The period from 1970 until the late 1990s is popularly known as the “Golden Age” of serial killers in the United States. Not only were serial killers most active during this time period (including some of the most infamous ones, like Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer), but the term itself only entered the popular lexicon in the early 1980s. So it makes sense that many people think serial killers are a much more recent phenomenon than they actually are.
It’s widely accepted that America’s very first serial killer was H.H. Holmes, who was rumored to be active from as early as 1891 until he was hanged in 1896. While Holmes was convicted—and executed—for the murder of one man, the true number of victims ranged wildly from the 200 that tabloids claimed to the 27 that he confessed to.
Holmes’ fascination with death and the macabre began very early in his life and what led him to eventually study medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School. While in school, however, Holmes seemed less interested in pursuing a career as a doctor and more interested in executing scams as a con artist. He would find the records of the cadavers that the school acquired for study and take out life insurance policies on them. Then he stole the cadavers from the school and defiled them in ways that made their deaths look like accidents. After the bodies were found, he would collect the money on their life insurance policies. He also stole bodies from his school and sold them to other schools.
When he graduated and passed his medical exams, Holmes skipped town and left behind his wife and child to move to Chicago, where he worked for a pharmacy. The owner of the pharmacy passed away shortly after his arrival, and Holmes managed to convince the widow to sell him the store. While it’s rumored that she was never heard from again once Holmes took over the pharmacy, it’s unclear if Holmes had anything to do with her disappearance, or if she even truly disappeared at all.
It was in Chicago that many of the rumors and sensationalized reports around Holmes began. Along with taking over the pharmacy, Holmes also purchased a plot of land across the street and began to construct a two-story building, with the first floor intended for retail and the second floor intended for apartments. He later added a third floor that he used as a hotel, which became the centerpiece of his story over the years. The entire process of construction was shady. Holmes hired and fired many different construction crews, obscured the purpose of the building, and cheated creditors to buy all of the furnishings for the building. Because of his unclear intent and already troubling history of stealing and desecrating corpses, this building became known as the “Murder Castle.”
Sensationalized reports claimed the Murder Castle contained any number of horrible rooms, equipped with trap doors, gas chambers, and on-site crematoriums. Some even claimed the place was laid out like a maze and contained secret tunnels where Holmes would take the bodies to be disposed of discretely. Holmes reportedly put ads in the paper and welcomed in those looking for lodging as a way to lure in his next victims. He would then kill them with a myriad of different methods and sell their bodies or skeletons to medical schools. Some sources still take these tabloid claims as fact, but it is widely accepted that the so-called murder castle is entirely a work of fiction.
While it’s probably not true that Holmes had a murderous funhouse, he did commit a number of atrocities. His first probable victims were Julia and Pearl Conner, the wife and daughter of one of Holmes’ employees. Julia’s husband left when he found out she’d been having an affair with Holmes, and soon after, neither Julia nor Pearl were ever seen again. Holmes would later confess that Julia died while he performed an abortion on her, and he poisoned Pearl to cover up the failed procedure. There were a number of other possible victims that followed after Julia and Pearl, most of them young women who went to work for Holmes and shortly thereafter vanished.
The most notable murder, however, was the one that got Holmes finally caught and arrested. What started as one of his life insurance scams, soon went terribly awry. His long-time business partner, Benjamin Pitezel, had agreed to fake his own death so that his wife could collect the insurance money and then split it between them. However, Holmes decided to instead kill Pitezel in earnest, collect the payout, and lie to the wife. He convinced Pitezel’s wife that they all needed to flee town after the money was collected, and during this time he kidnapped and murdered three of the Pitezel children.
Finally, the police caught up with Holmes in Boston and arrested him for an unrelated crime, but it soon became apparent that he was planning to flee the country. Police grew suspicious and dug deeper into his insurance scams, eventually uncovering the murder of Pitezel and arresting him. While the bodies of the Pitezel children were found and linked to Holmes later, he was convicted only for the murder of Benjamin. On May 7th, 1896, Holmes was hanged for his crimes and died a slow, painful death. It is unclear exactly how many people he murdered before his stint as America’s first serial killer came to an end.