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Crime

Did the Notorious 19th-Century ‘Devil in the White City’ Serial Killer Fake His Own Death?

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H.H. Holmes
Chicago History Museum/Getty

The remains of a notorious 19th-century serial killer — who was the subject of Erik Larson’s 2003 bestselling book, The Devil in the White City — are being exhumed to finally dispel the rumor that the killer conned his way into having another prisoner executed in his place.

Dr. H. H. Holmes was hanged in 1896 in Philadelphia for murdering his business partner, but it’s believed he killed many more.

Just before his execution, the once-respected pharmacist turned con artist, who was born Herman Webster Mudgett, confessed to killing at least 27 people, according to the Chicago Tribune.

The dead included his son, who is thought to be Holmes’ first victim.

Other accounts claim that he may have killed more than 200 people, among them vulnerable young women who came to the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893.

Some of his victims were killed in a three-story hotel — later dubbed the “Murder Castle” or “Murder Hotel” — that he built in the fashionable neighborhood of Englewood, outfitting a former pharmacy with hidden passageways, doors that could only be locked from the outside and gas jets to asphyxiate guests who were staying for the fair.

Soon after his death, rumors began swirling that Holmes was not actually the convict who was executed and buried in the Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, Pennsylvania.

The speculation went that, instead, Holmes somehow slipped out of the execution by arranging to have another prisoner hanged in his place while he escaped to South America.

View of the World’s Fair Hotel — also known as “Holmes’ Castle,” the “Murder Castle” and other names — in Chicago in the mid-1890s.
Chicago History Museum/Getty

Now, 120 years later, Holmes’ great-grandchildren have received permission from a Pennsylvania court to unearth his remains in order to put such rumors to rest.

Under a decree issued by the Court of Common Pleas of Delaware County, Pennsylvania, the exhumation of Holmes’ remains is underway at Holy Cross Cemetery, according to a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which owns the land.

The Anthropology Department at the University of Pennsylvania is conducing the exhumation and will perform a DNA analysis on the remains, a spokesperson says.

Holmes’ three great-grandchildren, who could not immediately be reached for comment, have submitted DNA samples to the university for comparison, according to the Associated Press.

The killer continues to generate interest more than a century after his death: Leonardo DiCaprio is reuniting with director Martin Scorsese in an adaptation of Larson’s book. Holmes will also be featured in an upcoming show on the History Channel.

For his part, Larson told the AP in an email, “I have absolute confidence the body in that grave is Holmes.”