Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Holmes Castle


Herman Mudgett was a New Hampshire-born medical student with an interest in the macabre. Mudgett, or H.H. Holmes, as he began calling himself (among a number of other aliases) came to Chicago in 1886 and quickly charmed his way into work at a pharmacy in Englewood on the South side of Chicago, at 63rd and Wallace. After the widow who owned the pharmacy mysteriously disappeared, Holmes took over the business and grew it successfully, largely by charming the neighborhood women, who took pains to visit and patronize his business.

With the money from his drug store, Holmes purchased the lot across the street (pictured above) and designed and built his "castle," which included retail shops on the first floor and rooms on the second. It wasn't until much later that the interesting aspects of the castle came to public notice: the rooms with locks on the outside and gas nozzles on the inside, the vats of acid, the corridors that led to nowhere, the kiln hot enough to disintegrate flesh in the basement.

Before, and especially during, the World's Fair of 1893, Holmes tortured and killed scores of visitors, especially women, to whom he was preternaturally irresistible. He became Chicago's first serial killer, the "Jack the Ripper of America." Holmes married several times (usually without divorcing the previous wife); during the Fair, he moved his wife to an apartment in Lincoln Park.

He was eventually caught, and hanged in 1896.

Holmes was no architect nor engineer, and his castle was neither well-designed nor built to particularly high standards. In addition, in order to conceal his misanthropy, the building was erected by a continually changing cast of workers. Holmes' practice was to hire a crew one week, then refuse to pay them, then hire a new group of workers when the last ones gave up. The castle would not have stood long, but its demise was hastened by an unknown arsonist, and it burned to the ground shortly after Holmes was arrested. The location is now a U.S. post office.

UPDATE: Based on information from a commenter, it appears that, after the fire, the building was largely rebuilt, and continued to be used until January, 1938, when it was purchased by the city for use as a post office. The photo below shows the building as it looked in 1938, when the address was 601-03 W. 63rd. Thanks to Adam Seltzer for the tip.



11 comments:

Adam Selzer said...

The castle stood longer than is generally known - the 1895 fire pretty well gutted the place, and mostbooks have assumed that was the end of it. In fact, though, it was still on the spot until 1938, when the city bought it as a tear-down.

Love your site! I run the blog over at http://www.weirdchicagoblog.com

Kendall said...

Adam,

Thanks a lot for the tip. I did much less research on these older posts than I do on the more recent ones, and I plan to go through and rewrite a lot of them at some point.

I was able to corroborate your thesis with evidence from a 1938 Tribune article (see above).

Lara said...

I enjoyed the pictures of "the castle" since it enhanced the story behind the book Devil in the White City that I am currently reading. LK

Rhiannon said...

I an currently reading the book and just found out 10 minutes ago that there will be a movie in 2013. Awesome! Can't wait!

RussB said...

Wow. My dad was a career Chicago policeman and grew up on the south on Dauphine Ave as well. He worked the Engelwood district for a long time and he'd heard of the Holmes Castle and never knew where it was. I grew up near Midway off 63rd and used to take the 63rd St CTA through there to IIT and other lakefront points and passed that many times and I know that post office well from seeing it from the bus window regularly. I just recently found the documentary movie about Mudgeon/Holmes on Netflix and has seen an episode of Supernatural where they mentioned it and decided to check the location today via Google Maps street view. Wow I know that corner and overpass. Aldi across the street must be the pharmacy location where Holmes started his Chicago spree. My dad retired from the CPD in 96 and passed in 01 but I had heard of many other things in Chicago he had been involved in such as the DNC riots, the post King assasination riots, Richard Speck's nurse murders and some other major things but to think a quiet post office is the former site of such horrific events is mind boggling. I haven't been in the city since I went in the USAF in 76 but if I have reason to venture back I may drive back down 63rd...make me feel like I'm in my own Kolshack episode LOL

Anonymous said...

just finished the book "scarlet mansion"...after "the jungle"...damn chicago...wtf?

Julie said...

I have looked and looked for photos of the interior, but have never found any. Anyone?

Anonymous said...

Interestingly enough there are articles I have read that claim HH Holmes is Jack the Ripper. I maybe wrong but msnbc may have that story in its archive from no longer than a year ago.

Anonymous said...

I'm from englewood and never heard that one and i go to that post office

Anonymous said...

Good catch on the building's survival til 1938--the one mistake in DIWC, as far as I know (Larsen says it burned to the ground as I recall. I think he may have taken an 1895 newspaper headline at face value--8/19/95 Trib headline says "demolished" but the article itself says "almost destroyed") A date for the 1938 Tribune reference would be useful, if you can't post a fascimile of it.

Anonymous said...

I read somewhere that the top two floors were taken down after the fire in 1895, and only the retail storefronts on the first floor opened again for business. If that is in fact true, that picture would have to be from circa 1890s.