|Holmes: Not really a Hannibal
Lector. More of a Walter White.
Many “historical mystery” stories fall into a pattern: They first come on the public, get debunked, go underground for a few decades, then re-emerge with a whole new life of their own, with every-wilder stories getting folded in over time. This is certainly the case with H.H. Holmes. In 1894-6, when his story was first in the public eye, stories and theories went around that he’d killed World’s fair patrons, had an acid pit, cremated bodies in a wood-burning stove, and was an accomplished hypnotist. Most of these stories were quickly debunked, or were never more than wild theories suggested by out-of-town newspapers.
But most of them were repeated as fact in a handful of 1930s-40s tabloids and pulps (most notably Herbert Asbury’s Gem of the Prairie), and when he became famous all over after Devil in the White City came out, most of them had been folded into the story. Today it’s common to hear of Holmes as America’s most prolific serial killer, a possible Jack the Ripper suspect, and other stories.
Getting to the “truth” of the matter with Holmes is frankly impossible. He lied constantly, which muddies the waters considerably. But if you dig into primary sources – newspapers that had reporters on the ground, eyewitness accounts, court records, etc, you find a rather different story (you also find that, according to a doctor who examined him and published his findings in the Journal of the American Medical Association, his sexual organs were “unusually small”).
None of this, of course, is to say that Holmes was NOT a criminal mastermind or a murderous monster. He was certainly both of those things. But anyone who wants to study the case should be prepared to learn that much of the story as it’s commonly told is a work of fiction.
Here are ten common myths and misconceptions:
1. The “Murder Castle” was a hotel.
This is sort of half true. The building was sometimes referred to as a “World’s Fair Hotel,” but it doesn’t seem to have functioned as a hotel in the modern sense of the word. The first floor was mostly businesses, the second was mostly labs (and, well, murdering equipment). Most of the “flats” were on the third floor, and seem to have functioned mainly as extended-stay apartments, not as more modern hotel rooms. There was no “front desk.” People paid rent. As of 1891, the building was a two story affair; Holmes borrowed $3000 from a resident to add a third floor to use a “flats” during the fair, and the third floor was built, but the extent to which he ever rented it out is debatable. It was built so cheaply that one worker examining the roof in March, 1893, put his foot right through the floor, and the lender eventually sued Holmes for pocketing most of the money and not paying it back. It certainly didn’t operate all through the Fair; Holmes tried to torch it for insurance money in August of 1893. Legal records indicate that he’d put lots of insurance policies on it.
2. The Murder Castle Burned Down in 1895
There was a fire that destroyed most of the evidence in 1895, but it didn’t burn the building to the ground. The second and third floors were torn down several days after the fire (they were already in terrible shape), but they were rebuilt. The first floor and basement, with the new upper floors, survived until the 1930s. Most of the photos you see of it today are from the 20th century.
3. Holmes said “I was born with the devil in me.”
This is the big one. That Holmes said he was driven to kill my some psychological urge forms the whole basis of thinking of him as a modern serial killer. But he never said it. When it was announced the Holmes’s confession would be published in the Philadelphia Inquirer (a rather reputable paper), The Philadephia North American) published excerpts the day before, and those excerpts were reprinted in papers all over the world. They were the source of the “I was born with the devil in me” line. But neither that or any of the other excerpts actually in the confession itself. The North American quite likely made them up. We have a post on this, too.
4. Holmes Had a Torture Chamber in the Basement of his Castle.
The castle basement was not soundproof – you couldn’t torture people in there without people finding out. Plenty of people in the building had access to it. The police found an unused quicklime pit and a 12 foot tank full of gas down there, and it seems likely that Holmes probably planned to get rid of their bodies in the basement, but mostly likely he tried it once or twice and found that trying to do it in a crowded building was more trouble than it was worth. Stories were told of trunks being shipped out of the castle frequently, and Holmes had a couple of facilities that he said were for bending glass. These other facilities would have been better places to cremate people.
5. Holmes Is Known to Have Killed Over 200 People
|The New York World‘s article, later reprinted in the Chicago Tribune, had
an incalculable effect on Holmes lore. It was a major source for
Herbert Asbury’s account of Holmes.
The actual “known” victims number about 9, and even a few of those are sort of dubious. The number 200 was casually tossed off in an article in the 1940s and seems to have stuck. The number of suspected victims has never really been much more than a couple dozen – even his own confession of 27 was probably an exaggeration. These days the “estimate” seems to go up every Halloween, but it’s not because new evidence is coming to light. Here’s our master list of known and suspected victims.
The idea that Holmes built the building to lure World’s Fair patrons to their death came from one line in The New York World, a paper that has been described as a mix between the New York Times and the National Enquirer. It was just a theory that they were speculating about. They didn’t realize that Holmes couldn’t have planned the building specifically for the fair; construction began in 1887, when having a fair in Chicago was barely a twinkle in anyone’s eye, and long before the specific location of the fair was determined.
6. The Police In Chicago Knew Nothing About Holmes
The police were well aware of Holmes and his activities – he was being sued and searched constantly, mainly for non-payment of promissory notes. That his “castle” was full of secret passages was even the subject of a Tribune story in March, 1893, before the fair opened. What they didn’t know, though, was that he was a murderer, not just a swindler. A few neighbors later said that they’d known it all along, of course, and one said he accused Holmes outright of murdering Gertrude Connor (who died of heart failure several weeks after leaving Chicago; her doctor issued a statement that it was natural causes).
7. Holmes sold bodies of his victims to be articulated as skeletons for sale to medical schools.Holmes, as a University of Michigan med student, surely had some experience with the body snatching trade – it was a rite of passage for med students then, and the University of Michigan had a particular reputation for it, even in those days. Holmes even lived in a house on Cemetery Street, and his medical school colleagues did say that he seemed to get a kick out of the dissection. But the evidence that he was selling bodies later in life is pretty weak. During the investigation of the castle in 1895, a man named M.G. (not Charles) Chappel came to the police and said he’d bought bodies from Holmes at the castle. His story didn’t hold up, though. None of the colleges he claimed to have bought bodies from had ever heard of the guy, and his relatives told police that he was a heavy drinker who made stories up, then forgot that he had made them up. He told them places in the castle basement to dig for more skeletons, but they didn’t find any. The police kept the bones he gave them, but considered the clue to be weak. See our full post on him.
8. Holmes killed Dr. Holton and his wife. They were fine. The story goes that Holmes happened to walk into a pharmacy when he first moved to Chicago, where poor hapless Mrs. Holton was trying to run things while her elderly husband, the doctor, was too sick to work. Actually, they were only a couple of years older than Holmes, and the wife was the doctor, not some hapless old crone. Her husband worked on the railway. Dr. and Mr. Holton are buried beside their daughter at Oak Woods Cemetery, not too far down the road from the site of the drug store. They both outlived Holmes considerably. See our full post.
9. Holmes was America’s first serial killer. He’s often advertised that way, but it’s not entirely accurate, even if we take for granted that he was really a “serial killer” in the modern sense of the word, not just a swindler who also killed people when they got in his way. But by all available evidence, he was more of a Walter White than a Hannibal Lector. As far as “firsts” go, he wasn’t really even the first one in Chicago. Thomas Neil Cream was operating in Chicago a few years before Holmes came to town.
10. Holmes stalked victims at the Congress Hotel.
This story seems to come up a lot lately – someone has been going around saying that he stalked or picked up many of his victims here. Not only is there no evidence of this that I could ever find, there’s nothing out there from before a couple of years ago that would even create that impression. I wouldn’t state with certainty that he was never, ever in the building, and that none of his friends or victims ever were, but there’s nothing to indicate that it on record. The Congress was built in 1893 to cash in on the same World’s Fair Holmes is often connected to, but that’s the only connection. But because of this, a stop there was sometimes used on early Devil in the White City tours (it was a useful bathroom break and the ballrooms are stunning), and the story grew from there.
I’d love to find a solid connection between Holmes and the hotel (if that building ain’t haunted, no building is), but it remains wishful thinking. He is known to have stayed, or put people up, in a number of local hotels, but I don’t think any of them are still standing – out of a hundred or so buildings that I can trace Holmes to in Chicago, only a small handful are still around. Finding a building Holmes was definitely in, and that is still standing, is a real trick. However, he can be traced to a couple of buildings on the block right across the corner from the Congress – the Robert Morris College building was a department store where his wife worked, and the nearby family hostel is built into the old Kimball Glass Company building – he went there and swindled Mr. Kimball out of about five hundred bucks’ worth of sheet glass.
For more of the primary data and more info, see our other Holmes posts and check out our various Holmes ebooks: