Peering into the Darkness: The First Serial Killer
Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.
But the silence was unbroken, and the darkness gave no token …
— Edgar Allen Poe, “The Raven”
Before the BTK Killer, before Ted Bundy and the Boston Strangler and in the wake of London’s Jack the Ripper, the man popularly known as “America’s First Serial Killer,” H. H. Holmes, committed his most atrocious crimes. Holmes took the entrepreneurial spirit of America’s Gilded Age and applied it to his dark trade. At the very least Holmes killed nine people during his brutal career, but it is also claimed that he killed up to 200. Before he became known as H. H. Holmes, he was Herman Webster Mudgett, a native son of Gilmanton, NH, a town he invited his readers to visit with him in his autobiography, “Holmes’ Own Story”: “Come with me, if you will, to a tiny, quiet New England Village, nestling among the picturesquely rugged hills of New Hampshire.” The home, where as a boy Holmes read Edgar Allen Poe in the attic and hid animal bones in a box in his room, still stands in Gilmanton’s “picturesquely rugged” downtown.
Holmes was born May 16, 1860, to Levi and Theodate Mudgett, devoted Methodists who did not hesitate using a rod for discipline and banishing their son to the attic for misbehavior. Holmes attended school across the way from his parents’ home at the Gilmanton Academy — which today houses the town offices and the Gilmanton Historical Society Museum. He was neither a particularly popular student nor very memorable. When Holmes penned his autobiography while he awaited trial for murder in Philadelphia he used the banality of his childhood to argue his innocence, stating: “Had my early life and associations been such as to predispose me towards such criminal proceedings, still the want of motive remains. I can show that no motive exists.” Of course, Holmes declined to describe his childhood hobby of conducting live experiments on frogs, cats, dogs and other animals and then, once he had killed them, storing parts of the animals, his grotesque treasures, to gaze at from time to time.
Ultimately Holmes’ autobiography (written, he claimed, to raise money for his defense) reads like a litany of unconvincing and unlikely excuses, but he is right in saying that his pious upbringing could not have predicted the depraved monster he was to become.
When Holmes graduated from the academy, he met and eloped with Clara Lovering, also of New Hampshire. He was only 18. Lovering was one of Holmes’ more fortunate intimates in that she did not die at his hands. In fact, there is no record that Holmes killed anyone while he lived in New Hampshire; his life’s work, his murders, were committed largely in the booming metropolis of Chicago, the 19th-century “Black City.”
Holmes left Lovering and “the quiet village, so remote from the outside world, that even a locomotive whistle could scarcely be heard” to attend medical school, first at the University of Vermont and then the University of Michigan. When he graduated in 1884, his work as a traveling salesman exposed him to Chicago and a world much larger and noisier than the village of Gilmanton — a world where he could shed his old skin.
Once he settled in Englewood, Ill., a “streetcar” suburb of Chicago, Herman Mudgett changed his name to Henry Howard Holmes and over time he would use other various aliases, such as Harry Gordon or Franklin Pratt. Holmes landed in Chicago when it was a city waiting to be reborn in the wake of the Great Fire of 1871 and on the brink of the World’s Fair of 1892. For an enterprising man opportunities abounded. Holmes used his charisma and his medical school training to become a pharmacist, working for a lonely widow who eventually and mysteriously disappeared, leaving friends and neighbors wondering why she had “left” so abruptly. During this period Holmes met and married Myrta Z. Belknap from Minneapolis. Having never followed through on his divorce from Clara Mudgett, Holmes thus added bigamy to the list of crimes attached to his name. He did well in his pharmacy, selling fake tonics and cure-alls and charming the ladies. Eventually, Holmes felt his new wife’s presence in his pharmacy hindered his flirtatious style and he had her move in with her parents in a separate Chicago neighborhood.
Perhaps if there had not been a vacant lot across from the pharmacy where Holmes worked, and perhaps if he had not been making so much money selling snake-oil nostrums, he would never have bought the land and started building his famous “castle.” But Holmes did buy the land and he designed the imposing structure himself, making sure to fire workers as he went along so no one person, but himself, knew the entire grim design of the building on 63rd Street and Wallace.
Holmes called his building “The World’s Fair Hotel” — an enticement to the many visitors who flocked for the exposition. No one knows how many came seeking the lights and wonders of the World’s Fair’s “White City” and found death in this hotel’s dark corridors — or how many more would have joined them if Holmes had not gotten greedy.
Holmes used his wiles and charm not only to win wives with property, but also to escape debt collectors and carry out life insurance scams. Just as crime kingpin Al Capone was ultimately nailed for tax invasion, it was not a capital offense, but a life insurance scam gone wrong that caused authorities to begin scrutinizing Holmes and his activities.
Pinkerton National Detective Agency — its slogan: “The Eye That Never Sleeps” — was hired to track Holmes down regarding the suspect life insurance claim for Holmes’s former employee Benjamin Pitezel. The detective agency caught up with Holmes and his latest female companion in Boston. He confessed to the insurance fraud and was brought to Philadelphia for trial. What seemed to be an open-and-shut case of fraud became complicated in June of 1895, when it became clear that Holmes hadn’t faked the death of Pitezel. Furthermore, three of Pitezel’s five children were missing. Detective Frank Geyer was put on the case and his search gained media attention. Soon the public eye followed his progress with the same bated enthusiasm they would a character in a dime store novel. When Geyer found the three missing Pitezel children, who were last seen with Holmes, the nation was shocked: the two girls had been asphyxiated in a trunk and the boy had been strangled to death.
With Holmes in Moyamensing Prison in Philadelphia, investigators searched his Chicago hotel. The horrors they uncovered caused the Chicago Tribune to declare that no writer could have invented Holmes — no reader of fiction would believed such a creature existed. The room layout was designed like a mouse maze, with too many doors and twisting floor plans. Greased chutes ran from the upper floors to the basement, where investigators found articles of clothing, a furnace large enough to hold a human body, vats of acid, surgical equipment, a blood-soaked wooden table and a child’s rib bones, among other detestable detritus. The Castle mysteriously burned to the ground as a result of arson on August 19, 1885, not long after Holmes was sentenced to death by hanging. No one was ever arrested for the fire.
Before he was hung on May 7, 1896, Holmes confessed in a mixture of truth and lies to killing 27 people, but later denied much of his avowal. Before he recanted, Holmes fantasized in his confession that his very physical shape was transforming to reflect his interior evil: “I believe I am growing to resemble the devil — that the similitude is almost complete.” Per his explicit instructions, Holmes had cement poured over him in the coffin and then in his grave. Perhaps it was to protect both his body and brain from scientists, whom he assumed would be eager to explore and understand the mental mechanics of a serial killer. Or perhaps Holmes was wary of 19th-century grave robbers who might do as he once did, which was strip freshly buried bodies to the bone and sell them to medical schools desperate for skeletons. Today no headstone marks the grave of Herman Webster Mudgett, but his childhood home in New Hampshire, with doors leading to staircases that seem to lead to nowhere, and the attic where he once sat in solitary punishment, still remains.
Allison Lake, who today lives in the house with her two sons David Lake, 12, and Christian Hill, 16, describes the structure that was built in 1825, but seems strange for any era: “All the storage rooms go into other rooms and the house doesn’t properly line up. You never quite know where you are.” She says the entryway of the Mudgett house reminds her of Alice’s trip through the rabbit hole. After reflecting on the similarities between Holmes’ childhood home and the maze-like Chicago Castle he designed, Lake added, “I can see why he would want a house like that.”
Lake was unaware of the Holmes connection when she bought the home in a foreclosure sale and then moved in along with her sons in November 2006. They set out on a dramatic renovation of the entire property to put the 500 Province Road historic home back on the market through Florence Cummings Real Estate. “We didn’t have a lot of information because it was a foreclosure. We knew it was called the Mudgett House,” she explains. They understood that the house had been part of the Underground Railroad to Canada, but local rumors and a haunting spirit prompted her son Christian to do an Internet search. Here they unraveled the grim saga of Holmes and learned the dark past of their new home.
Now, the more the family learns about Holmes the more coincidences and oddities fall into place. While Holmes tortured animals and kept their skulls, Lake rescues shelter animals, and the skulls she keeps in her living room are linked to her job and her research. Not long before they learned the secrets of the Mudgett House, Lake’s son David dressed up for Halloween as “Doctor Death” — a nickname the newspapers bestowed on Holmes during his trial. Lake and Holmes share a birthday, and her position as an instructor in Behavioral Science at the University of New Hampshire gives her particular insight into the workings of a serial killer’s mind.
“People like H. H. Holmes, they feel no remorse,” she says “They’re really scary people to look at because they can mimic our emotions really well, but they can’t feel them.”
Lake and her family have chosen to be fascinated by their home rather than frightened — though, Lake confesses, one of her sons told her, “You need to have an exorcism before I move in.”
They hope to sell the house to new owners who will be as intrigued by the history as they were. “We’re still trying to figure out how the house was laid out,” says Lake. Meanwhile she and her sons are vying to catch up with their pet cat, who already knows every in and out of each narrow passage.
Given his performance at his trial and execution, it is easy to believe that Holmes would have relished the continued spotlight his murders have won him. An independent filmmaker, John Borowski, came to Gilmanton to film scenes for the documentary “H. H. Holmes, America’s First Serial Killer,” and two best-selling books have been written about him: “Depraved” by Harold Schechter and “The Devil in The White City” by Erik Larson — the latter of which is currently being made into a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Holmes and directed by Martin Scorsese.
Today, well over a century since a hangman slipped a noose over Holmes’ neck, some say society has become desensitized by day-to-day violence and its casual depiction in movies and games. So how is it that just standing in the attic of this childhood home, just reading descriptions of his deeds or even just looking at a photograph of Holmes’ remorseless face, still has the ability to make one involuntarily shudder?