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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His criminal career kicked into high gear in Englewood, Ill., just outside of Chicago, where he worked as a pharmacist and impressed people not only with his medical knowledge but with his power over women--who flocked to the store just to flirt with him. The proprietress of the drugstore sold it to Holmes after her husband died, but never saw any money from Holmes. When she filed a lawsuit, Holmes told people she'd gone to see family in California. She was never heard from again.

Though it's believed that Holmes killed people all over the country, the "Castle" he built in Englewood was the culmination of all his murderous desires--and a pleasure palace for the budding psychopath.

Holmes built the Castle in the vacant lot across from the drugstore in the fall of 1888, the same year Jack the Ripper started killing women in London. Holmes served as the architect, and when the building was finished two years later, he marketed it as a boarding house for young single women who were visiting Chicago or coming from neighboring towns to find a better life. As many as 50 of the women who came to the Castle during the World's Fair never left.

The Inquirer printed his confession, which mentioned only 27 victims but revealed some of his methods. Before he killed many of the victims, he asked them to write letters to relatives or friends explaining they'd gone away so their absences wouldn't be noticed. Two women, one of them pregnant, were told if they wrote the letters, they'd go free. But as soon as they signed the letters Holmes killed them.

In his confession, he wrote, "These were particularly sad deaths, both on account of the victims being exceptionally upright and virtuous women and because Mrs. Sarah Cook, had she lived, would have soon become a mother."

Because it was a boarding house, the Castle had a reception room, a waiting room and several rooms for residents. Aside from those and some hallways, the house was comprised of secret chambers, trap doors, hidden laboratories and rooms devoted to killing people.

One of them, which the media dubbed "the Vault," was a walk-in room with iron walls and gas jets that Holmes controlled from his bedroom. There was a dumbwaiter for lowering bodies and a "hanging chamber." He had a medieval torture rack in the basement, and a greased chute that went from the roof to the basement so he could dump bodies. He had a maze he sent his victims through and a terrifying "blind room."

Several rooms were airtight and without windows--one of them fitted with iron plates, another lined with asbestos. There was an asphyxiation chamber with gas jets that could be turned into blowtorches, perhaps to roast people alive.

When the police inspected the Castle after Holmes was in jail, they were horrified. It was beyond belief--for any century, but especially the 1800s.

There were claw marks on the walls of the Vault from people who'd tried to escape. In the basement there was a bloodstained dissecting table and surgical instruments. There was a vat of acid with human bones in it, and piles of quicklime, one of which yielded a girl's dress. There was an enormous stove to burn bodies in--and a stovepipe with human hair in it.

They found human skulls, a shoulder blade, ribs, a hip socket and countless other remains. They also found--perhaps more disturbingly--Holmes' victims' belongings: watches, buttons, photographs, half-burnt ladies' shoes.

The only comfort inspectors had as they traipsed through the building was that Holmes was already in custody at Philadelphia's Moyamensing Prison. But the story was far from over.

The tale of H.H. Holmes has been told before. It was told by Philly detective Frank Geyer in his book written immediately after the case. It was told in the trial transcript. It was the subject of the exhaustively researched true-crime book Depraved by Harold Schecter, and was featured in Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, which juxtaposes Holmes' Chicago crimes with the story of the Chicago World's Fair. It was told in the media at the time and is also told--though not to many--in John Borowski's documentary H.H. Holmes: America's First Serial Killer, which is awaiting distribution. Supposedly, both Tom Cruise and Leonardo DiCaprio are working on projects about Holmes.

Despite being America's first serial killer, Holmes is hardly a familiar name, and until now we haven't had any popular visual record of his crimes. But next month comes Rick Geary's graphic novel The Beast of Chicago: The Murderous Career of H.H. Holmes, the sixth in his series of graphic novels about 19th-century murders. Geary's Treasury of Victorian Murder series includes Lizzie Borden, Jack the Ripper and President Garfield's assassin.

Asked what got him started on these graphic novels, Geary says, "I've always been fascinated by true-crime cases and the Victorian period, and I first combined them in the early '80s with stories I did for National Lampoon and various graphic story anthologies. The first volume of Treasury of Victorian Murder, made up of three separate stories, came out in 1987."

Geary's style in Beast is simple and friendly, but it recreates in painstaking detail what the World's Columbian Exhibition looked like--the constructed "nations of the world" pavilion with an Egyptian temple, Moorish palace and Japanese bazaars. He has a keen eye for period specifics, like the hats the men wore and the high collars of women's dresses. Even the bottles in Holmes' pharmacy are period-perfect, marked "Mrs. Lymon's Blood Tonic for Ladies" or "Stomach Bitters."

Of such period details and historical markers, Geary says, "I aim, above all, for accuracy and clarity in the depiction of these cases, and I believe that the graphic story form is a perfect vehicle for achieving this. I'm especially drawn to the unsolved cases, and I love to make use of maps and overhead views in order to let the facts speak for themselves. For cases like Jack the Ripper and Lizzie Borden, I have no theories of my own to promote; I just enjoy the fact that they're mysteries. With someone like Holmes, as with any psychopath, the mystery is that of human motivation, and is more difficult to portray graphically."

Geary's visual portrait of Holmes has one distinguishing feature you won't get in the written accounts: eyes that betray a lingering sadness. On one page, Geary devotes a single panel to those haunting eyes--and you can't help but feel a little sympathy mixed in with the horror. It's a bold choice to make Holmes slightly vulnerable, and it belies Geary's merry narration and clean lines.

"Holmes was different from other killers I've depicted in that his particular character, that of a seductive con artist without a conscience, was the template for so many 20th-century killers."

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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


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


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

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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