Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

H. H. Holmes: Master of Illusion


He sensed that his own countenance was changing as he sat in prison, and that he looked more satanic than before. "I have become afflicted with that dread disease, rare but terrible... a malformation... My head and face are gradually assuming an elongated shape. I believe fully that I am growing to resemble the devil — that the similitude is almost completed." He self-diagnosed "acquired homicidal mania" and "degeneracy," which meant he was a moral idiot.

Cesare Lombroso
Cesare Lombroso

The criminological theories at the time were fueled by Cesare Lombroso, an Italian anthropologist and professor at the University of Turin. By 1876, Lombroso had published L'uomo delinquente. Believing that human behavior could be classified with objective tests, Lombroso was convinced that certain people were born criminals, identifiable by specific physical traits, such as bulging brows, long arms, and apelike noses. They were throwbacks to more primitive times, and he called them degenerates. Lombroso's ideas had spread quickly across Europe and America, supported by the new evolutionary thinking. Thus, Holmes fell into this erroneous diagnostic mania. In another decade or so, Lombroso would be discredited. Yet, in keeping with the theory, Holmes "saw" a prominence on one side of his head and a "corresponding diminution on the other side." Also, a deficiency on his nose and ear, and the lengthening or shortening of various limbs. One criminologist who saw him pronounced him guilty just from his appearance.

Holmes said he was confessing in part to justify the scientific deductions. Little did he know they weren't scientific at all. But his motive was more likely to bring attention to himself and to wallow in one last flight of grandiosity. No doubt he enjoyed the idea of having an affect on an audience.

His first murder, he admitted, was by overdose of laudanum of a former schoolmate for insurance money. Holmes claimed (probably falsely) that it had given him a terrible guilty conscience, but he'd then developed an appetite for blood. The second murder, he said, was "accidental," when he got into a physical altercation with a man who owed him money. Then he killed a few people to sell to a "corpse dealer" for payment of $25 to $45 apiece. Later he lost touch with this dealer, so he sometimes buried victims in the dirt floor of his offices. Some victims he poisoned, some he bludgeoned, and a few he closed into his vaults for gassing and asphyxia - "a slow and lingering death." Most of these cases involved money, threat of exposure, or some other form of enrichment for Holmes. Sometimes he used confederates as accomplices.

In one case, when he attempted to murder three young women at the same time, with chloroform, they escaped and turned him in. Holmes was arrested but inexplicably not prosecuted for attempted murder, or even for assault. In some cases, Holmes either did not know or could not recall the name of a victim or near-victim.

Readers were most interested in what Holmes might say about the Williams sisters and the Pitezel family, and for both he provided quite a few details (although how much is true is anyone's guess).