Today, H. H. Holmes lives on in infamy as "America's First Serial Killer," but stories claiming he murdered as many as 200 may not be completely true.
While awaiting trial in Philadelphia in 1895, serial killer H. H. Holmes wrote, “I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing.” To this day, Holmes is known as one of American history’s first serial killers, and perhaps its deadliest, with some accounts claiming that he killed up to 200 people across the United States in the 1880s and ’90s.
But perhaps even more than his reported number of victims, it was his devilish methods that sealed his place in history. During the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, Holmes allegedly constructed a “Murder Castle” so that he could lure some of the fair’s 27 million visitors into his lair, where he purportedly tortured them, killed them, and burned their bodies in his basement kiln.
Equipped with mazes, hallways to nowhere, soundproof rooms, and homemade gas chambers, Holmes supposedly played disturbing games of cat-and-mouse with his victims before butchering them.
By the time he was finally caught in 1894, Holmes had reportedly killed somewhere between 20 and 200 people. Details of his crimes filled newspapers across the country and Holmes and his “Murder Castle” were forever cemented into the grisliest annals of true crime lore. Even more than a century later, in 2003, these ghastly crimes inspired author Erik Larson’s popular account of Holmes and the World’s Fair called The Devil in the White City. Some have even speculated that Holmes was Jack the Ripper, operating in the United States after evading police back in England.
But the truth behind H. H. Holmes’ life and crimes remains difficult to decipher. Though he certainly scammed and murdered people, Holmes may have taken fewer than 10 victims — not 20 and definitely not 200. And his “Murder Castle,” described in salacious detail in books like Larson’s as well as contemporaneous newspaper accounts, may not have been as replete with trap doors, secret passageways, torture devices, and acid baths as some have previously suggested.
Still, there’s no doubt that H. H. Holmes was an especially sly and sinister killer. Charming and charismatic, he naturally drew people in — only to betray or kill them, whether they were men, women, or children.
In the end, however, though H. H. Holmes may not have murdered 200 people, he certainly did more than enough to make his haunting claim that he was born with the devil inside him ring all too chillingly true.
Dig deeper into the grisly story of H. H. Holmes.