He gets called “America’s first serial killer,” but H. H. Holmes – born Herman Webster Mudgett – was hanged in 1896 for a single murder. Only one count was ever brought against him a courtroom, and we know by now that his confession to 27 murders isn’t believable. So was he really a serial killer, or is that just part of the myth?
The thing is, Holmes didn’t know the phrase “serial killer” when he was confessing. The backstory that everyone seems to know today – absent father, abusive mother, history of starting fires and harming animals and wetting the bed, etc. etc. – didn’t become common knowledge until the last quarter of the twentieth century. (Mindhunter, anyone?) Although the term may have been coined earlier, it still wasn’t in enough time for Holmes to have known it.
And when you consider the “big names” of serial killing – what Peter Vronsky calls the Golden Age – they look more like Jack the Ripper than H. H. Holmes. The most famous serial killers murder and mutilate for their own personal pleasure, and the crimes are usually messy. These get categories as “lust murders,” and Holmes wasn’t a lust murderer.
The murder for which he was hanged, that of Benjamin Pitezel, was part of an insurance scam. Holmes tried to stage his friend’s murder as some sort of accident so that Pitezel’s widow could collect on the $10,000 life insurance policy … and Holmes could relieve her of much of it.
The Pitezel children – Alice, Nellie, and Howard – are harder to explain, considering the strange journey Holmes took them on before killing them, but he used Alice to identify her father’s body and then all three children to control their mother. Holmes may not have had a plan fully hatched by the time he took possession of Nellie and Howard, and he may have abandoned the children in multiple cities, but he doesn’t seem to have tortured them. When Holmes decided it was time to kill Howard and then the girls, he didn’t use a knife. Holmes opted for poison and suffocation.
His earlier murders, at least the ones it seems reasonable to think he actually committed, weren’t killing for the sake of killing. Holmes killed for money, or when one of his mistresses either tired or annoyed him, but he wasn’t a lust murderer. When Holmes could con someone or talk his way out of something, he did.
Not all serial killers are lust murderers, a subset of hedonistic killers. But Holmes doesn’t really fall under any of the other main categories of visionary, mission-oriented, or power/control, either. He doesn’t come across as looking for revenge, trying to eliminate a certain group of people, or someone who gets any sort of pleasure out of murder. For Holmes, it feels like the next step for a con man when he can’t talk his way out of a situation and he doesn’t particularly care about the sanctity of human life.
Where Holmes does fit the definition, though, is how he killed multiple people at different times and in different locations, returning to “normal life” between the murders. He hid the murders, getting rid of physical evidence and even writing letters to cover up for his victims’ absence when noticed. He knew that what he was doing could lead to legal persecution, but that’s exactly what he used murder to avoid.
So: is Holmes a serial killer? The answer is “Yes, with a few buts.” Yes, but he isn’t a lust murderer like Bundy. Yes, but it’s hard to diagnose him for certain considering the time and place in which he killed.
Yes, but he wasn’t America’s first. Just the first one to show up in most contemporary timelines. Serial murder existed long before the term and the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit (now the Behavioral Analysis Unit), and therefore long before expert definition and explanation could be applied during their lifetime. Holmes made his mark – and started his own myth – at a time when he couldn’t claim the title for himself.