H.H. Holmes and the Murder Castle of Chicago

In May, 1892, another girl named Emeline Cigrande began working in the building and she disappeared in December. Another neighborhood girl by the name of Edna Van Tassel, also “vanished” at about the same time and was thought to have been another potential victim.

In the meantime, Holmes made the acquaintance of Benjamin Pitezel when he placed an ad in search of carpenters. Pitezel was a also a petty criminal and alcoholic. Despite his issues, the two became close friends and Pitezel would quickly become Holme’s right-hand man for several criminal schemes.

In early 1893, a one-time actress named Minnie Williams moved to Chicago and Holmes offered her a job at the hotel as his personal secretary. Williams owned some property in Fort Worth, Texas that Holmes convinced her to sign over to him. Holmes later transferred the deed to Pitezel. In May of 1893, Holmes and Williams, presenting themselves as man and wife, rented an apartment in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. Minnie’s sister, Nannie, came to visit, and in July, she wrote to her aunt that she planned to accompany “Brother Harry” to Europe. Neither Minnie nor Nannie were seen alive after July 5, 1893.

Chicago World's Fair 1893

Chicago World’s Fair 1893

In 1893, Chicago was given the honor of hosting the World’s Fair, a cultural and social event to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America. The event was scheduled from May to October, and attracted thousands of people from all over the world. During this time, Holmes opened up his home as a hotel for visitors. Some would never be seen again.

To best take advantage of Chicago’s influx of tourists Holmes advertised in the newspaper. In these ads, he called the castle, which was only a few miles away from the fairgrounds, the “World’s Fair Hotel.” Holmes not only ensnared soon-to-be victims by newspaper ads, but he also attended the fair in the company of the Pitezel children. There, the impeccably dressed doctor would turn on the charm, luring wealthy women to his castle with the promise of a good night’s rest. Usually from out of town and unnoticed in the huge fair crowds, they were impossible to trace once they vanished into the castle’s dark recesses. The list of the “missing” when the Fair closed was a long one and for most, foul play was suspected. How many of them fell prey to Holmes is a mystery but no fewer than 50 people who were reported to the police as missing were traced to the castle, where their trails ended.

On August 13, 1893, the third floor of Holmes’ building caught fire. Luckily, only a few people were in the building – all employees and long term residents who were able to get out. Holmes had taken out insurance policies on the building with at least four companies, all of which promptly sued rather than pay.

With insurance companies pressing to prosecute Holmes for arson, Holmes left Chicago in July,1894. He reappeared in Fort Worth, looking to build on the property that Minnie Williams had transferred. That same month; however, he was arrested and briefly incarcerated for the first time, on the charge of selling mortgaged goods in St. Louis, Missouri.

Marion Hedgepeth

Marion Hedgepeth

While he was in jail he struck up a conversation with a convicted outlaw named Marion Hedgepeth, who was serving a 25-year sentence. Holmes had concocted a plan to swindle an insurance company out of $10,000 by taking out a policy on himself and then faking his death. Holmes promised Hedgepeth a $500 commission in exchange for the name of a lawyer who could be trusted. Given the name of Jeptha Howe, Holmes began planning his own death after he was released on bail. However, the plan failed when the insurance company became suspicious and refused to pay. Holmes did not press the claim; instead, he concocted a similar plan with his friend, Benjamin Pitezel.

Pitezel agreed to fake his own death so that his wife could collect on a $10,000 life insurance policy, which was to be split with Holmes and attorney, Jeptha Howe. The scheme, which was to take place in Philadelphia, called for Pitezel to set himself up as an inventor under the name B.F. Perry, and then be killed and disfigured in a lab explosion. Holmes was to find an appropriate cadaver to play the role of Pitezel.

Benjamin Pitezel

Benjamin Pitezel

Instead, Holmes killed Pitezel by knocking him unconscious with chloroform and setting his body on fire. Holmes proceeded to collect the insurance payout on the basis of the genuine Pitezel corpse. He then went on to manipulate Pitezel’s unsuspecting wife into allowing three of her five children to be in his custody. The eldest daughter and the baby remained with Mrs. Pitezel while Holmes and the three Pitezel children traveled throughout the northern United States and into Canada. Simultaneously, he escorted Mrs. Pitezel along a parallel route, all the while using various aliases and lying to Mrs. Pitezel concerning her husband’s death, claiming that her husband was in London.

Holmes would later confess to murdering two of the children by forcing them into a large trunk, drilling a hole in the trunk, and attaching a gas line to asphyxiate the girls. Holmes buried their nude bodies in the cellar of his rental house in Toronto. Frank Geyer, a Philadelphia detective tracking Holmes, found the decomposed bodies of the two Pitezel girls in the Toronto basement.

Geyer then followed Holmes to Indianapolis, where Holmes had rented a cottage. Holmes was reported to have visited a local pharmacy to purchase the drugs which he used to kill the third Pitezel child and a repair shop to sharpen the knives he used to chop up the body before he burned it. The boy’s teeth and bits of bone were discovered in the home’s chimney.

On January 17, 1894, Holmes married for a third time to a woman named Georgiana Yoke on, in Denver, Colorado. He was still legally married to both Clara and Myrta.

In the meantime, Marion Hedgepath, who was angry that he did not receive any money in the “faked death” scam, told police about the fraud that Holmes had planned. Afterwards, the authorities doubled their efforts to find the illusive killer.

Holmes’ murder spree finally ended when he was arrested in Boston on November 17, 1894, after being tracked there from Philadelphia by the Pinkertons. He was held on an outstanding warrant for horse theft in Texas, as the authorities had become more suspicious at this point and Holmes appeared poised to flee the country in the company of his unsuspecting third wife.

During his time in custody, Holmes initially claimed to be nothing but an insurance fraudster, admitting to using cadavers to defraud life insurance companies several times in college. But, over time, his stories changed, once admitting to killing 28 people. Other estimates range from 20 to as many as 200 victims. While he was incarcerated, Holmes was paid $7,500 (worth about $216,000 today) by the Hearst newspapers in exchange for his confession, much of which was found to be lies. Holmes gave various contradictory accounts of his life, initially claiming innocence and later that he was possessed by Satan. His many lies made it difficult for investigators to determine the truth.

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