Holmes Sweet Holmes

On the outside, H.H. Holmes,

By Liz Spikol
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 18 | Posted Oct. 29, 2003

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It's a windy day in Philadelphia--so windy, men's ties flip and twist like fish and women search the bottom of their crowded pocketbooks for hair bands. It's not cold out, but people scurry as if they're in a blizzard, surprised by the breezes that bend tree trunks and make stoplights wobble. It's a strange, surreal day--overcast and quiet. People go home early. Drivers stop honking at the bicyclists they generally despise. An old man says to a young girl, "It's a windy one, ain't it?" and she smiles instead of scowls.

On such a day you can almost imagine what Philadelphia might have been like in 1895--less populated, less congested, a friendlier city in a friendlier time, when people nodded politely as they passed, and were naive enough to believe certain things weren't possible--things like serial murder.

At 1316 Callowhill St., where murderer H.H. Holmes and his partner Ben Pitezel set up a phony patent office, there's now a parking lot that stretches the length of the block. Across the street, where the sturdy North American Building resides, there used to be a station for the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad.

Ask the attendant what the address of the lot is--or if he knows where 1316 Callowhill would have been--and he gives a sweeping look at the cars, as if they might know something. Then he shrugs. "We don't have an address here," he says in heavily accented English. "Maybe you go that way?"

He points toward the building that houses The Philadelphia Inquirer--the paper that covered Holmes' trial with a frenzy--then hurries to get out of the wind and back to his Plexiglas booth.

Traveling down Callowhill, trying to find remnants of Holmes' past, there's the Miller Detective Agency at 309 N. 13th St., a strange little place with a 1940s-style sign that seems to pop up out of nowhere, and evokes images of Humphrey Bogart and cigarette-smoking gumshoe detectives.

Walk through a tunnel smelling of urine between 11th and 12th and there's the J&J Trestle Inn, which juts out of a crumbling building on a deserted corner. The old script on the sign advertising go-go girls takes you back to an indefinable time--it could be the '50s, could be the '70s. Either way, the building is coated with a seamy veneer.

This is an odd half-neighborhood now, filled mostly with abandoned buildings, tucked between Chinatown and the poverty of North Philadelphia. But when H.H. Holmes roamed these streets, the city was very different.


In the early 19th century Philadelphia was the largest, wealthiest city in the country. Where other towns had wooden shacks and dirt roads, Philly had white marble buildings and cobblestone streets busy with horse-and-buggy traffic. It wasn't only the center of a new nation's political life. It was the height of fashion and high society.

By the late 19th century Philadelphia's grand status had evolved even further--with the largest population of African-Americans in the North, and painters like Thomas Eakins forging a link between this city and Paris. City Hall, that opulent example of Second Empire French architecture, was crowned with a statue of William Penn in 1894, as if to cement its grandeur. Philadelphia was so respected, a company chose the city's name to lend culinary sophistication to its cream cheese.

But the city's shine diminished in the last years of the century. Political power moved to Washington, and cultural power slid toward New York. Philadelphia became industrial, and with that industry came dirt, crowds and crime. It was this Philadelphia--half gleaming symbol, half grimy pioneer territory--that H.H. Holmes invaded, taking advantage of the confusion a city on the brink engendered.


Romanticizing the past is easy. The same can be said for criminals, who, no matter their sins, fascinate us. Ask the average guy on the street to name the president of China, and he'll balk. But ask about serial killers, and the names will come fast: Ted Bundy. Jeffrey Dahmer. Son of Sam. The Boston Strangler.

Most serial killers are psychopaths. They tend to share certain key characteristics. They're manipulative, cold, and lack what we might call a moral compass--they know right from wrong but are not invested in that distinction. Their only concern with their "wrong" behavior is getting caught, but because they are deceitful, callous and not subject to anxiety, they easily elude capture.

H.H. Holmes was, in this way, a model serial killer. Before he was finally executed in Philadelphia, it's believed he'd killed at least 100 people. Popular estimates at the time placed the toll as high as 200.

Holmes was born Herman Webster Mudgett in the small village of Gilmanton, N.H., in May 1861. If Mudgett or his brother or sister were bad, their strict Methodist parents sent them to the attic for a full day without speaking or eating. Mudgett's father was especially abusive after he'd been drinking--which was often.

Mudgett was curiously detached from the start. He'd attack animals in the woods and dissect them while they were still alive. And he had no friends--the one he did have died while the two were playing. Despite his odd upbringing--and the distance he kept from other children, who found him arrogant--he grew into an imposing young man. He was polished, bright and handsome, and was good at making people feel special. At 16 he left home, became a teacher and cajoled a young woman into marrying him. At 19 he went to medical school, and left his wife.

In the 1880s Mudgett--now Holmes--came to Philadelphia. He got a job as a "keeper" at the Norristown Asylum, which is now Norristown State Hospital. The experience horrified him, so he took a position at a drugstore instead. After a customer who took medicine he dispensed died, he left town.

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 18 of 18
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1. Bart said... on Feb 22, 2009 at 03:31PM

“Scary stuff...and amazing this was only about 100 years ago. ”

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2. Anonymous said... on Oct 10, 2009 at 11:11AM

“I am fascinated by this story. I have been told at work at the local hospital where I work that one of our Dr.'s is a decendant of Mudgett's. Did he have any children of his own?”

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3. Cat said... on Oct 31, 2009 at 07:33AM

“@Anonymous

Yes, he did. One daughter.”

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4. Anonymous said... on Nov 5, 2009 at 10:33AM

“He also had a son and I think maybe another daughter. If you are interested in more you should check out Harpers Magazine, the article is The Master of the Murder castle. It has links to actual articles from the time the murders took place. Also the book "Devil in the White City" by Erik Larson is pretty good and gives a vivid if not very detailed account.”

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5. Anonymous said... on Nov 11, 2009 at 03:31PM

“he had a daughter her name was LUCY.”

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6. Jake said... on Jan 3, 2010 at 11:44PM

“This is just a wonderful article. A treat to read.”

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7. Mike said... on Jan 28, 2011 at 05:25AM

“Heard in another story that in fact his neck did not snap from hanging, and that it took some 15-20 minute for him to die. Which would be a bit closer to justice. Amazing story, truly frightening”

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8. Sean McDue said... on Jul 6, 2011 at 09:15PM

“Has anyone heard of the documentary Burke and Hare the Body Merchants? I would like to see it and was wondering if it was similar to the recent Burke and Hare (2010) movie.”

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9. Dr. Kevin Still said... on Jul 16, 2011 at 02:39PM

“This is a photograph of the place where Pitezel was murdered. The sign reads "BF Perry, Patents Bought & Sold". He was killed on the second floor within months of this photo being taken. http://shar.es/HkpX5”

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10. Sharon said... on Nov 11, 2011 at 04:30PM

“Facinating story. I am currently reading Devil In The White City. Can't wait for the movie to come out!”

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11. Mart said... on Nov 17, 2011 at 06:40PM

“If you like Devil in the White City you will love Bloodstains written by Jeff Mudgett the Great Great Grandson of H. H. Holmes, talk about great reading!!! he really draws you into his great great grandfather's horror. I believe his book is website purchase only to keep the book affordable for everyone, I got my copy at www.Bloodstainsthebook.com this guy is working with London yard on some stuff great book. He also has a facebook page for Bloodstains the book and the author has a page as well. Mart”

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12. Carley said... on Apr 16, 2012 at 12:35PM

“Great article...a lot of good information and pretty scary stuff.”

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13. Historybuff said... on Apr 18, 2012 at 01:00PM

“”

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14. Philly History Buff said... on Apr 18, 2012 at 01:09PM

“The shell game of his burial place goes on beyond this article. Family of a Catholic priest, who was present at the cemetery for the burial, said that HH is actually burried in another unmarked grave in the same cemetery. There us a body burried as the article states but is the remains. Of an unnamed homlesss man. HH still confounds and confuses even from the frave.”

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15. TempesT_817 said... on May 10, 2012 at 08:30AM

“Holmes was a genius,!! the way he would have a contractor come in and start working only to be fired after finishing half a stair case or a wall or two, so no one would really know the layout... too bad it burnt down it would of been awsome to check out”

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16. Anonymous said... on Feb 13, 2013 at 02:18PM

“LOL”

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17. Anonymous said... on Jan 5, 2014 at 04:01PM

“@Anonymous
@Cat
Holmes actually had 25 children, it was stated in the book Bloodstains By Jeff Mudgett”

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18. Anonymous said... on Feb 19, 2014 at 07:28PM

“It would medically be interesting study to see how the 25 children turned out. More research & testing needed to analyze the cause of a serial killer. It's a malfunction due to a few specifics or many influences as why one turns into a serial killer.”

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