You probably recognize names like Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, and Dennis Rader — some of the most notorious serial killers from the past few decades — but does H.H. Holmes ring a bell? Before the term "serial killer" was even a thing, H.H. Holmes, or Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, started the chilling trend in the 1890s.
Erik Larson wrote the bestselling novel The Devil in the White City about Holmes's terrifying killing spree in Chicago that coincided with the exciting 1893 World's Fair. A movie based on the book is reportedly in the works, with Martin Scorsese set to direct and Leonardo DiCaprio set to star as Holmes. But before we see the terrifying tale come to the big screen, here's what you need to know about the man who designed and built his own "Murder Castle."
Holmes, who was born Herman Webster Mudgett but changed his name in honor of Sherlock Holmes, was a doctor from New Hampshire who had already had a reputation for fraud and murder when he fled to Chicago in the late 1880s. Holmes abandoned his wife and child to set up shop in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood, where he began working at a corner drugstore. He stole money from the owners to buy property across the street, where he eventually started construction on a three-story building.
Holmes's vision for his new building included a new drugstore, apartments, retail space, and a partial hotel, but he also added things like windowless rooms, secret passageways, false floors, trapdoors, chutes that led to the basement, a crematorium, and a vault. He never paid the companies that were working to build the property, and he frequently fired workers so that nobody would catch on to his plan.
Holmes then began (or resumed) his killing spree, targeting women who came to Chicago to find work and who would stay at his "hotel." While many of his presumed victims can't be confirmed (he confessed to 27 murders, but some believe it was more than 200), he would reportedly seduce them, even getting engaged to some, before they mysteriously disappeared. Holmes would torture and murder his victims in his building, which was appropriately nicknamed the "Murder Castle," before putting their bodies in the chute to the basement, where he would then burn them or dispose of them in other ways.
Holmes fled Chicago after the World's Fair after committing too many scams. He struck again when he killed his business partner Benjamin Pitezel, with whom he was planning a life insurance scheme. He was finally caught in November 1984 and was hanged in Philadelphia in May 1896 for the murder of Pitezel. During his time in jail, he wrote about his murderous ways, saying, "I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing."