Following on from The House That Bullets Built we come to our second American maze, just as tragic as the Winchester mansion but far more violent.
Herman Webster Mudgett was born in New Hampshire in 1861. He developed a fascination with death at an early age. When Mudgett was 17 he married his first wife Clara Lovering. Within a few years they had a son named Robert. To support his young family (and to indulge in his morbid obsessions,) Mudgett enrolled at the University of Michigan Medical School and graduated in 1884. Whilst studying he devised an insurance fraud scam. Mudgett broke into the school laboratories and stole corpses. He would take out life insurance policies on the deceased and would then carefully disfigure the bodies to make it look as if death had been accidental. He collected the insurance pay outs and had the added joy of experimenting on dead bodies.
A few years after graduating Mudgett moved to Chicago to become a pharmacist. Along the way he’d married another woman bigamously and fathered a daughter. He also ditched his memorable name and called himself Henry Howard Holmes. ‘Holmes’ applied for a job in 1886 at a Chicago drugstore belonging to Dr Holton. Holton was bedridden, dying of cancer. His wife was struggling to run the store by herself as well as nurse her husband. Mudgett offered his services and Mrs Holton gratefully accepted. Spotting an opportunity, ‘Holmes’ made sure that he soon become indispensable to the frazzled Mrs Holton. He used his charisma to charm her and his pharmaceutical skills to give her time to tend to her dying husband. Soon Mudgett was running the show. Dr Holton died shortly afterwards and Mudgett made his move on the grieving widow. Mudgett offered to buy the store from Mrs Holton and promised that she could carry on living in the upstairs accommodation without having to worry about moving or earning a crust. He mortgaged the entire contents of the drugstore to pay Mrs Holton. However, Mudgett defaulted on the repayments. Mrs Holton was furious, and threatened to take Mudgett to court. Mrs Holton disappeared soon after. Having ‘taken care’ of Mrs Holton, Mudgett made sure to tell the town gossips that Mrs Holton had gone to California to be with relatives, needing comfort after the tragic death of her husband. After a while he added that she had decided to stay, to live out her retirement among family.
Having grown a taste for murder, Mudgett began work on a massive project that would satisfy his homicidal needs. The lot opposite the drugstore came up for sale and Mudgett bought it, intending to build a new drugstore within a massive hotel of his own design.
Mudgett concocted a bizarre plan that spread dozens of rooms over 3 floors plus basement and took up the entire width of the block. The ground floor comprised of shops, including the drugstore, whilst the top floors could offer plenty of accommodation for tourists. Mudgett hired several crews of builders to construct his creation. It was quickly nicknamed ‘The Castle’ by locals who watched on curiously as Mudgett fired contractor after contractor. No crew lasted long on the site, always being dismissed quickly with Mudgett refusing to pay wages or material costs due to ‘unsatisfactory work.’ Mudgett couldn’t risk any contractor noticing how peculiar the plans were….
The floor plan was a warren of secret passages, concealed entrances, staircases leading to dead ends or sheer drops and windowless rooms with doors that couldn’t be opened from the inside. There were chutes and fake elevators from the accommodation levels leading to the basement, which boasted two kilns each large enough to fit a person as well as an autopsy room, vats of acid and pits of quicklime.
By 1893 the hotel was officially opened for business, conveniently launching in time for the World’s Columbian Exposition, a World’s Fair to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus arriving in the New World. The fair was to last for 5 months and was expected to attract millions of tourists to Chicago. Exhibits were to include marvellous new electrical inventions, technological advances and world famous musicians. Even Antonin Dvorak conducted an orchestra at the fair. There was a replica Viking ship and the first ever Ferris wheel. The entire event was a stunning success, with 5 million visitors each month. The fair even inspired the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz novel by Frank L Baum.
Conveniently for Mudgett, these 25 million visitors were in need of a place to stay whilst they indulged in the carnival atmosphere. The Castle was soon doing a roaring trade, particularly with young, single women. He also hired female hotel staff who were required to take out life insurance policies naming Mudgett as sole beneficiary, old habits die hard!) who lodged in the top storey.
Mudgett started to prey on the lone travellers and vulnerable young employees utilising some truly sadistic architectural traps. The inescapable rooms were sound-proofed. Mudgett would hold his victims prisoners for weeks, sometimes several months, inflicting torture on his terrified captives. He even had a medieval style rack. To make sure no-one escaped, alarms were fitted to every room that would sound in his office if anyone attempted to open the doors. If he grew tired of inflicting pain, the rooms each came with a gas line with which he could asphyxiate his prisoners with the flick of a switch. One of these rooms was no bigger than a cupboard and had a trapdoor leading straight down to the basement. Scorch marks on some of the walls showed that Mudgett ignited the gas with inbuilt blow-torches so that his victims would be incinerated. Other victims were merely locked in a vault until they suffocated or starved. The vault was next to his office, he could hear the screams of the dying from the comfort of his desk.
With some of the corpses Mudgett would indulge in his hobby of performing autopsies in his custom-built morgue in the basement. He’d made so many contacts at medical school that he was even able to sell some of the organs and skeletons to his old classmates and professors.
Mudgett killed tourists, employees, mistresses and even children. He lured vulnerable lonely women to his Castle by posting in the Lonely Hearts adverts, and killed all those who had not informed a friend where they had gone. He kept trophies of jewellery and watches in his basement. He performed illegal abortions, destroying the dead women from any botched attempts. Victims were disposed of in the kilns, with any remaining bone fragments thrown into the acid vats of lime-pits.
By the end of the Fair, Mudgett had racked up a gruesome body count. He’d deliberately targeted people whose disappearances would most likely go unnoticed and unreported, nevertheless, around 50 missing persons could be traced back the The Castle. It wasn’t until an unrelated crime that Mudgett was caught, however.
Mudgett as briefly jailed for a horse racing betting scam. Whilst in prison he befriended train robber Marion Hedgepeth and shared a plan for faking the death of an associate, Benjamin Pietzel. Mudgett was to acquire a corpse and burn it so that it was charred beyond recognition, and claim it was Pietzel. Pietzel and Mudgett were to share the insurance pay out, worth a heft $10k (over quarter of a million now.) Hedgepeth recommended a crooked attorney named Howe to make sure the scheme went off without a hitch. All Hedgepeth required was a ‘finder’s fee.’
Mudgett decided to murder Pietzel and burn his corpse rather than find another body and claim the insurance pay out for himself. He also murdered three of Pietzel’s children for good measure. He neglected to send Hedgepeth his cut of the money. Hedgepeth took his revenge by relaying the details of the scheme to police before Mudgett had a chance to kill Mrs Pietzel and the remaining Pietzel children. Mudgett was pursued by the Pinkerton detectives as the Castle was searched for evidence. Police soon realised that Mudgett was far worse than an insurance scammer. The police search uncovered the macabre killing mechanisms and torture chambers of the building. They could scarcely believe what they had found, so sadistic and efficient were the devices. Detectives found the remains of the Pietzel children, among others.
Mudgett was arrested in Boston and brought to Philadelphia to stand trial for the murder of Benjamin Pietzel. A newspaper paid him £7,500 for an exclusive confession. Mudgett owned up to 27 deaths, although the real figure will never be known. The toll could be 200 or more, judging by fragmentary remains found at the Castle and missing persons lists.
Mudgett AKA H H Holmes was found guilty of murder and sentenced to hang. He was executed in 1896 just short of his 36th birthday. He had requested that his coffin should be filled and covered over with concrete so that he would not be dug up and dissected. Amazingly, given how many of his victims he had himself dissected, the judge agreed. When ‘Holmes’ was executed his neck didn’t snap. He dangled, slowly suffocating, for over 15 minutes.
The Castle, swiftly redubbed the Murder Castle, also did not survive. It burnt down to the ground shortly after the execution. An empty petrol can suggested arson, either by an associate wanting to destroy evidence or family of a victim wanting to erase it from the town. A post office has been built on the site. Now nothing but photos, floor plans and ghost stories remain of the building built by the man dubbed America’s first serial killer.