In A Nutshell
In 1893, Dr. H.H. Holmes built a sprawling, three-story brick building in downtown Chicago. The labyrinthine “Murder Castle” contained nearly 100 rooms, dead-end staircases, hallways that looped back onto themselves, and doors with only brick walls behind them. In this grisly maze, Holmes murdered up to 200 people.
The Whole Bushel
H.H. Holmes is widely regarded as America’s first serial killer, a title which he claimed with a vengeance during the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. He later confessed to 27 murders, although it’s believed that he may have actually killed hundreds. The victims were mostly visitors to the World’s Fair, and, for the most part, women. After abducting them, Holmes brought them back to his self-styled Murder Castle, an outwardly unassuming building in Englewood. But behind the innocent brick facade was a dark, windowless maze containing close to 100 rooms filled with torture devices. As far as we know, nobody ever escaped once they were brought into the Murder Castle.
A few years before the World Fair, in the late 1880s, Holmes moved to Chicago and took on a part-time job at a drugstore on West 63rd Street, which was owned by a man named Dr. E.S. Holton, who was dying of cancer. After he died, Holmes bought the drugstore from Holton’s wife and agreed to let her continue living above the store. However, when it became apparent that Holmes wasn’t going to pay, she filed a lawsuit against him . . . and then she disappeared.
With her out of the way, Holmes purchased a much larger lot right across the street from the drugstore and began building a hotel. Throughout construction, Holmes made a habit of firing his contractor once a section was built, and then hiring a new one for another section. The result was that nobody except Holmes had any idea of the layout of the maze, a fact which he used to his advantage many times.
When the hotel was completed, he moved the drugstore (which he now owned) into the ground floor and dubbed the building the “World’s Fair Hotel,” just in time for the 27 million people streaming into the city to attend the 1983 World’s Fair. The murderous proprietor then hand-picked female guests and employees and abducted them into the depths of the hotel, where he locked them in soundproof rooms and . . . experimented. As a former medical student who was once on his way to becoming a surgeon, Holmes committed his murders with gruesome attention to detail. Many of the “bedrooms” in the hotel were airtight and connected to gas lines, allowing Holmes to kill his prisoners with the flick of a switch.
The basement of the building was where Holmes did most of his work; after he was captured, an investigation found piles of human bones, an incinerator for cremating, and surgical tools for dissecting in the tunnels running under the Murder Castle. In addition to being a murderous lunatic, Holmes was also a businessman who found ways to profit from his hobby—after stripping the bodies, Holmes often sold the skeletons to universities. He also forced his employees—who were typically young women—to take out life insurance policies naming him as a benefactor. It’s not hard to guess what happened to them.
When the five-month-long World’s Fair ended, Holmes left Chicago and flitted across the US, conning wealthy women into marrying him, then killing them. He was finally arrested in Boston (for horse fraud), and a series of investigations led detectives to discover one of the most gruesome crime scenes in history: The Murder Castle. Holmes was executed in 1896, and the terrible building later burned to the ground. It’s now a post office.