The 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago—known at the time as the Columbian Exposition—celebrated the 400th anniversary Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas. The enormous exhibition featured many wondrous exhibits, including the United States’ first gas-powered motorcar, the Daimler quadricycle, and a 1,500-pound statue of the Venus de Milo made of chocolate. However, the World’s Fair became better known for a structure that was more gruesome than organizers could have imagined—the so-called “Murder Castle” of H.H. Holmes, America’s first documented serial killer.
Who Was H. H. Holmes?
H. H. Holmes was born Herman Webster Mudgett in New Hampshire in 1861. As an adult, he abandoned his young wife and child in 1885 to move to Illinois. Once there, he changed his name to Holmes, reportedly as an homage to the fictional English detective Sherlock Holmes, the literary creation of author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Soon after his arrival in the Chicago area, Holmes took up work at a pharmacy located near Jackson Park. Eight years later, Jackson Park would become the site of the 1893 World’s Fair.
The Columbian Exposition, as it was called, was designed by some of America’s leading architects, including Frederick Law Olmstead, and included exhibits from more than 40 countries.
The event attracted more than 27 million visitors to Chicago, an incredible number considering the limited transportation options of the time. Holmes took advantage of some of the many visitors to the city, including young women who came to Chicago for jobs at the fairgrounds.
The ‘Murder Castle’
Historians believe Holmes, a masterful and charismatic con artist, had swindled money from his drugstore employers. He purchased an empty lot in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago, and built a labyrinthine structure with shops on the first floor and small apartments above.
This edifice became known as Holmes’ booby-trapped Murder Castle. According to sensationalist reports, the space featured soundproof rooms, secret passages and a disorienting maze of hallways and staircases. The rooms were also allegedly outfitted with trapdoors over chutes that dropped Holmes’ unsuspecting victims to the building’s basement.
The basement, claims said, was a macabre facility of acid vats, pits of quicklime (often used on decaying corpses) and a crematorium, which the killer used to finish off his victims. All of these descriptions, however, were described by what were likely overly embellished or even fabricated news reports in the 1890s.
While reports suggest Holmes killed as many as 200 people in his sinister lair, his actual number of victims may have been much lower. The number of his victims is still debated by historians.
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Holmes was apprehended soon after he fled Chicago, in October 1893, following the conclusion of the World’s Fair. He was arrested in Boston and eventually suspected of murdering his assistant, Benjamin Pitezel, and two of Pitezel’s children.
Interestingly, while on the run, Holmes had misled Pitezel’s wife as well, collecting the insurance money for his former assistant and living with his widow and three of their children. Police eventually discovered the body of one of the murdered children, and this discovery led to Holmes’ arrest.
Following his arrest, Holmes claimed to have killed more than 200 people in his Murder Castle. He ultimately confessed to murdering Pitezel and two of his daughters. And experts now believe he may have, in fact, killed as few as nine—still a significant number, but not the scores the killer claimed.
While in captivity, awaiting his trial and sentencing, Holmes authored an autobiography, Holmes’ Own Story, in which he wrote, “I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing.”
The most famous literary work on Holmes, however, is the best-selling non-fiction novel The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, which was published in 2003.
After a brief incarceration, Holmes was hanged for his crimes in Philadelphia in 1896. His body is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery outside the Pennsylvania city.
What Happened to the Murder Castle?
Despite Holmes’ arrest and execution, rumors have persisted for more than a century that the serial killer bribed authorities to avoid punishment. The theories suggest that Holmes was allowed to escape and that officials hanged another man.
In response to these rumors, in March 2017, Holmes’ descendants, who live in Delaware, petitioned to have his remains exhumed so that they can undergo DNA testing. The results concluded the remains did in fact belong to Holmes.
Meanwhile, the fate of the site of the killer’s exploits is also shrouded in intrigue. With Holmes, allegedly, safely ensconced in prison, in 1895, the Murder Castle was gutted by fire, after witnesses reportedly saw two men entering the building late one night.
The building itself remained standing until 1938, when it was torn down. The site is now occupied by the Englewood branch of the U.S. Post Office.
The Site of the Infamous Murder Castle: Exploring Illinois.
World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893: Paul V. Galvin Library Digital History Collection, Illinois Institute of Technology.
Blood Loss: The decline of the serial killer: Slate.
Serial Killer H.H. Holmes’ Body Exhumed: What We Know: Rolling Stone.