He Moved Through the Fair……..

February 16, 2011

H.H. Holmes' Murder Castle, cnr 63rd and Wallace Street, Chicago, ILLinois

Image source and further reading at The Witching Hour

Viewed from the outside, the murder castle was simply a big ungainly building, one of the architectural monstrosities common in the nineties. But its interior, honeycombed with trap doors and secret passageways and walled-up rooms, was the fulfillment of every small boy’s dream of a haunted house.

If ever a house was haunted, that one on Chicago’s South Side should have been. To this day, 117 years later, nobody knows precisely how many persons were murdered in it. Estimates range from twenty to a couple of hundred. Most, if not all, were women. It is believed that they were chloroformed, gassed, strangled, or perhaps beaten to death. Their bodies were destroyed in cellar pits containing quicklime and acids. Some of their skeletons were sold by their efficient murderer, who was determined to realize every penny of profit from his crimes.

Mudgett-Holmes deserves to rank with the great criminals of history. Crime writers reserve the word “monster” for top-notch murderers. A monster ranks above such lesser criminals as fiends, beasts, and phantoms. He must meet certain rigid requirements. His victims, killed over a period of years and not for money alone, must be numerous and preferably female, and he must do unusual things with their bodies; he must inhabit a gloomy, forbidding dwelling, and he should be of a scientific bent. The master of the murder castle possessed all these qualifications and more. Magnificent swindler, petty cheat, mass murderer, he was a man of nimble, tortuous mind. He pyramided fraud upon fraud. Young, good-looking, glib, he mesmerized business men and captivated and seduced pretty young women, at least two of whom he married bigamously. Physician, student of hypnotism, dabbler in the occult, gentleman of fashion, devious liar, skillful manipulator of amazingly complex enterprises, he died on the gallows when he was thirty-five, his crimes exposed accidentally by the vengeful suspicions of that most despised figure in crime, the police informer.  [Read more]

Crane and Breed Eight-Column Glass-Side Hearse displayed at the 1893 World's Fair, in Chicago.

 “I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing – I was born with the “Evil One” standing as my sponsor beside the bed where I was ushered into the world, and he has been with me since.” – H.H. Holmes

There are several accounts of Mudgett-Holmes’s activities, not the least of which is the doctor’s own, a lurid confession written in 1896 while he awaited execution. Holmes admitted 27 murders, most of which, he said, occurred in his infamous “castle” on what is now Chicago’s South Side. He was a psychopath and a compulsive liar, though, so there’s no telling how many he really did away with.  On the gallows he claimed he’d only slain two persons, both of whom he had carved up on the operating table in his macabre basement.  Frank Geyer, a Philadelphia police detective who later wrote a book on the case, unearthed (in a regrettably literal way) enough evidence to pin four killings on Holmes–those of a onetime business associate named Benjamin Pitezel and three of his children.  Holmes–who really was a doctor, with a degree from the University of Michigan–destroyed or hid the bodies of the rest of his victims. Conjecture puts the toll as high as 200.

Holmes was a handsome, intelligent man of great personal charm. By the time he took a job as a chemist at a Chicago area drugstore in 1888, he’d already abandoned two wives and committed a variety of felonies, such as defrauding one of his in-laws.  In 1890 the proprietress of the drugstore disappeared. Holmes took over the business, selling patent medicines of his own invention by mail order.  He also began to build a “hotel” across the street. It was a gaudy three-story building with shops on the first floor and a bizarre labyrinth of windowless rooms, false floors, secret passages, trapdoors, and chutes above.  Holmes changed contractors several times and shuffled the workers around frequently so that no one ever got a clear idea of the floor plan or what the building was for.

In fact it was a death house. Most of the rooms had gas vents that could only be controlled from a closet in Holmes’s bedroom. Many were soundproof and could not be unlocked from inside.  A few rooms were lined with asbestos, presumably so the victim could be incinerated. Chutes and passages led to the basement, where Holmes had installed an oven for cremating the bodies as well as several lime pits for disposing of whatever evidence remained.  He also had a well-equipped surgery area equipped with the usual medical apparatus as well as several instruments of torture, such as the rack. Human fragments, including several complete skeletons, were discovered here and throughout the premises.

Holmes was quite the ladies’ man, and his victims seem to have been mostly female. He hired dozens of young women from the outback to work as secretaries, many of whom he seduced and many of whom subsequently disappeared. Perhaps as many as 50 visitors to his hotel were also slain. It was the era of the World’s Columbian Exposition (1893), the entrance to which was only a few blocks from Holmes’s establishment. The thousands of untraceable transients who passed through town in those years may explain how he got away with it for as long as he did.

In late 1893 Holmes left Chicago and traveled around the country, apparently murdering anybody who was handy. He was finally caught in 1895 by the Philly police when he neglected to dispose of the previously mentioned Pitezel’s body.

Holmes was hanged on May 7, 1896. Students of the occult may wish to note that within a few years of his death a great number of people associated with the case–prison officials, lawyers, relatives–died suddenly, some of them under unexplained circumstances.  The castle burned down on August 19, 1895. The cause of the fire was never determined. Who knows, maybe somebody forgot to turn off the gas.

Source: Cecil Adams, The Straight Dope, Fighting Ignorance Since 1973 (it’s taking longer than we thought)


In 1991, the Buffalo Bill Killer from the film Silence of the Lambs was partially modeled after H.H. Holmes. More specifically though was the killer’s basement– a maze specifically patterned after Murder Castle– complete with torture pit. It was here, in the film, where Buffalo Bill killer, Jame Gump, stalked character Clarice Starling in an all too familiar manner– the way in which H.H. Holmes also stalked his victims in the endless maze of his Murder Castle.

Most recently, however, H.H. Holmes and his murder castle have been serialized in Eric Larson’s historical fiction account of those tragic events titled “Devil in the White City“. In November of 2010, it was announced that the book was to be made into a film and Leonardo DiCaprio would be playing the role of devil incarnate, H.H. Holmes.

 Further Information:

Uniform Anatomical Gift Act  – The law prescribes the forms by which such gifts can be made [leaving one’s body to medical science]. It also provides that in the absence of such a document, a surviving spouse, or if there is no spouse, a list of specific relatives in order of preference, can make the gift. It also seeks to limit the liability of health care providers who act on good faith representations that a deceased patient meant to make an anatomical gift. The act also prohibits trafficking and trafficking in human organs for profit from donations for transplant or therapy.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers – Mary Roach

The Witching Hour – H.H. Holme’s Murder Castle

Don’t let death be an obstacle to reaching your full potential or achieving your life-after-death purpose.

"Little Egypt" at the Chicago's World Fair, 1893

Image Credit: Celebration Goddess 

My young love said to me,
My mother won’t mind
And my father won’t slight you
For your lack of kind”
And she stepped away from me
And this she did say:
It will not be long, love,
Till our wedding day”

As she stepped away from me
And she moved through the fair
And fondly I watched her
Move here and move there
And then she turned homeward
With one star awake
Like the swan in the evening
Moves over the lake

The people were saying,
No two e’er were wed
But one had a sorrow
That never was said
And I smiled as she passed
With her goods and her gear,
And that was the last
That I saw of my dear.

Last night she came to me,
My dead love came in
So softly she came
That her feet made no din
As she laid her hand on me
And this she did say
It will not be long, love,
‘Til our wedding day

The original words were an old ballad from Donegal which was collected in 1909. The words were “reworked” by Padraic Colum to this version. Alternate titles and variants include, Our Wedding Day and Out of the Window.

According to Ossian’s Folksongs and Ballads Popular in Ireland – Volume I the tune dates back to Medieval times. [Source: Contemplator.com]

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