Article — From the December 1943 issue

The Master of the Murder Castle

A classic of Chicago crime

( 2 of 5 )

II
 

His true name, it appears, was Herman W. Mudgett. In his home town of Gilmanton, New Hampshire, he was considered a bright lad. Before he was twenty-one he married the daughter of a well-to-do New Hampshire family and she helped to educate him. He studied in Vermont and at the medical school of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Here began his lifelong preoccupation with cadavers.

He was a brilliant but erratic student. Perhaps this was due to his extra-curricular activities. On the night a body disappeared while being taken to the college dissecting room a resident of Ann Arbor “died” after a brief illness. Holmes collected insurance. Thus he established a pattern for himself. Not long after, he left school. His wife and child returned to New Hampshire; they did not see him again until more than ten years later, when he reappeared, a fugitive. Shortly after abandoning his wife he arranged for her to hear, in a highly roundabout manner, that his memory had been impaired in a train wreck. This was characteristic of the man: he could not simply desert his family; he must erect a complicated structure of improbable lies to explain matters.

After dabbling briefly in petty fraud and an unsuccessful attempt to swindle an insurance company of $20,000 with another planted body, the young criminal turned up in Chicago about 1885 as H. H. Holmes. He married bigamously the daughter of a well-to-do family of Wilmette, a wealthy suburb north of Chicago. Here he set another pattern for himself: the pyramiding of fraud upon credit. The details varied but the main outlines of the scheme remained the same wherever Holmes worked it subsequently. He would borrow, with worthless notes and smooth talk, enough money to buy a lot. To repay the original loan, he would borrow on the lot. He would build a house in highly frenetic fashion, discharging workmen wrathfully, threatening suit against subcontractors, cajoling those he could not frighten, stalling, always stalling the payroll. As soon as the roof was on he would order huge quantities of furniture and other merchandise–on credit of course. He would sell the furniture to pay off the clamoring workmen and the loan on the lot. By the time the furniture company got round to repossessing its property the furniture was gone and so was Holmes; or else he had devised some new swindle which raised enough cash to pay off the furniture company and was now embarked on a fresh scheme to get money to appease his latest victim. And so on.

Withal he found time to father three children and establish himself in the Wilmette house as a solid citizen. His wife of course knew nothing of his many activities, which were rapidly becoming more numerous and more mysterious. How he explained to her his long absences is not recorded, but the task, intimidating to lesser men, probably was relatively simple for a man of his agile imagination.

Before he had been long in Chicago he failed in probably the only honest business he ever attempted to conduct. He was president of the A.B.C. Copier Company, a concern producing an excellent device for copying documents. (Holmes appears in the role of “copier” every now and then.) He even went so far as to pay his typewriter–as stenographers then were called. (He seduced, mulcted, and murdered subsequent typewriters instead of paying them.) When the business failed Holmes gave up his office, leaving behind an assortment of creditors and taking with him fifty gallons of glycerine which did not belong to him. Later it was hinted that he intended to prepare nitroglycerine with the loot and perhaps did so.

Holmes now transferred his activities to the Englewood district of Chicago, centering on 63d Street; here he was to achieve lasting fame. He began humbly, working as a clerk in a drugstore at 63d and Wallace Streets. Before long he had bought out or driven out the proprietress, and in 1892 he built on the opposite corner the enormous, improbable structure later to be known as his murder castle. It was more than a hundred and fifty feet long and fifty feet wide, huge and ugly, with three storeys and a basement. The first floor was cut up into stores, including a drugstore on the corner which Holmes operated until crime became a full-time job for him. The third floor consisted of apartments. On the second floor and in the cellar were the horror chambers, as we shall see.

Holmes ostensibly built the place as a hotel to accommodate visitors to the great Fair of 1893. It was months a-building; sometimes the work progressed with frantic haste; sometimes it languished. Its progress was an index to the success of the swindler’s money-raising schemes.

And he was exceedingly active throughout Englewood, which was, and is today, a thriving, self-contained community on Chicago’s South Side. Here Holmes marketed a sure-fire cure for alcoholism, crusading with great zeal against the evil of drink. He opened a restaurant and sold it before the outfitting company could repossess the fixtures. When, after banking hours, a citizen came to the drugstore to get large bills for $178 in small change, Holmes gave him a worthless personal check and stalled him off successfully for two years. He sold his drugstore by misrepresenting the volume of business; to substantiate his claims he hired various persons to stream into the store and make expensive purchases. He bought a large safe, moved it into a small room of the castle, narrowed the size of the room’s door, refused to pay for the safe, and invited the owner to repossess it but warned him not to mar the house.

Having “invented” a machine which made illuminating gas out of water, he demonstrated it successfully to an expert who could not discover in the Rube Goldberg maze of pipes, pulleys, wires, and other gadgets the one pipe which tapped the gas company’s mains; aided by the expert’s endorsement, Holmes sold his “invention,” which looked like a washing machine on stilts, to a Canadian for $2,000. When the invention was removed from the basement a hole remained; presently Holmes announced that he had discovered in it a miraculous mineral spring; he piped the healing potion upstairs to his drugstore and retailed it successfully at five cents per glass until the water company threatened to prosecute him for tampering with its mains. (It was not long before the hole in the cellar floor was enlarged to accommodate a quicklime pit.)

Perhaps his most spectacular swindle during this period involved the furnishings of the castle. He bought truckloads of furniture, crockery, mattresses, bedsprings, hardware, and gas fixtures (a sinister item, it turned out). All this was delivered to the castle on 63d Street. The Tobey Furniture Company, unpaid a week later, became anxious and dispatched an agent to watch the house, then demanded payment. Holmes’s usual tactics of cajolery failed, and the company sent vans and brawny moving men to repossess its property. They found the house empty. Yet the company’s own agent swore that no furniture had been taken out and, indisputably, it had been taken in. The castle had swallowed the furniture as, later, it would swallow human beings.

A janitor at the castle gave the game away for a $25 bribe. Holmes had moved all the furniture into one room, taken out the door frame, bricked up the door, and papered the wall. (The porter offered further disclosures for another $25 but was ignored; it was a narrow escape for Holmes.) In a space between the top floor and the roof the angry searchers found the missing crockery; one of them put his foot through the ceiling and Holmes sued his company for $75. The suit was thrown out of court. It never has been established whether Holmes, when he built blind rooms and secret passageways into his castle, contemplated murder or merely simple swindles such as this concealment of merchandise. He was not prosecuted by these creditors. But his unsuccessful attempt to cheat them contributed ultimately to his downfall.

During all this time he still was maintaining a home with his wife in Wilmette. (Indeed, his mother-in-law was at one time listed as owner of the castle; its ownership changed constantly and included at least one mythical personage and a company incorporated by five men, of whom two were phantoms.) His Wilmette wife however probably never lived at the castle, and when neighbors spoke of his jealous wife who lived there with him they must have meant Mrs. Julia Conner, who is believed to have been the first woman Holmes murdered. Whoever this jealous one was, she sometimes slipped downstairs when she heard a female voice overlong in the drugstore; to thwart her, Holmes removed the third step on the stairs and installed an electric buzzer that warned him of her approach. The success of this device may have inspired him to develop the singular system of alarms which later betrayed the attempted flight from the castle of any of his prisoners. Mrs. Conner, her husband, and their eight-year-old child came to Chicago about 1890 and the couple found employment in the drugstore which Holmes was engaged in buying or stealing from its proprietor. Mrs. Conner, a good-looking woman, became Holmes’s mistress; when he built his castle she and her daughter moved into it with him, and her husband departed.

During this period Holmes went briefly to Texas where he allegedly stole a horse and indisputably met a young woman named Minnie Williams who later was to play an important part in his career. Also during this period he met in Chicago Benjamin F. Pitzel, an ineffectual man with larceny in his heart, for whose murder Holmes one day would hang. It is known that they lived together for a time, that in 1892 Holmes bailed Pitzel out of a Terre Haute jail where he was held on a bad-check charge, that some of their belongings were intermingled. Whether the two men actually worked together as partners in fraud prior to the insurance swindle which ended in Pitzel’s death is unknown, but probable.

More from John Bartlow Martin:

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