The First Serial Killer in America
Who has become the subject of American folklore

The First Serial Killer in America | by Ryan Fan | CrimeBeat | Aug, 2020 | Medium

Herman Webster Mudgett, known as Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, was America’s first serial killer who confessed to 27 murders, and is suspected of killing over 200 people by folklore. He owned a building three miles west of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago that was called the World’s Fair Hotel, even though there is no evidence that the hotel was ever open for business.

It would be called “The Murder Castle” decades after Holmes’s deeds, according to Adam Selzer in H.H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil. Selzer would say that Holmes, by the 21st century, had entered the territory of folklore:

“[He] was a man who built a hotel full of torture chambers to prey on visitors who came to the World’s Fair and may have killed hundreds of people, making him our first and most prolific serial killer. Holmes had already been known as the ‘king of criminals’ before he’d even been formally accused of murder, but now he was a veritable supervillain.”

His story involved a new police chief who convinced himself and newspapers of fiction — Frank Geyer. The police would give many theories about his killings that spouted nothing more than nonsense, and gossip newspapers and tabloids also took a large interest in Holmes.

Without a doubt, according to Selzer, Holmes was a pathological liar, who had lied to literally everyone in his life including his friends, wives, lawyers, and everyone else. He even lied to his diary.

But what is fact and what is fiction? According to Rebecca Kerns, Tiffany Lewis, and Caitlin McClure at the Psychology department of Radford University, Holmes is suspected of killing over 100 people across five different states. He was only convicted of one of the killings, despite his 27 confessions. Selzer, with a lot of research, would assert that a lot of stories about him functioned as fiction rather than fact:

The “Murder Castle” never actually was a hotel, and Holmes had only killed one tourist at the World’s Fair, Nannie Williams, although he was suspected of killing many. The hidden rooms were used for stolen furniture rather than dead bodies.

According to Selzer:

“The legend of The Devil in the White City is effectively a new American tall tale — and, like all the best tall tales, it sprang from a kernel of truth.”


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