It’s June 1893 in Chicago, and over one million people have flocked to the Windy City to witness the World’s Fair, a spectacular showcase of human ingenuity and technological innovation.
Lucy Burbank squeezes through the commotion clutching a battered suitcase. With her eyes like saucers, she looks around at the exhibition showgrounds, a sweeping plaza lined with marble columns, amphitheaters, and fountains.
But Lucy isn’t here to admire the spectacle. This eighteen-year-old traveled to Chicago from her home in Pennsylvania to find a job. But first, she needs a place to stay.
So she turns down a quiet street, escaping the hubbub of the main thoroughfare, in search of a hotel. She keeps walking until the crowds are far behind her, begins to enjoy the peace and quiet of these deserted alleyways.
But as Lucy continues to walk, it gradually dawns on her that she is not alone. She can hear another pair of footsteps behind her. She stops and glances over her shoulder. But nobody is there. Thinking she must have imagined it, Lucy continues on her way.
Until she hears it again - footsteps - and getting faster. Fear begins to spread through Lucy’s body. She quickens her pace, almost breaking into a run. Then she darts down another alleyway and flattens herself against a wall, hiding in the shadows, praying whoever was pursuing her didn’t see where she went. But while she huddles in the dark alley the footsteps slow down and get closer.
Lucy holds her breath and tries to make herself invisible. She closes her eyes and waits until finally, the footsteps fade away.
Lucy shakes her head, smiling at her own foolishness. She brushes back a loose strand of blonde hair, then turns to continue down the alleyway.
But as soon as she steps from the shadows… she comes face to face with a young man in a bowler hat. Lucy’s heart stops. She’s about to turn and run, when the stranger removes his hat and smiles. He apologizes for startling her and asks if she’s lost. His handsome, inquisitive face instantly puts Lucy at ease. She explains that she’s recently arrived in Chicago and is looking for accommodations. The man smiles dashingly and says “What an extraordinary coincidence! I happen to own a hotel myself.”
Maybe it’s the twinkle in his eye or the way he carries himself, but something about this man makes Lucy trust him. So, after the briefest of hesitations, Lucy thanks the man and follows this charming stranger down another dark alleyway.
Lucy Burbank has unwittingly fallen into the clutches of a conman and murderer who is often regarded as America’s first serial killer: Herman Webster Mudgett; though he is better known by his pseudonym, HH Holmes. The myth of this infamous criminal who terrorized Chicago in the late 19th century persists even today. According to legend, Holmes lured dozens of victims into his specially designed “Murder Hotel”, a veritable house of horrors equipped with bubbling acid baths, secret trapdoors, and hidden passageways. Stories like these were little more than tabloid gossip, fiction cooked up by the press and devoured by a public hungry for macabre sensation. The truth was far less sensational, but every bit is dark. H.H. Holmes did cast a shadow over the people of Chicago with a killing spree that triggered a nationwide manhunt and ultimately ended with his arrest on November 17th, 1894.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is November 17th, 1894: Catching America’s First Serial Killer.
Act One: Murder Hotel
It’s August 1886 in Chicago; eight years before H. H. Holmes is arrested.
Elizabeth Holton is checking inventory at her drugstore in Englewood when the door squeaks open and a young man steps in off the street. He looks about twenty-five years old, with a handsome face and a dark mustache. He introduces himself as Dr. Henry Howard Holmes. Then he tells Elizabeth he’s looking for work and wonders if she’s hiring. Before Elizabeth can reply, Holmes begins listing his qualifications. He claims that he has received his medical training at the University of Michigan, before working at Norristown State Hospital in Philadelphia. He recently moved to Chicago and he’s interested in pursuing a career in the pharmaceutical trade.
Elizabeth hesitates. Holmes sounds a little overqualified. But the young doctor has a way about him that makes it hard to say no. Besides, Elizabeth thinks, she and her husband could use some extra help around the store. So, she smiles and says: “Alright, Dr. Holmes. When can you start?”
Over the next few months, Holmes proves himself to be a hardworking employee. He is diligent and attentive, and he puts customers at ease with his disarming charisma.
But about one year later, Holmes comes to Elizabeth and her husband with an unexpected offer. He wants to buy the drugstore. The Holtons have no intention of selling their business, but when Holmes tells them what he’s willing to pay, they realize they would be foolish to turn down his extravagant offer.
Soon after the sale, the Holtons move away from Chicago, leaving their drugstore in the hands of the mysterious Dr. Holmes.
The following year, Holmes purchases the empty lot across the street from the drugstore and begins construction on a building with office space for rent. He convinces his creditors that he intends to use the second floor as a hotel during the upcoming World’s Fair, scheduled to take place in Chicago in 1893. But in reality, the hotel portion of the building will never be completed. Holmes will merely use it to entice investors and trick them out of their cash.
Gradually, Holmes evolves into a prolific and methodical con artist. But his criminal activities are not limited to defrauding investors, he also develops an appetite for another sort of crime.
Over the years, many young women start working for Holmes at the drugstore. He seduces several of them, including an aspiring actress named Minnie Williams, who agrees to marry the charming doctor.
But all these women, including Minnie, eventually disappear under mysterious circumstances. And while the police will later suspect that Holmes murdered them, no evidence will ever connect him to their disappearances.
But Holmes is headed for a brush with the law. As his tangled web of criminality grows, so does his greed. Holmes will soon realize that small-scale cons don’t satisfy him. But to pull off bigger scores, he will need a partner, someone he can easily dupe into doing his bidding. Soon he finds the perfect individual, entering into an ill-fated partnership that will end with one man dead, and the other behind bars.
It’s early 1889; five years before H. H. Holmes is arrested.
Benjamin Pitezel stands across the counter from the loans manager at Chemical National Bank in downtown Chicago. The 33-year-old is desperately trying to secure funding for his invention – a coal bin with a mechanical lid. But after listening to Benjamin’s appeal, the loans manager is unmoved. He looks at Benjamin with cold, disdainful eyes and says flatly: “I’m sorry, sir. I suggest you try elsewhere.”
Benjamin flushes a deep crimson. He picks up the design for his coal bin and storms out of the bank, wondering what his wife and five children will think when he returns home empty handed yet again.
Benjamin steps out into the biting cold. He turns up the collar of his moth-eaten wool jacket, begins shuffling down the sidewalk. But as soon as he does, he feels a hand on his shoulder. A tall, broad man in a bowler hat has followed him out of the bank. Benjamin narrows his eyes, asking what the man wants. The stranger says he wants nothing, other than to buy Benjamin a drink. Benjamin tells the man he’s not in the business of accepting free libations from strangers. But the man smiles and says: “Well then, let’s get acquainted. My name’s Holmes - Henry Howard Holmes.”
A few hours and several bottles of beer later, Benjamin is drunkenly telling Holmes his life story: how he used to be a carpenter before moving to Chicago where he became a petty thief to help provide for his family. When Benjamin finishes rambling, Holmes pauses and strokes his mustache, as if reflecting on what he’s just heard. After a short silence, Holmes explains why he followed Benjamin down the street explaining that he witnessed Benjamin’s confrontation in the bank- that he sees something in Benjamin that the loan manager clearly missed. Holmes says he has a business opportunity for Benjamin - a chance to make more money than he’s ever dreamed of.
Benjamin’s eyes light up. There’s something about Holmes’ manner that makes him seem trustworthy and Benjamin is eager to accept the offer.
Soon, Benjamin will begin helping Holmes commit various frauds and cons. And then, in 1894, Holmes will convince his new partner-in-crime to assist him in his most ambitious swindle yet - an insurance scam worth thousands of dollars - one that will prove to be the last con that either man ever commits.
Act Two: Cat and Mouse
It’s late summer 1894; two months before H. H. Holmes is arrested.
Benjamin Pitezel walks through the doors of Fidelity Mutual Life Association, an insurance company in Philadelphia. Benjamin has a spring in his step because he’s about to pull off a scam that will make him very very rich.
Over the last five years, Benjamin has worked closely alongside the prolific con artist H. H. Holmes. Together, they have pulled off several lucrative scams. But Benjamin is gullible and simple-minded, and he doesn’t realize the extent of Holmes’ criminal activity.
While the two men concocted their various swindles, Holmes was also carrying out a campaign of brutal killing on the side, murdering at least six young women between 1891 and 1894.
A few months ago, Holmes left Chicago when the authorities started sniffing around. Shortly after, he was arrested for selling illegal goods in St. Louis, Missouri. But during his stint in prison, Holmes met a fellow convict named Marion Hedgepeth. Marion told Holmes about a scam he recently devised, involved taking out a life insurance policy, faking his own death, and then having a family member collect the payout. Holmes decided to carry out the scam as soon as he got out and promised Marion Hedgepeth he’d give him a cut of the money.
But as soon as Holmes was released, he forgot all about Marion and the promise he made. Instead, he enlisted the help of his trusted associate, Benjamin. The plan they agreed to was simple: Benjamin would take out a $10,000 life insurance policy. And then Holmes would help him fake his own death. After Holmes collected the payout, they’d split the money two ways. Benjamin happily agreed to the scheme. And today, waiting in the lobby of the Fidelity Mutual Life Association in Philadelphia, he’s completing the first stage of the plan.
A few days after taking out the life insurance policy, on September 4th, Benjamin meets Holmes in a rented office downtown. When the two men shake hands, Holmes comments on Benjamin’s sweaty palms. And Benjamin confesses that he’s nervous. This stage of the plan involves Benjamin drinking a potion that renders him unconscious. Holmes will then apply paint to make him look like a corpse, before having a coroner declare Benjamin dead. At the last minute, Holmes will then switch Benjamin’s body with a real, stolen cadaver before the undertaker comes to take him to the morgue. It’s a crafty plan. But the stakes are high, and Benjamin can’t help dwelling on the risks. As always, though, Holmes reassures him, convincing him he’s in safe hands.
Soon, Holmes goes off to prepare the potion. While he waits, Benjamin chastises himself for ever doubting Holmes. Holmes has become more than just an associate over the last five years; he’s become Benjamin’s dear friend.
Just then, somebody clamps a wet rag over Benjamin’s mouth. His eyes widen with shock as he inhales pure chloroform. He flails wildly, but his assailant holds him tight. Benjamin feels his senses dimming as the chemical takes its effect, and he finally slumps to the floor. The last thing Benjamin sees before falling unconscious is the leering and devilish face of H. H. Holmes, standing over his body.
Holmes never had any intention of splitting the money evenly with Benjamin. After knocking him out with chloroform, he sets fire to the office, leaving his former associate’s body to burn in the blaze.
Once the authorities discover the scene of the fire, they deem Benjamin’s death an accident, leaving Holmes to collect the insurance payout.
But even with the cash in his possession, Holmes knows he’s not out of the woods. Authorities assure to speak to Benjamin’s widow, Carrie, and under questioning, Carrie is sure to mention the name of her late husband’s partner, H. H. Holmes.
So, Holmes decides to get one step ahead of the police. He visits Carrie and lies to her, claiming Benjamin is still alive and hiding out in Toronto. He convinces her to take her five children on the run with him, laying low before meeting up with Benjamin in Canada. Fear and anxiety cloud Carrie’s instincts, so she agrees to Holmes’ plan. Soon, she and her five children join him, as Holmes travels through the Midwest, wending their way north toward the Canadian border.
When they reach Indiana, Holmes persuades Carrie that they should split up to throw the authorities off the scent. And again, Carrie acquiesces. She lets Holmes take three of her children while she accompanies the remaining two to Toronto. But as Holmes watches Carrie say a tearful goodbye to Alice, Nellie, and Howard, another evil scheme is brewing behind his dark eyes. Holmes does not intend to take good care of the children. He only wants them as hostages in case the authorities ever catch up with him, and if the children outlive their usefulness, he will not hesitate to kill them.
But as H. H. Holmes prepares to commit his final, bloody crime, police in Philadelphia will receive a tip from Marion Hedgepeth - Holmes’ former cellmate in prison. Marion feels cut out of the scam that he originally proposed to Holmes, so to take revenge, he advises the police that Benjamin Pitezel’s death was not an accident; it was murder, and H. H. Holmes is responsible. Soon, Philadelphia's chief police detective will be put on the case, embarking on a cross-country cat-and-mouse chase to find the killer and bring him to justice.
Act Three: The Devil Within
It’s the fall of 1894; a few weeks before the arrest of H. H. Holmes.
An autumnal drizzle falls on Toronto as Detective Frank Geyer climbs down from his horse-drawn carriage. With the smell of decomposing leaves in the air, Frank picks his way through the garden path of 16 St. Vincent Street, his hand ready by his revolver.
About a month ago, the Philadelphia Police Department received a tip from an inmate at Missouri State Penitentiary. An outlaw named Marion Hedgpeth told authorities about his former cell-mate H. H. Holmes, and the insurance scam the pair had concocted.
Immediately, Detective Geyer started looking into Holmes, and he soon uncovered a trail of nefarious activity leading back to Chicago. He came across the names of several young women who had been associated with or worked for Holmes, and who had all subsequently disappeared.
Lastly, Detective Geyer's investigation led him to Benjamin Pitezel - a known business associate of Holmes whose burned corpse was recently found in downtown Philadelphia. When the Detective knocked on the door of Benjamin’s widow, he discovered that she and her five children were missing. Detective Geyer suspected that Holmes had kidnapped them, so he set off on a hunt that has led him here, to Toronto - where records show Holmes is hiding out.
Detective Geyer kicks down the door and enters the building, his revolver raised. But the house appears to be empty. Soon, a team of forensics specialists start digging in the basement. They make a discovery that chills the Detective to the bone - and proves his worst suspicions were correct. There in the basement, the authorities find the remains of the two Pitezel children; the body of the third child is later discovered in another of Holmes’ rental properties in Indiana.
Detective Geyer returns to Philadelphia, utterly convinced that the man he’s chasing is the most monstrous killer he’s ever heard of. But just as Detective Geyer’s determination to catch Holmes reaches the point of obsession, the investigation is taken out of his hands.
Fidelity Mutual Life Association - the insurance firm involved in Holmes’ scam - hires the Pinkerton Detective Agency to track down the man who conned them. On November 17th, 1894, a group of Pinkerton’s agents arrive at Holmes’ parents’ house in Boston. When he's discovered there, Holmes does not resist arrest. Later, questioned about his motives, Holmes merely smiles and says: “I was born with the Devil in me.”
Holmes will soon be convicted of the murder of Benjamin Pitezel and hanged for the crime. Before his execution, he will confess to 27 other murders, but the true figure is more likely closer to 12. Holmes will go down in history as America’s first serial killer. And rumors about his “Murder Hotel” in Chicago will be blown out of proportion by the sensationalist tabloid press. When it comes to H.H. Holmes, fact and fiction seem indistinguishable, even today. What is certain is that Holmes’ lethal blend of charm and cruelty cast a dark shadow in his lifetime, and left behind an even darker legacy, defined by a horrific crime spree that came to an end when he was finally arrested on this day, November 17th, 1894.
Next onHistory Daily.November 18, 1978. Cult leader Jim Jones leads hundreds of members of the Peoples Temple in a mass suicide.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.