There are some creepy places in this world that go beyond merely haunted, being not only supposedly infested by ghosts but also imbued with a history of pain, woe, strife, and death, indeed, pure evil. One such place exists in the city of Chicago, Illinois, in the United States. It was here that one of the nation's very first serial killers would build a sadistic chamber of horrors to live out his most demented fantasies, and the "Murder Castle" has remained a dark mark on the city's history and haunted with both real ghosts and its own horrific past.
In 1886, a man named Henry Howard Holmes came to the city of Chicago, Illinois, and began a humble job working at a corner drugstore owned by an Elizabeth S. Holton, and by all accounts he was an intelligent, hard-working, and very charming man who before long had made quick friends with everyone in the area. He also seemed to be moving up in the world, eventually buying the store and becoming owner. What many people did not know was that the man they knew as H.H. Holmes was not who they thought he was, and that he was to begin a reign of terror that would shock the city, and indeed the nation.
What most people did not know back then was that Holmes had begun life as Herman Webster Mudgett, born in 1861 in New Hampshire. He also had had a rather turbulent past, moving from school to school before finally settling at the University of Michigan's Department of Medicine and Surgery, during which time he had worked at a medical lab and began his first steps on the road to a criminal career by using cadavers to defraud insurance companies. Also during his university days, he was married, had a son, and got separated, and after graduating he began the first of his many jumps around the country, settling in Mooers Forks, New York, where his history would begin to take on a tint of the sinister.
While living in New York, he was suspected of having something to do with the mysterious disappearance of a boy he had last been seen with, and although he was never charged with any crime and denied any wrongdoing, he rather suspiciously moved on to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he took up work as a pharmacist at a drugstore. Here too there would be suspicions aimed his way, when a young boy overdosed and died from taking medication from the store. Once again, Holmes was not prosecuted, but he once again skipped town right after, this time finding his way to Chicago, where he changed his name and planned to start a new identity.
This is where we come back to Holmes and his new life, where everyone was blissfully unaware of any of his shady past and where he seemed to be successful and well-liked. Yet, it was during this time he would get up to his old manipulative ways, marrying another woman, Myrta Belknap, while still technically married to his previous wife, although they soon separated as well. Despite this, no one had a clue what he was up to, and he was still ever the charming, successful businessman.
He was so successful, in fact, that in 1887, in the years leading up the 1893 Chicago World Fair, he bought a lot across the street from the drugstore and began the construction of a massive 3-story building that he planned to turn into a hotel. The construction would prove to be unorthodox to say the least, with Holmes changing architects, contractors, and workers frequently, but this wasn’t quite strange enough to gather any suspicions at the time. When the hotel was completed in 1891 he began hiring employees, and oddly enough he demanded that they have life insurance and additionally that they make him the beneficiary. Strange, but again not weird enough to arouse any suspicion at the time.
The World Fair would come and go, and unfortunately the hotel portion of the building seems to have never been opened due to various disputes over payment with the various contractors and architects who had worked on it, but the store front section on the first floor proved to be a success. Holmes was still up to his ways, marrying yet another woman, Georgiana Yoke, in the meantime, as well as allegedly having numerous mistresses, mostly employees, but there was no reason yet to think that he was anything other than another rich, charming playboy. No one knew that during the World Fair Holmes had been hard at work completing a string of insurance scams all over the country with an accomplice by the name of Benjamin Pitezel, and there was no particular suspicion raised when he suddenly left Chicago to go off and pull off more scams.
Not all of these schemes were successful, and Holmes once ended up jail for a scam and on another occasion he tried to scam an insurance company by faking his own death, only for it to fail when red flags were raised. Not long after this, Holmes kept at his faked death scam, this time turning to his accomplice Pitezel and having him fake his own death so that they could collect the insurance money, the same plan he had unsuccessfully tried before with himself. It is unclear just what part of the “faked” of a fake death Holmes didn’t understand, but he ended up making Pitezel just plain dead, after which he collected the money and skipped town. Police wanted Holmes for an outstanding warrant for fraud, but also began to suspect Holmes for foul play when they learned of the scam that he had planned, coupled with Pitezel's disappearance, and they eventually tracked him down in Boston with the help of information provided by a disgruntled former accomplice of Holmes’.
He was arrested on November 17, 1894, and this would be the beginning of the end for Holmes, and the start of a show of horrors the likes of which the country had never seen. As they dug deeper into the case, the investigation discovered that not only had Pitezel been murdered in cold blood, but that three of his five children, who had last been seen with Holmes, had also been killed and buried in the cellar of a house Holmes had been renting. Holmes was now a murder suspect, and he was also increasingly linked to more and more mysterious disappearances, namely a number of women who had worked at his hotel. However, it was when they began searching his hotel’s premises that the real horror show began.
It was immediately found to be a rather odd and unsettling place, with doors and stairways that led to nowhere, doors that opened onto brick walls or only opened one way, a complicated, labyrinthine floor layout that seemed almost designed to confuse people, and various trap doors, secret doors, peepholes, and anomalous holes that would later be found to have been used to insert hoses for pumping poisonous gas. It was also found that several of the rooms were soundproofed, had been rigged with alarms, and held chutes leading to the basement as well. These baffling and hazy clues would all become very clear and draw sharply into focus when police searched the murky depths of the hotel basement.
One of the first things they discovered down there in those dank depths was a pile of animal and human bones, which would later be shown to have come from children. More macabre discoveries followed, such as other bone fragments, an acid vat presumably for dissolving human remains, chemicals for just that purpose, and a large stove for cremation, found to have a pile of ashes containing a women’s gold chain, a watch, and some metal buttons. There was also a dissecting table with bloodied women’s clothing lying atop it, as well as various tools for dissection. According to some accounts it was even claimed that there were various horrific torture devices like something out of a medieval dungeon scattered about. For all appearances this was a veritable murderer’s playground, and police began to suspect what he had been up to.
It was thought that Holmes had rigged the rooms with alarms that sounded in his own room and peepholes so that he could secretly watch guests and keep an eye on their movements, and the secret doors would have allowed him to move about unseen. He could then administer gas into their rooms to knock them out when his victims were least expecting it, after which he would drop them down a chute to the basement, where he would torture them, kill them, chop them up, and then dissolve or burn any remains. He even also seemed to have intentionally designed the hotel to be confusing, along with its non-intuitive layout, one-way doors, and stairways to nowhere, in order to thwart any effort to escape. Although the hotel seems to have never actually opened for business, it was suspected that he still had some guests from time to time, and that he had numerous mistresses stay here as well, although how many he may have killed in this death trap was unknown.
In the end, for all of this there were found no full human bodies, and the bones could have come from anywhere. After all, Holmes had worked with cadavers before, so they may have been from people who were already deceased. Despite all of the gruesome and disturbing evidence on hand there was nothing concrete to prove that Holmes had actually murdered anyone there, and so he was not charged with anything concerning the hotel, which was now widely becoming known as the “Murder Castle” by sensationalized news reports. Additionally, Holmes insisted that he was innocent and had done nothing wrong.
Eventually, after a very highly publicized and bizarre trial, Holmes would only officially be found guilty of the murder of Benjamin Pitezel, but he was highly implicated in the murder of Pitezel’s children as well. In the wake of his murder conviction Holmes underwent a sinister change, going from proclaiming his innocence to a full confession of having carried out 27 additional murders, as well as 6 attempted murders. He also began to make claims that he was under the influence of Satanic forces, and that he was at times even fully possessed by the Devil. One of his most famous quotes while incarcerated was:
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.
All of this added to the macabre allure of the case, which was splashed everywhere in the news, drawing intense interest from all over. These sensational news stories were often over exaggerated, adding grim details or inflating the death toll, with some pulp tabloid style newspapers claiming that the monstrous Holmes had slaughtered up to 200 people, but no matter what the real number was, he was only convicted of one, the murder of Pitezel. For this murder he would be sentenced to death and executed by hanging on May 7, 1896, in a spectacle that included a botched execution that led to Holmes dangling about on the rope for 20 minutes before finally dying and ending his reign of terror. Oddly, Holmes had requested that his body be encased in a huge slab of concrete in order to prevent grave robbers from stealing it, and this was done in accordance with his wishes.
In the aftermath of Holmes’ death there began a string of mysterious accidents and deaths involving people and places who had been associated with him or who had helped put him behind bars. The first strange incident occurred not long after Holmes was dead, when a coroner who had testified against him suddenly developed serious blood poisoning for no reason and died. Next was a mysterious explosion and fire that completely razed the hotel to the ground in 1895. After this, other deaths followed in quick succession, including another coroner and the judge who had sentenced Holmes to death, who both fell down with mysterious illnesses, as well as the prison warden, from suicide. Then there were the deaths of the father of one of Holmes’ alleged victims, a priest who had read him his last rites, and a jury foreman from the trial, who died in a freak accident when electrical wires fell down on him. All of this quickly convinced people that Holmes had left some dark curse behind.
The curse continued when one of the offices of the insurance company that had foiled his fake death plot burned to the ground. There were also more strange deaths in later years. The man who had pointed authorities in Holmes’ direction, who had been pardoned for providing the information, was shot and killed in a violent shootout with police in Chicago in 1909. Then there was the suicide of the former caretaker of the hotel, who killed himself in 1914 after claiming that he had been haunted with constant strange hallucinations. One of the detectives who helped track Holmes down also fell seriously ill, although he survived. Whether any of this had anything to do with a supernatural curse or not is unknown, but it is all very creepy nevertheless.
Other strange mysteries hover about Holmes and his Murder Castle as well. Although the building was destroyed in a fire, people claimed that at night there could be heard ghostly screams and moans coming from the charred plot, and that shadowy figures could be seen stalking about in the darkness. Animals were also said to avoid it like the plague, with dogs refusing to go anywhere near it. Even when a post office was built there in 1938, the hauntings didn’t stop, and the building is said to be incredibly haunted. Postal workers have described all manner of paranormal phenomena occurring here, such as anomalous noises, moving objects, roving cold spots, shadowy apparitions, and even the ghost of Holmes himself, and this is all experienced the most in the basement, which is a surviving remnant of the original hotel.
Besides the “curse” and hauntings there have also been conspiracy theories attracted to the story of Holmes. It was long believed that he had never even died at all, and that the body they buried that day was not his, his final masterpiece of a scam. This conspiracy was so rampant and pervasive that in 2017 his grave was actually exhumed to see if there was any truth to it. Within the immense 2-ton chunk of concrete the remains and even his clothes were found to be remarkably intact and well-preserved, and the body would be conclusively identified as that of Holmes, ending the conspiracy theory.
With the dark and sinister infusing it all, it is understandable why the grotesque story has gained so much attention and has produced so many spooky accounts. The colorful, morbid tale of Henry Howard Holmes has achieved an almost legendary status, but is also so peppered with exaggerations and unknowns that it is hard to know sometimes where the truth of the man ends and the myth begins. Very little is known of the man himself, and even his deeds have been played up for maximum creepiness. We don’t even know how many people he really killed. With all of the stories of hauntings and curses it all gets even further pushed into the murky realm of strange mysteries and the unknown, where it is hard to really know what to make of any of it. Nevertheless, it is certainly a breathtaking tale of horror and serial killers from a time when that wasn’t even a common phrase in America, and it will remain indelibly imprinted upon history as a glimpse into pure evil.