Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Angels of Death: The Doctors

America's Arch Fiend

In 1886, Robert Louis Stevenson published a gothic tale called The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Less than a decade later, the public would discover just how frighteningly real such a case could be.

Dr. Holmes
Dr. Holmes

Dr. Holmes liked to swindle insurance companies. Murder for profit was his game, but he also grew to relish his little hobby so much that he began to include torture and other types of experiments prior to death.

His real name was Herman Webster Mudgett, born in New Hampshire in 1860, and he got into the murder business around the same time as Jack the Ripper. While he confessed in 1896, it's not clear how many people he actually killed or whether he told the truth about anything. What is clear is that he did kill men, women, and children, and gave little thought to what he was doing. Had he not been caught, he'd likely have continued to con and kill for the rest of his life.

Even as an adolescent, surgery fascinated him. He'd catch animals and perform anatomical experiments on them. When he was 18, he went to medical school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, graduating at the age of 24. While there, he stole corpses to practice more interesting experiments than the animals had afforded him. He also learned how to use the corpses to defraud life insurance companies, by using acid to obliterate their features and then giving them the fictitious names on the insurance policies that he'd already taken out. He was banned from the place after getting caught with a female corpse, so he moved on to Englewood, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago.

There he abandoned his first wife and took on the alias by which he would become renowned: Henry Howard Holmes. He secured a position as a druggist, and it wasn't long before the owner of the business, a widow, disappeared. Holmes used the business to sell fake cures and soon became wealthy. Though not divorced, he married again, although this wife left him after only a year.

Holmes's 'castle'
Holmes's 'castle'

Then Holmes built his castle. It was a huge, three-story hotel-like construction that included soundproof sleeping chambers with peepholes, asbestos-padded walls, gas pipes, sliding walls, and vents that Holmes controlled from his bedroom. The sleeping chambers also locked from the outside. The building had secret passages, hallways that went in circles, false floors, rooms with torture equipment (such as a device that stretched people to twice their height), and a specially equipped surgery. There were also greased chutes that emptied into a cellar, and a very large stove in the office.

Into this castle Holmes lured young women to seduce and drug them. Then he placed them into chambers into which he pumped lethal gases. Sometimes he'd ignite the gas and incinerate his victims. He'd watch them react and when they died, he'd slide them down the chutes into his cellar, where vats of acid and other chemicals awaited them. He'd cut up their corpses on a dissecting table and them dump them into the vats, but keep some of the organs. Then he'd sell the bleached skeletons to medical schools.

One of his victims was a woman who'd become pregnant by him. Botching her abortion, he killed her and then poisoned her teenage daughter. Other victims were people who'd rented rooms from him in order to attend the nearby 1893 World's Fair.

Herman Pitezel
Herman Pitezel

Holmes then married a third time and hired a lackey, Herman Pitezel. In fact, Pitezel got into the act by taking out a life insurance policy on himself and planning a way to "disappear." He and Holmes planned to find a suitable corpse to perpetuate the fraud and then split the proceeds. Pitezel should have known what was in store. Holmes was a greedy con artist who wanted all of the money for himself.

But eventually he made a mistake, which put him on the run. To get money, he killed two sisters from Texas and set fire to their house to try to claim the insurance money. (Another version says that he set fire to part of the castle to get insurance money.) Whichever is the case, it prompted an investigation, which scared Holmes sufficiently for him to leave Chicago.

He went right to Texas and started swindling people out of thousands of dollars. Then he stole a horse and the police went after him, catching him in Missouri. He skipped bail and went after Pitezel, who awaited him in Philadelphia. Holmes smothered his accomplice with chloroform and then burned him alive with acid to collect $10,000. Then he persuaded Pitezel's wife and family to escape with him, convincing them that the corpse the authorities had found was not Pitezel. He eventually killed three of the five children, burning the boy in a stove in a rented home and burying the girls in the cellar of yet another place.

Finally, the police grabbed him in Massachusetts and charged him with murder. On the way back to Philadelphia, Holmes bragged endlessly about his criminal career. Some of his alleged schemes seemed wildly improbable, but he did admit that he'd done enough in his life to be hanged twelve times over. He claimed to have the ability to hypnotize people to do whatever he wanted, and when the press got hold of this story, they attributed supernatural powers to the wretched physician. He became known as Bluebeard and even the creature from the recently published Dracula.

While in custody, over fifty people came to the police station to claim that Holmes had victimized them in some kind of con. After locating the bodies of the Pitezel children, investigators soon discovered several complete skeletons and numerous bone fragments in the Chicago castle, but Holmes insisted that he had nothing to do with them. Those people had either taken their own lives, he claimed, or been killed by someone else. He also said he did not kill Pitezel because the despairing man had committed suicide. Even so, a story of grave robbing and a beheaded corpse was traced to Holmes via his own strange tales. It was beginning to look as if his earlier confession might have contained more truth than the police realized, and it soon became clear that Holmes had killed more people than anyone had initially suspected.

In short order, the castle was taken over and remodeled as "Holmes's Horror Castle," to be exhibited as a tourist attraction, but before it opened, it burned to the ground. The police suspected some accomplice of Holmes had done it.

While in prison, Holmes wrote a book to explain how he was innocent of all the charges, but it had little effect on the outcome of his trial. It was so self-serving that no one took it seriously, and there were other more lurid tales about his crimes that made for better reading.

Holmes tried to defend himself at his trial, but was woefully inadequate. On November 4, 1895, he was convicted of the first-degree murder of Herman Pitezel.

Finally, inspired by a considerable payment from the Hearst newspaper syndicate, Holmes wrote out a long confession for The Philadelphia Inquirer, insisting that he was born to be a murderer. It was his aim to become the most notorious murderer in the world, a killer of monstrous proportions, so he said that he'd killed over one hundred people. Having second thoughts, he brought that number down to 27, and did include Pitezel. Giving the public what they wanted in terms of gruesome details on killing and corpses, Holmes claims that he couldn't help but do what he'd done.

"I was born with the Evil One as my sponsor beside the bed where I was ushered into the world," he lamented. Indeed, he believed that his face was taking an elongated shape of the devil himself, yet he felt no remorse for anything he had done.

Then in one quick move, he recanted the confession, and in fact it turned out that several of his "victims" were not dead at all. Yet so many people who'd rented rooms from him had gone missing that estimates of his true victims reached around 200, although it might have been closer to about fifty.

On May 7, 1896, Holmes was taken to the hangman's noose, and even there he changed his story. He claimed to have killed only two women, and in the middle of a sentence, the trapdoor opened and he was hung.

Because he feared grave robbers---especially physicians who wanted to study his brain---he asked that his body be buried deep and covered entirely with cement. The grave was dug ten feet down and the coffin was so heavy that it tumbled into the hole upside down. That's how it remained.

While Holmes is almost larger than life in his deadly deeds, another physician has brought the anomaly of the killing healer into sharper focus. Rather than target patients, he slaughtered his entire family.

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