Sunday, June 8, 2008



In 1893, Chicago, Illinois was host to a spectacular World’s Fair -- The Columbian Exposition -- that celebrated the anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America. It was a boom time for the city and thousands of people came from all over the country to attend. Unfortunately though, the list of those “gone missing” at the end of the fair was extensive and as the police later tried to track down where these people had vanished to -- the trail turned cold on the south side of Chicago. Everything was not as shiny and beautiful as the advertising for the Exposition’s “White City” would have everyone believe, for “a devil” that became known as America’s first real serial killer was alive and well on the city’s south side, luring visitors to his "hotel", where scores of them vanished without a trace --- never to be seen again.

H.H. Holmes, regarded as America's First Real Serial Killer


Today, the neighborhood of Englewood is a part of Chicago but in the late 1800’s, it was a quiet, independent community on the southern outskirts of the Windy City. It was a tranquil place and the abode of housewives and shopkeepers. Among these decent folk was a "Mrs. Dr. Holden", as the newspapers mysteriously referred to her, who ran a drugstore at 63rd and Wallace. There was almost too much trade for the woman to handle, as Englewood was rapidly growing, as so many of Chicago’s suburbs were in those days. She was delighted, therefore, to find a capable assistant who said that his name was Dr. Henry H. Holmes. He turned out to be a remarkable addition to the place.

In 1887, a druggist was a chemist and most drugstores were rather crowded places that were stocked with all manner of elixirs and potions. When Dr. Holmes compounded even the simplest prescription, he did so with a flourish, as if he were an alchemist in the midst of some arcane ritual. His long, pale fingers moved with a surgeon’s skill, his handsome face grew intense and his blue eyes grew bright. But he was no means a socially inept scientist, he was a gentleman of fashion and charming of manner. His politeness and humorous remarks brought many new customers into the drug store, especially the ladies in the neighborhood. In addition, he kept a sharp eye on the account books as well and was concerned with the profit the store was making. He was, in short, the perfect assistant to the proprietress.

It was not long before Holmes seemed to be more the manager of the store and less the prescription clerk. He began to spend more and more time working with the ledgers and chatting pleasantly with the ladies who came into the place, some of whom took a very long time to make a very small purchase. Dr. Holmes became a familiar figure as he strolled with his stick down 63rd Street, the main thoroughfare of Englewood. He appeared to be heading for a leading position in the local business community.

Trade at the drug store continued to improve, making Mrs. Dr. Holden exceedingly happy. But as for Holmes, he was still not satisfied with his lot and he had many plans and visions that drove him onward. Strangely, in 1887, Mrs. Dr. Holden vanished without a trace. A short time after, Holmes announced that he had purchased the store from the widow, just prior to her "moving out west". The unfortunate lady had (not surprisingly) left no forwarding address.

Two years later, he acquired a large lot across the street from the drug store and began construction on an enormous edifice that he planned to operate as a hotel for the upcoming Columbian Exposition in 1893. There are no records to say what Holmes decided to call this building but for generations of police officers, crime enthusiasts and unnerved residents of Englewood, it was known simply by one name -- "The Murder Castle".

Henry H. Holmes, whose real name was Herman W. Mudgett, was born in 1860 in Gilmanton, New Hampshire, where his father was a wealthy and respected citizen and had been the local postmaster for nearly 25 years. Early in life, Mudgett dropped his given name and became known as H.H. Holmes, a name under which he attended medical school and began his career in crime. He was constantly in trouble as a boy and young man and in later years was remembered for his cruelty to animals and smaller children. His only redeeming trait was that he was always an excellent student and did well in school.

In 1878, Holmes married Clara Lovering, the daughter of a prosperous farmer in London, New Hampshire and that same year, began studying medicine at a small college in Burlington, Vermont. He paid his tuition with a tidy legacy that had been inherited by his wife. Even as a student though, Holmes began to dabble in debauchery. In 1879, he transferred to the medical school of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor while there, devised a method of stealing cadavers from the laboratory. He would then disfigure the corpses and plant them in places where it would look as though they had been killed in accidents. Conveniently, Holmes had already taken out insurance policies on these "family members" and he would collect on them as soon as the bodies were discovered.

A few months after he completed his most daring swindle, insuring a corpse for $12,500 and carrying out the plan with an accomplice who would later become a prominent doctor in New York, he left Ann Arbor and abandoned his wife and infant son. Clara returned to New Hampshire and never saw her husband again.

After that, Holmes dropped out of sight for six years. What became of him during most of this period is unknown and later on, even Pinkerton detectives were unable to learn much about his activities in these years, although they did come across traces of his trail in several cities and states. For a year or so, he was engaged in a legitimate business in St. Paul and so gained the respect of the community that he was appointed the receiver of a bankrupt store. He immediately stocked the place with goods, sold them at low prices and then vanished with the proceeds. From St. Paul, he went to New York and taught school for a time in Clinton County, boarding at the home of a farmer near the village of Moore’s Forks. He seduced the farmer’s wife and then disappeared one night, leaving an unpaid bill and a pregnant landlady.

In 1885, Holmes turned up in Chicago and opened an office (he was posing as an inventor) in the North Shore suburb of Wilmette. Upon his re-appearance, Holmes filed for divorce from Clara, Lovering but the proceedings were unsuccessful and the case dragged on until 1891. This did not stop him from marrying another woman however, Myrtle Z. Belknap, who father, John Belknap, was a wealthy businessman in Wilmette. Although the marriage did produce a daughter, it was nevertheless a strange one. Myrtle remained living in Wilmette while Holmes began living in Chicago. John Belknap would later discover that Holmes had tried to cheat him out of property by forging his name on deeds. He would also claim that Holmes had tried to poison him when he was confronted about the fraudulent papers. Myrtle ended the marriage in 1889.

Stories claim that the house in Wilmette where Myrtle lived is haunted today. One has to wonder if the spirit who walks here is that of John Belknap or Myrtle herself. It’s possible that her unhappy marriage, and horror as the later crimes of her husband were revealed, has caused her to linger behind.



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