As one of the most profound serial killers the US has ever seen, Herman Mudgett, better known as Dr. H.H. Holmes, baffled authorities when he confessed to dozens of murders after he was caught attempting to use one of his victims as part of an insurance scam. It would soon be learned that it had been at Holmes’ elaborate “castle” he had built in the heart of old Chicago that he had lured many World’s Fair visitors to their doom. Full of trap doors, sound proof secret rooms, a gas chamber, as well as a laboratory where Holmes would slice and dice his numerous victims, authorities had not nor have they since encountered such devious measures taken in order to murder innocent people. But what is truly baffling is how long Holmes was able to get away with his crimes.
As a doctor, having human remains in his possession was not inherently odd. Medical students and doctors often kept human remains for study and even today it is perfectly legal to own human remains, provided they are ethically sourced and the subject died of natural causes. In fact, Holmes had sold the remains of many of his victims to other doctors and medical schools. No one thought to question the origin of the materials.
The secret rooms in Holmes’ “murder castle” offered further protection from outsiders who may have stumbled upon the doctor’s macabre past-time. Holmes had been so clever at covering up his crimes that Chicago police had no idea any these murders had occurred until authorities in Philadelphia caught up with him in Boston while trying to pull off a half-baked insurance fraud scheme, which had netted Holmes at least three more victims.
Many of the claims surrounding Holmes have been exaggerated throughout the years. While Holmes confessed to dozens of murders at the time of his arrest, he also later proclaimed his innocence, leaving one to wonder just how many had been preyed upon by Dr. Holmes. Some believe that Holmes’ body count may have been closer to a couple hundred. Jack Mudgett, who is purported to be Holmes’ great-great-grandson, believes that Holmes may have, in fact, been Jack the Ripper, who had been responsible for the unsolved Whitechapel murders close to the same time Holmes had been operating his “murder castle” in Chicago.
Whatever dark secrets Holmes may have been hiding died with him in Philadelphia in 1896. He was hanged for the murder of one man and the suspected murder of two girls. As per Holmes’ request, his grave was encased in cement because he believed that grave robbers would steal his body, but some believe there had been another reason Holmes had requested his final resting place to be sealed from prying eyes.
Having made a life based on lies and swindles, relatives of Holmes believe that it isn’t the doctor who is buried in that grave and anyone who might get curious would have no way of identifying the body by simply looking inside. Some believe that someone else had hanged for Holmes’ crimes in 1896 and Holmes had escaped for South America. While there are a great deal of rumors surrounding Holmes that we would have no way of verifying, thanks to modern DNA evidence, relatives of Holmes are hoping they can at least put to rest this one mystery surrounding the murderous doctor.
The rumors of Holmes’ escape began to circulate in newspapers shortly after his execution. While news media had been notorious for making up headlines simply to sell more papers, it would be a rumor that refused to cease. According to claims from unidentified witnesses, officials were bribed by Holmes to substitute a cadaver during his hanging. When the casket left the prison grounds, Holmes had been inside and alive. From there, Holmes, who had grown a beard in order to disguise himself, made his escape, only to flee to South America where he lived out his years growing coffee beans.
These claims sound almost too incredible to be true but they were enough to persuade a Philadelphia judge to allow the excavation of Holmes’ grave after a petition was made by the confirmed great-grandchildren of Holmes. As of early May 2017, the grave of Holmes has begun excavation. The remains will then be sent to a lab for DNA testing. As part of the order, if the remains are confirmed as Holmes’ then they will be returned to their rightful resting place. However, if testing confirms that the remains do not belong to Holmes then a new marker will have to be purchased and the correct name will be placed on the grave.
Will these tests confirm that history had it wrong all this time or have we been duped by decades-old tabloid headlines? It would seem that we will learn the answer to this question within the coming months.
If you would like to learn more about H.H. Holmes then check out Sword and Scale Episode 30.