Devil in Cowtown

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H.H. Holmes was just one of his aliases.

He was born Herman Webster Mudgett in 1861 and was one of the first documented American serial killers. While he confessed to 27 murders, his actual body count is thought to be as high as 200. The majority of his heinous kills happened in Chicago, but his attention turned to Fort Worth in 1893 with hopes of building another house of torture for harvesting innocent victims.

by Jennifer Casseday-Blair
*While the events depicted here are historical and factual, different sources disagree on the order of the events or historical timeline relating to H.H. Holmes and his murders. The story told here took the most reliable sources as a whole and culminated the information into one cohesive account.

Profile of a Killer

Mudgett was born to a violent alcoholic father and a mother who was a devout Methodist. As a child, Mudgett was bullied repeatedly. Upon discovering that he was afraid of the town’s doctor, some of the older kids thought it’d be funny for him to face his fears. When they took him to touch a human skeleton at the doctor’s office, it had the opposite effect. Instead of scaring him, it actually prompted a new fascination.

As his compulsion grew, Mudgett would capture and torture animals and attempt to perform surgery on them. There is also speculation that Mudgett may have had young victims, based on records of missing children who would have been around Mudgett.

Mudgett grew to be a handsome man with dark brooding eyes and a curled mustache, which explains his many amorous encounters with women. In 1878, Mudgett married Clara Lovering in New Hampshire and had a son, who went on to be an accountant.

In the early 1880s, Mudgett attended the University of Michigan Medical School. He began stealing bodies from the school’s laboratories and taking insurance policies out on the deceased. He was able to make the bodies look like they had been killed accidentally in order to collect the insurance money. After graduating in 1884, he moved to Chicago to pursue a career in pharmaceuticals. Mudgett started calling himself H.H. Holmes in an attempt to hide his tracks in a multitude of real estate and insurance schemes.

While still married to Clara, Holmes married Myrta Belknap in Minnesota and had a daughter. During this marriage, he spent the majority of his time in Chicago.

Holmes came across a drugstore at the corner of S. Wallace and W. 63rd Street. In 1886 he began working at the corner drugstore owned by Dr. E.S. Holton. Because Dr. Holton was suffering from cancer, the doctor’s wife was running the store at the time. After a short while, Holmes convinced Mrs. Holton to sell him the store.

After Dr. Holton died, Holmes allowed Mrs. Holton to live in the apartment above the store. She mysteriously disappeared, and Holmes told everyone that she was visiting friends and family in California and would probably not return because she liked it so much there.

Castle of Torture

Holmes became interested in and would go on to also purchase the lot directly across from the drugstore. This was where he built a three-story, block-long hotel eventually known as the Murder Castle. It was opened in conjunction with the World’s Columbian Exposition, which was a fair held to celebrate the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus. The fair acted as the perfect way to draw in a steady stream of “visitors” or victims for Holmes.

Holmes hired a man named Ned Davenport as a jeweler in his store. Ned brought with him his wife, Julia Conner, and daughter, Pearl. Holmes and Julia had an affair and were quickly engaged. Ned surrendered his wife and daughter and walked away.

Holmes also made the acquaintance of Benjamin Pitezel around this time. With a shady past himself, Pitezel was a man who partnered with Holmes in insurance fraud. Holmes killed him and burned his body until it was unrecognizable. He then told Mrs. Carrie Pitezel that her husband had run off. When she left in search for him, she left her three children with Holmes.

After his capture, Holmes wouldn’t say what had happened to the three Pitezel children: Howard, Nellie and Alice. It was later discovered that he had asphyxiated Nellie and Alice by tricking them to play hide and seek. As they hid in the trunk, he stuck a rubber tube in it that was attached to gas. The remaining Pitezel child, Howard, was found in an Indianapolis townhouse burned alive in a stove.

During the hotel’s construction, he fired builders often so that he was the only one that knew the true nature of the building. When it was completed a short time later, Holmes began to torture and kill his employees and hotel guests. Many of the victims were young girls answering an ad that Holmes had put in the classifieds for a job at the hotel.

The ground floor of the “Castle,” as the hotel was known by locals, contained Holmes’s new drugstore as well as various other shops. The upper two floors contained his personal office and the rooms of the hotel.

The hotel was made up of windowless rooms, strangely angled hallways, doorways and stairways leading to nowhere, and doors that could only be opened from the outside.

In this house of horrors, Holmes fitted the rooms with ducts that he could use to gas people staying in them. Trap doors were cut to lead to hidden stairways, and chutes made it easy for Holmes to dispatch bodies to the basement. The doors to the rooms were wired with an elaborate alarm system to warn Holmes if someone was trying to escape, and he also had peepholes everywhere for spying on occupants.

The cellar was the most terrifying section of the building. It was equipped with operating tables, pits containing acid and lime, surgical instruments, a crematory and stretching racks. Holmes would sometimes stretch his victims’ bodies slowly over time or strip the flesh from their bones and sell the skeletons to medical institutions.

Incredibly, Holmes was able to keep his murder operation a secret for a few years. After the World’s Fair was over, Holmes left Chicago and was in search of a new place to “set up shop.”

New Playground

Holmes first came to Fort Worth in 1894, where he had inherited property from a railroad heiress, Minnie Williams. Holmes met Williams and told her that his name was Harry Gordon and that he was a wealthy inventor. Holmes had become significantly interested in Minnie when he learned that she was the heir to a Texas real estate fortune. It wasn’t long before she and Holmes were engaged to be married.

Julia Connor was not happy, needless to say. She was still involved with Holmes and still working at the store. Not long after his engagement became official, both Julia and Pearl disappeared. Holmes told people that they had moved to Michigan. Later Holmes confessed to killing Julia and her daughter Pearl. 

Minnie’s role is not entirely clear. She was eventually his victim, but many speculate that she was also his accomplice. He used her Fort Worth real estate in some of his schemes, though maybe without her knowledge.

Williams played a strange role for a mistress as she served as his witness when he married his last wife, Georgiana Yoke. Holmes, Yoke and Williams traveled to Texas, where they claimed Minnie’s property and arranged a horse swindle.

Holmes purchased several railroad cars of horses with counterfeit banknotes and signed the papers as O.C. Pratt. Then the horses were shipped to St. Louis and sold. Holmes made off with a fortune, but it would be this swindle that would later lead to the final arrest that put him away for good.

After borrowing money on Minnie’s property, Holmes (now going by O.C. Pratt) prepared to create another house of torture as he had in Chicago. He had builders lined up and a location in mind. It was going to be three stories just as the other hotel with an almost identical floor plan. Because of the harsh law enforcement in Fort Worth, he scrapped the idea and decided he needed to move on.

In order to do this, Holmes needed a scapegoat in Fort Worth. He asked his Chicago hotel caretaker, Pat Quinlan, to Texas and then disappeared. Quinlan was left to face Holmes’s creditors.

Minnie had invited her sister, Nannie, to come and join her in Texas. It wasn’t long after that Nannie mysteriously disappeared. Holmes maintained that Minnie killed her younger sister after the two girls had fought over Holmes’s affections. He admitted to putting Nannie’s body in a trunk, weighting it with lead and dumping it three miles offshore.

Back in Chicago again, it is almost certain that Minnie knew that the murders were happening. It is suspected that she went along with it and may have even instigated some of the murders due to her extreme jealousy. Holmes eventually confessed to killing Minnie, and it is believed she was put in the acid vat in the cellar.

Paying the Piper

Holmes was finally arrested in Boston while trying to escape the country by steamboat. He was held on an outstanding warrant for the horse theft swindle he thought he had gotten away with in Texas.

Detective Frank Geyer was tasked with finding evidence to put Holmes away. Holmes was charged with murder after police found evidence of human remains in the cellar of his Chicago hotel and the bodies of the three Pitezel children.

Geyer wrote the first book on Holmes in 1896, The Holmes-Pitezel Case. It gives a full-length account of the trial including court transcripts. It also includes evidence not used in court and autobiographical pieces that Holmes wrote.

The trial began in Philadelphia in 1895 and lasted a week. It was a national sensation. On the first day of his trial, Holmes dismissed his attorneys. During the jury selection process, he tried to have removed potential jurors if they had read anything about him in the newspapers, but the judge did not allow it.

Holmes was praised by the papers for his performance in the courtroom initially. He seemed to be familiar with various aspects of the law as seen when he asked for an analysis of the liquid poison he had allegedly used and the toxicology reports. Overall, however, Holmes provided an inadequate defense.

In his last hours, Holmes met with priests but refused to repent. He was hung in 1896 after confessing to 27 murders, nine of which were confirmed. It is believed that the body count was as high as 200.

The Chicago Murder Castle burned while Holmes was in prison in 1895. While much of the building was damaged, it survived the blaze. It wasn’t until 1938 that it was torn down.