Dr. H. H. Holmes, one of America’s first well-known serial killers, is hanged to death in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Born 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,” was reported to have had secret passageways, fake walls and trapdoors. Holmes’ basement also allegedly contained a lab with equipment used for his dissections. (Many of these allegations were likely exaggerated, however.)
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.” He was executed on this day in 1896.
Devil in the White City, a book about Holmes’ murder spree and the World Fair by Erik Larson, was published in 2003.