Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

H. H. Holmes: Master of Illusion

The Castle

H.H. Holmes' Castle
H.H. Holmes' Castle

Holmes had offered rooms to young women arriving to attend the fair, but many of those women associated with him had disappeared. In addition, he had employed a number of young women, who also had disappeared. From what could be reconstructed, it seemed that Holmes had tortured and murdered these women, disposing of their corpses in his furnace in the cellar or defleshing them and selling the skeletons to medical schools.

Schechter describes what the place was like: Holmes' Castle included soundproof sleeping chambers with peepholes, asbestos-padded walls, gas pipes, sliding walls, and vents that Holmes controlled from another room. Many of the rooms had low ceilings and trapdoors in the floors, with ladders leading to smaller rooms below. The building had secret passages, false floors, rooms with torture equipment, and a specially equipped surgery. There were also greased chutes that emptied into a two-level cellar, in which Holmes had installed a large furnace. There was even an asbestos-lined chamber with gas pipes and evidence of something having been burned inside. It was believed that Holmes placed his chosen victims into the special chambers into which he then pumped lethal gas, controlled from his own bedroom, and then watched them react. Apparently, he gained some fiendish pleasure from this activity. Sometimes he'd ignite the gas to incinerate them, or perhaps even place them on the "elasticity determinator," an elongated bed with straps, to see how far the human body could be stretched. When finished, he might have slid the corpses down the chutes into his cellar, where vats of acid and other chemicals awaited them. (Many more details about Holmes' activities here can be found in Schecter's and Larson's books.)

Investigators discovered several complete skeletons and numerous incinerated bone fragments in the Chicago castle, including the pelvis of a 14-year-old, according to Blundell. There was also a blood-stained noose and a vault filled with quicklime. Yet, Holmes insisted that he had nothing to do with any murders. Those people had either taken their own lives, he claimed, or were killed by someone else. Nevertheless, newspaper headlines decried the "chamber of horrors." The Chicago Tribune announced that "The Castle is a Tomb!" and The Philadelphia Inquirer described bones removed from the "charnel house." It wasn't long before true crime pulp paperbacks were published to slake the public's thirst and turn a profit. Authors searched far and wide for even more murders that Holmes may have committed, as far back as 1879. Chicago police estimated his toll to be as high as 150. In Philadelphia, the "Holmes Museum" opened to the curious. But Holmes was ready. He'd always gotten his way with his gift of the gab and he figured he could do so again, despite how the odds seemed stacked against him. He offered his memoir.

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