By Chelsea Brotherton
The excitement was palpable as Illinois residents and international travelers journeyed to Chicago for the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. Also known as the Chicago World’s Fair, the massive celebration was intended to honor the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s journey across the Atlantic Ocean. It was an exhilarating time, but darkness also lurked on Chicago’s streets.
H.H. Holmes, born Herman Webster Mudgett, was on the run from authorities for his get-rich-quick schemes and polygamy when he moved to Chicago in 1885. His schemes eventually brought him to the Englewood neighborhood, where he began construction on a building on the corner of South Wallace Avenue and West 63rd Street. Holmes frequently fired workmen and hired new crews to take their place. In this haphazard fashion, the maze of secret passageways, doors to nowhere, and soundproof rooms that eventually came to be known as the “Murder Castle” took shape.
“O, what a queer house it was! In all America there was none other like it. Its chimneys stuck out where chimneys should never stick out. Its stairways ended nowhere in particular,” the Chicago Tribune wrote of the structure, in 1937. “Winding passages brought the uninitiated with a frightful jerk back to where they had started from. There were rooms that had no doors. There were doors that had no rooms. A mysterious house it was indeed—a crooked house, a reflex of the builder’s own distorted mind. In that house occurred dark and eerie deeds.”
The construction, completed in 1892, was explained by Holmes as a hotel venture to accommodate visitors to the Chicago World’s Fair. The celebration served as the perfect smokescreen to hide Holmes’s grotesque murders. He lured numerous victims to their deaths and, afterwards, made a profit by selling their remains to medical institutions for study.
Holmes was eventually captured and convicted for the murder of his one-time friend and business associate, Benjamin Pitezel, in 1895. Holmes confessed to murdering a total of 27 people before his execution, but modern experts estimate that number to be nine. Throughout his time in prison, he made inconsistent statements and told outlandish stories, including that he suffered from demonic possession. “I was born with the very devil in me,” Holmes said in a confession published in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Holmes was hanged on May 7, 1896.
In 1938, his infamous “Murder Castle” was demolished and rebuilt as a post office. Today’s true crime aficionados can buy postage stamps and mail letters from this notorious location.
Codes that could be used to describe injuries suffered by the unluckiest victims include:
- Asphyxiation due to mechanical threat to breathing—T71.1
- Assault by knife—X99.1XXA
- Assault by strike against or bumped into by another person—Y04.2XXA
- Unspecified fracture of skull—S02.91
H.H. Holmes’s terrifying crimes were chronicled in the best seller Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson, published in 2004. The book also offers architecture and history buffs a detailed account of the machinations of the fair’s biggest players including architect Daniel Burnham and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, as well as Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse competing to light the fairgrounds with their cutting-edge technologies. There are a number of different Devil in the White City—themed tours offered by different operators in Chicago, which are particularly popular around Halloween. The Chicago Architecture Center and the Chicago History Museum both offer tours:
- Chicago History Museum: https://www.chicagohistory.org/event/devil-in-the-white-city-bus-tour-5/
- Chicago Architecture Center: https://www.architecture.org/tours/detail/devil-in-the-white-city-2/