Crime & Scandal

No Sympathy for the Devil: Gory Details of Nation’s “First” Serial Killer, H.H. Holmes

On this day in 1896, 36-year-old H.H. Holmes was hanged in the Philadelphia County Prison after confessing to murdering dozens of people and possibly killing hundreds more. Find out how he set the standard for creepiness and why you should think twice before booking your next hotel room.

H.H. Holmes makes Hannibal Lecter look like an eccentric foodie. But maybe you already knew that. Maybe you were one of those people who read Erik Larson’s book, The Devil in the White City. If you haven’t, though, then buckle up; the gory details of Holmes’s life is a super disturbing ride…

Holmes’s life began normal enough. He was born in 1861 to an affluent family in New Hampshire. But things started looking dicey when he was a medical student at the University of Michigan and corpses began to disappear—turns out Holmes was using them to make false insurance claims. Shocking, but not outside the realm of a Grey’s Anatomy plotline. No, the shocking stuff would come in 1893 at the Chicago World’s Fair.

Holmes moved to the Windy City in 1880 and built a three-story hotel to cash in on the upcoming tourism boom. Visitors were probably well aware of the hotel’s proximity to the World’s Fair. Less likely, however, is whether they knew of the secret passages, the hidden rooms, the devices Holmes used to asphyxiate his victims or the trapdoors he used to hide their remains so he could later sell their skeletons to medical schools. Those aren’t the kinds of things you’d typically see on TripAdvisor, or whatever was its equivalent during The Gilded Age—a series of telegrams littered with bad spelling, perhaps.

HH Holmes Castle Photo

The World’s Fair Hotel was on West 63rd St. It was also called ‘Holmes’s Castle’ or ‘Murder Castle’ after it was later discovered to be Holmes’s haven to lure his mostly female victims to their deaths. (Photo: Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)

No one knows exactly how many victims Holmes had. In 1895 he was tried and convicted for the murder of a former partner-in-crime, Benjamin Pietzel. Holmes and Pietzel ran insurance scams around the country, but eventually Holmes killed his partner and was then arrested in Boston after trying to collect on his $10,000 life insurance policy. 

While in custody, Holmes wrote a number of confessions, some of which were paid handsomely by tabloids. In one, he confessed to 27 murders, but newspaper accounts during that time suggested the total was closer to 200. We’ll likely never know. There was never a definitive investigation of his crimes in Chicago. So today, we’re only left with details of the macabre architecture, created by the man who once wrote: “I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than a poet can help the inspiration to sing.”