With Holmes behind bars, Chicago police began to investigate Holmes’ building. The ground floor of the building was divided into ordinary retail spaces, including a jewelry store, pharmacy, blacksmith shop, barber and restaurant. The third floor consisted of apartments, offices and Holmes’ living quarters. But on the second floor and basement, they discovered an elaborate house of horrors.
The second floor was a maze of some 35 small windowless rooms, stairs and doors that led nowhere, false partitions, trap doors, secret passageways and a staircase that opened out over a steep drop to the alley behind the house. There were also trapdoors and dumbwaiters that enabled him to move the bodies down to the basement. Some rooms were soundproof and had peepholes enabling Holmes to monitor their interiors. Others were connected to a gas line that where victims could be asphyxiated.
The basement held a crematorium, a blood-spattered dissection table, vats of acid, surgical implements, various jars of poison, pits of quicklime, and torture devices attached to the walls. Holmes is thought to have stripped many of the bodies down to their skeletons inn order to sell them for medical study.
Not only did they find the equipment to produce evil, they also found large quantities of human bones, tufts of hair, blood stained linen and pieces of clothing that appeared to have been hastily concealed. Portions of bodies were so badly dismembered and decomposed that it was hard for them to determine exactly how many bodies there really were.
The building soon became known as the “Murder Castle.”
After a trial, in which he acted as his own attorney, Holmes was sentenced to death for the murder of Benjamin Pitezel in 1895. Holmes appealed his case but lost. Though Canada and Illinois both tried to extradite Holmes from Pennsylvania, he was executed. He met his end on May 7, 1896, when he was hanged for the Pitezel murder in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Until the moment of his death, Holmes remained calm and amiable, showing very few signs of fear, anxiety or depression. During the hanging, Holmes’ neck did not snap; he instead was strangled to death slowly, twitching for over 15 minutes before being pronounced dead 20 minutes after the trap had been sprung.
Holmes asked for his coffin to be contained in cement and buried 10 feet deep, because he was concerned grave robbers would steal his body and use it for dissection.
Holmes’s life as one of America’s first serial killers has been the subject of many books, documentaries and an upcoming feature film.
The Castle itself was mysteriously gutted by fire in August, 1895. According to a newspaper clipping from The New York Times, two men were seen entering the back of the building between 8 and 9 p.m. About a half an hour later, they were seen exiting the building, and rapidly running away. Following several explosions, the Castle went up in flames. Afterwards, investigators found a half-empty gas can underneath the back steps of the building. The building survived the fire and remained in use until it was torn down in 1938. The site is currently occupied by the Englewood branch of the United States Postal Service.
In 2017, amid allegations that Holmes had in fact escaped execution, Holmes’ body was exhumed for testing. Due to his coffin being contained in cement, his body was found not to have decomposed normally. His clothes were almost perfectly preserved and his mustache was found to be intact. The body was positively identified as being that of Holmes with his teeth. Holmes was then reburied.
Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser-Alexander, October, 2017.
Chicago Tribune, August 18, 1895