It sounds like something out of a horror movie: A hotel where stairs lead to nowhere, deadly gasses are piped into the locked rooms, and bodies are thrown into the cellar and dissected.
But it was real, and belonged to H. H. Holmes — the charismatic doctor, crooked businessman, and infamous killer who terrorized Chicago beginning in 1886.
The doctor and his chamber of horrors are the subject of the Investigation Discovery miniseries The Murder Castle, that you can watch now on ID GO!
Holmes, who was born Herman Webster Mudgett, but better known by the name of Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, was hanged for one murder, confessed to 27, and is widely believed to have killed many more. But some experts say that, over the years, Holmes’ body count and the myth of his hotel have been wildly exaggerated.
So what’s the real story?
Before his arrival in Chicago, Holmes had a long history as a con man, grifter, and bigamist.
He began construction in 1887 on a two-story mixed-use building, with apartments on the second floor and retail spaces underneath, including a drugstore. Eventually, he would add a third floor to the residence that he planned to use as a hotel — although it was reportedly never opened.
The building was located around three miles from the 1893 World Fair and named the World’s Fair Hotel, though after his activities came to light, later press reports nicknamed it the “Murder Castle.”
While it may not have been an official hotel, Holmes did have a habit of renting out long-stay rooms to his employees — especially the young, attractive females — even though he was already married to his wife, Myrna, and the couple had a child. (Holmes was reportedly still legally married to his first wife, Clara, but continued his pattern of seducing, sometimes marrying and eventually discarding women throughout his life.)During the construction phase, Holmes reportedly planned for stairways that led to nowhere, doors that opened onto brick walls, and rooms that could be sealed shut to lock victims inside. Holmes had many methods of torture: It was rumored that some rooms were soundproofed, while others could be used as gas asphyxiation chambers. Holmes claimed to killed one of his victims, Emeline Cigrand, but locking her in a sealed room and letting her die of thirst and starvation.
It is believed that he took some of the bodies to the basement, where he disposed of them by various means: One man who did some work for Holmes told police he remembered moving a package with a human foot sticking out of it, which the doctor claimed came from a medical cadaver.The “known” victims of Holmes include his former friend and partner Ben Pitezel and his three children, his mistress Julia Connor and her daughter Pearl, and Cigrand. Holmes is also assumed to have murdered one of his wives, Minnie, and her sister Nannie Williams after he swindled his new bride out of her inheritance.
The bodies of Julia, Emeline, Minnie, and Nannie were never found, but rumor had it Holmes probably sold their cadavers to medical schools.H. H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil, author Adam Selzer wrote that Holmes’ story is “effectively a new American tall tale – and, like all the best tall tales, it sprang from a kernel of truth.”
Selzer — who claims Holmes was a “pathological liar” — states that many of the unused rooms in the hotel were probably designed primarily so that Holmes could hide furniture and money from his creditors — not bodies.
In the end, despite his best efforts, after creditors kept coming Holmes was eventually forced to abandon the hotel, and decided to focus on insurance fraud instead. On May 7, 1896, he was arrested for the murder of his friend and accomplice Benjamin Pietzel — in a case where he’d promised Pietzel he would substitute a medical cadaver for his body, in order to dupe the insurance company into thinking Pietzel had really expired, and then the two men would split the payout. But of course he lied, as it was more expedient and profitable to just murder his partner.
During his murder trial for Pietzel, Holmes confessed to numerous other killings. After searching the abandoned “castle” in Chicago, authorities found no complete human remains at the hotel — but they did discover bits of bones that were believed to be human.
Police also found a gold chain believed to have belonged to a female victim, and a large bench with knife etchings and red stains that appeared to be dried blood. Later press reports would describe this as a “dissection table.”
Holmes was convicted and hung for his crimes but never showed any remorse for the brutal killings. Part of the hotel was destroyed by a mysterious fire in 1895 and today, a post office sits on the former site.
Watch the Investigation Discovery miniseries The Murder Castle on ID GO now!
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Main photo: Photo of H. H. Holmes’ hotel [Investigation Discovery]