How HH Holmes Went From Troubled Youth To America's First Serial Killer

By the time H. H. Holmes was hanged for murdering his business partner in 1896, he had already committed numerous atrocities in Chicago, IL, as well as various scams and frauds throughout the United States.

Holmes is thought to have killed at least nine people, although some research estimates his kill count is much higher, potentially in the hundreds as a result of his Murder Castle in Chicago during the World’s Fair in 1893.

H.H. Holmes’s origin story has been widely sensationalized by both curious readers and writers (2003’s The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson details Holmes’s murder spree in Chicago and was a National Book Award Finalist) as well as by Holmes himself.

Before his execution, Holmes wrote several lengthy confessions at the payment of Hearst, all of which made contradictory claims about his life and his participation in various murders. In the confessions, Holmes claimed to have killed 27 people, although many of those named were still alive when he wrote it.

No details about Holmes’s childhood (real or fabricated) can make sense of the horror he unleashed on the world as America’s first serial killer through his web of murder and deceit.

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  • Holmes’s Parents (May Have Been) Physically And Mentally Abusive

    H.H. Holmes was born Herman Webster Mudgett in the small town of Gilmanton, NH, in 1861. Both Holmes’s parents were intensely religious, and used their Methodist beliefs to parent with cold, strict discipline.

    According to some sources, this mistreatment included forcing the children into long periods of isolation and making them go without food. There are also claims that Holmes’s father used rags dunked in kerosene to quiet the cries of his children.

    However, other researchers believe such claims about Holmes’s parents are false, and by all accounts he had a regular upbringing. Holmes himself wrote:

    That I was well trained by loving and religious parents, I know, and any deviations in my after life from the straight and narrow way of rectitude are not attributable to the want of a tender mother’s prayers or a father’s control, emphasized, when necessary, by the liberal use of the rod wielded by no sparing hand.

    Known as a serial liar and fraudster, it’s difficult to know what to believe about Holmes’s childhood years.

  • His Fascination With Dead Bodies Started From Being Bullied
    Photo: Jerome Walker / Wikimedia / Public Domain

    His Fascination With Dead Bodies Started From Being Bullied

    At school, Holmes was bullied for his intelligence and odd nature. The bullying climaxed in a traumatic episode wherein schoolmates ambushed Holmes and forced him into a doctor’s office where they placed the hands of a skeleton on his face. Holmes claimed the incident sparked his interest in anatomy and medicine:

    It was a wicked and dangerous thing to do to a child of tender years and health… but it proved an heroic method of treatment, destined ultimately of curing me of my fears, and to inculcate in me, first, a strong feeling of curiosity, and, later a desire to learn, which resulted years afterwards in my adopting medicine as a profession.

  • He Enjoyed Dissecting Animals At A Young Age

    Seeking respite from his home life, young Holmes often retreated into the forest around his family’s house where he started to experiment with the dissection of animals.

    Holmes began by cutting up the bodies of small reptiles and other small creatures, then moved on to mammals, including rabbits and dogs. This type of behavior is said to have sparked Holmes’s interest in human anatomy. It also made him comfortable with dissection.

  • He May Have Killed His Childhood Best Friend

    When Holmes was 11 years old, his childhood best friend Tom - who was older - fell from the landing of an abandoned home the two boys had been exploring.

    Holmes said he saw Tom fall, but in hindsight, many believe that he could’ve been close enough to push Tom off the landing.

  • Holmes Won Over His First Wife By Threatening Other Suitors

    Holmes (although he still went by Herman Webster Mudgett at the time) met his future first wife Clara Lovering when they were both teenagers. After he saw Lovering flirting with someone else at a church gathering, Holmes approached the couple and threatened the boy with violence if he didn’t leave.

    Holmes then escorted the seemingly impressed Lovering home, officially beginning their courtship which quickly escalated into a marriage when they were both 17.

  • He May Have Beaten His First Wife, Clara Lovering

    According to some sources, housemates from Clara Lovering’s short time living with Holmes at the University of Michigan remembered regular arguments between the two and seeing Lovering with bruises.

    While it’s difficult to say if these events occurred - as no police report was filed -  Lovering and the baby did eventually leave Holmes, and the two never reunited. They were, however, still formally married when Holmes died.