Section 15 of the Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, Pennsylvania, is just off the aptly named walking path, Lazarus Avenue. Lot 41 in this section features an unmarked stone with the top tilted downward, abraded by time and general indifference. The body of one of America’s first serial killers rests 10 feet down, entombed in cement.
Herman Webster Mudgett paid his way through the University of Michigan by defrauding insurance companies with cadavers from the school’s Department of Medicine and Surgery. After he graduated in 1884 he changed his name to H.H. Holmes, an homage to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective, and made his way to Chicago.
He worked at a drugstore, and after the owner died Holmes conned his widow into handing over the place. Eventually, using the drugstore as a front, he obtained enough money to buy the property across the street. He drew up plans for what became known as his Murder Castle.
He finished the building in 1892, just as the Columbian Exposition world’s fair was getting ready nearby. The first floor was separated into storefronts, including the migrated drugstore, the third floor was sectioned into apartments, and the second floor contained soundproof rooms and a chute that went down to a crematorium in the basement.
After Holmes fled Chicago in ‘93, he killed Benjamin Pitezel in another insurance scam. A detective, Frank Geyer, was simply looking into the fraudulent claims when it soon became apparent Holmes had killed Pitezel. Geyer’s findings led him to the bodies of Pitezel’s three children and eventually to the Murder Castle, sealing Holmes’ fate.
On May 7, 1896, Dr. Henry Howard Holmes was hanged to death for six counts of attempted murder and four counts of first-degree murder. He requested the extra deep cement burial to prevent any potential grave robbers or medical examinations, and rumors have persisted that this was a way to avoid anyone discovering the body isn’t actually his.
He was smart, charming, and handsome, and he preyed on young women, many of whom had just left home for the first time. There are claims he killed as few as nine and as many as 200 people. In prison he penned the book Holmes’ Own Story, which contends he was wrongfully accused of 22 murders. Newspapers paid him $7,500 for his confession of killing 27 people, but it was filled with contradictions and he recanted it on the gallows anyway. It did include one haunting admission: “I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing.”