Bygone Vermont: 19th century serial killer hid in Burlington

Dr. Henry Howard Holmes

One-time UVM medical student Herman Webster Mudgett became this country’s first notorious serial killer under the alias Dr. Henry Howard Holmes. WikiCommons photo

The most nightmarish figure ever to cast a shadow over Vermont was H.H. Holmes. Or at least, considering his countless vicious crimes, one would hope so. Holmes is often called America’s first serial killer. During his own time, the 1890s, people used a newly minted word to describe him: psychopath.

Americans had been shocked in 1888 to read reports of Jack the Ripper, the unknown serial killer who butchered at least five women in London. People comforted themselves by believing that such a thing could never happen in the United States.

Just a few years later, however, Americans would read about the far-more heinous crime spree committed by one of their countrymen.

H.H. Holmes began life as Herman Webster Mudgett in Gilmanton, New Hampshire. Later, when people were dissecting his childhood to get at the root of his evil, townspeople remembered that he had been raised in a severely strict household. His parents, ardent Methodists, regularly beat him and locked him in the attic with no food when he misbehaved. The boy was odd and brilliant, and other children tormented him for being different.

Herman Mudgett graduated school at age 16 and became a teacher, but then decided to study medicine at the University of Vermont. The school proved too small for his liking, so Mudgett transferred a year later to the University of Michigan, though Vermont would have the misfortune of seeing him again.

At Michigan, he and a fellow student discussed committing insurance fraud. They realized they could buy life insurance for other people, and then fake their deaths. All that was needed were bodies of the recently deceased, which they could then disfigure. Insurance companies would pay the claims because doctors had no way of identifying mutilated corpses at the time.

The two students never completed their fraud. However, the idea of making money from corpses inspired Mudgett. But instead of merely stealing corpses, in the years to come he would do the killing himself. He used the bodies to commit insurance fraud, or sold them to medical schools, which were sorely in need of cadavers for students. He didn’t kill only for profit; sometimes he killed to get rid of a nuisance or simply to fulfill an urge.

After graduating medical school, Mudgett moved to Chicago and began calling himself Dr. Henry Howard Holmes. Dapper, handsome and charming, Holmes became a fixture in the Englewood neighborhood, where he purchased a pharmacy from an elderly woman and her ailing husband. After the man died, Holmes apparently killed the woman, and told people she had decided to move to California.

Holmes’ schemes began to unravel as creditors and the families of missing women started asking tougher questions.

Then he built a massive three-story building across the street, which neighbors dubbed the “Castle.” His pharmacy and a restaurant would be downstairs. The upper floors would house his office and a hotel. He had the building constructed with peculiar features — some rooms had concealed gas nozzles, another was airtight. He had a large chute built between the upper floors and the basement, which contained a stainless steel table and a kiln.

Holmes managed to conceal the building’s strange and often lethal features by acting as his own contractor. He hired workmen to construct small sections of the structure and then fired them, so they wouldn’t understand how the pieces fit together. He often refused to pay their wages, which kept construction cheap. When workers and creditors demanded payment, he referred them to the building’s owner, Hiram S. Campbell, whose identity he had fabricated.

The timing of the Castle’s construction was perfect for Holmes to conduct his murder spree. The year was 1893 and Chicago was hosting the World’s Columbian Exposition. The massive exhibition was attracting hordes of people to the city and helping it boom.

A thousand trains disgorged passengers to the city each day. Among them were young women traveling alone to look for work, whom Holmes sought out. He offered them cheap lodging in his hotel and jobs at his pharmacy and restaurant. When the women later went missing, relatives made inquiries. Holmes met their questions with vague but plausible explanations.

Holmes was a creative and convincing liar, able to mimic human emotion, but not to feel it. And he was always working on his next scheme. Historian Erik Larsen detailed the many plots of this conman-killer in his macabre bestseller “Devil in the White City.”

Eventually, Holmes’ schemes began to unravel as creditors and the families of missing women started asking tougher questions. He set fire to the third floor of the Castle, which suffered minimal damage, and filed a $6,000 insurance claim. The suspicious insurance investigator agreed to pay the claim, provided that Hiram S. Campbell collect the check in person. The check remained unclaimed.

In the fall of 1893, Holmes fled Chicago, and roamed the United States and Canada, using a series of aliases.

In the end, Holmes attempted one too many insurance frauds. A body eventually identified as that of Benjamin Pitezel was found in Philadelphia. Unbeknownst to investigators, Holmes had earlier persuaded Pitezel, his longtime accomplice, to take out a $10,000 life insurance policy, payable to Holmes. Then Pitezel would fake his own death.

The claim looked fishy to the Fidelity Mutual Life Association of Philadelphia, which hired the Pinkerton National Detective Agency to investigate.

Holmes went into hiding in one of his old haunts, Burlington. He knew the city well, and perhaps assumed authorities wouldn’t connect him with a place where he had spent only a year.

H.H. Holmes Castle

Dr. Henry Howard Holmes’ massive building in Chicago, which housed a pharmacy, restaurant and hotel, was referred to by local residents as the “Castle.” When the public learned of the crimes Holmes had been committing there, people started calling it the “Murder Castle.” WikiCommons photo

In October 1894, using the name J.A. Judson, Holmes rented a house on North Winooski Avenue for a “Mrs. A.E. Cook” and two children. Mrs. Cook was actually Pitezel’s wife, Carrie. Also with Holmes was his new fiancée. Holmes married several times; occasionally his marriages overlapped. Sometimes he sought to divorce his wives; other times he simply murdered them.

While in Burlington, Holmes decided there was another woman he could do without, Carrie Pitezel, who knew something of his schemes with her husband. At a pharmacy on St. Paul Street, Holmes purchased a common treatment for angina, a bottle of nitroglycerin, which is also highly explosive. Holmes returned home and carefully placed the bottle in the basement with a note asking Carrie to bring the bottle upstairs. He assumed Carrie, unaware of the bottle’s contents, would handle it carelessly and blow herself up.

But she had seen enough of Holmes to be suspicious of this odd request, so she left the bottle undisturbed.

A Pinkerton detective and an insurance investigator arrived in town at about this time. They learned from the postmaster that the local post office was holding mail for Holmes. The men waited for Holmes, but when he arrived to collect his mail, he “escaped from their sight in a mysterious manner,” the Burlington Free Press reported a year later, after Holmes’ crimes had become famous.

The detective and the investigator later spotted Holmes and his fiancée at a Burlington opera house. They followed the couple back to the North Winooski Avenue house. Holmes soon left for Boston, where police arrested him for colluding to fake Pitezel’s death by using a cadaver.

As authorities investigated, however, they began to suspect that they had been wrong about Holmes’ latest scheme: Holmes hadn’t helped fake Pitezel’s death, he had actually killed his accomplice to claim the insurance.

At the same time, the police began searching for three of the Pitezels’ children, the ones who had not been with Carrie in Burlington. The missing children had last been seen traveling with Holmes.

Holmes’ case transfixed the nation as newspapers offered regular updates. People hoped investigators would find the Pitezel children alive. But like so much surrounding Holmes, people’s worst fears were eventually realized when the children’s bodies were discovered. Holmes had killed them before he reaching Burlington.

Holmes eventually admitted to committing 27 murders. Investigators combed through the basement of the Castle, which people took to calling the Murder Castle, and found innumerable body parts. They couldn’t determine how many victims Holmes had killed. Some estimates run as high as 200.

During questioning, Holmes admitted trying to kill Carrie with the bottle of nitroglycerin. When he learned of it, Burlington’s police chief had the bottle retrieved and buried in an undisclosed location, where it perhaps remain to this day.

Holmes’ time in Burlington is largely a footnote in his sordid history. A case of attempted murder was hardly his most serious crime. He was convicted of Benjamin Pitezel’s murder and hanged in Philadelphia in May 1896.

During his imprisonment, Holmes had written an autobiography in which he provided a disturbing explanation for his compulsion to kill. “I was born with the devil in me,” he wrote. “I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing.”

Mark Bushnell

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