In Episode 317 Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger roll into Gilmanton, New Hampshire, to see the birthplace of America’s first and possibly most prolific serial killer Herman Webster Mudgett, better known as H.H. Holmes. Holmes became most infamous for building the Murder Castle in Chicago during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Joining us on this adventure is Jeff Mudgett, author, researcher, History Channel host, and the great great grandson of H.H. Holmes. Officially, Holmes was hanged in prison May 7, 1896, and then buried in Philadelphia. But is that really Holmes in the grave? Listen to find out!
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[DRIVING IN CAR]
JEFF: Okay, we’re going to make a left up here onto Rt. 107.
RAY: Got it.
JEFF: Annnd that should put us in the middle of downtown Gilmanton, New Hampshire.
RAY: This is a small town in central New Hampshire. There’s not much here.
JEFF: Nope, just a few buildings. There’s the Gilmanton Academy building on our right… which means our destination is coming up on our left. You can pull over wherever you can park on the side.
[CAR STOPS / ENGINE OFF / DOORS CLOSE]
RAY: Yeah, there’s just a few buildings around here in downtown Gilmanton. And they’re all painted white! There’s the town offices, the Gilmanton Academy, there’s a church over there…
JEFF: And right across the street from the church is our destination. That white house.
RAY: Okay, it’s a two-and-a-half story white house. It looks like a big addition has been added on to the back of it. I can see a small sign on the front that reads: Built in 1825. So the house is almost two centuries old now. Is it haunted?
JEFF: Sort of. Ray, we’ve come to Gilmanton, New Hampshire, to see the birthplace of America’s first and possibly most prolific serial Killer… H.H. Holmes.
JEFF: Hello, I’m Jeff Belanger.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger. Welcome to Episode 317 of the New England Legends podcast. Thanks for joining us as we chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. From true crime to ghosts, monsters, UFOs, roadside oddities, eccentrics, and the just plain weird.
JEFF: And if you want even more weirdness, be sure to head to our Web site to see clips from the New England Legends television series that you can watch right now on Amazon prime, plus dates for my fall story tour and to see Ray’s band the Pub Kings. Dates for my story tour can also be found on HalloweenNewEngland.com which is a great resource for all things spooky from haunted fun houses, ghost walks, family events, and everything else you could ever want to do broken down by state. They literally have thousands of listings there. It’s worth checking out.
RAY: We’ll explore the birthplace of HH Holmes right after this word from our sponsor.
RAY: Okay, Jeff. When I think of H.H. Holmes, I think of Chicago. The Devil in the White City.
JEFF: Yes, that’s the guy. He’s most infamous for constructing the Murder Castle for the Chicago World Fair in 1893. His hotel had secret doors and passageways around the building so he could enter people’s rooms at night, kill them, and slip the bodies out unnoticed. He initially confessed to 27 murders before his execution, but others later said it could have been as many as 200 before he was hanged for murder in a Pennsylvania prison May 7, 1896 and then buried in a Philadelphia cemetery.
RAY: So we’re talking a LOT of people.
JEFF: He killed a lot for sure. And just like every other person on earth, his story has a beginning. And the beginning for H.H. Holmes was right inside that house in Gilmanton, New Hampshire. We don’t know a ton about the early life of H.H. Holmes, other than it seemed somewhat normal. Given how complex this story is, we’re going to do things a little differently on this episode. And We’re going to bring in some help.
JM: My name is Jeff Mudgett. I’m the author of Bloodstains and the co-host of History Channel’s American Ripper.
RAY: I remember that show! Jeff Mudgett was trying to show that H.H. Holmes may have also been the infamous Jack the Ripper in London.
JEFF: That’s the one! At this point we should also tell you that H.H. Holmes was NOT born with that name. And our guest on this episode has a special connection.
JM: I’m the great great grandson of Herman Webster Mudget, better known as Dr. H.H. Holmes, America’s first serial killer.
RAY: Wow! This is going to be exciting.
JEFF: Jeff Mudgett was a criminal attorney who became obsessed with learning all he could about his infamous relative. He’s been researching H.H. Homes for the last 15 years.
RAY: I have so many questions. Jeff, did you ever get the chance to actually go inside the house here in Gilmanton?
JM: Yes I did. When you visit certain places that have to do with the subject matter you’re dealing with. Mine obviously my great great grandfather. There are some places you go into and you feel nothing. Nothing whatsoever, and there are some places that hit you right between the eyes. When I walked in that front door it was right between the eyes. And the people living there now were very friendly, very open to my being there even when they knew who I was. And took me right upstairs to the bedroom he lived in and grew up in sleeping at night. When we got upstairs… ohhh.. I’m not big on the paranormal ghost spirit world, but I was that day. I definitely had a presence around me trying to fit in everything that was… and very remarkably it felt very 19th century upstairs.
RAY: We understand time travel in places like these. Believe me.
JEFF: As far as the childhood of Herman Mudget here in New Hampshire, we don’t know a whole lot. We know he attended the church across the street. He taught elementary school for a little bit. There was a rumor about him murdering when he was young and living here in town, but there’s no facts to back it up. No evidence, no body… nothing. So that could be people adding to his story years after the fact. He was intelligent, did well in school, but realized he wanted more from his life. Much more.
RAY: On July 4, 1878, Herman Mudget married a girl from nearby Alton, New Hampshire.
JM: My great great grandmother was Clara who was his first wife, but strangely enough he never divorced her besides marrying many time thereafter. But you kind of get the idea of what we’re dealing with just with that right there. And the woman, my father actually met Clara. I never did. Who stayed in love with Holmes even after his national murder trial and the so-called execution-burial with every major newspaper attending. She stayed right there full in love.
RAY: So H.H. Holmes never divorced Clara Lovering. The couple had one child, a boy named Robert, which would have been Jeff Mudgett’s Great Grandfather. Holmes would also marry Myrta Belknap in 1886, Minnie Williams in 1893, and Georgina Yoke in 1894.
JEFF: So this is a guy who was never honest about much of anything. So after Clara and Herman had their child, Mudgett headed out to the Great Lakes region to chase his bigger dreams.
JM: So he decided he wanted to be a doctor, and actually went to the University of Michigan Medical School. That medical school part was where he knew he needed to go to become—and I’ve believed this for a long time—maybe the most knowledgeable man that ever lived regarding forensic sciences and the ability to eliminate all evidence of murder after it had occurred. And he was the best. He paid for his medical school working at a cemetery with the caretaker preparing bodies as a young man. That’s how he paid for his school.
JEFF: With deep medical expertise, a perfect storm of murder was brewing.
RAY: So when did Herman Mudgett become H.H. Holmes?
JM: Oh he had at least 41 different aliases. The Holmes thing and it’s relationship to Sherlock Holmes fascinated him. He took a hankering to it. He liked it.
RAY: It figures a man out to fool every detective in the country would be obsessed with the most famous literary detective ever.
JEFF: So Dr. H.H. Holmes soon began running a murderous and profitable M.O. He would find some mark and say, “We can run this scam on life insurance companies. You take out a big policy on yourself, and I’ll find a body that we can claim is you. The insurance company will find the body, know you’re dead, and payout the insurance claim to me. We split the money and you can disappear and start a new life.” Holmes would often kill the actual mark, which was just easier for him. Then there really is a body.
RAY: From here we move to the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, and his infamous Murder Castle. Jeff, how did Holmes come to build this murder hotel?
JM: He had some money, he was making money defrauding life insurance companies, substituting corpses, using the teeth to prove ID’s, I mean that’s how good he got at that. And then manipulating the people he was working with to sign him up as their beneficiary on these policies, them thinking it was all a part of a fraud they were going to be part of instead of be murdered in. I think that World’s Fair thing with millions coming to Chicago in the 1890s, and his ability to put a little pharmacy/hotel with his living quarters upstairs and his infamous basement down below… the Frankenstein Room. His ability to put that right next to the subway train that was two miles away from the World’s Fair with all these people fascinated to see this beautiful thing, the World’s Fair. The first Ferris wheel, all these things. You had Einstein, you had a lot of incredible names there attending. And Holmes could walk down the street to this thing, or he could be at the hotel welcoming visitors to his infamous place. And that was on his bucket list , I would imagine, and I think he made the most of it sadly enough.
JEFF: So he had a huge draw with the World’s Fair. Plenty of potential victims. Before the Murder Hotel, Holmes seemed to be killing mostly for profit…
RAY: But the Murder Castle takes things to a whole other level. Killing for money is one thing. It’s awful, but the motive is clear. With the Murder Castle, this feels more like killing for sport. Do you think Holmes was completely detached from any human connection, or was he just that sinister?
JM: I’m not a psychiatrist. When you’re dealing with Holmes and the psychiatrists I’ve dealt with about him. They all run into stop signs with him. Problems. None want to believe that a human being could murder that wasn’t psychotic. After having studied him so long and reading his book. The brilliance he exhibited setting his lawyers down and conducting his own defense at the murder trial. Things like that. The frauds. The cons on government. I think he was just pure evil. Maybe that’s why I’ve stuck with the story so long, because I think there’s something to that that we all should pay closer attention to. That it doesn’t have to be a psychotic Charles Manson to be this type of evil criminal. That’s the way he was born. He talks about it at the end. He talks about it. There were times that he wished he wasn’t. But that’s what he was.
JEFF: Eventually, H.H. Holmes gets caught. While briefly in jail in St. Louis, he runs his mouth about some of the crimes he’d committed. It was his downfall. He liked to talk. His cellmate ratted him out in exchange for his freedom, and it worked. He said Holmes was planning to build another Murder Castle in Texas, that he had other insurance scams planned and pretty soon the noose starts to tighten.
RAY: At times Holmes had a lot of money, other times he was broke and would need to run his murderous scam again. After his arrest in Boston and trial in Philadelphia, it was clear to Holmes that he was going to hang for his crimes. The law had finally caught up with him. That’s when Holmes started writing his memoir where he confessed to many other murders. But how many was it actually?
JM: In his book he wrote about 27, which was proven incorrect because many of those were still living when the experts went and ran it down. When I go to true crime conferences and things like that, many of the experts want to get up and argue whether it was nine, whether it was 13, I have no idea. All I can tell you is he’s the best there ever was at hiding evidence of murder and then eliminating the remains either with furnaces, chemicals, crematoriums, Lake Superior, concrete. He was the best there ever was at that. So when you get into trying to prove how many he murdered, you’re never going to get to anywhere with that.
RAY: So we may never know the exact number. Officially, H.H. Holmes was hanged May 7, 1896 at Moyamensing Prison in Philadelphia and then buried in a Catholic cemetery.
JEFF: Buuut that may not be the end of the story. Jeff Mudgett’s family has stories and lore about how HH Holmes was NOT executed. It was someone else in that grave. They claimed they even had pictures of Holmes taken in California after he was allegedly hanged. So to find out if it is Holmes in that grave in Philadelphia, they’d need to dig him up and test the DNA.
JM: We got the judge at the Court of Common Please in Philadelphia to agree if the Catholic Church agreed, who we got to agree. It was quite an extensive procedure. And History decided, okay, we’re going to pay for exhumation, we’re going to dig it up. We’re going to hire some of the greatest archeologists and biological anthropologists at the University of Pennsylvania. World famous scientists, to supervise this dig and we’re going to put it on film. And we did. Because I had told them there are family legends of him living out his life in California having escaped the execution. The judge ordered them to identify the body as Holmes or he was going to order me to mark the grave as unidentifiable as some innocent human being having been substituted there by the serial killer. As you can imagine exhuming the grave was part of my bucket list for this whole story and we got to do it. And then watching the scientists taking DNA from my father and I and trying to compare it with the body, the remains. Taking CT scans trying to match the teeth with what we knew might have been his teeth when he was living, it was something I’ll never forget and a great experiences.
RAY: And what did you find?
JM: We’ve proven that as we exhumed the remains from the grave, the DNA did not match my father’s and mine. CT scans did not show the broken neck that the man was reported to have suffered hanging by the neck by a rope and two doctors specifying he had a broken neck which caused the death. And now that the teeth that the U Penn scientists used to say that this was HH Holmes were fake! So I’m very excited right now. I’m going to go back to Philadelphia, I’m going to explain to the court that gave the order for the exhumation and the Catholic church who were required to consent to the entire procedure because this was a Catholic cemetery, that this evidence that says that it was Holmes was not just possibly incorrect. It’s absolutely incorrect.
JEFF: So the mystery deepens. Maybe H.H. Holmes was never executed. Maybe he got away. If he did that, how did he pull this off?
JM: But now we find out that there were two burials. We find there were multiple gravesites. Holmes bought three of them while waiting execution. There were two coffins, one bodiless, and the other that concrete sarcophagus that history writes over and over about, all the authors you pick up about H.H. Holmes. Those inconsistencies and discrepancies in the story which have always gone as: this killer. This terrible evil man was afraid of grave robbers touching his remains and he wanted to make this a secret. Okay. I never could quite dig into that. But now we’re starting to see that this was his way to hide another body. This was his way to hide him having escaped. This was his way of getting a blank check to go west and live out his life in California where his first wife moved from New England immediately after. He knew that if that body was ever identified as not him, there would have been the biggest man-hunt in American history. There would have been a reward unbelievable. Dead or alive. And he knew that. He knew all those things. Now I can’t prove what he was thinking, I can’t prove his intents, I can’t prove those things. But now I have the evidence proving it wasn’t his body.
RAY: If H.H. Holmes escaped the gallows and started a new life with his first wife, and Jeff Mudgett’s great great grandmother Clara out in California, did he lay low the rest of his days, or did he continue his murderous work?
JEFF: We may never know. And it’s easy to imagine that back in 1896 the public was eager to know H.H. Holmes was dead and no longer a threat. So if mistakes were made it’s possible police would have been eager to keep it quiet and hope Holmes stayed off the radar the rest of his days.
RAY: This is dark and evil stuff. I can’t imagine having no regard for human life like that. America’s first serial killer born right here in this small town in New Hampshire. You don’t think of a peaceful town like this as the birthplace of someone so evil. But like we said earlier, everyone starts somewhere.
JEFF: We’ll give Jeff Mudgett the last word on this. Or rather we’ll allow Jeff to share some of the last words of H.H. Holmes who said:
JM: I was born with the devil in me. He’s been with me ever since.
RAY: And that brings us to After the Legends where we take a closer look at this week’s story and sometimes veer off course.
JEFF: After the Legend is brought to you by our Patreon Patrons! Our patrons know great content isn’t free. They step up and help us with our hosting, production, marketing, and travel costs so we can bring you two new stories each week. Plus, they get early ad-free episodes plus bonus episodes and content that no one else gets to hear. It’s just $3 bucks per month, and we sure would appreciate your help. Just head over to patreon.com/newenglandlegends to sign up.
To see some pictures of the H.H. Holmes birth house in Gilmanton, plus other pictures related to Holmes, click on the link on our episode description, or head to our Web site and click on Episode 317. We’ll also have links to our guest Jeff Mudgett, his book Bloodstains, and his History Channel show American Ripper.
I’ve known Jeff Mudgett for years now. I once asked him if it bothers him that Holmes blood is in his veins. He said it does.
With so many unanswered questions, HH Holmes legend only grows. And new chapters get written when new evidence like this exhumation comes out.
If you’ve got a weird story of ghosts, monsters, roadside oddities, true crime, aliens, or the just plain weird that you think we should check out, reach out to us anytime through our Web site. We love hearing from you. And we love when you tell others about our show. It’s how we grow our community.
Thank you to Jeff Mudgett for joining us on our adventure this week, thank you to our sponsors, thank you to our patreon patrons, and our theme music is by John Judd.
Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think.