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H.H. Holmes: The Story Behind Chicago’s Brutal Murderer

by Les Hewitt

Features of the Murder Castle

In total, Holmes’ castle had 60 rooms and 51 doors. Many features were cut into odd angles into walls. Some of the rooms did not have a window and others had concealed trap doors. A number of staircases were also hidden. One of them led to a sheer drop onto an alley that was at the back of the building. A chute-fed directly into the basement where he kept acid vats and pits filled with quicklime next to a surgery table. Additionally, Holmes had an incinerator where he could cremate any remains.

Features of the Murder Hotel, 1896.

Features of the Murder Hotel, The Journal Newspaper, 1896. Images: LoC. Colorization: Historic Mysteries.

However, not all of the building was designed to bamboozle or disorientate. The entire first floor was designed for stores and shops and other businesses. Ingeniously, one of those was a drug store with a pharmacy. Dr. Holmes had worked as a druggist in the past and knew exactly how certain drugs might come in handy. The rest of the space was dedicated to paying guests – many of whom would never be seen again.

The Macabre Hotel Layout

Holmes had converted one room upstairs into his office space. Additional macabre secret design features hid within the walls of the castle. Several of the guest rooms were “asphyxiation chambers” with gas vents, which Holmes controlled from the closet in his bedroom. Some rooms had iron plates and asbestos incorporated into the lining, and something similar to a blowtorch was included within some of the walls. Each room contained an alarm system that would alert the owner to any possible escape.

Plans for Holmes' Castle. Image: Holmes' Own Story.

Plans for Holmes’ Castle. Image: Holmes’ Own Story.

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.

Cecil Adams, Straight Dope

Disappearances at the World’s Fair

The hotel was ready for business in 1892 and Henry Holmes advertised his hotel in anticipation for the upcoming World’s Fair. Tourists needed somewhere to stay during their visit and a brand new 60 room hotel seemed ideal. At the conclusion of the fair, rumors surfaced that the disappearance of 50 people could be traced to the brand new hotel. However, this number is pure speculation. To this day, nobody knows for certain how many people from the missing list were victims of Holmes. With such a large number in a short amount of time, foul play was likely.

Minnie Williams

It was 1893 that H.H. Holmes met a plain young lady by the name of Minnie Williams. She didn’t have the good looks that most of his previous romances possessed, but she had inherited a fortune in Texas real estate. Unfortunately, she was a simple and naive person with a rather child-like mind, and this made her the perfect victim. Holmes zoned in on this fact and hired Minnie as his personal secretary. Naturally, he wooed her and before she knew it, he had asked her to marry him. It wasn’t long before she was giving him large sums of money and signing her Texas property over to him.

The couple lived in an apartment together, where Holmes spent a great deal of time getting to know Minnie. He learned that she also had a sister who was an heiress to a large fortune and he urged Minnie to invite her sister for a visit.

Minnie’s Sister and Brother

In July 1893, the plans were in place for Nannie to visit Chicago and she had left her Southern home by train. Holmes went alone to the depot to pick her up. When she arrived, he told Nannie that Minnie was waiting for them at the Castle and promptly escorted her there. He used his perverse methods to get her to sign over her wealth, and then he quickly proceeded to kill her without a trace. Subsequently, he faked a letter to make Minnie think Nannie never left the South.

Later that same year, Holmes took Minnie to Momence, Illinois, where he killed her and buried her body in the basement of a house. After she was dead, he went through her belongings and discovered an insurance policy. Minnie’s brother had taken out life insurance and Minnie was the beneficiary. Out of his lust for money, Holmes traveled all the way to Leadville, Colorado, to shoot her brother. He then forged Minnie’s signature and collected the insurance.

(Note: There are conflicting stories about what happened to Nannie. This version originates from the confessions of Holmes in Holmes’ Own Story).

Ongoing Scams

In October of 1893, H.H. Holmes would carry out another scheme for a large sum of money. He had taken out four fire insurance policies worth $25,000 on his hotel. The fire destroyed the third level, but most of the second floor was still intact, and the ground-floor businesses were unharmed. The investigation clearly pointed to arson. Therefore, the insurance companies suspected fraud and they refused to pay out.

The Pitezel Plan

Ben Pitezel was a long-time employee and friend of Holmes and had been his wingman on a few scams in the past. Holmes hatched out another plan with Pitezel that would involve an insurance policy on Pitezel’s life. The beneficiary would be Carrie Pitezel, Ben’s wife. First, Holmes would take out a policy of $10,000. Then after some time, they would fake Pitezel’s death, substitute a cadaver for his, and split the proceeds. This time, Holmes had to use an out-of-town insurance company, due to his suspicious reputation in Englewood. Fidelity Mutual Life Association of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, happily sold the dapper doctor a policy. Now they had to wait.

Closing in on the Killer

Meanwhile, lenders were bearing down on H.H. Holmes. He owed nearly $50,000, and in light of the fire and an economic downturn, they wanted their money. Additionally, insurance companies were suspecting him of fraud, and rumors were spreading around town that made it hard for him to procure more insurance policies. In July 1894, Holmes, Pitezel, and Holmes’ current wife, Georgiana Yoke, left Chicago to Fort Worth Texas to liquidate the property he took from Minnie.

Things didn’t work out as planned with the property, however, they engaged in a number of other scams. When the two men stole Texas bloodline horses from some Texan ranchers, the authorities began their hunt. Authorities caught up with him in St. Louis, but Holmes posted bail almost immediately. However, during his time in jail, he had made a plan with his cellmate Marion Hedgepeth. This was a rough and mean outlaw who was doing 25 years for train robbery.

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