H.H. Holmes (Wikimedia/Salon)

The White City Devil's early life: "I think that he would have killed her"

Accounts differ on serial killer H.H. Holmes as a boy and a young man. We know his first marriage didn't end well


Adam Selzer
July 29, 2017 1:00PM (UTC)
Excerpted with permission from "H.H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil" by Adam Selzer. Copyright 2017, Skyhorse Publishing, Inc. Available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and IndieBound.

Herman never did anything wrong; he never had to be scolded for not doing as he was told, nor for playing pranks . . . I never knew him to torment anyone, especially animals. Some boys, you know, like to torment kittens and sometimes they are very cruel to them, but Herman was too tender-hearted for anything like that.

—Theodate Mudgett, Holmes’s mother

H.H. Holmes

“I tell you,” one Chicago doctor chuckled in 1890, “The starched and ramrod-y medical college professors of today would have opened their eyes in the early sixties . . . Cadavers were frightfully scarce. The hospitals were very small and awfully unaccommodating, and, anyway, people were not dying just then with any praiseworthy rapidity; probably they were too busy or doctors were not thick enough. Science could not be allowed to suffer, [so] I was perforce compelled to become a bold and burking resurrectionist. I made weekly or even more frequent visits to the cemetery.”

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For medical students in those days, becoming a “resurrectionist”—a fancy name for “grave robber”—was a rite of passage. All medical schools had learned that they couldn’t train new doctors without cadavers, and the services of “professional subject” gatherers who would dig up freshly buried bodies didn’t come cheap—doing your own digging showed a bit of school pride.

But as it became known that every medical school was either robbing graves or hiring men to do it for them, doctors were often eyed with suspicion and scorn by the community, and medical schools came to have a reputation a little beneath that of brothels and whiskey bars. The 1846 epitaph of Ruth Sprague, who died in Hoosick Falls at the age of nine, illustrates the sentiment of the day:

Her body dissected by fiendish men,
Her bones anatomized
Her soul, we trust, has risen to God,
Where few physicians rise.

That these “fiendish men” were only trying to further their medical knowledge, and couldn’t do so any other way, was seldom thought of. In Chicago in the 1850s, the city sexton (cemetery manager) was caught assisting a school in obtaining the body of a man who had recently died after his leg was amputated;4 one doctor wrote a letter to the Chicago Tribune, pointing out that if the doctor who performed the amputation had had more bodies to practice on, the man might not have died in the first place.

But such arguments held little sway, especially among country people. It was in this world that Dr. Nahum Wight operated in Gilmanton, New Hampshire.

Wight was a “demonstrator,” a word for professors of anatomy, and as early as 1846 he was said to possess a collection of “many valuable preparations in both healthy and morbid anatomy.” According to an obituary published by the New Hampshire Medical Society, “For several years [Dr. Wight] maintained a dissection room for the benefit of his students and himself, when such an enterprise was made difficult and sometimes perilous by prejudice, and the law by which one might be sent to the state prison for having in possession a dead human body. He defended human dissection, and taught the public its necessity.”

Wight used to take in medical students as apprentices to live and study with him. One of his live-in students, Reuben Price, later joined the First New Hampshire Heavy Artillery during the Civil War and surely used what he’d learned from Dr. Wight in his capacity as assistant surgeon to the unit. He didn’t go home to New Hampshire much in the years after the war, but when he did, perhaps he told stories of battlefield amputations to his young nephew, Herman Webster Mudgett, the future H. H. Holmes.

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In his 1895 autobiography, Holmes/Mudgett spoke of the doctor’s office in his small New Hampshire hometown as a place that frightened him as a child, partly because of associating it with “nauseous mixtures that had been my childhood terrors,” and partly because of stories other boys told him about terrifying things that could be found inside of the office. One day, two older boys dragged young Herman through the doors of the office until he was face-to-face with a grinning skeleton. It had its arms outstretched, as if it were about to grab him. But as terrified as he was, something in the skeleton fascinated him, and this fascination grew into an adult desire to study medicine.

Holmes may have been making the story up, but that’s the way he told it in 1895, when he sat in a prison cell to write "Holmes’ Own Story," an autobiography that begins by inviting the reader to “Come with me, if you will, to a tiny, quiet New England village, nestling among the picturesquely rugged hills of New Hampshire. This little hamlet has for over a century been known as Gilmanton Academy . . . Here, in the year 1861, I, Herman W. Mudgett, the author of these pages, was born.”

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The book has little value as literature and is of questionable value as a source on Holmes. There’s strong evidence that large chunks of the book are complete fictions written by a ghost-writer without Holmes’s permission, and it’s likely that even the parts Holmes did write were heavily punched up to make them more readable. And even if one believed that he wrote it all himself, it’s well established that he was a chronic liar, and nothing he wrote should be taken as absolutely factual. In fact, we see evidence of his casual relationship with the truth in some of his earliest official records: his 1870 census lists him, correctly, as nine years old. In 1880, however, the still-teenaged Mudgett told the census man that he was twenty-three.

However, the skeleton story seems to have a ring of truth to it and might even be too good a story for Holmes to have come up with on his own (for all his lies, coming up with compelling fiction was not one of his greater skills). The office probably would have been that of Dr. Wight, and it’s quite possible that a skeleton was hardly the most terrifying thing to be found there. What’s most strange is that Holmes left out a particularly important detail: as a teenager, he would study under Wight himself, just as his uncle had, and would later refer to the elderly demonstrator as his best friend.

Herman W. Mudgett (who will be referred to primarily as “Holmes”) was born to Mr. Levi Mudgett, a housepainter and later postmaster, and Theodate Mudgett, in Gilmanton, New Hampshire, in 1861. They lived in the shadow of the Gilmanton Academy, an excellent school that young Herman eventually attended. If his parents were anything other than upright, respectable citizens, no one at the time wrote it down. One neighbor, a minister’s son, remembered that “Holmes and parents were frequently attendants upon my father’s preaching . . . His people were very upright, God-fearing citizens, living in a quiet, secluded section of the country. There is no trace or taint of immorality or vice in the family history for at least three generations of which I have any knowledge.”

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By all accounts, Holmes’s childhood was almost entirely normal, with only a few incidents he later felt were worth recording, and even fewer that are worth repeating.

One of the few memorable stories he told was that of an itinerant photographer coming to town in the late 1860s. Holmes claimed that he offered to work as an errand boy in exchange for having his own picture taken, and put in several days of work. One day, he opened the door and found the artist removing his artificial leg. Never having known that such things existed, the young boy was terrified. “Had he next proceeded to remove his head in the same mysterious way I should not have been further surprised,” Holmes wrote. The photographer took young Herman’s picture minutes later, and, though he no longer possessed a copy in 1895, he could still remember “the thin terror-stricken face of that bare footed, home-spun clad boy.”

In 1894, when Boston papers first sent reporters to interview members of the Mudgett family and their neighbors, none of them had a single unkind word to say about Levi or Theodate—and hardly anyone had a cruel word for Herman himself, for that matter. Everyone remembered him as a good student and a fairly agreeable, if unremarkable, young man. His mother, even after his arrest, told a Boston Journal reporter that “Herman was such a good little child. He was very pretty and loving and I used to call him my little blue-eyed baby.” The preacher’s son described Holmes as “a quiet, studious, faithful lad, with refined tastes, not caring to join to any extent in the rude and rough games of his companions at school, and easily standing as the first scholar in his class. He was a general favorite with the mothers in that community, because he was a well behaved lad.”

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Others weren’t quite as generous. Ira Pennock, a cobbler, remembered that “Herman was a hard worker, but still there was something about him I didn’t like. He went to church and all that, but still . . . Herman was too fond of money.” He recalled a time when Herman had stolen 43 cents from his vest pocket when they were working together, another when he tried to get paid twice for sawing wood for the minister, and yet another when Herman swore he’d mailed the payment for fixing a pair of his shoes, though the payment never came. Holmes was also remembered by one neighbor as “a boy easily influenced” who “did not appear to be well grounded in firm principles, notwithstanding his excellent home training and instruction.”

A clerk in the local post office, Clara Bean, told a reporter that “He was never rude to girls, unlike most boys. But he did like money . . . my father always said he was just like his grandfather.” The grandfather, Moses Price, was known in town as a tight-fisted miser. Some later stories even suggested a streak of insanity (Holmes himself said so), though there’s little to suggest a history of mental instability in the family.

There is, almost inevitably, at least one account from a neighbor that Herman was something of a loner: “He always seemed to be by himself,” said Mrs. Betsy Hoadley, a neighbor. “I know that instead of playing with the other boys he would wander off alone on long walks. He never was much of a favorite with the other boys, and they did not understand him. He seemed to be very secretive, lived within himself, and altogether he was a good deal of an enigma. He was too arrogant and domineering to be popular with children. Grown people liked him because he was so polite, but they could not by any means fathom him.”

An unnamed source told the Boston Journal in 1894 that as a boy, Holmes “had quick and nervous ways, eyes which never looked one squarely in the face and a smooth and easy way with him.” Time and again in his life, people would note that Holmes never seemed to look anyone in the face. Two doctors later confirmed that this was a medical condition: his left eye was afflicted with strabismus (a formal term for the more common “cross-eyed” or “wall-eyed”). Strabismus can create difficulties in making eye contact, and this can naturally lead to social difficulties, and even to psychological problems. Modern studies show that there are still social biases against strabismic children, and these biases would have been far more pronounced in a nineteenth-century rural town. Though it’s impossible to diagnose Holmes psychologically today, it’s not hard to imagine the mental issues that could result from people so frequently perceiving him as being dishonest from his inability to look them in the eye. And they certainly did; when asked for horror stories about him following his arrest, witness after witness would cite the fact that Holmes never looked them in the eye as evidence that he was a criminal. Even if it didn’t lead to any real psychological issues, learning to make people trust him when they were inclined not to would have been an important skill for the young man to learn, and it would have been an important tool in his career as a con artist.

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When stories of Holmes as a criminal circulated a decade after he left town, people in New Hampshire did began to speak of old stories of unexpected deaths in their community, such as the death of one Mr. Beck, who died in London, New Hampshire. Beck, who had married the widow of one of Holmes’s uncles some time before, was found in his house, dead of an apparent suicide with a rope around his neck and his legs bent under him. Rumors in the 1890s said that even back in the 1870s, people were saying that it had been a murder, and that teenage Herman was the killer. Levi Mudgett was disturbed enough by the stories to write the Boston Journal a letter stating that murder was never officially suspected, and that the date in the rumors was completely wrong; Beck had died around 1874, some years earlier than the rumors.22 These neighbors were remembering young Mudgett and the old stories only after papers started calling Holmes the world’s greatest criminal, which probably affected their memory a bit.

Overall, Holmes’s childhood wasn’t particularly marked by the habits of a chronic liar, and outside of stray anecdotes, rumors, and tales of petty crimes, there’s little to suggest that he was on the path toward becoming “the arch fiend of the age.” But it does seem that his romantic and matrimonial misadventures may have begun early, with a teenage marriage that may have been performed in secret.

Clara

Holmes would consider himself “married” to three women in his life, so far as is known, and there’s also some evidence that at least two other women believed themselves to be his wife for brief periods before their disappearance. But only the first marriage, which was never dissolved, could have been counted as legal.

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By some accounts, he was engaged to be married once at the age of fourteen, after the death of his grandfather left him the heir to a small piece of land. Now thinking of himself as a man of means, he became enamored of a young New York girl who’d been sent to the country by her parents and was boarding at cobbler Ira Pennock’s house. He proposed marriage to her, and was rumored to have been accepted, but Pennock cut off the affair by sending the girl back to New York. Marriage to a fourteen-year-old local boy was probably not the country experience her parents had in mind.

By Holmes’s own account, he was working odd jobs and teaching school at the age of sixteen when he fell in love with Clara A. Lovering of London, New Hampshire. Clara seems to have been well liked and respected, though descriptions of what she was like as a person don’t go far beyond typical Victorian compliments. A neighbor told the Boston Journal that Clara was “a very pretty little woman when she was first married and was very devoted to her husband. She was of a modest and retiring disposition.” Madison Nutter, a coworker on a farm where Holmes was employed for a time, said almost the same thing: “She was a very pleasant little woman, no one could help liking her, and you could see that she thought a great deal of Herman.”

In a letter she later wrote about her husband’s background, Clara comes off as literate, intelligent, and well-spoken, though it provides little insight into what she saw in the young man. “I always felt that he was pleasant in disposition, tender-hearted, much more so than people in general,” she wrote. “He was of a very determined mind, at the same time quite considerate of others’ comfort and welfare.”

A Boston Herald article from 1894 cited Clara herself as a source when it claimed that Holmes met her while working on her father’s farm, but in other accounts he had known Clara for years. They became a couple, in a version of the story told by an old schoolmate, at a church sociable. Clara had been flirting heavily with another boy, and Holmes became jealous. He called the young man to an open space in the church and announced that if he did not desist from paying attention to Clara, there would be trouble. Scared, and assured that Herman Mudgett was not a boy to mess with, the young man left the sociable early, and Herman escorted Clara home with her hand on his arm.

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Herman was telling friends that he was engaged as early as the next day. For the next fifteen months, he was a constant presence at the Lovering home, helping Clara with her studies and reading to her. On July 4, 1878, the two seventeen-year-olds were married by a justice of the peace.

By one account, the marriage was kept a secret from their parents at first, and the couple lived apart; Clara with her parents and Herman on the farm where he was working a few miles outside of town. “We had a good deal of fun at Herman’s expense that summer on account of his being married,” remembered Madison Nutter. “He took it in good part, however, and never took offense at anything we said.”

When the marriage was finally disclosed to the parents, Holmes’s mother is said to have said, “She couldn’t have done much worse, and she will probably have to support you.” Clara’s relatives were not wild about the early marriage, either, but set Holmes up to work as a clerk in her uncle A. B. Young’s grocery store in East Concord. He was working there when Clara gave birth to their son, Robert.

Laura Young, the owner’s daughter and Clara’s cousin, recalled that her father couldn’t pay Holmes enough to enable him to keep house with Clara, so she continued to live with her parents for some time. Holmes would walk nine miles every Saturday night to spend Sunday with her and walk back on Monday morning. Everyone, including Clara, told him not to, but he insisted. “He thought a great deal of her,” said Young in 1895, after it was revealed that Holmes had married other women, as well, “and I do not believe he has married any of these other women since because he loved them. I shall always believe that it was only money and that Clara was the only woman whom he ever married for love.”

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Young liked Holmes well enough. She, too, noted that he was very secretive but found the key to his confidence: “If you praised him a little,” she said, “told him how bright and brilliant he was, what a mark he could easily make in the world, he would open his whole heart.”

The compliments may have worked too well. Herman regularly told the Youngs that he was “altogether too bright for the life of a country store keeper,” and he decided that he wanted to study medicine, telling Laura stories about the great fortunes physicians could make, especially if they invented some form of patent medicine.

Perhaps it really was being thrown into a doctor’s office to see the skeleton that sparked his interest, perhaps his uncle Reuben had told him fascinating stories about his time as an army surgeon and his apprenticeship with Dr. Wight, or perhaps he merely saw medicine as a precursor to getting rich as a snake oil salesman, but young Holmes quit the store, went home to Gilmanton, and began to study medicine with Dr. Wight.

Nearly twenty years later, Holmes would say that Dr. Wight had been his best friend, though Wight was more than fifty years his senior. Holmes was one of more than forty students Wight mentored over the years; he certainly would have worked on human dissections with him and may have even worked to acquire bodies himself.37 Certainly he would have seen some of Wight’s “morbid anatomical preparations.” None of this would have been far outside of the ordinary for a medical apprentice at the time, though it’s possible that most country doctors who took on apprentices weren’t as bullish on human dissection as Wight. Still, when Holmes wrote his autobiography nearly twenty years later, the only story about Dr. Wight he chose to tell was of being pushed into his office as a boy.

After a year of apprenticeship, Holmes spent a term studying medicine more formally at Burlington, Vermont, where he would be remembered as a very ordinary student, only dimly recalled by any remaining faculty a decade or so later. While at Burlington, he roomed at the home of Mrs. Thomas Brew on Colchester Avenue, where his roommate was Fred Ingalls, another former pupil of Dr. Wight. The two did not get on well; Holmes asked his roommate not to tell anyone that he was married, and Ingalls agreed on the condition that Holmes conduct himself like a married man, not chase other women around. But when Holmes began flirting with Mrs. Brew’s daughter, to such an extent that people began to think they would soon be engaged, Ingalls blew his cover, straining relations between the two men.

But the biggest fight between them, according to Mrs. Brew, occurred when Ingalls used some of Holmes’s mustache wax without permission, resulting in a scuffle in which “the Gilmanton boy cleaned up the room with his companion from Canterbury,” leaving Ingalls “a hard looking object, his eyes being black and his face scratched.” This battle over mustache wax may be the most delightfully Victorian bout of fisticuffs ever recorded.

Holmes’s time at the boardinghouse also inspired a bit of mystery: every morning he would wake up early to have a glass of wine with an elderly widow who had no other friends in the neighborhood. No one knew why he did it, though most assumed Holmes must have been after her money. Mrs. Brew also noted that he was “fairly wild over chemistry . . . all the time experimenting with liquids in his room, mixing up this one with that and littering the room with his concoctions.”

Having enlisted a private tutor after finding the chemistry department at Burlington lacking, he turned his room into a lab, with a stock of test tubes and unlabeled fluids that Mrs. Brew was convinced would kill them all. “He was pretty fortunate,” she said, “for although I was afraid he would do some damage . . . he never had any mishap. He used to say he knew what he was doing and that we need not worry about him. After he left, we found a big bottle of shingle nails in his closet. There must have been as much as three pounds. I never knew what he used them for.”

Mrs. Brew also recalled that Holmes seemed particularly eager to work on dissecting bodies at Burlington and told stories of his work on them around the boardinghouse. On one memorable occasion, he even brought some work home with him. Ingalls came downstairs looking pale.

“What is the trouble?” Mrs. Brew asked.

“Oh, nothing, only I could not sleep a wink,” Ingalls replied.

Upon going upstairs to sweep later, Mrs. Brew noticed a foul stench in Holmes’s room emanating from a “dark object” under the bed. Using the broom, she swept the object out and found that it was a dead baby. He was sternly told not to do such things again, and Mrs. Brew said it was weeks before she recovered enough to sweep the room again. She still shuddered when relating the incident to a reporter thirteen years later.

Coming as late as it did, these reminiscences given to a Boston reporter will seem to be of shaky reliability to historians. But so far as can be seen, she (and, therefore, the Boston Globe) seems to be a reliable source. Records from 1882 confirm that F. W. Ingalls of Canterbury, N.H., was at Burlington with Holmes that year, and that he had also studied under Dr. Wight.

Having run out of money after one term, Holmes halted his studies to teach school briefly at Lower Gilmanton. Clara remembered that he “was very successful—as much so as teachers in general,” but most others remembered his tenure there slightly differently. One boy named Winnie Shannon, the superintendent’s son, still remembered Holmes giving him his first and only whipping a decade later, and the girls thought of him as “a regular brute,” though his “spare the rod and spoil the child” attitude was certainly not atypical of teachers at the time.

One particular incident from this time period later stood out to one source: Holmes had continued to study medical books in the evenings and even visited patients with one Dr. Gray. One night, Dr. Gray had to amputate part of a man’s frozen foot, and Holmes, never squeamish, and now a veteran of scholarship under Dr. Wight, persuaded Dr. Gray to let him keep the foot and took it to show his pupils the next day. When class began, he produced the foot and began to lecture the students about its anatomical features. Though the farm children who were his pupils were certainly used to seeing mutilated bodies of animals, this was too much. The horrified children told their mothers, and it would have probably been the end of his teaching career, if he’d planned to go on at all.

But the foot story is probably not true. Though cited in an 1895 Boston Globe article that gives a good deal of verifiable information from named sources, this particular story was given without attribution, and no other reporter who visited Gilmanton seems to have heard it. Days after the story was published, the superintendent of the school at the time, E. H. Shannon, vehemently denied it. “That story in The Globe about Herman Mudgett showing a part of a human foot to his pupils when he was a teacher in the Gilmanton schools is a mistake,” he said to a reporter. “I believe in giving the devil his due, but I certainly should have known of it had any such occurrence taken place.” Shannon had initially rejected the young man’s application to teach in the first place, sending the applicant into a fit of tears. Herman had sought, and found, the support of several influential citizens and pleaded his poverty, his ambition to go to medical school, and the fact that he had a wife and infant son to support as part of his pleading for a job. Shannon agreed to give him a chance and heard many complaints about Mudgett throughout the winter term, but nothing about bringing in a human foot.

When the annual town report gave a rather mixed review of his performance (particularly his ability to maintain discipline until the final weeks), Holmes was furious and wrote a ten-page letter to Shannon, saying that he would “get even with him sometime.”

His teaching career seemingly over, Holmes went to Ann Arbor to study at the University of Michigan in 1882, accompanied by Clara and baby Robert. But their marriage was already on rocky ground. Some accounts have it that Holmes’s sister, Helen, and his mother were pressuring Holmes to leave Clara. Laura Young, Clara’s sister, concurred on this point: “The sister,” said Young, “used to say that Clara was not bright enough, was not refined enough for Herman. This was after she had paid for his education and supported him while in college. Then she was not refined enough.”

Even before leaving, Holmes seems to have had second thoughts about the marriage. In his days as a store clerk, he’d told Laura that being married would likely prevent him from rising as far in the world as he would have otherwise, and that he thought that he and Clara would not get on together very well. He insisted that there was no trouble between them, but he didn’t expect that married life would be happy.

In Ann Arbor, the young family lived in a rooming house along with other students and their families, and Clara supported her husband and child by working as a dressmaker. Of Clara, one roommate recalled “[She] was a very pleasant woman and willing to make any sacrifice that she might help [Holmes] along in his course. She finally went out to work and gave him her earnings. She was subject to convulsions of some kind, and while at work he gave her such quantities of bromide that her face broke out very badly. Everyone thought it was too bad for her.”

Another roommate said the Mudgetts quarreled frequently, and that Clara was sometimes seen around the rooming house with black eyes. Divorce was still very uncommon and a massive social stigma for women in those days, but at some point Clara decided that she’d had enough. She left her husband and went home, ready to live apart from him indefinitely. More than a decade later, she wrote that “I returned to New Hampshire the spring before he was to graduate, and have known very little of him since.”

Clara and young Robert went to live with Levi and Theodate, then moved to Tilton, New Hampshire, where she again worked as a dressmaker. Holmes would see her again sporadically, but in his mind, he had already left her behind.

Laura Young later stated that Clara had moved out on her father’s advice, and that she was glad that she had. “If Clara had followed Herman and went west and followed Herman after he left her,” she said, “that we never should have heard of her again. I think that he would have killed her as soon as she commenced to be in his way.”


Adam Selzer

Adam Selzer is a historian and tour guide in Chicago and New York, specializing in tracing legends back to primary sources and resurrecting old stories that have been hidden in microfilm reels and legal paperwork. He is currently at work doing a “Who’s Who” book for Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery. His "H.H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil," the first truly comprehensive look at the real story of Holmes and how his legend grew, is out in paperback on April 9, 2019.

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