Plenty of hotels have a few ghost stories to their name, but the sinister presence that stalked and murdered visitors to the World's Fair Hotel—widely known today as the spooky Chicago Murder Castle—was very human. The castle was a sprawling three-story labyrinth of deadly traps and torture chambers designed by one of the most twisted serial killers in American history, Herman Webster Mudgett, better known as H. H. Holmes. Nobody knows exactly how many people Holmes really killed, but before his death, he confessed to at least 27 murders—which, according to his descendant Jeff Mudget, might have even included the killings of Jack the Ripper.
The true nature of H. H. Holmes's murder castle was kept so secret that not even its architects understood the whole layout. Holmes used the hotel's confusing, claustrophobic design to isolate and trap his victims, and until his capture in 1894, he was the only one who knew every grisly secret of the building. The Chicago Tribune published a lurid description of all the crazy death traps in Holmes's murder castle in an 1895 article, and any unsuspecting former guests finally found out about the horrific ways H. H. Holmes murdered people in soundproof, airtight, pitch-black rooms just a wall away.
Today, a post office occupies the same land where the Murder Castle once stood. Maintenance workers have reported feeling and seeing strange things in the basement, where Holmes kept the nightmarish collection of tools and torture devices that many visitors only discovered when it was too late.
Read on about H. H. Holmes's devious murder traps. They may just make you think twice about booking your next hotel room.
Among the many hidden trapdoors and chutes in the Murder Castle was a completely sealed-up chamber in the middle of the second floor. This secret hideaway was disguised as an extra room at the back of a dark closet, but anyone who tried to open the door to the “extra room” would find only a wall. After tearing the wall down, police discovered the real entrance to the room—a trapdoor in the corner of the ceiling, which could only be accessed by climbing through a fake elevator chute.
There was no other way in or out of the pitch-black room, and the ceiling trapdoor opened from the outside. This left only one choice for anyone trapped inside: a slow death by starvation alone in the dark.
Several of the secret rooms in the Murder Castle were lined with iron. In most cases, the iron walls were meant to soundproof the rooms, but in one room, they served a far deadlier purpose. This room was lined not only with sheet iron, but also with asbestos, and investigators who discovered it found evidence of fire. Like many of the castle's other torture chambers, the iron-lined room was also fitted with gas pipes that could be controlled from Holmes's bedroom.
The presence of the gas pipe, the extra asbestos lining, and the signs of fire all suggest that Holmes intended this room to be both fireproof and escape-proof—the perfect place to roast a human alive.
If there was one thing H. H. Holmes was better at than using a whole house as a murder weapon, it was inventing new ways to asphyxiate people. On the third floor of the Murder Castle, Holmes installed a soundproof, airtight vault lined with steel and equipped with a gas flame, which he claimed was there to provide a light source. By blowing on any of the air pipes connected to the vault, Holmes could extinguish the gas flame, and anyone unlucky enough to be trapped inside would quickly suffocate.
One of his victims, Annie Williams, was tricked into entering the vault when Holmes asked her to retrieve a file for him. Investigators later found claw marks in the vault walls where she had tried in vain to scratch her way to freedom.
The second floor of the castle was the perfect stalking ground for a murderer thanks to its network of peepholes and secret entrances. Some rooms had false walls that hinged open. In others, hidden doors led to secret chambers that only Holmes knew how to navigate. These entrances were either disguised as regular doors or hidden so cleverly that guests had no reason to suspect that anything was wrong. Even visitors who stayed safely in their rooms were at risk of being ambushed by their murderous host.