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Home » Major Crimes in History » H.H. Holmes: The Story Behind Chicago’s Brutal Murderer

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

by Les Hewitt

A Deadly Plot

H.H. Holmes intended to scam an insurance company out of $20,000 and needed the name of a corrupt lawyer to pull it off. Hedgepeth provided the name of attorney Jeptha Howe for a fee. When Holmes presented his ideas to Howe, the attorney considered it to be brilliant. Holmes planned to fake his own death and collect the money.

He took a cadaver to a beach in Rhode Island, lit it on fire, and left it on the beach until someone found it. Holmes had a full shave and altered his appearance before he returned to a hotel and registered with a new alias. When he heard the corpse had been discovered, he formally identified it as Holmes and tried to cash in the policy. The insurers suspected fraud and refused to pay out. So, he returned to Chicago and decided he would work on his Pitezel scheme.

Pitezel Becomes Holmes’ Victim

Holmes drafted the assistance of both Ben Pitezel and Jeptha Howe. Pitezel and his wife, Carrie, traveled to Philadelphia and opened up a brand new shop that sold patents. This was done using the name B.F. Perry – a name that Holmes used on yet another new insurance policy. In Philadelphia, Pitezel would drink a potion designed to render himself unconscious. H.H. Holmes would apply makeup to him and convince an independent witness that this was a man that had died of severe burns. While the witness left to call for an ambulance, the pair would switch Pitezel out with a real corpse. Pitezel was offered a percentage of the payout for his part in this scam.

On September 4th neighbors near the patent office heard a loud explosion. Not long afterward, a local man arrived at the office and found the doors locked and the place dark. Immediately, he called the police. When they arrived at the scene, the first responders kicked down the door and discovered a badly burned man. They considered his death an accident, but the insurance company required identification of the body for them to pay out.

Collection of the Insurance

Jeptha Howe, Pitezel’s 15-year-old daughter, and H.H. Holmes went to Pennsylvania together. The poor daughter identified some markings on Pitezel’s body and some of his teeth. Subsequently, the insurance company paid out the cash, and Howe kept $2500 of it. Holmes took the remainder and presented Carrie with just $500, which he promptly took back and promised to invest it for her. Neither Ben Pitezel nor Marion Hedgepeth got anything for their parts in the fraud. It was no surprise that Pitezel received nothing – as he was, in fact, the corpse that was found. In a remarkable double-cross, Holmes really did murder his own accomplice.

Benjamin Pitezel and the place of his murder.

Benjamin Pitezel and the place of his murder. Images, LoC. Compilation: Historic Mysteries.

Hedgepeth’s Part

H.H. Holmes didn’t even bother to get in touch with Hedgepeth once the plan was complete. Naturally, Hedgepeth didn’t appreciate the snub — or the lack of payment. Hedgepeth sat on his inside knowledge for a short time before eventually opting to snitch on Holmes. Hedgepeth contacted local police officer Lawrence Harrigan. Then, Philadelphia police detective Frank Geyer entered the investigation.

Meanwhile, Holmes knew he needed to run. He fed Carrie a slew of lies and convinced her to head east with him and Georgiana where, as he told her, Carrie would meet up with Ben. Obviously, this never happened. They traveled from city to city until Holmes finally told Carrie to continue without him. He would head to Canada with three of her children while she went to meet Ben.

Murders of the Pitezel Children

In July 1895, Frank Geyer found the bodies of Alice and Nellie Pitezel buried in the basement of a house that Holmes had rented in Toronto, Canada. Later, the remains of the third child, 7-year-old Howard Pitezal turned up in a house in Irvington, Indiana. The monster of a man had cut up the boy’s poor body and stuffed and burned the parts in the stove.

Back in Philadelphia, Fidelity Mutual Insurance had hired the famous Pinkerton detective agency to track Holmes. He was aware that detectives were shadowing his every move. For two months, he avoided capture, but his luck ran out on November 17, 1894. Henry Holmes arrived in Boston at his parent’s house, where the Pinkertons promptly arrested him.

Bodies in the Murder Hotel

Detectives found a house of horrors at H.H. Holmes’ hotel. The basement contained blood-splattered dissecting tables that sat alongside various torture paraphernalia and pristine surgical instruments. A crematorium contained ash and remnants of human bones. Additionally, Minnie Williams’ watch and other pieces of jewelry also lay within the confines of it. A pelvic bone belonging to a young child turned out to be that of Julia’s daughter, Pearl. Julia had evidently also perished in the hotel, as investigators found a bloody piece of her dress. Numerous ribs and part of a skull still bobbed in the vat of acid. More skeletons lay inside two pits in the floor, and an additional three skeletons under the dissecting table were waiting to be sold to one of the medical schools.

Madam LaLaurie: Slave Killer of the 1800s

Goodbye to the Castle

On August 19th, shortly after midnight, a trio of explosions rocked the neighborhood. Within just an hour, the roof caved in and eventually brought the walls down too. Among the ruins was a discarded gas can. Witnessed claimed to have seen two men go into the building and, 30 minutes later, running out. The main satisfaction that people drew on was that the infamous Murder Castle had been razed to the ground.

Holmes’ Execution

H.H. Holmes confessed to 27 murders, but police could only confirm nine. Others estimated up to 200 killings. The trial began not long before Halloween in 1895 and lasted for less than a week. Supposedly, the jury only required two hours to find Chicago’s serial murderer guilty. Henry Webster Mudgett, also known as Henry Howard Holmes, received the death penalty and hung at Moyamensing Prison on May 7, 1896.

Sketch of hanging of H.H. Holmes.

Subsequently, he was buried at the Holy Cross Cemetary in Landsdowne, PA, in the concrete casket he requested because he believed people would desecrate his grave. The bigamist left behind three spouses and two children, Robert Lovering Mudgett (son of Clara) and Lucy Theodate Holmes (daughter of Myrta).

Upcoming H.H. Holmes Movie

Rumor has it that Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese are currently working on a script for a movie called, “The Devil in the White City.” In 2010 DiCaprio acquired the film rights to Erik Larson’s book of the same name, which is a non-fictional account of the serial killer and his crimes. The movie’s release date is unknown.

References:
Colliflower, William W. Monsters of Medicine: The Lives of Five Serial Killer Physicians: Is There a Common Thread? Victoria, British Columbia: Friesen Press, 2013.
Mudgett, Herman W. Holmes Own Story, in Which the Alleged Multi-murderer and Arch Conspirator Tells of the Twenty-two Tragic Deaths and Disappearances in Which He Is Said to Be Implicated, with Moyamensing Prison Diary Appendix. Philadelphia: Burk & McFetridge, 1895.
Harper’s Magazine
History
Schechter, Harold. Depraved: The Definitive True Story of H.H. Holmes, Whose Grotesque Crimes Shattered Turn-of-the-century Chicago. New York: Pocket Star Books, 2004.
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