Robert Phelps - but no such man existed. Although people had suspicions about Emilene’s affair with Holmes, he was not expected in her disappearance or possible murder. Emilene’s body has never been found.
The third floor finished construction in 1893, with more secret doors and unusual features being installed during the process. Emilene was replaced by a new typist - Minnie. Like Emilene, Minnie used a fake name when talking about her engagement to Holmes. Yet, as their relationship progressed, the couple was visited by Minnie’s sister Nannie joined them in Chicago. Holmes and Minnie got married, and her inheritance became his property. In July, both sisters disappeared, and Minnie’s apartment was cleared out.
As this was taking place, the third floor of Holmes’ building was being completed. The rooms had trap doors and trick walls, a large safe and large stove that were oddly placed. Holmes made sure that the floor was soundproof. Although it’s possible that the hotel was vacant during most of the World’s Fair, it’s also possible that it was the site of hundreds of murders and grisly body disposals. Dozens of people went missing during the World’s Fair, but the Chicago Police were notoriously unmotivated to investigate these (or most) cases.
Not much is known about the people that disappeared during this time, especially because the third floor of the building was burned before the World’s Fair ended. The arson was a part of a larger insurance fraud scheme, but it didn’t work out so well. When Holmes’ alias failed to appear in person to collect insurance money, Holmes found himself on the run across the country. With a new mistress to accompany him, Holmes waited as the statute of limitations for arson charges expired. Their first stop was Denver (to get married,) then Texas, where he met up with business partner Ben Pitezel to gather his former wife’s inheritance and her property. The crew traveled all over Texas, committing small scams until the police were on his tail. Their next stop was Missouri, where H.H. Holmes was first arrested for various fraudulent crimes. After a month, Holmes secured bail and was on his way to Philadelphia.
In Philadelphia, Pitezel and Holmes planned to revive one of Holmes’ early fraud schemes. The plan was to fake Pitezel’s death and use a medical cadaver to collect a big life insurance check. But the need to find a suitable body was still a big part of the insurance fraud scheme. In the end, there was no need for a cadaver - Holmes murdered Pitezel in Philadelphia and framed the death to look like a freak pipe accident.
Once again, Holmes had to follow the rules of the insurance industry in order for his fraud to work. He sought out Pietezel’s family in St. Louis to identify Pietezel’s dead body, telling his former business partner’s family that Pietezel was alive and that they would need to travel to Philadelphia in order to identify the body, collect the money, and all be reunited once again.
As the family wondered when their father and husband would appear, Holmes instructed them to go to Indianapolis. When they arrived, Holmes began making his last kills of his life.
The Final Days of H. H. Holmes
When the family arrived in Indianapolis, Holmes poisoned Ben’s son Howard Pitezel and then lured the rest of the Pietezel family out of the country to Toronto. There, he murdered Alice and her sister Nellie - their bodies were found burnt in a cellar.
While this was happening, insurance agents were growing suspicious of Holmes and the death of Ben Pietzel. They followed Holmes and Ben Pietzel’s wife as they traveled throughout North America for multiple weeks. Holmes was finally caught in 1894 and arrested for horse thievery - a charge that was from his days living in Texas. When he was in custody, police asked him about the disappearance of his former mistress Minnie, her sister Nellie, and the Pitezel children.
In 1895, authorities discovered the bodies of Alice and Nellie Pitezel in a Toronto cellar. This was the hard evidence they needed to pin him to murder. He was officially charged with the murder of Ben Pietzel in Philadelphia and spent his final days in Moyamensing Prison, a prison known for its famous visitors (including Edgar Allen Poe, Al Capone, and Charles Bukowski.)
It was tough for police to get the real story about what Holmes had done. When police investigated Holmes’ home, they discovered more than just a tricky trap door or two. Reports said that the building contained trap doors, chutes down to the basement, rooms with many doors, rooms with no doors, acid vats in the basement, and a crematorium for all of Holmes’ victims. The actual layout of the murder castle may have been exaggerated by reporters, but we do know that police found jewelry belonging to Minnie and Nannie in an oven and the bones that are believed to have belonged to Holmes’ mistress’s daughter. They weren’t able to find evidence of many other murders that Holmes had claimed to commit. Police decided not to charge Holmes with the deaths of the Pitezel children - he was already sentenced to be hung in Philadelphia for his crimes.
As he waited for his death, Holmes enjoyed the headlines that were written about him and his “murder castle” throughout the country - and the fame that followed. During his time in prison, Holmes was asked to publish an autobiography of his crimes. In this book, he admitted to 27 murders - some which were confirmed in the later searches of Holmes’ “murder castle,” and others that were completely false (the people he claimed to have killed were alive.) Holmes also claimed that he was possessed by the devil.
On May 7, 1986, Holmes was hung by the neck until dead in Philadelphia. The hanging took 20 minutes - he died very slow compared to other people sentenced to this type of capital punishment.
The Legacy of the Country’s First Serial Killer
How many people did the country’s first serial killer actually commit? The answer may never be known for sure. H. H. Holmes could have only killed a handful of people or he could have been responsible for close to 200 deaths, including the deaths of many people during the 1893 World’s Fair. Some even believe that H. H. Holmes is England’s most notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper. (Holmes’ great-great-grandson is leading the charge on this claim, and American Ripper on the History Channel explores this idea.)
The mystery of H. H. Holmes cannot be solved by exploring Holmes’ notorious murder castle. A developer intended to turn the castle into a museum shortly after Holmes’ death, but that plan was foiled when the building caught fire and only the first floor remained. In the 1930s, it was demolished completely. You can visit the site where the murder castle stood, but all you will find is a Post Office.
There is a lot we will never know about the country’s first serial killer - but for many true crime fans, that is the fun of true crime!