With Halloween slowly — but spookily — creeping its way up to our calendars, it’s a perfect time to explore the more bone-chilling side of the pharmacy industry.
You might not expect it, but pharmacy lore can bring up some truly shocking and gruesome stories. We’re not talking about spilling a liquid medication on your pharmacy floor or having to work past closing time.
We’re talking about the life and times of H.H. Holmes, a part-time pharmacist and full-time serial killer.
H.H. Holmes holds a notorious place in both true crime and pharmacy lore. Are all the tales of foul murder true, or have they been blown out of proportion to spook the kids before bed?
Fact or fiction, here is the grizzly tale of H.H. Holmes.
Born on May 16, 1886, Herman Webster Mudgett was the third child of father Levi Horton Mudgett and Theodate Page Price. Mudgett had a relatively normal childhood, but the same can’t be said once he started college at the University of Michigan.
Mudgett graduated from the university’s Department of Medicine and Surgery in 1884. It’s said that he and university Professor William James Herdman took up grave robbing to supply medical cadavers, which is unsettling in its own right.
After a few run-ins with the law, Mudgett fled to Chicago and took up a pseudonym: H.H. Holmes. He also took up a new practice to go along with the alias: pharmacist.
Today, H.H. Holmes is known by many names: “Dr. Death,” “The Arch Fiend,” and “Devil in the White City.” But before his crimes, Dr. Holmes was just another neighborhood pharmacist, dispensing prescriptions and plotting the sinister schemes that would earn him the title of America’s first serial killer.
It all started when Holmes — who had a lifelong fascination with death and a streak of violence — bought out his former boss’s pharmacy.
The former pharmacy owner had passed away several months prior, and ever one to jump on an opportunity, Holmes convinced his widow to sell the pharmacy directly to Holmes. She was never seen again.
After Holmes took over the pharmacy, he used the cash flow to purchase an empty lot across the street.
On this lot, Holmes built the infamous “Murder Castle” that perplexes historians, criminologists, and the general public even to this day.
The three-story castle contained soundproof rooms, secret passages, and a disorienting maze of hallways and staircases. Each room contained chutes that dropped unsuspecting victims into a basement, where Holmes kept a crematorium.
It was here, in this “Murder Castle,” that Holmes lured in hundreds of guests and completed a series of murders from 1886-1896. Among his many crimes, according to an 1896 Chicago Chronicle article, were suffocating victims in vaults, burning them in oil, and poisoning wealthy women in order to take their fortunes.
When Holmes was apprehended in 1896, he claimed to have committed over 200 murders — though only 27 have ever been confirmed.
On May 7, 1896, Holmes was hanged for his crimes.
But right before his death, in a chilling look into the mind of a murderer, Holmes said, “I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than a poet can help the inspiration to sing.”
In the annals of true crime, few begin to match the oddity of H.H. Holmes. His story continues to capture the sordid imagination of the general public, especially in pop culture.
Erik Larson’s bestseller The Devil in the White City brought Holmes’ blood-soaked story to books. It’s currently being adapted into a Hulu series produced by Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese.
Even the video game industry is keen on exploring Holmes’s legacy. The upcoming game “The Devil in Me” depicts a group of documentary filmmakers exploring a modern-day replica of the infamous “Murder Castle.”
The story of H.H. Holmes is a gruesome yet endlessly compelling one, perfect fodder for storytellers and audiences alike.
It belongs in the same morbid pantheon of “Helter Skelter” and “In Cold Blood” and will surely intrigue true-crime fans for generations to come.