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H.H. Holmes Is an Angry Ghost

by Jen Burd

June 13, 2013

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Donate America was an innocent place in the 1890s. A few years earlier in London’s Whitechapel district, an unknown killer called Jack the Ripper had become “the world’s first serial killer.” Jack the Ripper didn’t earn this moniker because he was the first person to think of murdering a succession of victims, or because he was the most brutal criminal the world had ever seen. He was, rather, the first killer to receive widespread media coverage. Near the end of the nineteenth century, historical factors convened to create the concept of the modern serial killer. Newspapers and dime novels were extremely popular, and Europe was in the throes of a revival in Gothic literature. Urbanization was accelerating almost everywhere, restructuring communities and creating threats from within.

Herman Webster Mudgett, who is known best by his alias, H.H. Holmes, was America’s first serial killer. He was heavily mythologized in his own time and he is mythologized to this day. During the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, Holmes owned and operated a hotel later dubbed the “murder castle.” The hotel was equipped with secret passages and trapdoors, a soundproof, walk-in vault that locked from the outside, acid baths, and a human-sized kiln, among other not so subtle hints that something might be amiss. Holmes was a con man with a penchant for insurance fraud. He claimed insurance policies for many of his victims and sold their remains to research hospitals. Some reporters speculated that Holmes was responsible for over two hundred deaths. In his own time, Holmes was America’s Jack the Ripper.

In 2011, H.H. Holmes’ great-great grandson, Jeff Mudgett, released a book called Bloodstains. Mudgett claims that the book is based on recently uncovered diaries that prove that Holmes was Jack the Ripper. Mudgett’s book is pure fiction, but a number of news outlets ran stories about Mudgett’s shocking new evidence in the Jack the Ripper case. If these people had bothered to give Mudgett’s book even a cursory glance, they would have realized that Mudgett is either delusional or lying.

Mudgett’s version is as follows. In 1888, Holmes took a trip to London to investigate a theory on an immortality elixir. Holmes committed the Ripper murders while he was in London, then returned to Chicago, refreshed, and built his murder castle. In 1894, Holmes was arrested on fraud charges. History and common sense dictate that Holmes was publicly hanged in 1896, but Mudgett begs to differ. He says that Holmes hypnotized a guard who was hanged in his place and spent the rest of his days on a revenge killing spree.

It gets weirder. Mudgett apparently believes that he has communicated with the ghost of H.H. Holmes, who tried to lure him over to the dark side. Bloodstains chronicles Mudgett’s battle with his great-great grandfather’s malevolent ghost and his fears that he inherited some of the family evil.

Mudgett may in fact have inherited his relative’s passion for fanciful storytelling. Holmes claimed to have committed twenty-seven murders, though experts can confirm only nine of these. While in jail, Holmes became of prolific writer. First he wrote a memoir proclaiming his innocence. He blamed his most recent crimes, three children’s murders, on a mysterious figure named Hatch and Minnie Williams, a woman who he had murdered a few years earlier. But after a jury found Holmes guilty, he sold his “confession” to William Randolph Heart for a supposed $7,500 (roughly $200,000 today). In his confession, Holmes described committing twenty-seven murders. Some of his alleged victims were still alive. He also wrote about a physical transformation he was undergoing, confirmed by “an expert criminologist”:
I am convinced that since my imprisonment I have changed woefully and gruesomely from what I was formerly in feature and figure. My features are assuming a pronounced satanical cast... My head and face are gradually assuming an elongated shape. I believe fully that I am growing to resemble the devil" that the similitude is almost completed.
Holmes’ great-great-grandson has followed in his footsteps, making up ridiculous stories for money and attention. Mudgett claims that science backs up his story of his grandfather’s foray killing prostitutes in London. It doesn't, and neither does light scrutiny. During the Ripper murders, Holmes’ second wife, Myrta Z. Belknap, was pregnant, and Holmes was constructing his murder castle in Chicago. Holmes designed the building himself and he personally supervised its construction, firing most workers after they had completed one installation so he didn't have to pay them and so no one caught on the fact that it was clearly a murder castle. Besides, there is no proof that Holmes ever left the county.

Among Mudgett’s other faulty evidence is handwriting analysis (Scotland Yard received hundreds of fake letters from Jack the Ripper, but there is no known handwriting sample for Jack the Ripper) and his idea that the killers had similar modus operandi. The killers had vastly different methods and rituals. Though the Victorian and contemporary media both kicked around the idea that Jack the Ripper was a surgeon, there is nothing about the Ripper murders that suggests surgical precision. The victims [WARNING: Surprisingly grisly photo despite being from 1888], already dead, were viciously hacked to pieces in the dark, within minutes, and their remains scattered haphazardly in the nearby vicinity. That’s why they called him “the Ripper” and not “the doctor” or “Jack the Steady-Handed, Mild-Mannered General Practitioner.”

H.H. Holmes tended to be a hands-off killer, almost cartoonishly neat. He liked to fill a victim’s room with gas and watch through a peep hole as they asphyxiated. He dissected some corpses, but only so he could clean the skeletons and sell them to hospitals. The very fact that Holmes set up shop in Chicago in time for the World’s Fair demonstrates what an organized, calculated style he had. Holmes was a Hannibal Lector; Jack the Ripper was a Buffalo Bill.

The story of H.H. Holmes is horrifying enough without Jeff Mudgett’s angry ghost confabulation thrown in the mix. There was nothing supernatural or satanic about Holmes, unless you consider unbridled and apathetic capitalism supernatural or satanic. The term “serial killer” is imbued with a supernatural element, a remnant of the Gothic movement from which the concept evolved. People have been committing multiple murders in one form or another for as long as men and women have walked the earth, but when we say “serial killer,” we don’t mean people who kill in the line of duty, like police officers and soldiers. We don’t mean people involved in organized crime and we don’t mean political figures like Hitler or Bin Laden. A serial killer is the hulking freak who skins girls in a pit in his basement. A serial killer is the sadistic psychopath wearing the mask and carrying a scythe.

During his last interview before he was electrocuted in 1989, Ted Bundy reportedly said “We serial killers are your sons, we are your husbands, we are everywhere. And there will be more of your children dead tomorrow.” Bundy really hit the nail on the head (no pun intended). If serial killers were devils or monsters then they would be an oddity, a special case that can’t come too close to home. In some ways, it’s more comforting to view them as something other than human.

If you’re interested in killing some time, check out:

by Jen Burd

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