Because You Asked For it: Murder Castle Ebook Now on Kindle!

Things have been quiet on the blog lately, but it’s not because I’ve been lazy! I’m busy with no less than three new Chicago history books!

In the mean time, we’ve ported the Murder Castle Ebook over to Kindle – diagrams, eyewitness accounts, maps, and more! All there is to know about what life was like for the people who lived in worked in H.H. Holmes’ notorious castle!

More on Holmes’ “Sobieski Street Castle.”

Another article has been discovered about H.H. Holmes’ North Side Glass Bending Factory, the location of which is a regular tour stop (and one of the two or three most actively haunted locations we know of in the city right now). The basic story on the place is that Holmes had buildings all over the city in addition to the famous Murder Castle, including an office in the Loop, a candy shop on Milwaukee Avenue,  an apartment on Wrightwood, a house in the suburbs, and a house and glass bending factory – thought by police to be used more for body disposal than glass bending – on the North Side, about mid-way between the apartment on Wrightwood and the candy store.

We suspect that two of his known victims, Emily Van Tassel and Minnie Williams, were killed and/or disposed of there based on its location in proximity to their residences. Their bodies were never found. It’s unlikely that Holmes would have set up a whole factory just to get rid of two bodies, though.

Shortly after the fire at the murder castle, which didn’t actually level the building (as most books say) but did destroy a lot of evidence, Patrick Quinlan (Holmes’ “Janitor,” who may have started the fire) carted several cartloads of garbage out of the “factory.”  The cops found it about a week later, mostly empty, but with a wall of kilns that may have contained human ashes (forensic science was a couple of years off – this was an age when a bloody rag could be discovered in the basement of the castle and people could actually argue over whether it was blood or paint) (the first use of bone fragments as evidence would actually be a few years later – with a bit of jaw bone found in the Luetgert Sausage Factory, which, in the days of Holmes’ factory, was thriving just a few blocks away).

The new information:

– In addition to delivery slips with Quinlan’s signature, there were also several forms found scattered about the place and the vicinity from the ABC Copier Company, the business Holmes had run in the Loop. Some papers were identified as having belong to Minnie Williams. According to the detective who discovered the place, Minnie Williams actually lived there for a while at an apartment in the back.

– Most of the neighbors spoke only Polish, and couldn’t tell many detailed stories to the police (beyond identifying Holmes as the owner based on photographs), but told stories of a cart that would often arrive to load in a few bundles. It would leave with the exact same bundles. No one seemed to think the place had ever actually been used for glass bending.

– Diagrams found on the scene indicate that there had recently been a furnace present large enough to accommodate a body – this is presumably one of the things Quinlan removed.

Strangely enough, the site of the factory seems MORE haunted than the location of the famous Murder Castle itself, which was certainly said to be haunted while it stood, but has apparently been fairly quiet, other than the poltergeist-type stuff we hear about EVERY building, since the post office was built on the site in 1938. We’ve heard moans and crying sounds around there. Lots of weird “energy” stuff goes on sometimes. We’ve even had one actual, full-body apparition seen there. It’s not the kind of thing that would (or should) hold up in court, but the hauntings there may be the only evidence the of the murders that was left behind….


Tales of the Gallows: Johann Hoch

When they caught Johann Hoch in New York, where he had fled from Chicago, he had already proposed to what would have been something like his 45th wife. His habit was to marry women and take their money within about a week or meeting them.He was not an attractive guy, but he was charming as all get out. “All of der vimen for Johann go crazy,” he explained, merrily, as his trial went underway in 1905. In fact, he preyed on lonely spinsters. Here are a few of his wives – not a rosy cheek among ’em.

But he didn’t just steal from his wives. About a third of the time, he killed them, too.

One of the more interesting aspects of the story is that the police initially claimed that he was a protege of H.H. Holmes of the Murder Castle. The press made this sort of claim all the time; playing “connect the dots” with killers sold papers. But in this case, the police and press both reported that Hoch had been a regular at the murder castle under the name Jacob Scmidt (or Edward Hatch, depending on you asked). One by one, several of the major players in the Murder Castle story from a decade before were marched into the jail to identify him. Only E.C. Davis, the jeweler who never seemed to play along with this sort of thing, said he didn’t recognize Hoch. However, all of these reporters were almost certainly mistaken; Hoch wasn’t even in the country yet when Holmes was operating the murder castle. This is one of the things we have to consider when we try to separate fact and fiction when it comes to Holmes – much of what we know comes from stories told by gossipping neighbors, and we have to wonder just how much of it they were making up.

The killing that got him in trouble was that of his 43rd wife in Chicago. He had poisoned her, then proposed to her sister before she was cold. He married her, robbed her, and fled the city. He was captured after a massive manhunt, and eventually hanged – a more detailed version is in FATAL DROP

Fatal Drop: True Tales from the Chicago Gallows by William Griffith(Click for ordering info!)
In honor of our first spin-off book, it’s Hangin’ Week on the blog!

fataldrop button

An H.H. Holmes Collector’s Item

From an 1896 issue o The Oologist magazine:

Benjamin Pretzel? I wonder how many of these the guy (who lived a couple blocks from the place) sold? Was there any way to distinguish the packets from any other packet of abspestos? Are any still out there today?

I’ve occasionally had a chance to get things along this line, but I don’t want anything Holmes ever owned in my house. I have some “collector’s items,” including a clothes hanger Bob Dylan bent up, and a strand of Charles Dickens’ hair, a doorknob from the hotel Capone used as his headquarters, and some bricks from death alley, but I draw the line at serial killer relics.

In similar news, I recently found an article from 1895, during excavations of the castle, that had another explanation for the bones found there: they were not murder victims, but remants of a cemetery that had been on Wallace after the Civil War, but was built over. This is not impossible; Chicago is certainly in the habit of building over cemeteries without moving the bodies first. But to the best of my knowledge, the “castle” was not built over an old graveyard.

Here’s something I’d never seen before yesteray: Holmes without his hat on.

The Murder Castle – Today! (or, Good Grief – MORE H.H. Holmes)

NOTE: this post has been replaced by a much bigger, more detailed one that I wrote after a trip into the basement of the post office with the History Channel in June, 2012. CLICK HERE for the new, updated one! (or just scroll down, as most of the info has been appended to here)

The murder castle of H.H. Holmes was torn down in 1938. There were rumors that it was haunted while it was still standing, and a few stories now circulate about the basement of the current building on the grounds.

The government bought it in order to put up a post office on the site. This one, to be specific:

Notice the fallout shelter sign on the door – apparently, nowadays people go to the basement to LIVE (at least in theory). t doesn’t occupy the EXACT same footprint – the left hand side of the building would have been in the middle of Wallace Street in the Murder Castle’s time – but it does occupy a portion of the grounds. The drugstore Holmes ran would have been on the right hand side, possibly stretching into the empty space besides the station.  Dr. Holden’s pharmacy, the other drug store Holmes took over, was across the street (in what is now an Aldi parking lot). As far as we know, not a bit of structure from either building remains, though I suspect we might find some foundation if we dug the place out. I don’t think they’ll be letting us do THAT anytime soon, though (update: the basement below IS said to be partly original – CLICK HERE for “The Murder Castle- Today! Part 2

Here’s a diagram showing what overlap there was, based on overlaying three versions of the Sanborn fire insurance maps. The “Castle” is in blue:

As you can see, there’s SOME overlap, but not a lot. The mysterious gas tank said to be used for cremations was well away from the post office itself. But I always say that if someone can come back from the dead, surely they can walk down a hall, too, right?

I DID just have a woman on the tour who lived near the castle when she was young – when it was still standing. She said remembered feeling spooked by the place – enough so that she’d cross the street so as not to walk by the site – but didn’t know why until decades later.

(due to the popularity of this page, I’ve appended the later post from June 2012 right here):


So, is there anything left of the infamous H.H. Holmes “Murder Castle?”

“The Holmes Castle” was a well-known building in Englewood well into the 20th century; contrary to popular belief, the 1895 fire did not burn it to the ground. The top two floors had to be rebuilt and remodeled, but the place was still standing until the late 1930s, when it was torn down to make room for the new post office. I’ve spoken to a couple of people who still remember the place from when they were kids – the story was generally forgotten then, but people were still superstitious about the buildings.

above: Adam in the “tunnel” in the post office basement

The post office doesn’t occupy the EXACT same footprint as the castle, though. In fact, there’s not much overlap at all. Most of the castle would had been in the grassy area directly east of the castle. The railroad tracks were grade-level at the time the castle stood.  Climbing the back tree might take you right into the airspace of the “asphyxiation chamber.”

By lining up the three versions of the fire insurance maps (two from when the castle was there, and one from the post office), we can see that it did overlap with the portion of the post office that juts out on the left – between a third of it to all of it, depending on how you measure things (lining up these hand-drawn maps is not an exact science, though lining up the railroad tracks helps a lot).  Here’s an overlay of two of them, with the castle shaded in. You can see just a bit of overlap:
And here’s my best attempt at superimposing the castle where it would have done.

So, this brings up the major question: is there anything left? Perhaps of the old foundations? Certainly some of the basement overlaps with the original footprint. Recently, I had the chance to explore the place on a TV shoot with the History Channel.

Down below, there’s a point where you can climb a step-ladder into a hole in the wall that leads to a sort of tunnel/crawlspace. The ceiling is about 5.5 feet off the ground in the tunnel, and there’s one line of bricks:


According to the post office, this was an escape hatch from the “castle.” Now, I’ve never actually seen any account of there being a tunnel down there, and no such thing was mentioned during the investigation in 1895. But these were the same investigators who found a large tank filled with gas and emitting a noxious odor, and decided to light a match to get a better look.

It’s a bit west of the castle site; it’s possible the 1895 investigators could have found it if they knocked out a western wall.  I sent some close-ups of the bricks to Punk Rock James, our official archaeologist, who said that the bricks look right for being from the 1890s; the lower couple of rows were probably underground foundation lays, and the upper ones show some fire damage (which is just what you want to hear if you want to imagine that these are from the castle).  This portion of the tunnel is west, and probably a bit south, of the foundation, so I’d say they’re more likely from a building next door, if it’s not actually an escape hatch.

But at the end of the tunnel it takes a left hand turn to the north, and this part certainly goes RIGHT into the castle footprint:

So, this brings us to the big question: is the place haunted?

I took a number of photos and had an audio recorder running in the basement. I can’t reveal what I found just yet (there are a few toes I don’t want to step on, and I’m still vetting it). Also, I always like to point out that there’s no such thing as GOOD ghost evidence, only COOL ghost evidence.  But I got a couple of the coolest things I’ve ever found down in the basement – a series of photos that I’d rate as a B+, and an audio recording that is a solid A.  I recorded several minutes of silent audio, both in the tunnel and in the grassy knoll, for use as a play-along podcast where listeners can listen for ghosts themselves – it’ll come out in time. But there’s one bit from the tunnel that I don’t’ mind saying is knocking my socks off, and I’m a snot-nosed skeptic about all this stuff. This is, as far as I know, the first cool ghost evidence ever collected at the castle site:

Some people call spooky audio recordings like this “E.V.P. (electronic voice phenomenon).” On TV, the “EVP” guys are usually the ones saying “are there any spirits here who have a message for me?” I keep hoping there’ll one day be an episode where a ghost says “Yes! Your wife said she wanted you to pick up milk on the way home!”

Most of the time, when someone plays me an “EVP” file, I have to use a lot of imagination to hear what they’re talking about. But now and then we do get something I can’t help but think is pretty cool – like this thing from the basement.

So I don’t make grand claims stating that this is ghostly girl who has come back to life or never crossed over or what have you, especially given that it sounds to me as though she’s saying “Sorry Beefalow,” which doesn’t mean anything. It sounds like the worst Chef Boyardee product ever to me. One suggestion is that the voice is trying to say “buried deep below.”  But I’ve no idea what that voice could REALLY be, and any claims I made would just be me talking out of my ass.     Here’s a recipe for sorry beefalow!

I’m even skeptical about about the castle itself – I would only say with confidence that three people were killed there. Six to eight tops, including a couple of who died off-site after being given poison there.   Holmes probably only burned a couple of bodies in the castle before deciding that destroying a body in a crowded building was too much trouble and shipping them off-site to one of his “glass bending” facilities (he had a weird pre-occupation with bending glass; people eventually guessed that he was probably really using the massive furnaces he built for that purpose to get rid of bodies. He sure as hell never used them to bend any glass).

I tend to think of Holmes as a swindler, first and foremost, who happened to kill people now and then, not as a regular serial killer. His suspected number of victims stood at 10-12 in his lifetime, and didn’t start inflating until about the 1940s. Nowadays it seems to go up by a hundred or so every Halloween. But as far as hauntings go, the story still checks out – a few murders are more than enough, and as long as ANY of the current building overlaps, I think it’s fair game to look for ghosts there. If you can come back from the dead, you ought to be able to make it down the hall.

For more photos and videos (and much of this same info), see our Murder Castle Audio/Video page.

So, I’ll have more info for you guys eventually. In the mean time, consider one of Chicago Unbelievable’s line of Holmes-lore ebooks!

Our “Murder Castle of HH Holmes” ebook has now been expanded to nearly triple its original size – it’s now a full-length compendium of diagrams, drawings, eyewitness accounts, and more primary sources, all with detailed commentary – everything down to the combination to the soundproof vault, including a long-lost interview with Holmes himself.

Just 3.99 on Kindle!
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Our other Holmes-lore books:


A detailed analysis of his 1896 confession(s) for Kindle or nook. Did he really kill 27 people, or were more than half of them lies? The complete text of the confession from the Philadelphia Inquirer, with comparisons to a version published in other papers simultaneously (which contained some major differences) and the mysterious version published the day before in another paper, including the famous “I was born with the devil in me” section. Fully illustrated with newly-discovered evidence.
Did the people who participated in the trial that sent Holmes to the gallows die mysteriously? The Holmes “evil eye” was not just a story invented by pulp writers years later; papers were speaking of it even before Holmes died, and continued to retell the story for years. Find out all about it in this mini ebook! Amazon (kindle) BN (Nook)
And for more on Punk Rock James, there’s a whole interview with him in The Smart Aleck’s Guide to Grave Robbing, which includes everything you need to launch YOUR career as a 19th century resurrection man – the Smart Aleck way! We here at Chicago Unbelievable strongly suspect that Holmes chose to attend the University of Michigan because of its reputation as a hub for body snatching.


H.H. Holmes in the Loop

One of our ongoing tasks here at Chicago Unbelievable is getting to the bottom of the whole H.H. Holmes story. There’s a lot we don’t know about him, and what we DO know tends to be based on hearsay and speculation. Some of it is probably nonsense (in particular, I rather doubt that he had a rack in the basement of the murder castle with which he planned to “create a race of giants,” which is a story that goes around a lot. The guy WAS a doctor. He was a maniac, but he wasn’t an idiot).

We’re never going to know the whole story of the guy – he was AWFULLY good at covering his tracks, and we’ll never know what all of his aliases were – or, therefore, where all his buildings were. The infamous “castle” wasn’t the only building he ever used; ghere’s a whole section in our book about his north side haunts (one of which is a regular stop on our tours). He must have been a really busy guy, given the multitude of businesses he ran and schemes he hatched. Of course, he wasn’t always a hands-on manager; he appears to have been seldom-seen at the candy store he owned.

But he was a regular at his office in the loop.

For a time, he ran a downtown business called the A.B.C. Copier company – the A.B.C. copier was a device for copying architectural drawings. It may have been an odd device – it involved gasoline – but it worked as advertised. Naturally, though, Holmes couldn’t resist using it for swindles. He bought his interest in the company with worthless notes. Besides selling the device, he sold “territories” for perspective ABC Copier entreprenuers. He re-sold the territories as often as possible. When the business failed, Holmes ditched the offices, stealing 50 gallons of glycerine (which he probably used to make nitroglycerine) in the process.

One of the stenographers was Katie Durkee, whom Holmes claimed to have murdered in his “confession.” A bit of a hitch here was that Durkee was still alive; when she read the confession, she marched to the nearest person who would listen to state that she had never been killed “by Holmes or anyone else.” Holmes partner in the business accused him of murdering Gertrude Conner, the sister of Ned Conner, who worked at the castle. Workers excavating the castle cellar in 1895 thought they found her body, along with those of Julia, her sister-in-law, and Pearl, her niece. When the partner accused Holmes of the murder to his face, Holmes replied “Bah! What makes you say that?”

The whole “gang” from the castle seemed to be involved with the business. Patrick Quinlan, the janitor of the murder castle (and a probably Holmes accomplice) also worked at the copier company. One of the Williams girls (Minnie, one of Holmes wife, or Anna, her sister) was also thought to work there.

The office of the company was in Custom House Place – a bit of a levee district that is now Printer’s Row. Specifically, it was in the Monon Building, the world’s first modern 13 story skyscraper at what would now be 436-444 S. Dearborn, across from the still-standing Manhattan building. It was torn down in 1947 to make way for Congress Street to expand.

The location gave Holmes easy access to the multitude of nearby whorehouses, but given his numerous wives and girlfriends, it seems hard to believe that he had TIME for whoring. The office there was most active around late 1890 through 1891, when the business went under.

Overall, I’ve been able to document about a hundred places around Chicago to which Holmes can be traced, primarily businesses in the loop that he swindled, as well as some lawyers’ offices, some offices he ran himself, etc. Only a tiny handful are still standing.

More info on Holmes’s activities in the Loop are in the new book:

And, of course, there’s also our collection of primary source material on his famous “castle” on the south side:

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Tour Report!

We interrupt this month of historical posts for a report on tonight’s tour….

An interesting night – the loud noise in the Florentine Ballroom was back, but it wasn’t the same noise I heard before – it was coming from the ceiling, and sounded like someone dropping hammers and tools on the roof. However, there was no construction going on, and the only thing above the domed ceiling is a blank space. Security told me “You think that’s scary? Come here at three a.m.! There are footsteps, noises, cold chills, you name it!” They’ve been telling us this since we started investigating the place two years ago, but I never experienced any of it until a couple of months ago.

There was also some weirdness going on outside the location of H.H. Holmes’ glass bending factory (which was thought to be used more for cremations than glass bending) – which has had its share of strange nights lately. Last week we pulled in to find three hawks with dead birds in their mouths outside of the place.

But most interesting to me tonight was the crowd – a good portion of the group was composed of senior citizens. One of them had her high school prom in the Gold Ballroom in 1936. Another grew up near the murder castle sight (while it was still standing – it stood until 1938) and told us that she always got spooked walking by the spot, but never knew why until she read Devil in the White City.

We filmed part of the tour tonight for an upcoming youtube commercial, so we actually DO have recordings of the noises in the Florentine Room tonight!

Murder Castle Ebook Outtake!

While we endeavored to cram every contemporary eyewitness account, drawing, and diagram into our Ebook on the H.H. Holmes Murder Castle, we also had to keep it short enough to print out. Some things just didn’t fit in – here’s the first of our outtakes, on Davis, who ran a jewelry shop n the castle. He had always insisted that there would be bodies found in the basement, but seemed a bit amused by the whole affair.

During the excavations, The Chicago Daily News reported the following exchange:

“The morbid novel writer was also abroad in the shape of a pretty young woman of about twenty summers. She dropped into the drug store with her pencil and pad and began to question jeweller Davis.
“There’s Holmes’ brother,” said the jeweller, pointing to his roommate, who was standing near. The young lady novelist opened her eyes wide with amazement. She tried to speak to the man, but almost went off into hysteria with excitement. As the man passed out, Jeweller Davis said “Good by, Holmes.”
“So long, Davis,” was the quick reply, and young lady novelist almost fainted.

This speaks volumes about the reliability (or lack therof) of many of the firsthand accounts. Some tenants who hadn’t seen a thing probably wanted to get into the story as it caught national news, and other bits of made-up gossip by annoyed residents probably got passed around as fact.

Davis was back in the spotlight in 1905, when Johann Hoch, a bigamist/murderer not unlike Holmes, was on trial in the old Courthouse on Dearborn and Hubbard. Papers had been reporting that Hoch had been a regular at the castle in Holmes’ day under the name Jacob Schmitt, and Chappel, the skelton articulator Holmes employed, swore that it was true. Davis swore that he’d never seen Hoch in his life, at the castle or otherwise.

If you haven’t already, don’t forget to pick up your copy of the Ebook!