Chicago Was Home to a Serial Killer During the 1893 World’s Fair

Chicago Was Home to a Serial Killer During the 1893 World’s Fair

1. Chicago had to beat out a number of other cities to get the fair.

In the late 1880s, Chicago, St. Louis, New York and Washington, D.C. all submitted bids to host the 1893 fair, but the race was soon narrowed to New York and Chicago. Big Apple financial titans including Cornelius Vanderbilt, William Waldorf Astor and J. P. Morgan pledged to raise $15 million to cover the city’s expenses, with Chicago’s mercantile and meatpacking millionaires Marshall Field, Philip Armour and Gustavus Swift following suit. But when Lyman Gage, president of one of the largest banks in the Midwest, arranged for millions more in financing, momentum swung Chicago’s way and the U.S. Congress, which was in charge of the selection, awarded the city the exposition.

2. Unbeknownst to festival-goers, there was a mass murderer in their midst.

Chicago was home to a serial killer during the fair. For several years before and during the exposition, Herman Mudgett, aka H.H. Holmes, was busily luring victims (including a number of fairgoers) to a three-story, block-long building, later known as the “Murder” Castle, where they were tortured, mutilated and killed. Although Holmes’ heinous crimes weren’t discovered until after the fair ended, it’s believed that he was responsible for dozens of deaths in Chicago, and may have killed as many as 200 people nationwide before his murderous spree ended with his 1894 arrest. Holmes quickly became a celebrity, and was paid more than $200,000 in today’s money to pen accounts of his crimes for the Hearst newspaper chain.

3. Another murder also made headlines.

On October 28, just two days before the exposition was set to close, Chicago’s recently re-elected mayor, Carter Harrison Sr., was shot and killed by a disgruntled—and deranged—office seeker, Patrick Eugene Prendergast, who believed he was owed a political appointment by the mayor. With the city in shock, the fair’s organizers quickly decided to cancel the lavish closing ceremony in favor of a public memorial to the city’s popular slain leader.

4. The fair produced a number of firsts.

Among the well-loved commercial products that made their debut at the Chicago World’s Fair were Cream of Wheat, Juicy Fruit gum and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Technological products that would soon find their way into homes nationwide, such as the dishwasher and fluorescent light bulbs, had early prototype versions on display in Chicago as well.

The U.S. government also got in on the act, issuing the country’s first postcards and commemorative stamps and two new commemorative coins: a quarter and half dollar. The half dollar featured Christopher Columbus, in whose honor the fair had been staged, while the quarter depicted Queen Isabella of Spain, who had funded Columbus’ voyages—making it the first U.S. coin to honor a woman.

5. A Ferris wheel saved the fair from financial ruin.

Despite the money raised by private investors and the U.S. government,, squabbling amongst the organizers and numerous construction delays resulted in a huge budget deficit. Another costly mistake was the refusal to allow showman William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and his troupe of sharpshooters, cowboys and Native American performers to appear at the fair. A disgruntled Cody brought his Wild West extravaganza to Chicago anyway, setting up shop right outside the fairgrounds and siphoning off visitors.

The fair’s precarious finances received a boost in June 1893 with the long-awaited debut of a new invention from Pittsburgh-based bridge builder and steel magnate George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. Intended to rival the highlight of the 1889 fair in Paris (the Eiffel Tower), Ferris’ 264-foot-tall wheel was an engineering marvel. It could fit 2,160 people at a time, and cost 50 cents to ride—twice the price of a ticket to the fair itself. The world’s first Ferris wheel proved so popular it was moved to Chicago’s North Side, where it remained in operation for 10 years before it was sold to the organizers of the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri.

6. It was the first exposition to have national pavilions.

Nearly 50 foreign countries and 43 states and territories were represented in Chicago. American pavilions touted the country’s diverse history, food and culture with exhibits like Virginia’s replica of George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, a century-old palm tree from California, a massive stained glass display by Louis Comfort Tiffany and a full-service Creole restaurant from Louisiana. Philadelphia even sent the Liberty Bell, as well as two replicas: one in rolled oats and one made of oranges. Not to be outdone, Norway sailed a full-sized replica of a Viking ship across the ocean for the fair, and German industrial giant Krupp spent the equivalent of more than $25 million in today’s money to mount a massive artillery display including a number of weapons that would later be used in World War I.

7. The Chicago World’s Fair played a key role in the creation of the City Beautiful movement.

At the core of the fair was an area that quickly became known as the White City for its buildings with white stucco siding and its streets illuminated by electric lights. Buildings and monuments by Charles McKim, Daniel Burnham, Augusts Saint-Gaudens and Richard Morris Hunt, along with lush landscaping by Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of New York’s Central Park, left a lasting impression on municipal planners looking for a way to bring open spaces and grand public buildings into crowded cities. Chicago itself was one of the first cities to adopt aspects of the new City Beautiful movement. Dozens of other cities across the country followed its lead, most notably Washington, D.C., where by 1902, plans were in place for a redesign of the city center that would result in the creation of the National Mall.

The Notorious Serial Killer With Ties To The 1893 World's Fair

Chicago's 1893 World's Fair: Columbian Exposition was a triumph of firsts. In its six-month run, more than 27 million people came to see and experience things they never had before, including the introduction of the Ferris wheel (which, at 264 feet tall and capable of holding more than 2,000 passengers must have been terrifying), peanut butter (who knew it had to be invented?), and PBR (that's right, they earned the "Blue Ribbon" here). With more than 40 countries exhibiting, it seemed like you could see nearly anything — even life-size recreations of Christopher Columbus' Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria — and countless people did, including notables like Helen Keller and Dr. Alexander Graham Bell.

It was the place to be and countless visitors flocked there from around the world to experience it all. Unfortunately, some of them never made it home. Those unlucky could encounter another first — the man many credit as America's first serial killer.

The Whole Bushel

H.H. Holmes is widely regarded as America’s first serial killer, a title which he claimed with a vengeance during the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. He later confessed to 27 murders, although it’s believed that he may have actually killed hundreds. The victims were mostly visitors to the World’s Fair, and, for the most part, women. After abducting them, Holmes brought them back to his self-styled Murder Castle, an outwardly unassuming building in Englewood. But behind the innocent brick facade was a dark, windowless maze containing close to 100 rooms filled with torture devices. As far as we know, nobody ever escaped once they were brought into the Murder Castle.

A few years before the World Fair, in the late 1880s, Holmes moved to Chicago and took on a part-time job at a drugstore on West 63rd Street, which was owned by a man named Dr. E.S. Holton, who was dying of cancer. After he died, Holmes bought the drugstore from Holton’s wife and agreed to let her continue living above the store. However, when it became apparent that Holmes wasn’t going to pay, she filed a lawsuit against him . . . and then she disappeared.

With her out of the way, Holmes purchased a much larger lot right across the street from the drugstore and began building a hotel. Throughout construction, Holmes made a habit of firing his contractor once a section was built, and then hiring a new one for another section. The result was that nobody except Holmes had any idea of the layout of the maze, a fact which he used to his advantage many times.

When the hotel was completed, he moved the drugstore (which he now owned) into the ground floor and dubbed the building the “World’s Fair Hotel,” just in time for the 27 million people streaming into the city to attend the 1983 World’s Fair. The murderous proprietor then hand-picked female guests and employees and abducted them into the depths of the hotel, where he locked them in soundproof rooms and . . . experimented. As a former medical student who was once on his way to becoming a surgeon, Holmes committed his murders with gruesome attention to detail. Many of the “bedrooms” in the hotel were airtight and connected to gas lines, allowing Holmes to kill his prisoners with the flick of a switch.

The basement of the building was where Holmes did most of his work after he was captured, an investigation found piles of human bones, an incinerator for cremating, and surgical tools for dissecting in the tunnels running under the Murder Castle. In addition to being a murderous lunatic, Holmes was also a businessman who found ways to profit from his hobby—after stripping the bodies, Holmes often sold the skeletons to universities. He also forced his employees—who were typically young women—to take out life insurance policies naming him as a benefactor. It’s not hard to guess what happened to them.

When the five-month-long World’s Fair ended, Holmes left Chicago and flitted across the US, conning wealthy women into marrying him, then killing them. He was finally arrested in Boston (for horse fraud), and a series of investigations led detectives to discover one of the most gruesome crime scenes in history: The Murder Castle. Holmes was executed in 1896, and the terrible building later burned to the ground. It’s now a post office.

A History Of Chicago's Murder Castle

What to do when you're a bright young physician with striking blue eyes, impeccable manners and a penchant for cadavers? If you're Herman Mudgett, you change your name, relocate to Chicago's up-and-coming Englewood neighborhood and construct your very own house of horrors. As the city prepared to host the 1893 World's Fair, Mudgett-now known as H.H. Holmes-was building the massive structure in which he'd earn the moniker of "America's first serial killer." What follows is a history of Holmes' "Murder Castle"—a twisted mastermind, a media circus and the bloody, cursed aftermath.

Herman Webster Mudgett, aka H.H. Holmes. Via Illinois State Historical Society (L) and Troy Taylor (R)

Herman Webster Mudgett was born in 1860, the son of a wealthy and respected New Hampshire family. His life of crime began in medical school, during which he staged accidents using corpses stolen from the local morgue and then collected on insurance policies he'd taken out on the cadavers. Abandoning his wife and child, Mudgett took on the name H.H. Holmes (a respected Chicago family name at the time) and moved to Englewood in 1885 to begin a life as entrepreneur, bigamist, amateur architect and murderer.

A newspaper illustration of the Castle's floor plan and various torture devices. Courtesy of the Illinois State Historical Library.

The Construction

In 1887, Holmes took over management of an Englewood drugstore after the widow who'd sold it to him mysteriously vanished. After hiring the Conner family from Iowa to work in the store and keep his books—and taking out large insurance policies on wife Julia and daughter Pearl, naming himself as beneficiary—Holmes spent ample time on his self-designed building. Construction should have taken six months but instead took three times as long, as Holmes constantly hired and fired laborers. This saved Holmes a significant amount of money in wages, as he would frequently accuse an employee of substandard work and fire him on the spot without paying a cent. More importantly, by keeping turnover high and ensuring each individual only worked on a small part of the building, Holmes easily hid its design and layout from the world. Soon, the construction attracted a gaggle of gawkers and passersby, including police that Holmes befriended with coffee and the idle chatter at which he excelled.

A rare photo of Holmes' Castle. Photo courtesy of Chicago Historical Society.

The imposing structure that Englewood residents nicknamed "The Castle" was located on the corner of 63rd and Wallace streets. Though it wasn't particularly large in this age of skyscrapers, the Castle was certainly intimidating, taking up an entire block. False battlements and wooden bay windows were covered in sheet iron. The Castle boasted a cellar and three floors, the first of which was open to the public. Thousands of people would pass through street-level shops, some operated by Holmes and some leased to local merchants, without a clue of what went on upstairs and below ground.

When the Castle was completed in 1892, Holmes announced that he would rent out rooms to tourists arriving en masse for the upcoming World's Fair (also known as the Columbian Exposition, commemorating the anniversary of Columbus' discovery of America). Indeed, most of the third floor rooms were comfortably furnished and nondescript, provided guests could locate them at all. Rooms were scattered among oddly angled, narrow corridors with poor lighting from widely spaced gas jets on the walls. Dead ends and stairways that led nowhere were interspersed with locked doors to which only Holmes had the key. One of the locked rooms was adjacent to Holmes' personal office and contained a walk-in bank vault that had been modified to include a gas pipe. Only Holmes could control this particular gas flow, via a panel hidden in his bedroom closet.

The second floor was even more confusing, containing 51 doors and six hallways. Thirty-five rooms were ordinary bedchambers, but others were either airtight and lined with asbestos-coated steel plates or completely soundproofed. Some were tiny with low ceilings, no bigger than closets. Most of these rooms were rigged with gas pipes connected to the same control panel in Holmes' closet, and equipped with special peepholes. Many were fitted with alarms that sounded in Holmes' quarters if a "guest" tried to escape. The Castle's second story also contained trapdoors, secret passageways, hidden closets with sliding panels, and most terrifying, large, greased shafts leading directly to the cellar.

Brick-lined and dark, the cellar was comparable to a dungeon, and the various apparatus stored there only added to the terror. Holmes kept an acid tank, quicklime vats, a dissecting table and surgeon's cabinet, and eventually a contraption of his own invention. Holmes called it the "elasticity determinator" and claimed it could stretch experimental subjects to twice their normal height, eventually creating "a race of giants." When police found the device, they compared it to a medieval torture rack.

Newspaper sketch of Holmes and a victim. Courtesy of Illinois State Historical Society.

The Victims

Holmes eventually confessed to 28 murders, though the actual number of victims is believed to be as many as 200. Holmes used two major pretenses to lure guests who checked in and never checked out. First, he advertised lodging for tourists visiting the World's Fair. Second, he would place classified ads in small-town newspapers, offering jobs to young women, or outright offering himself for marriage. (Holmes wedded several times, often to more than one woman at once, using different aliases.)

Because of the World's Fair and then-unsophisticated police procedure, missing persons were barely investigated. Holmes' innate charm could smooth over any remaining questions from neighbors and families. Over time, he claimed that his female assistant went out of town to visit relatives and ended up staying, his fiancée eloped with someone else in secret, and he'd administered a botched abortion to a girlfriend that unfortunately took her life.

The reality, of course, was much more gruesome. Upon investigating the Castle after Holmes was arrested for unrelated crimes such as insurance fraud, police found the rooms and apparati mentioned above, as well as a human-sized kiln that heated to 3000 degrees Fahrenheit and a wooden box containing several female skeletons. (In fact, one of Holmes' main associates, Charles Chappell, was also an "articulator," meaning he could strip flesh from human bodies and reassemble the bones to form complete skeletons. Holmes would frequently pay Chappell to articulate a cadaver, then either keep the skeleton or sell it for a profit to a medical school.)

One of the most disturbing stories was that of Emeline Cigrand, a bright young woman from Indiana who became Holmes' personal secretary. After accepting Holmes' marriage proposal, Cigrand disappeared into thin air. Holmes claimed she ran off with another man, but around she went missing, Holmes asked two male guests of the hotel to help him carry a large, heavy trunk to the cellar. Soon after, Holmes sold a fully articulated female skeleton to a nearby medical school, and during their investigation, police found a woman's footprint clearly etched into the floor on the inside of the cellar's vault. Holmes later confessed to locking Cigard in the vault and raping her before taking her life. He then shipped her trunk full of clothes and personal belongings to her family without explanation. At least one child perished at Holmes' hands: young Pearl Conner was chloroformed and suffocated in her Castle bed.

Holmes was arrested twice in 1894 for insurance fraud. Investigator Frank P. Geyer of Philadelphia slowly began to uncover Holmes' more disturbing crimes, which eventually led to the Chicago police investigation and subsequent media coverage of what quickly became known as the Murder Castle. Holmes' trial began in Philadelphia just before Halloween of 1895. Only six days in length, it was one of the most sensational of the century. People throughout the country, but especially in Chicago, were equal parts horrified and fascinated by Holmes' confessions of torture and murder. Though his tales may have been embellished, actual evidence ranks Holmes as one of the country's most active murderers.

In his confession, Holmes claimed: "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." Holmes remained charming, charismatic and unrepentant to the day of his execution: May 7, 1896, just nine days before his thirty-sixth birthday. Even after meeting with two Catholic priests, Holmes refused to ask forgiveness. After Holmes was hanged, his heart continued to beat for fifteen minutes.

As for the Murder Castle, it too met a violent and mysterious end. A man named A.M. Clark purchased the building less than two weeks after the police investigation. Clark intended to capitalize on the Castle's notoriety and reopen it as a tourist attraction. However, on Aug. 19 at 12:13 a.m., a railroad night watchman spotted flames coming through the Castle's roof. Seconds later, explosions blew out the first-floor windows, and the fire was out of control by the time help arrived. Ninety minutes after the fire was reported, the roof had collapsed and most of the building demolished. However, the first floor was salvaged and served as a sign shop and bookstore until the Castle was sold in 1937. In 1938, the lot was sold and the building razed to make way for the U.S. Post Office that remains to this day.

Holmes' bloody legacy didn't die with him. In the years following, men who'd had dealings with Holmes came to strange and violent ends. The last of which was Pat Quinlan, suspected accomplice and former Murder Castle caretaker. On March 7, 1914 (almost two full decades after Holmes' execution_ the Chicago Tribune published the headline "HOLMES CASTLE SECRETS DIE." Quinlan had committed suicide by taking strychnine while living on a farm near Portland, MI. Relatives claimed that in the months before Quinlan's suicide, he seemed to be haunted and could not sleep.

Evan Peters as Mr. March in American Horror Story: Hotel. Photo courtesy of

The Murder Castle in Pop Culture

Fans of Holmes' story will soon see a version on the big screen: Paramount Pictures has won the film rights to Erik Larson’s bestselling nonfiction book The Devil in the White City, which chronicles the 1893 World's Fair and Holmes' nefarious acts. Martin Scorsese will direct and Leonardo DiCaprio will play Holmes.

Chicago World’s Fair Hotel – Built for Murder by H.H. Holmes

It all dates back to the Chicago World’s Fair, the biggest event ever to hit the city, and hotel space was at a premium. So no one looked twice when local resident H.H. Holmes broke ground and began working on a hotel that would go on to take up an entire city block.

What those watching from the sidelines did not know was that H.H. Holmes had more than lodging on his mind. In fact, if he had his way, many of the guests who checked into his property would never check out. The murderous history of this newly-built hotel would put fictional counterparts like the Overlook Hotel and the Bates Motel to shame.

H.H. Holmes was actually an alias, and this notorious murderer was known by many different names during his short and violence-filled life. But no matter what name he used, it is clear that the hotel he built was designed to be a place of murder, not a place of rest.

Built for Murder

Mr. Holmes was able to keep his plans secret through a number of clever devices, including changing contractors and individual workers on a regular basis. Ostensibly done to punish poor workmanship, these staff changes were actually designed to stop outsiders from becoming curious about the strange nature of the project they were working on.

And strange they were. Some of the rooms in the hotel were equipped with special vents, supposedly for air conditioning but actually used to spray poison gas and knockout drugs. Other rooms were soundproofed, so the neighbors would not hear what was going on inside. Other rooms were designed to be actual ovens, used to roast victims alive while they pleaded for mercy.

There were also hidden staircases, hallways to nowhere and blind turns designed to disorient victims and make escape impossible. All in all, it was a hotel designed for murder, and during the course of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, that design was put into practice.

In what later be dubbed the Murder Castle, H.H. Holmes perpetrated one of the worst murder sprees in American history, perhaps becoming the first known serial killer in the country. Even after all these years, hard numbers are hard to come by, since many of the dead were domestic workers, maids, prostitutes, drifters and others whose deaths were less likely to arouse suspicion.

While hunting strangers in the corridors of the hotel was a favorite pastime of Holmes, one of his earliest victims was Julia Smythe, Holmes’ mistress and the wife of a man named Ned Conner. Conner moved away when he learned of the affair, leaving Julia and her daughter Pearl behind with a man who would ultimately become one of history’s most prolific serial killers.

The very layout of the hotel Holmes created is straight out of a horror novel. Rooms could be locked from the outside, making escape impossible. One third floor room, where at least one victim met their end, was designed like a bank vault or giant safe, complete with padding to muffle screams. That room was also equipped with a gas pipe, which Holmes used to asphyxiate his victims.

There was also an elaborate system for rendering and disposing of victims. When police began their investigation, they discovered a hidden shaft that led directly the basement of the hotel. In the basement, detectives found a number of disturbing items, including quicklime pits and even a butcher’s table.

They also found evidence of the victims, including bloody clothing and a watch. That watch, a woman’s model, was eventually traced to a woman named Minnie Williams. Minnie was known for her beauty, and her fortune of at least $75,000. That fortune no doubt attracted the attention of Holmes, and he may have used the money to finance his attempted escape.

Minnie’s sister also fell victim to Holmes and his murderous plans. Among the items found in the basement turned dungeon was a garter buckle. That buckle had belonged to Minnie’s sister.

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Dr. H.H. Holmes, the pseudonym of New Hampshire-born physician Herman Webster Mudgett, shown in an undated photo, is believed by many authorities to have been America’s first urban serial killer. AP

As published in the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:

No one can say for certain just how many people Chicago-based serial killer H.H. Holmes murdered. On the day of his execution on May 7, 1896, in Philadelphia, Holmes had already confessed to 27 murders, though as Erik Larson, author of “The Devil in the White City,” concluded: “Exactly how many people he killed will never be known.”

The Chicago Daily News published an account of the killer’s death after he was sentenced to hang for the murder of his associate and co-conspirator Benjamin Pitezel.

Holmes, an alias for Herman Webster Mudgett, arrived in Chicago in 1885 and took an interest in a drugstore at 63rd and Wallace, Larson wrote. After conning the owner out of the property, he built a three-story building on the land across from the drugstore with retail space on the first floor and apartments on the upper floors. Later dubbed the “murder castle,” the building had trapdoors, secret rooms and a kiln — really a crematorium — in the basement.

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In 1891, Holmes remodeled the castle as a hotel for visitors to the World’s Columbian Exposition, according to Larson. He intended to burn it down for the insurance money after the fair. Through offers of shelter, work or marriage, Holmes lured unsuspecting fairgoers (usually women) and laborers to the hotel where he swindled, sometimes tortured and inevitably killed them, according to Larson.

When the fair ended in 1893, the con man left Chicago, still pulling scams with his associate, Pitezel. The two hatched a plan to pull off a life insurance scam, with Pitezel faking his own death and splitting the $10,000 policy with Holmes . until Holmes decided to kill Pitezel in Philadelphia for real.

Thanks to a previous inmate who Holmes knew and confided in about the scheme, investigators eventually arrested the serial killer in Boston.

The night before his death, Holmes spent his time writing letters, the Daily News reported, and he awoke at 6 a.m. the next morning. Two priests from the Church of the Annunciation spent the morning with the condemned man while he ate a breakfast of eggs, dry toast and coffee.

At 10 a.m., the priests accompanied Holmes to the scaffold where a crowd stood in “intense silence” stood waiting for him. The holy men finished a prayer, and Holmes stepped forward to declare his innocence, which was also met with “absolute silence.”

After one last prayer, Holmes shook hands with the priests and bade his lawyers goodbye, the paper said.

“Without an instant delay, his hands were bound behind him and the black cap adjusted. Sheriff Olement placed the noose about his neck and after an instant of terrible stillness, the crack of the bolt rang out like a pistol shot and the man had fallen to his doom.”

The convicted killer lost consciousness immediately, but his heart beat “feebly” for 15 to 20 minutes more, the paper reported. When a physician finally declared Holmes dead, “the swinging corpse was cut down.”

“The marvelous nerve of the man never deserted him to the end,” the reporter wrote. “Even on the scaffold, he was probably the coolest person in the solemn assemblage.”

Serial Killer Stalks Victims During 1893 Chicago World's Fair January 08 2014

Burnham and Root, the great Chicago architects, brought together architects from all over the US to design the buildings of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, also known as the Columbian Exposition. Little did they know that on the perimeter of their enterprise, Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, the first documented American serial killer, built a hotel to lure in young women so he could torture and brutally murder them.

Some of the architects who designed buildings for the Exposition were Peabody and Stearns, McKim, Mead and White, A. Page Brown and Adler and Sullivan. You will find many plans and photos by these architects on this website.

Dr. Holmes opened his hotel, called the "Castle" in 1893. The ground floor of the Castle contained Holmes's own drugstore and various shops, while the upper two floors contained his personal office and a maze of over 100 windowless rooms with doorways opening to brick walls, oddly-angled hallways, stairways to nowhere, doors openable only from the outside, and a host of other strange and labyrinthine constructions. Holmes repeatedly changed builders during the construction of the Castle, so only he fully understood the design of the house.

One can only imagine the dapper and successful Dr. Holmes strolling through the Fair, carefully selecting his victims and coercing them into his chamber of horrors. While he confessed to 27 murders, of which nine were confirmed, his actual count could be as high as 200. He took an unknown number of his victims from the 1893 Chicago World's Fair to his "World's Fair" hotel.

1893 World’s Fair

1892 was the four hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ historic voyage to the Americas and there was going to be a celebration. In a fierce competition of world-class cities including New York, St Louis, Chicago and Washington DC to host the event, President Harrison announced on 25 April 1890 that Chicago will the chosen site.

Hand colored panorama by William Henry Jackson.

Extending from Cottage Grove Avenue to Lake Michigan, and from 56th Street to 67th Street, the grounds for the World’s Columbian Exposition was the site of a massive building effort. If Chicago owes its physical supremacy directly to the Great Fire, which swept away the cheap wooden and flimsy structures and left a clear field for a city of stone, steel, glass and cement, it owes its cultural supremacy and its international fame to the World’s Columbian Exposition.

It was decided early in the planning that in order for the Fair to succeed it would have to be held during the summer months. Due to New York’s Grand Parade on Columbus Day, 1892, Christopher Columbus’ birthday, the Chicago ceremonies started on 21 October 1892 with a Dedication Day Parade. The date coincided with the actual date of Columbus’ landing in the Americas. The formal opening was held on 1 May 1893, but all the buildings were still not completed and some scaffolding still in place, nevertheless the celebrations continued.

Present at the opening day ceremonies were President Grover Cleveland and the Duke of Veragua who was a linear descendant of Christopher Columbus.

Due to the temporary building material used, only two of the 200 buildings of the Fair survived – the Columbus Memorial Building, which is now La Rabida, a hospital for cardiac children, and the Fine Arts Building, which eventually became the Museum of Science and Industry. In addition, the current Osaka Gardens, originally the Ho-o-den exhibit from the Wooded Island, continues to this day in Jackson Park. Between the time of the Fair and the 1933-1934 Century of Progress Exposition, the Fine Arts Building was the original Field Museum of Natural History. After the exposition, the museum moved to it’s current Grant Park location. A 24-foot replica of the original 65-foot Statue of the Republic stands at the foot of 65th Street. Another building, the German Building, served as a museum till a fire destroyed it on 31 March 1925.

Many prominent civic, professional, and commercial leaders from around the United States participated in the financing, coordination, and management of the Fair, including Chicago shoe tycoon Charles Schwab, Chicago railroad and manufacturing magnate John Whitfield Bunn, and Connecticut banking, insurance, and iron products magnate Milo Barnum Richardson, among many others.

During the six months that the Fair was open, 27,539,000 visited the Fair. The Fair’s last day was 30 October 1893. The biggest single day of the Fair was Chicago Day, which commemorated the anniversary of the Great Fire of 1871. 716,881 people attended that day. The exposition was such a major event in Chicago that one of the stars on the municipal flag honors it

The Fair, however, did not close on a very positive note. Just three days prior to its closing, Chicago’s mayor, Carter H. Harrison, Sr., was shot five times by a visitor in his home. This visitor was Patrick Eugene Joseph Prendergast, a follower of the single tax enthusuast, Henry George. The motive of Mr. Prendergast was to get even with the mayor for not appointing him as corporation counsel. Mr. Pendergast turned himself in and the jury took only an hour to find him guilty of first degree murder. This was Clarence Darrow’s first murder case, unsuccessfully arguing that his client should be declared mentally unfit to stand trial. It was a very somber closing of the Fair.

On 3 January 1894, Teresa Dean, a columnist for the Chicago Daily Inter Ocean wrote its obituary in these words:

For though the buildings remain, and the “people” at the last have their own, the White City is gone. It can never come again. Out of the ashes something may come more beautiful than we knew before, but never again will come what 󈨡 has given to us. The White City is lifeless. Only the shell remains. It is heaven untenanted

Gallery above includes several images from this collection.

Architects and officials of the World Columbian Exposition taken in the winter of 1892.
Included in the photograph (in order from left to right): Daniel H. Burnham, Director of Works George B Post, Architect Montgomery B. Pickett, Secretary of Works Henry Van Brunt, Architect Frank D. Millet, Director of Decoration Maitland Armstrong, Artist Col. Edmund Rice, Commander of the Columbian Guard Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Sculptor Henry Sargent Codman, Landscape Architect George Willoughby Maynard, Artist Charles F. McKim, Architect Ernest R. Graham, Assistant Director of Works Dion Geraldine, General Superintendent.
Mr. Millet went down with the Titanic.

The Story Behind Chicago’s Real Life Murder House Is The Stuff Of Nightmares

Before we start this off, let me say that this particular horror story isn’t for the faint of heart. If you aren’t interested in having bad dreams tonight or fearing for you life every time you enter a hotel after reading this, then perhaps reading about The Oldest Restaurant In Illinois might better suit you. The man who most consider to be America’s first serial killer, H.H. Holmes was a true living nightmare.

Warning: This post is a bit longer and more detailed than some of our regular pieces. Don’t be intimidated by the text! You’ll quickly get sucked into the story behind this real life murder house.

Born Herman Webster Mudgett, this heinous murderer would be known as several different names, most commonly H.H. Holmes as well as Doctor Henry Howard Holmes and the Doctor of Death. For the sake of making this all easier, we'll simply refer to him as Holmes from here on out.

Born in New Hampshire in 1861, Holmes as a child would be the target of bullying. At a young age, bullies once forced Holmes to enter a doctor's office and stand near skeletal remains. The bullies would then take the actual hand of the skeleton and reportedly placed it on his face, initially scaring him. Later the murderer would explain that this is where he first became infatuated with death and it sent him down his murderous slope.

As a teenager, Holmes would attend college and eventually end up at a school for medicine and surgery where he would begin to steal cadavers. Talk about creepy! His terrible tendencies would carry on as he would constantly find himself at the center of situations involving young boys that he had been seen with going missing or even mysteriously dying. Although looking back now it would appear clear as day that Holmes was the culprit of these murders and mysteries, he would always deny having any involvement in what had happened.

Pictured above: The 1893 Chicago World Fair.

After scamming his way through life, Holmes would begin to work at a pharmacy in Chicago. Eventually Holmes would buy the lot that is now known as the Murder Castle, where he would begin to construct a real-life murder house.

Like the perfect trap in a room full of rats, the hotel was only a few miles away from Jackson Park where the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition was held, a.k.a. Chicago's World Fair. The fair would bring in nearly 30 million visitors, all who had no idea such heinous crimes were taking place so close to this joyous event.

The hotel Holmes created was filled with windowless rooms, secret chutes, stairs that would lead to nowhere, numerous trap doors and so much more. Every room had a different means for murder, created in unthinkable ways. The twisted hotel owner even had alarm systems set up so he was able to tell whenever guests were walking around the murder house. To give you a visual, if any of you reading this watched American Horror Story's most recent season, you'll now understand where the inspiration for the creepy hotel came from.

So who did Holmes target? Generally the blonde women he hired to work at the hotel and the women he would date. But don't put anything past this man, he also had a history of frequently killing children as well as men. Next to his office in the hotel he had a soundproof room that he would let victims rot away in, leaving scratches all over the walls. The entire second floor was also said to be a complete nightmare. Secret chutes were used to dispose of bodies, sending them down to the basement where Holmes would dissect them and get rid of them in lime pits he had created in the floor. Seriously. This sounds like the plot to the next big hit movie, but sadly this actually happened.

Besides murdering innocent people, Holmes enjoyed scamming people out of their money and would often make his victims take out life insurance policies for him to collect after their demise. Note to self: If a creepy man offers to pay for my life insurance policy but in turn asks that he be the beneficiary, politely decline and run for the hills.

In 1894 police would get word of the unspeakable crimes that took place at the Chicago hotel. After tracking down Holmes, he would be arrested in Boston and several investigations would begin to take place. Police quickly began to interview employees of the hotel, well. whatever ones they could find left. Specifically, the caretaker of the hotel stated to the police that he was never allowed to go to the second floor and was asked not to clean it. Red flag much? The police would spend several weeks going through the entire hotel, discovering various human and animal bones, piles of bloodied clothes and all of the torture chambers that were disguised as hotel rooms.

One of the most disturbing things discovered? A large stove with a woman's hair, jewelry and shoe was found. The ways of torture were endless for Holmes. As many remains and haunting things that were discovered here by police, there was only enough evidence to confirm nine deaths. Throughout his trail and time spent in jail, Holmes would confess to nearly thirty murders. While oddly enough some of the people he claimed to have murdered were people who were still alive, the evidence lets us speculate the he could have killed up to two hundred people.

In 1896 Holmes would be hanged, but not before making claims that he was possessed by Satan and that his face was changing, resembling the devil. In an even stranger twist, Holmes' great-great-great grandson would come out with a book in 2011 claiming that the madness of his ancestor was downplayed and that he was actually also Jack the Ripper. While there is no physical evidence that seems to support this theory, those who speculate point out that it could actually be possible. The victims of both murderers were the same and it was possible timing-wise that Holmes could have been in England. How insane.

Over the years, arsonists would attempt to burn down the hotel in 1895, only to be completely demolished in 1938. Another creepy factor? The caretaker who spoke of the second floor to the police, would later commit suicide in 1914, leaving behind a note that said "I couldn't sleep."

Did you realize this murder story was actually true? I’m still shaking in my boots. If you’re looking to keep the hairs on the back of your neck raised, try reading about this Haunted Road In Illinois That Will Give You Nightmares.

A Hotel Built On Deception

Holmes’ castle was a multi-use building with stores and services on the bottom floor, including a pharmacy. The third floor functioned as a hostel. Holmes would select his victims among employees and hotel guests, who met their demise via the secret chambers and traps constructed throughout the second floor and basement.

From strange, angled hallways to doors that only opened from the outside, every part of Holmes’ castle was constructed to disguise his inclination to kill. On the second floor, guests were murdered in the following ways:

  • Asphyxiated via gas lines in soundproof bedrooms
  • Burned to death in iron rooms fitted with blowtorches
  • Hanged in a secret chamber on the second floor
  • Isolated in a solid brick room that could only be accessed by a trapdoor in the ceiling
  • Stretched on a rack for Holmes’ attempt to create a race of giants

Chutes and dummy elevators brought bodies to the basement, where victims’ bodies could be dissected in Holmes’ surgical area. The basement also contained furnaces large enough to incinerate human bodies, lime pits, and corrosive acid for quick disposal.

Due to the connections Holmes had made in medical school, it was relatively easy for him to strip down the bodies and sell them as skeleton models, or harvest their organs for medical use. And during his entire, murderous reign, Holmes was earning a steady income by forcing his employees to take out life insurance policies that named him as the beneficiary — later, those same employees would find themselves trapped in one of Holmes’ murder rooms.


Holmes’s reputation would later lead to him having a nickname from author Erik Larson as the “The Devil in the White City.” Larson would write a book about Holmes that will later be the name of a Martin Scorcese movie with Leonardo DiCaprio portraying Holmes. The movie is still in the works.

Interest in the Holmes case as America’s first serial killer has been consistent since it happened. Multiple books and documentary document the case, but Selzer in H. H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil carefully dissected what’s true and what is not, as well as how the story of Holmes’s deeds grew into folklore and mythology.