On the surface Herman Webster Mudgett seemed to be a productive member of society. Born and raised in the small state of New Hampshire, Herman turned his fascination with the human body into a career when he graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School in 1884. Wealthy, well-educated and refined, the young doctor moved to Chicago where he became the owner of a drugstore, and eventually opened a hotel. Women were drawn to the handsome, finely-dressed and charismatic businessman.
He was a total lady-killer.
The 60-room hotel loomed over the Englewood suburb of Chicago, opening its doors shortly before the 1893 World’s Fair. Beneath the cover of a successful entrepreneur, Herman Webster Mudgett – better known as H.H. Holmes – designed the hotel with one thing in mind: murder. During construction, Holmes used several different contractors so that none of them would catch on to his monstrous plans. The hotel, or “Murder Castle,” came complete with stairways to nowhere, windowless rooms fitted with gas lines and body chutes used to drop his sedated victims down to the basement level.
Once in the underbelly of the castle, victims were subjected to real-life horrors that would make Dexter’s “Dark Passenger” sit up and take notice. The basement came complete with vats of acid, lime pits, an oven and a surgical table. It was here that Dr. H.H. Holmes, the living-breathing monster – worse than anything Hollywood could ever imagine – dissected his victims, selling their organs and skeletons to medical schools across the country.
Located just two miles away from the World’s Fair, H.H. Holmes had a steady flow of female victims to choose from and many times he profited off of more than just their bodies. It was while studying at the University of Michigan Medical School that he also became proficient in the art of insurance fraud. Holmes would regularly steal cadavers from the school, taking insurance policies out on the deceased. He would then disfigure the bodies to claim they had been killed in an accident so he could collect on the insurance. Later, with his living victims, Holmes would befriend and manipulate them into signing over power of attorney. Shortly after, the trusting victims would wake to find themselves in the basement of Holmes’ castle.
Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, America’s first serial killer, was eventually caught and hanged for his crimes on May 7, 1896, at Moyamensing prison in Philadelphia. Convicted of murder, he admitted to killing 27 people, but was believed to be guilty of up to 200 murders. Holmes was laid to rest in an unmarked grave, encased in 10 feet of cement at nearby Holy Cross Cemetery. After months of dominating newspaper headlines and redefining the nightmares of their readers, Herman Webster Mudgett was left to be forgotten.
Although H.H. Holmes has been dead and buried for over a century, his genes live on. At the end of his life, he was married to three different women and had an unknown number of mistresses and children.
When we set out looking to uncover the history of our families, most are excited and motivated by the thought of finding connections to war heroes, presidents, the Mayflower or even royalty. However, what we don’t consider is the fact we may unearth skeletons our family has been trying to keep hidden for generations.
This was the reality for Jeff Mudgett, author of “Bloodstains” and second great-grandson of Herman Webster Mudgett. At the age of 40, Jeff learned of the monster he descends from, and it left him questioning everything he thought he knew about himself and his family. The new information forever changed him, propelling him down a new path in search of the truth.
However, diving into Holmes’ life only led him down a darker path; a path that could potentially solve the mystery of Jack the Ripper. In 2006, using 13 eyewitness accounts from 1888, Scotland Yard and the BBC had a computer composite made of the Ripper, and the similarities to Holmes are shocking. Along with the composite, Jeff had H.H. Holmes’ handwriting compared to the infamous Jack the Ripper letter. One expert, recommended by the British Library, concluded both were written by the “same hand,” while a computer program used by the Postal Service and Department of Justice stated it was a 97.95% match.
Jeff is currently investigating whether Holmes was in London during the Ripper, but in the mean time, the composite and handwriting samples can be viewed on his site at www.bloodstainsthebook.com. Could these two men be the same monster? Judge for yourself.
If you were faced with the reality of descending from a man like Holmes, how would you handle the information? Would you share it with your family or throw the skeleton back into the closet you found it in? History holds just as many villains as it does heroes, so would you have the guts to claim yours as publicly as Jeff has in his book?
If you want to learn more about H.H. Holmes, and hear how his descendants have coped with this, check out my new video blog “Claiming Your Villain” where Jeff Mudgett helps me tackle a question I often receive: “Are some family secrets better off forgotten?” He will also share how he’s grown from this experience, and gives others advice on how to handle their own dark discoveries.
Watch the interview with Jeff here:
By Kris Williams