Did America's First Serial Killer Fake His Death?

H.H. Holmes, the first serial killer in the United States, was notorious for his murder castle. And he has New England ties.

Holmes, who confessed to killing 27 people, was born in Gilmanton, New Hampshire, where his family home still stands.

"Come with me, if you will, to a tiny New England village," the infamous killer's diary opens.

His crimes are some of the most lurid in American history. He outfitted his "murder castle" in Chicago with secret chutes, stairways that led to nowhere, rooms with locks that would seal a person inside, and gas chambers.

Some who arrived there were never seen again. Author Matt Lake has studied the crimes of Holmes and said his victims suffered greatly before death.

"He wound up putting them in an air-tight room and turning gas on in there until they suffocated," Lake said.

Some of Holmes' victims were young children. It is believed he sold his victims' bodies, organs, and bones.

In a scheme to get insurance money, Holmes was suspected of killing his business partner. The law caught up with him in Boston as he went into a hotel to register. Boston Police Deputy Superintendent Orinton Hanscom placed a hand on his shoulder and took him into custody.

Holmes was brought to Philadelphia, where he eventually faced murder charges. Newspapers covered his trial daily and one paper paid him for his written confession. He was hanged in Philadelphia in 1896, but with an unusual request.

"His body was going to be laid in this wet cement, let settle for a while, and then the coffin was going to be topped up with even more cement," Lake said.

Rumors swirled in newspapers that the killer had somehow cheated the hanging with one final twist from a con man. A cadaver was said to be substituted on the gallows, enabling his escape.

The cement in his grave was part of the strategy, according to Lake.

"If someone was going to go check later, they couldn't verify that it was his body," Lake said. "This is how the story goes: he paid people off to fake his death and escaped."

Holmes' family wants to know if he was, in fact, buried in that block of cement in Philadelphia. A petition to exhume his body was filed by his great-grandchildren. Digging has been active his grave site.

Forensic experts said as long as remains are relatively protected, anthropologists should be able to find usable DNA samples in a bone or a tooth.

The family has until June to file what they found in the grave.

Contact Us