H.H. Holmes is notoriously known as one of America's first serial killers who lured victims into his hotel dubbed the “Murder Castle” during the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. According to some claims, he killed up to 200 people inside his macabre hotel that was outfitted with trapdoors, gas chambers and a basement crematorium. But the actual story, while horrifying, may not be quite as sordid.
“There’s a total of about nine [people] that we can say with some confidence he probably killed,” says Adam Selzer, author of H.H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil. “He confessed to 27 at one point, but several of them were still alive at the time.”
The inflated numbers of up to 200 victims likely started, Selzer says, with a pulp book published in 1940, called Gem of the Prairie by Herbert Asbury.
“It had kind of a throwaway line that some people suggested it may have been as many as 200 people,” Selzer says. “Nobody had actually suggested that, in fact. But thereafter everybody else who [retold] the story threw in that same line until people started deciding that that was a real estimate or a real possibility.”
There’s also no evidence Holmes trapped strangers inside his hotel in an attempt to kill them. The nine people he likely killed were all people he already knew, and the building he owned wasn’t a hotel. The first floor consisted of storefronts, and the second floor had apartments for long-term rental.
“When he added a third floor onto his building in 1892, he told people it was going to be a hotel space, but it was never finished or furnished or open to the public,” Selzer says. “The whole idea was just a vehicle to swindle suppliers and investors and insurers.”
Fraud, Affairs and Cover Ups
Holmes was involved in a variety of fraud schemes, and it was actually his involvement in a horse swindle in Texas that led police to arrest him in Boston in 1894. Investigators soon began to suspect him of murdering his scammer associate Benjamin Pitezel in an insurance scheme, then murdering three of Pitezel’s children—who were roughly seven to 14 years old—in an attempt to cover it up.
After Holmes’ arrest, newspapers began printing lurid stories about his alleged Chicago “Murder Castle,” claiming he’d outfitted it with trap doors and secret rooms to torture and kill guests. According to Harold Schechter, author of Depraved: The Definitive True Story of H. H. Holmes, Whose Grotesque Crimes Shattered Turn-of-the-Century Chicago, these sensational details can be attributed to yellow journalism, the practice of exaggerating or simply making up news stories that flourished in the 1890s.
“It’s my belief that probably all those stories about all these visitors to the World’s Fair who were murdered in his quote-unquote ‘Castle’ were just complete sensationalistic fabrication by the yellow press,” he says. “By the time I reached the end of my book, I kind of realized even a lot of the stuff that I had written was probably exaggerated.” (His book was originally published in 1994 as Depraved: The Shocking True Story of America's First Serial Killer.)
Without any evidence, newspapers claimed Holmes used his building’s chute to transport bodies to the basement (the fact that he had a chute was not unusual, since many buildings had laundry chutes connected to the basement). These stories turned Holmes’ building into an elaborate torture dungeon outfitted with gas pipes to asphyxiate victims and soundproof rooms to hide their screams.
“All these myths—which to some extent I myself, I think, helped perpetuate a little bit—grew up around Holmes,” Schechter says.
The Real, Likely Victims of H.H. Holmes
These myths can obscure the stories of Holmes’ actual likely victims. Two of the earliest were Julia Connor and her six-year-old daughter, Pearl. They disappeared around Christmas of 1891, after Holmes had an affair with Julia and involved her in his business schemes. During his life, Holmes alternatively denied killing Julia and confessed to accidentally killing her while performing an abortion. It’s still unclear what happened to her and Pearl.
Over the next two years, Holmes may have murdered Emeline Cigrand, Minnie Williams and her sister Nannie Williams. Both Emeline and Minnie appear to have had personal and business relationships with Holmes when they disappeared. But as with Julia and Pearl, it’s difficult to say for sure what happened to Emeline, Minnie and Nannie.
The evidence for Holmes’ murders of Ben Pitezel and his young children Howard, Nellie and Alice in 1894 is more solid. Even so, investigators only tried and convicted him for Ben’s murder. Holmes received the death sentence in 1896, and died by hanging in Philadelphia, about a week before his 35th birthday.