Who could you be related to?
My Great-Aunt Kay got me interested in our family genealogy when I was a teenager. I had been interested in our Civil War ancestors, she had been the family historian for quite a while, and had traced our various lines back many generations. With all of the copies of records she sent me, I was hooked in no time. Ancestry DNA has also been a bonus, linking me genetically with thousands of cousins and finding our common relative(s).
The result of this passion has been hours spent searching records, links, and personal stories to establish who belonged to who. Anyone who works on their family history knows that hours can seem to go by in a minute while trying to connect the dots.
Thankfully, my husband and I are both into genealogy, so we understand when the other one is on a roll and will be looking at our respective “dead people” for hours. Along the way, we’ve found some pretty incredible things. My husband’s lines include a familial link to Daniel Boone, some of the first European explorers to what is now Detroit, and generations of British aristocrats and royalty. I also have quite a bit of British royalty but also lots of farmers, pastors, coal miners, and very early settlers of America, including the founder of Connecticut, Thomas Hooker.
Of course, in every barrel of apples, there are going to be a few rotten ones. Such was the case when I found out that one of my (many thousands of) cousins was Herman Webster Mudgett, better known as H. H. Holmes, the infamous serial killer during the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, although he was also responsible for several murders in other places.
Great-Aunt Kay had mentioned several years back that we were related to a serial killer, but I didn’t pay a lot of attention at the time or understand the significance. My husband and I had read Erik Larson’s The Devil In The White City soon after it came out and I didn’t make the connection. Fast forward to three years ago and an article on him popped up on one of my hints. In my reading, I found him to be a fascinating, if horribly evil, character.
Mudgett was born in New Hampshire in 1861 and had a troubled background from the beginning, reportedly performing unnecessary surgeries (torture) on animals. Later, as a medical student at the University of Michigan, he stole corpses, using them to make false insurance claims. He also possibly used the corpses for various medical experiments, but that was not proven. He graduated from UM in June of 1884.
Besides being a serial killer, Holmes was also known for his bigamy. He married his first wife, Clara, in 1878. They had one son, Robert, before she left him and moved back to New Hampshire, amid reports of abuse, before he graduated from the University of Michigan. He married his second wife, Myrta Belknap, with whom he had a daughter, in 1886 and third wife, Georgiana Yoke in 1894. He was never divorced from any of his wives.
He moved to New York for a short time, but left quickly after a boy vanished and he was questioned. He then lived in Philadelphia and worked for a pharmacist for a while, but a boy that he treated died after taking medication, so he quickly left town. He changed his name to H. H. Holmes to avoid association with any past scams and moved to Chicago shortly afterward.
It was in Chicago where he built his “Murder Castle”. Completed in 1893, after a series of mishaps, to accommodate visitors to the World’s Fair as well as a first-floor drug store, the hotel consisted of hallways that went nowhere, soundproof rooms, and a basement full of acid and quicklime vats where bodies could be dissolved. When a victim was killed, Holmes reportedly dissected and partially dissolved the victims in order to sell their organs and individual bones on the black market before completely dissolving the rest of the remains away. He also sold the skeletons of his victims to medical schools.
Under suspicion of arson in Chicago, he ran first to Texas and then to St. Louis, Missouri, where he convinced a man named Benjamin Pitezel to fake his own death as a life insurance scam. Holmes not only actually murdered Pitezel, but three of his young children. Pitezel’s body was used to claim insurance money while the children killed later and buried in the cellar of a house in Toronto where they were later found.
Holmes was finally arrested by the Pinkerton Detective Agency in Boston in 1894 and held on a warrant for horse theft while other allegations against him were investigated. He was charged, tried, and convicted for Pitezel’s murder, for which he was hanged on May 7, 1896 at Moyamensing Prison in Philadelphia. During the time he was incarcerated, he gave several bizarre confessions that could not be proved and increasingly insisted that Satan had made him commit all of his evil deeds.
Before he died, he requested that his coffin be encased in 10 feet of concrete so that his corpse could not be dug up by grave robbers, exactly what he had done to many others. Ironically, his body was exhumed in 2017 to combat rumors that his body had been stolen. He would found to be there, identified by dental records, and reburied, where he remains today.
The number of people that Holmes killed remains disputed. Once caught, he confessed to 27 murders, but some of the people that he confessed to killing weren’t dead. Out of all of his confessed killings, only nine were ruled to be plausible, but some estimates put the number of his victims at over 200. Among his probable murders, at least three of them were women who he had taken as his mistresses, one was a daughter of one of those women, another was a sister. All of these were in addition to the four unfortunate members of the Pitezel family. His wives were investigated, but were cleared of any wrongdoing.
The infamous “Murder Castle” in Chicago, while odd, was searched and not found to contain any sort of evidence that could be used to charge him with the Chicago murders, Erik Larsen described that quite clearly in his book. The building was set on fire in August of 1895, most likely by arson. What remained of the building was later turned into its current incarnation as United States Post Office.
Having a serial killer in the family is an interesting find, to be sure, but a little unsettling, too. Even though we’re distantly related, third cousins, four times removed, it’s still creepy to know that we share some DNA. Genealogy research can lead to both figurative and literal skeletons in your closet.
For more information, you can check out the following sources used in this article:
H. H. Holmes
Herman Webster Mudgett (May 16, 1861 - May 7, 1896), better known as Dr. Henry Howard Holmes or, more commonly, as H…
Herman Webster Mudgett, better known as H.H. Holmes, was a con artist and bigamist who was one of America's first…
Larson, Erik. The Devil In The White City: Murder, Magic, And Madness At The Fair That Changed America. New York : Crown Publishers, 2003.