May 7

This Day in History

Crime

May 7, 1896:

A serial killer is hanged

Dr. H. H. Holmes, one of America's first well-known serial killers, is hanged to death in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Although his criminal exploits were just as extensive and occurred during the same time period as Jack the Ripper, the Arch Fiend--as Holmes was known--has not endured in the public's memory the way the Ripper has.

Born with the unfortunate moniker Herman Mudgett in New Hampshire, Holmes began torturing animals as a child. Still, he was a smart boy who later graduated from the University of Michigan with a medical degree. Holmes financed his education with a series of insurance scams whereby he requested coverage for nonexistent people and then presented corpses as the insured.

In 1886, Holmes moved to Chicago to work as a pharmacist. A few months later, he bought the pharmacy from the owner's widow after his death. She then mysteriously disappeared. With a new series of cons, Holmes raised enough money to build a giant, elaborate home across from the store.

The home, which Holmes called "The Castle," had secret passageways, fake walls, and trapdoors. Some of the rooms were soundproof and connected by pipes to a gas tank in the basement. His bedroom had controls that could fill these rooms with gas. Holmes' basement also contained a lab with equipment used for his dissections.

Young women in the area, along with tourists who had come to see the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, and had rented out rooms in Holmes' castle, suddenly began disappearing. Medical schools purchased many human skeletons from Dr. Holmes during this period but never asked how he obtained the anatomy specimens.

Holmes was finally caught after attempting to use another corpse in an insurance scam. He confessed, saying, "I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than a poet can help the inspiration to sing."

Reportedly, authorities discovered the remains of over 200 victims on his property.

Devil in the White City, a book about Holmes' murder spree and the World Fair by Erik Larson, was published in 2003.

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