Summer is just around the corner, and many of us have already started making plans for summer travel. Many of us will stay at a hotel while on vacation, and we’ll consider things like location and amenities when choosing a place to stay. The thought of getting murdered in a hotel room is probably not something that crosses the minds of many of us. For those who were unfortunate enough to check in to Henry Howard Holmes’ World’s Fair Hotel in 1890s Chicago, perhaps safety should have been more of a consideration.
Born Herman Webster Mudgett, the mastermind behind the murder hotel had been a criminal for years before he came to Chicago in 1886. In fact, he had changed his name to Henry Howard Holmes to escape punishment from his previous crimes, which included bigamy and stealing cadavers from a medical school.
Shortly after arriving in the Windy City, Holmes began constructing his hotel. It was meant to house visitors to Chicago’s World’s Fair, which was scheduled for 1893. Rather than simply installing the latest conveniences to please his guests, Holmes set about designing accommodations that would enable one of the most gruesome series of murders in American history.
Holmes served as his own architect for the project, and his horrific creativity knew no bounds. He fitted the house with trap doors, doors that opened onto brick walls, and hidden staircases. Some of the rooms locked from the outside and could be used as prison cells. All the guest rooms were soundproofed, and some were fitted with gas lines or blowtorches. The doors were also rigged with alarms, just in case one of his victims tried to escape. Holmes was able to have all this constructed without notice because he regularly fired his contractors over alleged incompetence.
The hotel was finished in time for the Fair, and Holmes set about placing ads to lure guests to the lodgings. He also obtained several female victims by offering jobs in classified ads in small towns. The women were instructed that the job and the company name were secret, and many came to Chicago without telling anyone where they were staying. They then fell victim to Holmes.
Once someone checked in to the World’s Fair Hotel, Holmes would murder them in creative ways. He would seal some of them up in rooms to let them die of starvation. Others fell prey to the gas lines he had installed, and would be killed in rooms that functioned as gas chambers. He also had a hanging room, where he would strangle victims. Once they were dead, his guests would be sent down a chute to the building’s basement, where he would dissect them and sell their body parts to the medical community. What he didn’t sell he attempted to obliterate in acid baths, lime pits, and furnaces.
Holmes left Chicago and his hotel of horrors after the fair ended. He was later implicated in the murder of a business partner and was arrested in Boston in 1894. At this point, authorities were able to trace his previous whereabouts to Chicago and connected his hotel to the disappearance of at least 50 people.
Upon investigating the hotel, police found human bones, bloody clothing, vats of acid, lime pits, and his dissecting table covered in blood. Holmes eventually admitted to killing 28 people. The police were only able to connect him to nine victims, but it is now estimated that he may have been responsible for fifty or more deaths.
Holmes was found guilty of murder and was hanged in May of 1896. His last request was that his coffin be encased in cement so that no one would dig him up and dissect him, as he had done to so many. The hotel he built was partially destroyed by fire in 1895, and it was finally torn down completely in 1938 to make way for a new post office.
Though you can’t visit the World’s Fair Hotel anymore, you may recognize parts of its story from season 5 of American Horror Story, aptly titled “Hotel.” The murderous hotel owner in the series was partially inspired by H. H. Holmes himself.