Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

H. H. Holmes: Master of Illusion

Land of Opportunity

Holmes, whose real name was Hermann Webster Mudgett, had arrived in Chicago during the 1880s, already married to two women. The city was preparing for the World's Fair, or Great Exposition, which meant there was plenty of opportunity for a clever man for fraud and theft. Erik Larson writes eloquently about the "White City's" development, describing the many hurdles its designers and investors encountered in the process, just barely preparing the massive grounds in time for business. Some 27 million people went through the exposition during its six-month venue, which overtaxed the city's resources and inspired plenty of crime, most of which police could not investigate. Holmes was among those who took advantage.

Ferris Wheel, introduced at World's Fair
Ferris Wheel, introduced at World's Fair

He planned ahead for the many visitors who would be searching for lodging as close as possible to the fair, knowing that among them would be the most vulnerable prey: single, naïve women on their own who would easily succumb to a successful and charming "doctor." He presented himself as a graduate of a prestigious medical school and a man of means.

His first Chicago employment was as a prescription clerk at 63rd and South Wallace Streets, but he soon took over from Mrs. E.S. Holton, who then "went to California" with her daughter. Indeed, no one ever heard from them again, but Holmes took control of the shop. Across the road was a property on 63rd Street, which he bought. Soon he was gathering funds through murder and fraudulent schemes to build his three-story, 100-room "Castle," as he referred to it. When he eventually felt the need to leave, he tried to burn it down to collect insurance.

In this building, investigators now found evidence of even greater crimes than swindling and bigamy.

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