While H. H. Holmes may not be well known in the UK, in the US the serial killer is seen as an even more extreme version of Jack the Ripper.
Murderer and con artist H.H. Holmes (real name Herman Webster Mudgett) killed an estimation of at least 200 people in his ‘murder castle’, in late 1800s Chicago.
This was roughly around the same time that Jack the Ripper killed at least five prostitutes in London’s Whitechapel in 1888.
Could the two be connected? The great-great-grandson of H.H. Holmes, Jeff Mudgett, certainly thinks so, and in History’s upcoming series American Ripper in London, Jeff and ex-CIA analyst Amaryllis Fox investigate this possibility.
Find out more about who H.H. Holmes was and the bizarre yet compelling connection Jeff makes between these two prolific serial killers.
Who was H. H. Holmes?
Born in 1861 in New Hampshire, US, Herman Webster Mudgett was the second youngest of four children. Little is known about his early life but it is believed that he grew up in an affluent house.
Mudgett’s career as a con artist began at the University of Michigan where, as a medical student, he would steal corpses from the medical lab and pass them off as victims of recent accidents to insurance companies.
Herman moved to Chicago in 1886 and set up shop at a pharmacy. The original female owner of the pharmacy had vanished mysteriously, and is likely to have been one of his first Chicago victims. At this point he began using the name Dr Henry Howard Holmes, though he used at least eight other aliases during his lifetime.
He then bought the building across from the pharmacy to convert into a hotel, which even though historians claim never formally opened, he used to lure his victims to their deaths.
Holmes formed a great appetite for luring victims, mostly women, to his hotel. Once they were inside, a series of elaborate booby traps made escaping virtually impossible.
The building, now known as Holmes’ ‘murder castle’, included trap doors, hidden rooms, soundproof walls and even a ‘gas chamber’ and ‘murder oven’.
Through his pharmacy across the road, Holmes had easy access to lethal toxic ingredients including gas for asphyxiation.
While the elaborate constructions inside the ‘murder castle’ suggests Holmes enjoyed trapping and killing his victims, he also gained financially from the murders by making his victims sign insurance titles, which he would then claim once they ‘disappeared’. In fact, he maximised his profits still further by selling their organs and skeletons on to medical science.
He even made his pharmacy employees sign insurance policies; unsurprisingly many staff members also died suddenly or simply disappeared.
Holmes was also a bigamist, and had three known wives, each of whom he would eventually abandon.
Move to Texas
After the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, Holmes decided he was tired of Chicago and moved to Fort Worth, Texas, where he apparently hoped to build a second ‘murder castle’.
Fortunately for any potential victims, he didn’t like Texas much and soon moved on to Boston. However, he did steal horses while there and shipped them to St. Louis, Missouri where he was arrested for the crime.
While in jail he befriended his cellmate Marion Hedgepath, who he talked into taking part in a complex fake-death insurance scam. This was the beginning of Holmes’ undoing.
Once out of jail the plan failed, so he headed over to Philadelphia to try it out again, this time convincing his cellmate’s trusted lawyer Benjamin Pitezel to fake his death. The insurance scam worked, but Holmes murdered Pitezel during the process and kept all of the money for himself.
This came back to haunt him, as Hedgepath, angry at never receiving any money from Holmes, informed police of the scam.
Police tracked down Holmes in Boston and found him planning to flee the country. Tracing his roots back to Chicago they searched his ‘hotel’ and found so many badly decomposed bodies that it was almost impossible to determine just how many victims lay there.
Holmes was found guilty of murdering Pitezel and confessed to killing 27 others. He was executed by hanging on May 7, 1896. He was 34 years old.
Nailing Holmes for the many other murders he committed proved virtually impossible during his imprisonment. At first Holmes confessed to killing 100 people, then 27, which he named. However, many of the people on the list of 27 names were still alive.
He wrote a book while in prison called Holmes’ Own Story in which he professed his innocence and detailed imaginative tales of how the 22 people he was originally accused of killing may have died.
Once he confessed, Holmes claimed he was possessed by the devil and that he was "born with the devil in me”.
Holmes’ story became sensational across tabloid and highbrow American media, and his legacy is one of great infamy in the US.
His story caught the attention of a new generation when Erik Larson published the book Devil in the White City in 2002. The novel linked Chicago’s World's Columbian Exposition with Holmes’ contemporary murderous acts, it became an international bestseller. It is currently being made into a film directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
The Jack the Ripper connection
Jack the Ripper, the legendary British serial killer, murdered five prostitutes in the Whitechapel area of London in 1888, though it is estimated that he probably killed many more. Each of the victims were graphically mutilated, with one having her breasts cut off and her uterus taken out.
‘Jack’ has never been formally identified though he’s been linked to royalty, dukes, knights, a painter, a Polish immigrant – and now H. H. Holmes.
Holmes’ great-great grandson Jeff Mudgett was shocked to discover that his family are direct descendants of one of America’s most evil historical figures.
As he began to research his great-great-grandfather’s life, he made direct links to Jack the Ripper, who many historians believe was also medically trained.
Mudgett claims that Holmes’ diaries suggest he visited London in the 1880’s, and that there were even rumours that Scotland Yard investigated the possibility that Jack the Ripper was American. Even more intriguing, there are several periods of 1888 of which Holmes’ whereabouts are completely unaccounted for.
American Ripper in London
‘Jack’ mysteriously disappeared into the London fog, with no linked killings reported after 1881. Could it have been H H Holmes? Perhaps he was on holiday in London and decided to go on a killing spree? Or could he have been practicing new killing methods overseas to avoid detection? Or laying low while police started to latch on to his various insurance scams?
These theories and more are investigated on History’s upcoming series American Ripper in London. Jeff Mudgett and ex-CIA analyst Amaryllis Fox set out to solve one of crime’s most infamous cold cases.