Scientists Just Exhumed the Body of H.H. Holmes, America's First Serial Killer

There are few names in United States history that evoke as much dread as H.H. Holmes. You might know him better as the "Devil In The White City". While Chicago was pulling out all the stops for the 1893 World's Fair, Holmes was building an inescapable death trap for his victims: the infamous Murder Castle. Holmes was eventually caught, but rumors persisted that he had somehow slipped the grasp of the authorities and escaped to another country. So in 2017, a team of scientists from Penn State exhumed the alleged body of "Henry Howard Holmes" to test its DNA — and what they found was truly bizarre.

Whose Body?

The effort to dig up the body of H.H. Holmes (real name Herman Webster Mudgett) was spearheaded by retired trial lawyer Jeff Mudgett, the great-grandson of the killer himself. See, after Holmes was captured, tried, and executed, most people would have been happy to believe it, but rumors began flying almost immediately. According to one 1898 report from the Chicago Inter-Ocean, "Within two hours of the hanging, an undertaker's wagon containing a casket drove out of the prison yard. That casket was supposed to contain the body of Holmes. Instead, it contained Holmes living." So Mudgett — the modern one, who never serial killed anyone — decided to settle the question once and for all.

First, the good news. Yes, it was H.H. Holmes in that grave. And next, the weird: when they dug up that body, they found two coffins. The first was full of concrete, and the second was full of concrete and H.H. Holmes. Holmes, apparently, really didn't want anybody messing with his body. Apparently, he was feeling a bit paranoid about his remains being desecrated, what with the murder castle and all.

The concrete shell might not have worked to keep prying eyes from his grave, but it did have the unexpected effect of destroying the body. His clothes survived, and, unbelievably, so did the mustache on his skull, but the rest of him had decayed to a disgusting goop. It was so far gone that the DNA wasn't preserved well enough to test it against Mudgett's, as was the original plan. But fortunately, the skull had survived, and the dental records were enough to prove that the body was the right one. He got his just desserts.

Which Killer?

The modern-day Mudgett had another reason for re-examining his notorious ancestor. In his book "Bloodstains", Mudgett put forward a rather contentious theory: that H.H. Holmes and Jack the Ripper were one and the same. He bases that theory on the fact that both killers were operating at the same time, and what's more, he claims that diary entries written by his great-grandfather suggest that he was in London at the right time.

But others aren't so sure. After all, their M.O.s could hardly have been more different: where Holmes was methodical and secret, Jack killed with wild impunity. As "H.H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil" author Adam Selzer told the Chicago Tribune, "I could put together a better case that Holmes was innocent than that he was Jack the Ripper. I don't think he was innocent."

Want to learn more about the most murderous architect of all time? He's going to be played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film adaptation "The Devil in the White City", the most sordid details of his life can be found in "The True History of the White City Devil", and Jeff Mudgett's true(?) account of his secret identity can be read in "Bloodstains".

The Worlds Fair Murder Castle

Written by Reuben Westmaas September 17, 2017

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