5 Exceedingly Grim Facts About America's First Serial Killer

Hello, local medical school? I have a corpse to sell you, no questions please.
5 Exceedingly Grim Facts About America's First Serial Killer

The concept of “evil” has existed as long as there’s been a human brain and consciousness able to be grimly miswired. These days, through the advances of psychiatry and through the study of the criminal brain, from fraudsters to murderers, the traits that lead to “evil people” is much more scientifically understood. Now, which is more terrifying: blaming evil behavior on an amorphous influence from down below, or knowing that the mental capacity for empathy is the only preventative from human greed and ambition fully running amok? That’s up to you.

One such figurehead of good old fashioned evil in the history of America is the man some call “America’s first serial killer,” H. H. Holmes. Though in both his time and ours, his notoriety and legend has grown in ways both accurate and sensationalist in a way that would no doubt curl his impressive mustache upwards, the facts are straightforward: as Norm MacDonald would say, the guy was a real jerk.

Like some sort of murderous Gaston, tales of his murderous prowess have inflated to cartoonish proportions, with claims of over 200 victims and construction of a “murder castle” disguised as a hotel that was basically a blood-soaked version of the board game Mousetrap. Historians push back on many of these claims, attributing in part to “yellow journalism”, the practice of making up sensationalist headlines and news to garner readership, something that definitely only happened back then and not now. But even cutting through the chaff, even the accepted facts of H. H. Holmes’ crimes are plenty grisly. 

Here’s 5 facts about H. H. Holmes.

He Claimed 27 Victims

Public Domain

Article on Holmes' confession.

Even Holmes himself didn’t come close to claiming the outlandish 200 bodies often attributed to him. He confessed that he had killed 27 people… but even that number’s drawn into heavy doubt by historians. You see, that number rings a little false for two reasons. First of all, Holmes was not only a serial murderer but a consistent and fantastic liar, as proficient in fraud as he was in murder. Secondly, some of the people he claimed he’d killed turned out to be, well, not dead. So, barring a rash of sudden messiahs around the late 1800s, Holmes was probably trying to pad his numbers.

The agreed upon, mostly verifiable number of victims of Holmes is 9, with possibility for more.

He Loved The Attention

Library Of Congress

Title page of Holmes' autobiography.

Another reason not to take Holmes’ claims at face value is that he truly enjoyed the spotlight, even if it happened to be aimed at a gallows. In fact, after his arrest, and before his hanging, he pioneered the future, morally icky trend of other infamous criminals: that of writing his own autobiography. After his hanging, of course, it would have been much more difficult for him to write. Autobiographies by serial killers are now their own grim genre, and Holmes’ own, titled Holmes’ Own Story, can still be read as preserved by the Library of Congress.

He Killed His Business Partner And His Children

Public Domain

Benjamin Pitezel.

Now, don’t let the disputes over Holmes’ claims and records of his murders fool you into thinking he was maybe just a patsy desperate for a national spotlight at any cost. Though the volume of his verifiable crimes may be smaller than commonly spouted, they’re squarely in the realm of the macabre. Many of his murders were motivated by money, especially for the purpose of collecting life insurance on the victims, a detail that certainly doesn’t shed a favorable light on the police force of the time. A bunch of murder victims popping up, all with life insurance policies linked to the same guy, doesn’t exactly sound like the recipe for a cold case.

One such victim was his business partner, Benjamin Pitezel. Again, I don’t know if the police in the late 1800s were too busy frogmarching minorities to connect two dots, but he almost got away with this. More horrifically, in an attempt to cover up this murder, Holmes also kidnapped and eventually murdered all three of Pitezel’s children. His two daughters were found asphyxiated, assumed to be from locked in a large trunk that was filled with gas, while charred remains of the son were found elsewhere.

He Felt Killing Was His Calling

Public Domain

Holmes' second greatest crime? That TIE!

One of Holmes’ most morbidly memorable quotes was: “I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than a poet can help the inspiration to sing.” Now, an important distinction between Holmes and other major serial killers, to the point where some question his classification, is that Holmes seems to have killed his victims purely for financial and personal gain, rather than out of a sexual or mental compulsion. This quote of his suggests that he at least in some manner enjoyed it, but as we’ve previously covered, the guy was as much a showman as scum, and would say just about anything to increase his legend.

He Sold Victims’ Bodies To Medical Schools

Public Domain

Detective Frank Geyer, who eventually figured out that corpse salesman might be suspicious.

Perhaps the most chilling evidence of Holmes’ calculated and nonchalant approach to the murder of other human souls was one of his chosen methods of body disposal: charity. One of his suspected first victims was a woman named Julia Conner. She was married to a man who worked for Holmes, and stood a staggering near six feet tall. Right around the time Julia disappeared, Holmes reportedly paid a man to flay an unusually tall, female corpse and convert it into an articulated skeleton for medical school use. That was probably just like, a really tall old woman who died happily in her sleep surrounded by loved ones, right? Again, when there’s a rash of disappearances, how is no one interviewing “the guy who has suddenly come into a wealth of corpses”?

I hope reading these facts about H. H. Holmes has given you two things: perspective on one of America’s first serial killers, and an understanding of how easy it was to murder people for a very long time. I mean, this makes Elliott Stabler look like Sherlock Holmes.

Top Image: Public Domain/Public Domain

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