The First Serial Killer in America

Ryan Fan Webster Mudgett, known as Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, was America’s first serial killer who confessed to 27 murders, and is suspected of killing over 200 people by folklore. He owned a building three miles west of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago that was called the World’s Fair Hotel, even though there is no evidence that the hotel was ever open for business.

It would be called “The Murder Castle” decades after Holmes’s deeds, according to Adam Selzer in H.H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil. Selzer would say that Holmes, by the 21st century, had entered the territory of folklore:

“[He] was a man who built a hotel full of torture chambers to prey on visitors who came to the World’s Fair and may have killed hundreds of people, making him our first and most prolific serial killer. Holmes had already been known as the ‘king of criminals’ before he’d even been formally accused of murder, but now he was a veritable supervillain.”

His story involved a new police chief who convinced himself and newspapers of fiction — Frank Geyer. The police would give many theories about his killings that spouted nothing more than nonsense, and gossip newspapers and tabloids also took a large interest in Holmes.

Without a doubt, according to Selzer, Holmes was a pathological liar, who had lied to literally everyone in his life including his friends, wives, lawyers, and everyone else. He even lied to his diary.

But what is fact and what is fiction? According to Rebecca Kerns, Tiffany Lewis, and Caitlin McClure at the Psychology department of Radford University, Holmes is suspected of killing over 100 people across five different states. He was only convicted of one of the killings, despite his 27 confessions. Selzer, with a lot of research, would assert that a lot of stories about him functioned as fiction rather than fact:

The “Murder Castle” never actually was a hotel, and Holmes had only killed one tourist at the World’s Fair, Nannie Williams, although he was suspected of killing many. The hidden rooms were used for stolen furniture rather than dead bodies.

According to Selzer:

“The legend of The Devil in the White City is effectively a new American tall tale — and, like all the best tall tales, it sprang from a kernel of truth.”

Who was H.H. Holmes?

“Herman never did anything wrong; he never had to be scolded for not doing what he was told, nor for playing pranks — I never knew him to torment anyone, especially animals. Some boys, you know, like to torment kittens and sometimes they are very cruel to them, but Herman was too tender-hearted for that.” — Theodate Mudgett, Holme’s mother.

So what was the truth? I’m going to admit that I’m incredibly confused trying to find out how many people Mudgett exactly did kill, and what was legend, as well as what was fact.

Mudgett was raised in a transitional phase in history, as the generation that fought in the Civil War slowly faded out of public life as the Theodore Roosevelt generation that led the country into the 20th century.

Born in New Hampshire in a very religious Methodist family, H.H. Holmes’s parents were Levi Horton Mudgett and Theodate Mudgett, both descended from the first English immigrants in the area. His father was a farmer, trader, and house painter. He had two siblings, an older sister, and an older brother, and he would be born on May 16, 1861.

Holme graduated from high school at Phillips Exeter Academy and then took various teaching jobs. He married a woman named Clara Lovering, a beautiful woman from a prominent New Hampshire family in 1878. The two of them would have their first child two years later in 1880. He would attend the University of Vermont in 18, but later drop out, and then would enter the University of Michigan Department of Medicine and Surgery, and become a doctor in 1884 after passing his exams.

It was during this time that, according to Selzer, Mudgett would use cadavers to attempt to defraud insurance companies, mutilating them. He later moved to Mooers Forks, New York, where there was a rumor that Mudgett saw a little boy disappear. He soon left Mooers Forks and then moved to Philadelphia to work in Norristown State Hospital. He would own a drug store, and while he worked there, a boy died from medicine was purchased at the store. He denied it and left the city.

It was then that Herman Webster Mudgett would change his name to Henry Howard Holmes, which, according to John Borowski in the H.H. Holmes: America’s First Serial Killer documentary, was to avoid identification by previous victims of scams. Holmes eventually moved out to Englewood, Illinois in 1886, just outside Chicago.

In late 1886, however, while married to Clara, he also married Myrta Belknap, who he later had a daughter named Lucy Theodate Holmes. He would try to divorce Clara in Commonwealth v. Mudgett, alias Holmes, and have his lawsuit dismissed in June of 1891 because he was being prosecuted at the time for his crimes. While in Englewood, he lived with Myrta and Lucy while Clara lived at home in New Hampshire.

The “Murder Castle” H. Holmes’ “Castle” — Public Domain

When Holmes first came to the Chicago area, he came across a woman named Elizabeth S. Holton, who owned a drugstore in Englewood. She gave him a job at the store. At the time, Holton’s husband was dying of cancer, and Holmes was hired on the spot after asking if she needed an assistant.

Holmes was a handsome man, and many locals who frequented the store came to see him. He was given more responsibility by Holton after her husband died and then he offered to buy the drugstore — which she agreed to under the terms that he lived upstairs. He did, but then he failed to pay her. Elizabeth S. Holton would then strangely disappear later.

Across the street from the drug store, he purchased a lot and began construction in 1887 for a two-story multipurpose building. When he failed to make his payments to architects and Aetna Iron and Steel, they sued him in 1888. In 1892, a third floor was added to the building that would later be known as the “Murder Castle” and would rip off furniture suppliers and hide the furniture throughout the building.

The inner design of the building was elaborate, with a plethora of mazes and hallways without any real destination. A lot of the rooms had chutes that would drop to the basement, where Holmes would dispose of bodies and have acid vats. At the time, Holmes planned for the building to be used as a hotel, but investors pulled out when a search of the building made the Chicago Tribune.

The basement was probably the creepiest part of most of the searches — with surgical operating tables, blood-soaked clothes, surgical surfaces that were nearby. Nearly 100 rooms did not have windows.

Forensic analysis was only a few years out of being used in these types of cases. Detectives found bones in his cellar, but the science of the time couldn’t determine whose bones they were.

Disappearances and crimes

Holmes would have an accomplice at some point named Benjamin Pitezel, a carpenter who worked in the same building as Holmes. Pitezel would be described as “Holmes’ tool…his creature” by a district attorney. Holmes would engage in many schemes, including selling victims’ skeletons to local schools and labs.

One of the first victims of Holmes was a mistress named Julia Conner, the wife of a man named Ned Conner, who had worked in Holmes’s pharmacy in his new building at the jewelry counter. According to Selzer, Ned Conner found out about the affair, quit his job, and moved away. Julia Conner would change her name back to her maiden name, Julia Smythe, who lived with her daughter, Pearl, at Holmes’s building.

Both Julia and Pearl disappeared on December 24, 1891. Holmes later confessed that he killed Julia while performing an abortion, that he hadn’t meant to kill her but that the abortion went wrong. Two other victims, Emeline Cigrande, and Edna Van Tassel, the former who was a mistress of Holmes, would also disappear.

Another woman, Minnie Williams, who had previously been an actress, was offered a job by Holmes as a stenographer. She would be persuaded by Holmes to transfer the deed of her property in Fort Worth, Texas, to Holmes, under the alias of Alexander Bond. Williams transferred the deed in April of 1893, and Holmes would be the notary, while Pitezel would sign the deed under the pseudonym of “Benton T. Lyman”.

Holmes and Williams would rent an apartment in Lincoln Park of Chicago, and Minnie Williams’s sister, Annie, would come to visit them. She called Holmes “Brother Harry”, but after July 5, 1893, Minnie and Annie Williams both disappeared.

More murders

In July 1894, Holmes left Englewood as insurance companies were trying to hold him accountable for arson. He left to the Williams property in Fort Worth that he now owned, and then tried to construct another “castle” like the one he owned in Englewood.

That month, however, he was arrested for selling mortgaged goods in St. Louis for the first time, but he was bailed out soon after. While in jail, he befriended a Wild West outlaw named Marion Hedgepeth, serving a 25-year-sentence, to give the name of a lawyer who could be trusted, according to JD Crighton in Detective in the White City: The Real Story of Frank Geyer.

Holmes wanted to fake his death, and then swindle an insurance company out of $10,000, or $296,000 in 2019 USD, and then take out the policy on his death. Hedgepeth gave the name of Jeptha Howe, a young St. Louis attorney. Holmes promised Hedgepeth $500 for the recommendation.

Howe thought that Holmes had a mastermind plan. However, the insurance company refused to pay when Holmes’s plan failed, and they became suspicious. Pitezel, then, agreed to help. Pitezel would fake his own death so his wife could collect on a $10,000 insurance policy. Pitezel — Public Domain

The plan was for Pitezel to set up his death in Philadelphia in a lab explosion, where Holmes would find a cadaver. Pitezel was supposed to have a new name under an inventor named B.F. Perry.

However, what Holmes actually killed Pitezel by allegedly knocking him out with chloroform and setting his body on fire with benzene. At a later trial, forensic evidence would be involved that showed that chloroform was administered after Pitezel died. But Holmes would collect the money and then manipulate Pitezel’s wife to allow three of her kids to be in his custody, telling her that Pitezel was hiding in London, as well as lying to her about where her children were after they went missing.

Holmes was staying with his new wife, Georgiana Yoke, who didn’t know anything. At the time, he was still legally married to three women: Clara Lovering, Myrta Belknap, and Yoke.

But Frank Geyer, a police detective in Philadelphia, would find two decomposed bodies of two of the Pitezel children in a cellar in Toronto, in a rental home of Holmes. In another home in Indianapolis, where Holmes had rented a cottage, Geyer discovered a boy’s teeth and bone. In his confession, Holmes confessed to murdering the girls by forcing them into a large trunk and then asphyxiating the girls.

“The deeper we dug, the more horrible the odor became, and when we reached the depth of three feet, we discovered what appeared to be the bone of the forearm of a human being,” Geyer wrote.


On November 17, 1894, Holmes was arrested in Boston for an outstanding warrant for horse theft. At the time, his fleeing of authorities across the country made them suspicious, but his link to the substantial amount of missing persons would not be clear until the discovery of the Pitezel girls. Despite the link to Holmes, there was no evidence to convict him in Englewood after investigation of “THe Castle”. It would be the first time the term was used.

However, in October 1895, he was put on trial for the murder of Benjamin Pitezel, convicted for murder, and sentenced to the death penalty. After being convicted, he confessed to 27 murders. The problem with his confession was that some people he confessed to murdering were still alive, but the Hearst newspapers paid him $7,500, which is $230,000 in 2019, for the confession, which was soon debunked.

During his confession and after, there was no disagreement that Holmes was a pathological liar. He would claim his innocence and later say that he was possessed by Satan. A famous quote attributed to Holmes is that “I was born with a devil in me,” but according to Selzer, who directly analyzed the primary source confession, Holmes actually never said that.

On May 7, 1896, Holmes was hanged on Moyamensing Prison in Philadelphia for the murder of Pitezel. He showed no signs of fear, and asked for his coffin to be contained in cement and buried 10 feet deep — fearful that grave robbers would steal his body.

According to a New York Times front-page story the next day, it took Holmes 20 minutes to die, with the execution going wrong — his neck was not broken and snapped, and he twitched for 15 minutes before being pronounced dead. At his execution, Holmes denied murdering Pitezel and claimed to only kill two women.


Holmes’s reputation would later lead to him having a nickname from author Erik Larson as the “The Devil in the White City.” Larson would write a book about Holmes that will later be the name of a Martin Scorcese movie with Leonardo DiCaprio portraying Holmes. The movie is still in the works.

Interest in the Holmes case as America’s first serial killer has been consistent since it happened. Multiple books and documentary document the case, but Selzer in H. H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil carefully dissected what’s true and what is not, as well as how the story of Holmes’s deeds grew into folklore and mythology.

In 2017 History released a series titled the American Ripper that compares Holmes to infamous U.K. serial killer, Jack the Ripper. Holmes’s great-great-grandson, Jeff Mudgett, sets out to actually try to prove the theory that Holmes was Jack the Ripper, partnering with an ex-CIA analyst.

To this day, no one knows how many people H.H. Holmes killed, or how he went under the radar for so long, but what is true and clear is that Holmes was a scammer, bigamist, and pathological liar. The eccentricities in his character are probably what made his case so difficult to solve, and the truth so difficult to find.

Photo of H. H. Holmes’ mugshot (1895) — Public Domain

Originally published on CrimeBeat on August 12, 2020.

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