- H.H. Holmes was one of America’s first documented serial killers.
- The carefully constructed hotel during the 1893 World’s Fair, consisted of elaborate trap doors, secret rooms, and a master torture room.
In the 19th century, world expositions were opportunities to show off the latest in industrialization and culture. But in 1893, the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago was home to a more sinister marvel: H.H. Holmes’ infamous murder castle.
Thousands of visitors to Chicago needed a place to stay during the world exposition, and Holmes had rooms waiting. The first floor had shops, the third floor had apartments — and the second floor and basement were reserved for murder.
Born Herman Webster Mudgett in 1861, Holmes had a hobby of dissecting small animals as a child. His fascination with death brought him to steal cadavers while enrolled at the University of Michigan’s Department of Medicine and Surgery. Holmes would take out policies on the deceased and then collect the money for himself — a habit he continued even after he left the university.
When Holmes moved to Chicago, he purchased an empty lot and began construction on a custom hotel building. It spanned an entire block and was dubbed “the Castle” by locals. While the hotel’s construction should have only taken six months, according to Chicagoist, it took three times as long because Holmes kept firing construction workers. However, his high turnover rate wasn’t because of issues with his employees — instead, Holmes constantly fired workers in order to prevent anyone from learning the layout of his murderous castle.
Arguably, the only person who knew the true nature of Holmes’ construction from the beginning was Holmes’ associate, Benjamin Pitezel, a carpenter with a history of lawbreaking and participation in Holmes’ insurance scams. Other people who interacted with Holmes had a strange tendency to disappear, which he would write off by explaining that they had moved away, gone to visit family, or simply vanished without a trace. The truth, though, existed in the hidden rooms and torture chambers scattered among the Castle.
At the end of his murderous reign, Holmes confessed to 27 murders — although some numbers place his actual body count closer to 200. Here’s how he carried out the gruesome killings.
Holmes’ castle was a multi-use building with stores and services on the bottom floor, including a pharmacy. The third floor functioned as a hostel. Holmes would select his victims among employees and hotel guests, who met their demise via the secret chambers and traps constructed throughout the second floor and basement.
From strange, angled hallways to doors that only opened from the outside, every part of Holmes’ castle was constructed to disguise his inclination to kill. On the second floor, guests were murdered in the following ways:
- Asphyxiated via gas lines in soundproof bedrooms
- Burned to death in iron rooms fitted with blowtorches
- Hanged in a secret chamber on the second floor
- Isolated in a solid brick room that could only be accessed by a trapdoor in the ceiling
- Stretched on a rack for Holmes’ attempt to create a race of giants
Chutes and dummy elevators brought bodies to the basement, where victims’ bodies could be dissected in Holmes’ surgical area. The basement also contained furnaces large enough to incinerate human bodies, lime pits, and corrosive acid for quick disposal.
Due to the connections Holmes had made in medical school, it was relatively easy for him to strip down the bodies and sell them as skeleton models, or harvest their organs for medical use. And during his entire, murderous reign, Holmes was earning a steady income by forcing his employees to take out life insurance policies that named him as the beneficiary — later, those same employees would find themselves trapped in one of Holmes’ murder rooms.
After a long history of dodging creditors because of his insurance scams, Holmes was eventually caught and arrested in Boston in 1894. It wasn’t until the police began interviewing Holmes’ employees that they realized the extent of his depravity; investigators unearthed the lime pits, found skeletal remains, and located the underground oil tank that fed gas lines throughout the building.
During his trial, Holmes said, “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."
He was hanged in 1896 for the murder of his criminal associate, Benjamin Pitezel. And while the Castle could have been an incredible tourist attraction today, it burned in 1895 under mysterious circumstances; the building was ultimately torn down in 1938, and today, the lot is home to something distinctly less murderous: the Englewood branch of the United States Post Service.
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Elise Torres is a writer for Crimewire, a true crime blog. Her work has appeared in Thought Catalog, Bustle, and other publications.