Who was H H Holmes? Movie villains inspired by America's first serial killer

Kate Fowler September 12, 2020
Who was H H Holmes? Movie villains inspired by America's first serial killer
Photo by Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

Who was H H Holmes? The man dubbed ‘America’s first serial killer’ is a known figure to true crime fans, but H H Holmes also inspired a few movie villains you might not know about.

Who was H H Holmes?

H.H. Holmes was born Herman Mudgett in 1861 and is now widely regarded as the first American serial killer. Holmes is reported to have murdered over 200 victims and is most famous for the ‘Murder Castle’ he allegedly built­ – a hotel created with the sole intent to trap, torture and kill guests (more about that later!)

Holmes was allegedly a frequent scam artist with a penchant for committing life insurance scams, both of himself and victims. In fact, his first crimes were reported to be him taking out insurance policies on the corpses at the medical school he studied at, before disfiguring them and reporting them as dead.

What is H H Holmes’ Murder Castle?

Holmes allegedly bought the empty lot across from the pharmacy he owned, and then built what we now know as his infamous Murder Castle. Throughout its construction, he apparently repeatedly hired and fired new construction teams so that no one involved could be around long enough to figure out what he was building.

The Murder Castle is reported to have over 100 rooms, all of which were built with murder in mind, as the name would suggest. Rooms allegedly were soundproofed and gas lines, trap doors, peepholes, and basement chutes were installed. The basement of the hotel was apparently turned into Holmes’ own personal lab with a dissecting table and crematory.

Photo by Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

Holmes reportedly advertised in papers for female workers, all of which once hired were required to have life insurance policies with him as the beneficiary. Many of them suddenly disappeared and it was reported by neighbours that women would enter the castle, but never exit.

In 1893, Chicago hosted the World’s Fair, which showcases achievements of different nations, and Holmes took advantage of the influx of tourists looking for hotels. It is rumoured that this is when Holmes committed most of his murders at the hotel.

Doubts about the Murder Castle

Though Holmes and his Murder Castle are wildly popular nowadays within the true crime community, there is plenty of skepticism about how true the whole story is.

In fact the author of a H.H Holmes book, Harold Schechter, told history.com, “It’s my belief that probably all those stories about all these visitors to the World’s Fair who were murdered in his quote-unquote ‘Castle’ were just complete sensationalistic fabrication by the yellow press.”

The author of another Holmes book, H.H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil, Adam Selzer also told history.com, “When he added a third floor onto his building in 1892, he told people it was going to be a hotel space, but it was never finished or furnished or open to the public. The whole idea was just a vehicle to swindle suppliers and investors and insurers.”

H H Holmes-inspired movie villains

American Horror Story

In the second episode of American Horror Story: Hotel, the audience is allowed an insight into the backstory of character Mr March, played by Evan Peters.

Photo by Suzanne Tenner/FX via The NY Times

Mr March built a hotel called Hotel Cortez to act as his own torture chamber (see where this is going?) with hidden passageways, dead-end door, chutes, and asbestos-lined walls.

“There are definitely things derived from good old H.H. Holmes,” told Evan Peters to Variety. Really? We would never have guessed.

Sherlock Holmes

Aside from the obvious namesake, Holmes and, well, Holmes have more than that in common. In the BBC adaption of Sherlock Holmes, there features an episode titled The Lying Detective. The episode follows the crimes of entrepreneur Culverton Smith, who uses the hospitals he builds in order to easily kill patients.

Throughout the episode, villain Smith repeatedly mentions H.H. Holmes to Sherlock when showing him the hospital.

Hulu’s The Devil in the White City

Though this one is still in the midst of being made, Leonardo DiCaprio acquired the film rights to the book The Devil in the White City in 2004. The book documents the intersecting story of H.H. Holmes’ Murder Castle and an architect who built the Chicago World’s Fair.

DiCaprio signed to star in the H.H. Holmes movie in 2010, and then brought Martin Scorsese in on the production in 2015. Seemingly a slow burner, the feature film was showing no signs of real progress, and was picked up by Hulu in 2019 as a series instead.

Photo by Michael Kovac/WireImage

It’s looking unlikely that DiCaprio will star as Holmes in this one, but he and Scorsese are reportedly still set to co-produce the series together.

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Kate is a fashion journalism graduate from London College of Fashion with an untouchable knowledge of pop culture. Her eye for the strange corners of the internet have resulted to huge-hitting articles while she has also written features for Vice. The solar system might make your world go round, but writing about the internet, music and celebrities has Kate in orbit.