The three-story hotel in downtown Chicago known as the “Castle” was by all appearances just another place for tourists to stay during the 1893 World’s Fair except for one thing: Many young women entered through its doors but not that many left. Or so neighbors would later recall.
For years, its owner, Dr. H.H. Holmes — originally born as Herman Webster Mudgett — had invited people, mostly young women, into the hotel he designed, promising jobs and lodging while hinting that he was a wealthy man seeking a bride.
What no one knew was Holmes didn’t merely design a hotel. He fashioned a labyrinthine house of horrors, a “Murder Castle” with trap doors, peepholes and stairways that led nowhere. Many of its 100 or more rooms were soundproof. Others included gas lines, which allowed Holmes to fill the rooms with gas to easily asphyxiate guests, according to the Crime Museum.
The basement was equipped with a dissecting table, stretching rack and crematory. Holmes would deliver fresh corpses to this makeshift morgue by dropping them down chutes positioned around the hotel. He would then either dissolve them in acid or strip them of their skin and organs — and sell the skeletons to medical schools (obscuring their origins).
Eventually, he was caught and tried in Pennsylvania.
No one knows how many people he killed. Holmes admitted to 28, but some believe the number exceeded 200.
“I was born with the devil in me,” he said while confessing, according to History. “I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than a poet can help the inspiration to sing.”
For these crimes, Holmes was sentenced to death.
“When the words that sealed his doom were pronounced in low impressive tones,” The Washington Post reported, “Holmes was unmoved. During the entire time he did not flinch but looked the judge squarely in the eye and as the last sound died away he turned to one of his attorneys, and remarked quietly: ‘Well, that’s all.’”
He was hanged in Pennsylvania in 1896. That’s how the story goes. But maybe that wasn’t all, after all.
For more than a century, rumors persisted that Holmes, also a highly skilled con man, managed to avoid his hanging via trickery.
Now, at the behest of Holmes’s great-grandchildren, who hope to finally quell such rumors, his remains are being exhumed from the Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, Pa., the Associated Press reported.
John and Richard Mudgett and Cynthia Mudgett Soriano submitted DNA samples to the University of Pennsylvania, where a DNA analysis will be performed. The remains will then be reinterred in the grave, regardless of whether they turn out to belong to Holmes.
They are not commenting on the exhumation at this time.
The rumors began after Holmes’s body was snugly in the ground, Adam Selzer wrote in “H.H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil.”
Robert Latimer, a man Holmes had confessed to killing but who was very much alive, told reporters Holmes hadn’t been hanged. Instead, Latimer contended, Holmes convinced his prison guards he was innocent, and they chose to help him.
They’d brought in a fake body and hidden it behind a partition below the scaffold. When Holmes was brought out to be hanged, the guards had formed a semicircle around him, momentarily blocking the view of the smaller-than-usual number of reporters and jurymen while [the executioner] pretended to bind his arms and put the hood over his head. In those few crucial seconds, the hooded substitute body was raised behind the semicircle, and Holmes himself slipped away to be smuggled out in a casket. The guards had propped up the hooded dead body for a moment before hanging it.
Local newspapers wrote up this account, quoting Latimer as saying, “H.H. Holmes was never hanged in Philadelphia. He cheated the gallows, and is today alive and well and growing coffee at San Paramaribo, Paraguay, South America.”
“This was quite a popular story at the time,” author Matt Lake told NBC Chicago. “A cynical person might say this was just designed to sell more newspapers, and it did sell newspapers.”
Furthermore, it was more difficult than usual to verify the identity of his corpse after burial. When he was sentenced to death, Holmes had a strange request, which was granted. He wanted to be buried in a pine box filled with wet cement that would dry and encapsulate his body. Once he was lowered in the ground, four barrels of cement were poured on top of the coffin, Selzer wrote.
“If somebody went to check later, they couldn’t verify that it was his body,” Lake said.
More than century later, though, that’s no longer a problem. Soon, the world will know if Holmes was actually hanged and buried in Pennsylvania.
Many, though, don’t feel the need to await a DNA test. Among them is Erik Larson, who wrote about Holmes in his 2003 best-selling book “The Devil in the White City.”
“I have absolute confidence the body in that grave is Holmes,” Larson told the AP.