In 1892, Dr H.H. Holmes opened his own hotel...and started killing his customers.


The United States of America had something special to celebrate in 1892. It had been 400 years since Columbus’s arrival. And to mark the occasion, a World Fair was to be held in Chicago.

Enterprising businessmen saw their opportunity, and hotels sprung up around the city.

But one of the hotels, known as the Castle, wasn’t like the rest.

Guests were perplexed by the Castle’s confusing maze of corridors and staircases leading nowhere, its low ceilings, windowless rooms, and false floors.

What the guests didn’t see were the peepholes, the gas pipes, the trap doors, and the torture chambers.

The Castle had been built by Dr Henry Howard Holmes with one thing in mind – the torture and murder of its guests.

The Castle Hotel (Photo: PA Photos)

Dr H.H. Holmes was born in 1861 to a well-off family in New Hampshire. But his was not a happy childhood. His father drank and his mother, a strict and religious woman, enjoyed reading the more colourful passages of the Bible to her young son…to scare him.

Fear played a large part in his life. It made him a quiet, nervous boy.

And while at school, bullies made him touch the human skeleton on the premises for study purposes.

Like his mum, Henry’s bullies wanted to frighten him.

It’s possible Henry tried to gain control of his fear by turning it into fascination.

Before long, he was obsessed with skeletons.

It was an obsession that led him to enrol for medical school.

The young man couldn’t get enough of the dead bodies used for medical teaching and research. He enjoyed spending time with them.

Soon, he’d started stealing them.

Because those dead bodies represented a business opportunity.

Henry would take out life insurances using the dead body’s name. Then, he’d disfigure the dead body, say the person had been killed in an accident, and claim on the insurance policy.

An entrepreneur of the dead. A man who enjoyed exploiting the defenceless.

And a man who enjoyed money.

Money would seem to be a driving force in the Henry’s life over the next years. He married. And married twice more again without bothering to divorce any of his wives.

Perhaps he felt comfortable with polygamy because of the many examples of it in the Bible stories read to him as a child by his mum.

He got a job in a drugstore. But once the store’s owner, Dr Holton, had died of cancer, the Dr was able to charm his way into letting his widow sell the business to him.

She agreed. And Dr H.H. Holmes bought the store by fraudulently mortgaging its stock and fixtures.

Shortly afterwards, Mrs. Holton disappeared mysteriously…

Owning the drugstore meant Dr Holmes could finance his next project, the Castle Hotel.

Built at his own specifications, and in time for the World Fair in Chicago, 1892, the exact layout of the Castle was known only to Dr Holmes.

It contained 100 windowless rooms, false doorways, and stairways that led to nowhere.

And then, as the World Fair bustled around him, Dr Holmes set himself to murder.

A contemporary illustration showing the Chicago World Fair (Photo: REX/Shutterstock)

But experts have suggested Holmes didn’t see this it murder. For him, it was more like a business production line.

His victims were mostly women. Some were guests at the Castle, others were employed there.

He’d use the hotel’s network of gas pipes to asphyxiate his victims. They’d suffocate in the windowless rooms.

It’s not known how many he killed. He confessed to 27 murders, but he may have been responsible for as many as 200.

The bodies of his victims were stripped of flesh, their skeletons sold to medical departments at schools and universities.

Business boomed. Dr H.H. Holmes was a murderer making money.

At the close of the World Fair, he left Chicago and travelled across the US. He continued his criminal money-making schemes, and may have murdered two rich heiresses in Texas.

Soon, though, he had come up with a new plan. Somehow, he managed to persuade his long-term associate, Benjamin Pitezel, to take out a life insurance policy and then to fake his own death.

Dr Holmes assured Pitezel he would find another man’s corpse to stand in for his…but the Dr had no intention of letting Pitezel live.

He killed him. And once his wife had claimed on the insurance policy, he killed her, too, along with her children Alice, Nellie and Howard.

He used drugs on his victims, and chopped up their bodies before burning them.

Finally, in 1894, Dr Henry Howard Holmes was arrested. At first, he was suspected of theft, but closer investigations by the police revealed the grisly truth.

The following year, having confessed to 27 murders, the Dr went on trial for the murder of Benjamin Pitezel.

During the trial, he told the court he’d been possessed by Satan.

His death sentence was carried out by hanging in May 1896.

Dr H.H. Holmes refused to show any signs of fear or regret, even as the noose was fastened around his neck.

The man who had made murder his business was dead.