This Place in History: H. H. Holmes

Vermont Historical Society

BURLINGTON, Vt.

At ‘This Place in History‘, we’re in Burlington, Vt. with Executive Director of the Vermont Historical Society Steve Perkins.

“We’re going to talk about serial killers today. It’s a very dark subject, but we’re coming into the darker time of the year, here. The days are a little bit shorter. So why not get into a little bit of our darker past? The person who was described as the first serial killer – or the first person that got the label serial killer – in the United States was Dr. H. H. Holmes,” explained Perkins.

“He was born in Gilmanton, New Hampshire. And his name wasn’t Henry Holmes. That was a name he assumed later. His name was Herman Mudgett. He decided to go into medicine and he enrolled at the University of Vermont. And he was at UVM for one year living here in Burlington. He ended up not staying at UVM and going to the University of Michigan Medical School where he did graduate. He was a doctor and then the crime spree began,” said Perkins.

“We’re here [at this location] because after the bulk of his killings, he went on the lam. He came back to a city that he knew, which was Burlington. And he rented the house behind us, 26 North Winooski Avenue. He stayed here on-and-off for a short amount of time while he was running from insurance investigators and agents until he was eventually arrested in Boston.”

His most notorious killing spree took place during the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.

“A great book is Erik Larson’s ‘Devil in the White City’, which is a non-fictional account of both the World’s Fair but also H. H. Holmes who built a pharmacy and a hotel across the street from the World’s Fair and turned it into what was called a ‘murder palace’ in the newspapers”

In addition to a serial killer, he was also a conman. He was married multiple times, committing a lot of life insurance schemes. In the end, he was only convicted of one murder.

“It was a murder, but it came out of a life insurance scheme. He had met a guy named Benjamin Pitezel who was from Philadelphia. They decided they would try to scam the insurance company. So he convinced Mr. Pitezel to take out a $10,000 insurance policy, we’re talking 1893 now, in Benjamin Pitezel’s name, but with h. H. Holmes as the beneficiary.”

“The deal was they’d go find a cadaver, disfigure it, say it was Pitezel and go collect the money. Holmes being the guy he was, instead ending up killing Pitezel and collecting the money. He brought Pitezel’s wife and two of her children here to Burlington.”

“Ultimately, a Pinkerton detective and an insurance investigator tracked him here to Burlington, saw him at the Howard Opera House, which was a few blocks from here in Burlington. He ended up escaping and making his way to Boston, a few days later. He was captured, brought to Philadelphia where he was convicted of that one murder,” said perkins.

‘After he was captured, a lot of other insurance companies were worried about was he doing this with other people. It brought to light this ‘murder palace’ that he had in Chicago. So, they ended up raiding that place. They found human remains in the basement. It suspiciously burned from arson right after they raided it.”

“And then when he was in prison, he was paid a large amount of money, yellow news at the time, 1890s, to tell his story and he said that he did 27 murders. Historians and researchers over time have started to ascribe up to 200 murders to him. He was hanged. He died in 1894 in Philadelphia. But, he stayed right here in Burlington while he was on the run,” concluded Perkins.

At ‘This Place in History’!

For more from our ‘This Place in History’ series, click here.

To view a map of Vermont’s roadside historic site markers, click here.

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