Built for Murder
The Murder Castle was 162 feet long and 50 feet wide with a brick facade and several sets of bay windows facing the street. It was located in the Englewood section of Chicago which was a perfect site to attract lodgers visiting the nearby Chicago World’s Fair which opened in 1892. As many as 250 people may have vanished inside H.H. Holmes giant playground of death.
H.H. Holmes is the king of a certain kind of sociopath with a can do attitude and a Home Depot card. Not content with killing hookers and dumping them in colorful locations like the other serial killers they have to construct nests for their dark fantasies. The Oakland police called Earl Stefanson’s dark and frightening basement a “scene out of the Silence of the Lambs.” The actual inspiration for the character in Silence of the Lambs, Gary Heidnik, constructed a torture pit just like the one seen in the movie. What’s wrong with these guys? Can’t they just paint the garage and not decorate it with body parts?
Holmes was no stranger to crime. He’d started out with medical school hijinks involving mangled cadavers and insurance policies. By the time he broke ground on his dream project he’d graduated into large scale scams and murder. People around him had a habit of disappearing and leaving Holmes property. That’s what happened to the original owner of the pharmacy which Holmes inherited and moved into his new building. People said he had a theatrical flair while compounding prescriptions for his customers. Little did they know that the amazing electric bell that would ring in his shop meant that one of his victims was wandering blindly through the maze of the second floor and had tripped an alarm.
Holmes planned and contracted the building himself frequently changing the workers so that he alone would know what the interior of the structure was like. The second floor was furnished for lodgers but it was also a maze of rooms and secret passages. Holmes would stalk his victims along the dark narrow corridors while they frantically tried false doors and stumbled into blind corners. Once he tired of this he could return them to one of the concealed dark rooms or to a death chamber. Rooms were air-tight and could be converted into gas chambers through the use of valves in a room Holmes frequented. There was one steel room lined with asbestos where he could use the gas jets as blow torches on the unfortunate occupant and another with a trap door for hanging. Everything was soundproofed so shrieks would not reach the ground floor. The final touch was a concealed elevator to transport bodies to the basement.
The real chamber of horrors was in the basement where Holmes kept his workshop. There was a dissecting table where the thrifty criminal converted bodies into articulated skeletons. He got two hundred dollars per female skeleton and evidence around his dissecting table showed that not everyone was dead when the operation started. There were quicklime pits in the basement for those bodies that weren’t suitable for sale and at some point Holmes installed a furnace that could be used as a crematoria and a stove for the burning of personal effects. A large tank with an oily substance inside of it was also discovered. When it was opened a powerful decomposition smell rushed out and it may have been a particularly gruesome death chamber but an incautious plumber tried to look inside with a match and blew it up.
Police spent a week exploring the Murder Castle after it was discovered and it’s probable that they didn’t discover all of it’s secrets. One clever chamber was discovered between the floors with no obvious purpose and only an accurate survey with meticulous measurements could have revealed everything Holmes concealed. The Chicago Police just didn’t have that kind of expertise and Holmes was a very clever man. Three explosions ripped through the Murder Castle shortly after the investigation and the resulting fire precluded further investigations. Holmes, by now in hiding, attempted one further insurance fraud but was foiled when his accomplice confessed.
Holmes then tried to escape through another cadaver switch but was betrayed by another accomplice who had not been paid for his participation. A true sociopath he remained unrepentant of his crimes right until the very end and even indulged in a lurid confession that had people, especially those from Chicago, outraged. He danced for over fifteen minutes at the end of a rope in a botched execution that even hardened observers turned away from and then his time as a murderer was done.
I’ve come back to add some photos of modern day secret rooms to enable you to envision how difficult it would have been for the police to discover Holmes’ secrets. The building inspector was unable to find the room concealed by the staircase that rises. It works by remote control and conceals an office/playroom. These things are far more common, hopefully without the dead bodies, than the layman would think.