This week in history: H.H. Holmes’ last day on earth

On May 7, 1896, Chicago serial killer H.H. Holmes was hanged in Philadelphia for the murder of Benjamin Pitezel. Here’s how he spent his final hours.

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Dr. H.H. Holmes, the pseudonym of New Hampshire-born physician Herman Webster Mudgett, shown in an undated photo, is believed by many authorities to have been America’s first urban serial killer.


As published in the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:

No one can say for certain just how many people Chicago-based serial killer H.H. Holmes murdered. On the day of his execution on May 7, 1896, in Philadelphia, Holmes had already confessed to 27 murders, though as Erik Larson, author of “The Devil in the White City,” concluded: “Exactly how many people he killed will never be known.”

The Chicago Daily News published an account of the killer’s death after he was sentenced to hang for the murder of his associate and co-conspirator Benjamin Pitezel.

Holmes, an alias for Herman Webster Mudgett, arrived in Chicago in 1885 and took an interest in a drugstore at 63rd and Wallace, Larson wrote. After conning the owner out of the property, he built a three-story building on the land across from the drugstore with retail space on the first floor and apartments on the upper floors. Later dubbed the “murder castle,” the building had trapdoors, secret rooms and a kiln — really a crematorium — in the basement.

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In 1891, Holmes remodeled the castle as a hotel for visitors to the World’s Columbian Exposition, according to Larson. He intended to burn it down for the insurance money after the fair. Through offers of shelter, work or marriage, Holmes lured unsuspecting fairgoers (usually women) and laborers to the hotel where he swindled, sometimes tortured and inevitably killed them, according to Larson.

When the fair ended in 1893, the con man left Chicago, still pulling scams with his associate, Pitezel. The two hatched a plan to pull off a life insurance scam, with Pitezel faking his own death and splitting the $10,000 policy with Holmes ... until Holmes decided to kill Pitezel in Philadelphia for real.

Thanks to a previous inmate who Holmes knew and confided in about the scheme, investigators eventually arrested the serial killer in Boston.

The night before his death, Holmes spent his time writing letters, the Daily News reported, and he awoke at 6 a.m. the next morning. Two priests from the Church of the Annunciation spent the morning with the condemned man while he ate a breakfast of eggs, dry toast and coffee.

At 10 a.m., the priests accompanied Holmes to the scaffold where a crowd stood in “intense silence” stood waiting for him. The holy men finished a prayer, and Holmes stepped forward to declare his innocence, which was also met with “absolute silence.”

After one last prayer, Holmes shook hands with the priests and bade his lawyers goodbye, the paper said.

“Without an instant delay, his hands were bound behind him and the black cap adjusted. Sheriff Olement placed the noose about his neck and after an instant of terrible stillness, the crack of the bolt rang out like a pistol shot and the man had fallen to his doom.”

The convicted killer lost consciousness immediately, but his heart beat “feebly” for 15 to 20 minutes more, the paper reported. When a physician finally declared Holmes dead, “the swinging corpse was cut down.”

“The marvelous nerve of the man never deserted him to the end,” the reporter wrote. “Even on the scaffold, he was probably the coolest person in the solemn assemblage.”

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