Tuesday, August 20, 2013
The Murder Castle
When a building gets nicknamed The Murder Castle, you the story behid it is going to be bad.
Chicago's 1893 Columbian Expedition World's Fair presented the world with a number of modern marvels: electricity, the ferris wheel, Eadweard Muybridge's moving pictures, ragtime, the hamburger... and the nation's first high-profile serial killer, hotelier H.H Holems.
In 1889, Holmes arrived in what is now Chicago's Englewood neighborhood and began working for Dr. Holton who at the time was fighting Cancer, and his wife who minded the store. As a pharmacist, He seemed to be the perfect assistant and neighbor: able and industrious. When Dr. Holton died Holmes used his well practiced skills of charm and persuasion to comfort and reassure the grieving widow. He subsequently convinced Mrs. Holton that selling the drugstore to him would relieve the burdened woman's responsibilities. It was agreed that Mrs. Holton could remain residing in her upstairs apartment. Holmes' proposal seemed like a godsend to the elderly woman and she agreed. Holmes purchased the store mainly with funds obtained by mortgaging the store’s fixtures and stock, the loan to be repaid in substantial monthly installments of one hundred dollars (worth $2,555 today). When he failed to pay his debt, Mrs. Holton sought legal action against him, but she mysteriously disappeared. Holmes told people that she was visiting relatives in California. As people started asking questions about her return, he told them that she was enjoying California so much that she had decided to live there.
Holmes purchased a lot across from the drugstore, where he built his three-story, block-long "Castle"—as it was dubbed by those in the neighborhood. It was opened as a hotel for the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, with part of the structure used as commercial space. The ground floor of the Castle contained Holmes' own relocated drugstore and various shops, while the upper two floors contained his personal office and a maze of over 100 windowless rooms with doorways opening to brick walls, oddly-angled hallways, stairways to nowhere, doors openable only from the outside, and a host of other strange and labyrinthine constructions. Holmes repeatedly changed builders during the construction of the Castle, so only he fully understood the design of the house.
During the period of building construction in 1889, Holmes met Benjamin Pitezel, a carpenter with a past of lawbreaking, whom Holmes exploited as a stooge for his criminal schemes. A district attorney later described Pitezel as Holmes' "tool... his creature."
After the completion of the hotel, Holmes selected mostly female victims from among his employees (many of whom were required as a condition of employment to take out life insurance policies, for which Holmes would pay the premiums but was also the beneficiary), as well as his lovers and hotel guests. He tortured and killed them. Some were locked in soundproof bedrooms fitted with gas lines that let him asphyxiate them at any time. Other victims were locked in a huge soundproof bank vault near his office, where they were left to suffocate. The victims' bodies were dropped by secret chute to the basement, where some were meticulously dissected, stripped of flesh, crafted into skeleton models, and then sold to medical schools. Holmes also cremated some of the bodies or placed them in lime pits for destruction. Holmes had two giant furnaces as well as pits of acid, bottles of various poisons, and even a stretching rack. Through the connections he had gained in medical school, he sold skeletons and organs with little difficulty. In 1894 Holmes killed his longtime partner Ben Pietzel rather than pay him his share of their latest take, and he added Pietzel's wife and three children to his entourage; he sent the woman east and told her he'd bring her children out later. He was arrested and briefly jailed for cheating in a horse trade. Then, he faked his own death and tried to collect the insurance money as someone else. When his insurance company balked, he just tried again. That scam worked—until an accomplice ratted on him. A Pinkerton agent pursued Holmes to Boston, and arrested him for another horse swindle. Meanwhile, the Pinkertons were starting to wonder where the Pietzel children were—and, following the trail through which Holmes forwarded his mail, they eventually found two of the children's corpses in Toronto. Finally, detectives got a warrant to search the Chicago Murder Castle.
The horrors they found there defy the imagination: a dissecting table, bottles of poisons, containers of quicklime and acid big enough to eat away a body, a gas chamber, coffins holding female corpses, an incinerator littered with charred human remains: the skeletons of small children. The number of his victims has typically been estimated between 20 and 100, and even as high as 200, based upon missing persons reports of the time as well as the testimony of Holmes' neighbors who reported seeing him accompany unidentified young women into his hotel—young women whom they never saw exit. The discrepancy in numbers can perhaps best be attributed to the fact that a great many people came to Chicago to see the World's Fair but, for one reason or another, never returned home. The only verified number is 27, although police had commented that some of the bodies in the basement were so badly dismembered and decomposed that it was difficult to tell how many bodies there actually were. Holmes' victims were mainly women (and primarily blonde), but included some men and children.
On May 7, 1896, Holmes was hanged at Moyamensing Prison, also known as the Philadelphia County Prison. Until the moment of his death, Holmes remained calm and amiable, showing very few signs of fear, anxiety or depression. Holmes' neck did not snap; he instead was strangled to death slowly, twitching over 15 minutes before being pronounced dead 20 minutes after the trap had been sprung.
Shortly thereafter—whether by arson as part of a cover-up or by disgusted neighbors, or an accident—the house burned to the ground. Neighbors avoided the block, claiming that the victims' ghosts haunted the building, their moans and cries lingering on. In 1938 a US Post Office was erected at the site, but the rumors did not fade. Reports of poltergeists and apparitions continue to this day, and some claim that Holmes's ghost also visits the nearby Museum of Science and Industry, one of the few remaining structures from the 1893 Exposition.