America's First Serial Killer Designed a Murder Castle.
A footprint etched in acid helped catch a killer who admitted to being Jack the Ripper.
HH Holmes was America’s first serial killer, in the late 1800s. More famously he is known for designing and building a murder castle where he killed many women. Although he confessed to a kill score of twenty-seven people, it is thought he could have killed as many as two hundred. It has also been suggested that he might be responsible for the Jack the Ripper killings.
Many believe if it had not been for the fraud he committed, he would never have been caught. The information about Holmes is vague. The judge at the time refused to hear the information of all the victims. This meant that many of the facts were not committed to record, and became lost. Even less is known about his victims. Many of them were not identified. Did the women simply go missing or were they murdered?
Holmes was always fascinated with death. As a young child, he would mutilate animals and corpses. In 1884 he married his first wife and was violent towards her. He had various jobs throughout the country and would always move about. In 1886 he would marry his second wife, Marta Belknap, never having divorced his first.
His early moves were a result of unexplained deaths, occurring in close vicinity to where he lived. He had several professions including an early attempt at becoming a doctor.
As he got older this fascination developed into murdering women. It was clear his sadistic tendencies were evolving.
Holmes evaded capture because there were never any bodies. He stripped the bodies on death. With the help of a professional, he turned the skeletons into resources for the local medical hospitals. It is possible that in a dusty cupboard sits a skeleton of a Holmes victim.
Through a clever system of property purchases and using a range of contractors, Holmes turned his hotel into a murder castle. In a scene that would be at home in a horror film. Henry Howard Holmes as he became known, would trap and murder women looking for shelter in Chicago.
During construction, Homes would use cons and misdirection with contractors. They never realised what they were building. He would constantly be hiring and firing crews. The architectural plans were kept in only his possession. He released small portions, as needed to specific contractors. None of these ever received the full picture, so suspicion was never raised.
When finished Holmes could pass through the house unseen. He could lock doors from the outside and control dangerous gas chambers from his closet. The elaborate system of mazes, trap doors and gas chambers meant Holmes could move anywhere in the hotel, unobserved. Using these passageways he could move undetected to murder his victims. The hotel had vaults, chambers and acid pits built into some of the rooms. The human-size furnace in the basement was used to dispose of the bodies without a trace, it was this furnace that would lead to his downfall when he seduced a lady called Emeline Cigrand
Cigrand and Pitezel
Cigrand was born in 1868 in Lafayette, Tippecanoe, Indiana it is thought she was murdered in December 1892. She was discovered by Benjamin Pitezel who was a companion of Holmes and ultimately one of his last victims.
Pitezel was a known alcoholic, during his work with Holmes he was sent to Dwight, Illinois for alcoholism treatment. At the time, a doctor was stating that they had an elixir that would cure him. It is unclear whether he was sent there for the cure or to steal the idea for Holmes. Months later Holmes did produce his own cure for alcoholism.
Whilst there Pitezel met Cigrand, as she was the personal assistant to the doctor. He returned to Holmes with tales of how beautiful this young woman was and how she dazzled. Holmes knew he had to have her for himself.
Cigrand and Holmes
Holmes wrote to Cigrand offering her a job as his private secretary and stenographer. To lure her he offered her twice her salary. She accepted, the pay was favourable and she had long wanted to live in the glamour and excitement of Chicago.
As soon as she arrived, Holmes started to court her. He used his soothing voice, amazing blue eyes and gentle touch to enchant her. It was said that he brought her flowers and expensive gifts including a bicycle, at the time a new invention. Frequently they were observed riding together through Chicago.
Despite several people warning Cigrand about Holmes, it was no good. When his creditors came to his office, Holmes always had a tale to ease her mind. Often he told her that people were jealous of his success.
When Holmes started renting his apartments out in 1892, Dr Lawrence and his wife moved in. They became friends with Cigrand.
She was one of the prettiest and most pleasant young women I ever met. — Dr Lawrence
It was clear to see that Cigrand was infatuated with Holmes who had now convinced her that he was the son of a British Lord.
Throughout her time with Holmes, Cigrand wrote often to her family about the amazing man she had met and how wonderful her life in Chicago was. When the family visited, although, they had concerns about the design of the ‘Murder Castle’ they failed to convince Cigrand.
After one visit, where one of her cousins questioned the dead space in the apartments, describing the space as a corner in a room where the light doesn’t quite reach, Holmes proposed.
Everything seemed to be progressing well with the young couple. Until in December 1882 when Cigrand visited the Lawrences with a handmaid gift. Mrs Lawrence commented that she could have left such a present until Christmas. Cigrand explained she was going home to Indiana for Christmas. She implied this would be a final move and that she was not returning.
It is impossible to know what had changed her opinion on Holmes. Could he have stolen the £800 savings she had arrived with or had his mask slipped?
The Lawrences never saw her again. She never said goodbye for her trip and vanished. Mrs Lawrence asked Holmes several times where she was, he always had a different explanation. Finally, he told her that Cigrand had married Robert Phelps. He even went as far as forging the wedding notices and delivering them to some of her family and friends.
Holmes had committed several cases of fraud and insurance theft. In 1894 he was pursued on a charge of arson. He left Chicago. His next location was Fort Worth. Here he inherited property and started to build his second murder castle.
Holmes constructed a plan where Pitezel would fake his murder for the insurance money.
Instead of faking Pitezel’s death, Holmes murdered him. He then blackmailed his wife to allow him to travel with three of their children, two girls and a boy.
Following the children’s disappearance, a police detective Frank Geyer was assigned to find them. Geyer followed the movements of Holmes, where he discovered the bodies of two girls in a cellar. Following the path further, he found the remains of a boy in a cottage Holmes had rented.
Holmes was arrested and claimed several murders within the hotel. The mystery into Cigrand also started to unravel. What was unknown at the time of her death was that Phelps was a well-known alias that Pitezel had used in the past. This became evident as the police searched for evidence.
On the first inspection of the ‘Murder Castle,’ police found a large kiln in the basement. When they opened the door they found a ladies footprint etched on the vault door. It was thought, this was the footprint of Cigrand, which she had made trying to kick her way out of the tomb. Even stranger was the fact the footprint was etched into the door and could not be removed.
The best guess, that scientists have, for the footprint is that Holmes lured the woman into the vault shoeless. As she walked through the room she stood on acid, that Holmes used to increase the temperature in the vault. The mixture of the chemical and burning etched the footprint permanently into the metal door.
A few weeks after Cigrand’s disappearance, LaSalle Medical College received a female skeleton for their courses, from their associate HH Holmes. Mysteriously the murder castle, as it had become known, was gutted by fire in 1895.
Holmes went on trial for the murder of Benjamin Pitezel and his children, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was hung on May 7th 1896. Even this though was not a straight forward affair. His neck failed to snap as the trap door opened, instead it took him fifteen minutes to die of strangulation.
Holmes the Liar
On arrest, Holmes claimed that his first victim was a former medical student Robert Leacock in 1886. He stated this was so he could claim his insurance money. However, it was later discovered that Leacock died in 1889 in Canada.
This was one of many murders that Holmes claimed to have committed which were later found to be untrue. Over the last decade Holmes’, great, great, great-grandson has come forward to say his relative was Jack the Ripper. He claimes he found two diaries, in which Holmes writes about killing and mutilating prostitutes in London. The time frame for the murder and the travel would fit in with this claim.
It is also clear to see from studying the cases that both Holmes and The Ripper had similar psychopathy.
His grandson also stated that Holmes actually escaped the hangman’s noose. Instead of hanging Holmes, they hung a stranger that Holmes tricked to take his place. The attention this theory got, resulted in Holmes being exhumed many years later, for DNA evidence to prove it was him. If you take the lies into consideration, even if the diary is authentic, which I doubt, Holmes could have lied about being Jack the Ripper.
Given the fact that Holmes was a compulsive liar. That his great, great, great-grandson had a book to sell, I would deny the claim that Holmes was Jack the Ripper. Further evidence of the false claim is found when you consider the hangman story. This was proven to be a lie scientifically. Although a horrific killer and being famous as the USA’s first serial killer, we can not add Jack the Ripper to these accolades.
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 — HH Holmes