America’s First Serial Killer Set A Grim Standard, But Certain Parts Of His Story Were Pure Myth

While the spectacle of the World’s Columbian Exposition drew millions of people to Chicago, a troubled soul stalked the bustling streets. Today, we know him as H.H. Holmes, America’s first serial killer — and a monster who slaughtered hundreds in his “Murder Castle.” But more than 120 years after his death, it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction.

The Devil in the White City

The subject of several books and a TV series, Holmes caused a media sensation when he was arrested in 1894. And before long, the newspapers were brimming with accounts of his horrific deeds. But which parts of his gruesome story were true — and which were simply invented to appease a public desperate for scandal?

“Murder Castle”

To modern audiences, Holmes’ bloody career will be forever synonymous with the rise of the White City — the sprawling setting for Chicago’s groundbreaking world’s fair. And over the years, many elements have been added to the tale, from basement torture chambers to sky-high body counts. Like the winding passageways and concealed trap doors of his infamous castle, though, the real story has many twists and turns. 

Herman Webster Mudgett

Herman Webster Mudgett, as Holmes was formerly known, was born in the New Hampshire town of Gilmanton in 1861. His parents, Levi and Theodate, were devout followers of the Methodist faith, and his father came from farming stock. In other words, the man who would one day become known as America’s first serial killer had a disarmingly normal start in life.

Early years

At least, that was the case on paper. In the 150 years since, all sorts of claims have been made about Mudgett’s early life. According to some, he suffered both physical and mental abuse at the hands of his parents, including periods of starvation and strict discipline. And it has been suggested that this trauma soon began to manifest itself in the form of bizarre behavior.