Sunday, May 16, 2010

Real Dungeons, American Style: Murder Castle

While not the first American serial killer--that infamy seems to be due the Harpe Brothers, Big and Little--Herman Webster Mudgett alias "Henry Howard (H.H.) Holmes" is certainly an early, prolific, example. After his arrest in 1894, Holmes confessed to 27 murders, but the actual number could be as high as 230. Most of these were committed during the World's Fair of 1893 in Chicago, in a structure that would become known as the Murder Castle--a real American dungeon.

Mudgett was born in Gilmanton, New Hampshire. He attended medical school but got expelled for stealing a cadaver. After that, he began to travel the Midwest, making a living by con games, insurance fraud, and multiple marriages for money. In 1886, he took up residence in the Chicago suburb of Englewood, and began working at a drugstore owned by a widow under the alias Dr. H.H. Holmes. The widow likely became one of his victims, and he took over ownership of the drugstore--and possibly sold the widow's skeleton to a medical school. Holmes bought the empty lot across from the store, and from 1888-1890 personally supervised the construction of a three-story, block-long, turretted structure, combination storefront, offices, hotel, and mansion, which neighbors dubbed "the Castle." There was a lot of turnover in the construction workers; Holmes fired people to avoid paying them, and to keep anyone from asking too many questions. It wasn't any good to have people wondering about the purpose of gas jets in the guest rooms, an elevator shaft sans elevator, soundproof vaults, alarm bells triggered by opening apartment doors, large kilns, quick-lime pits, and chemical laboratories--not to mention the more mundane stairs to no where, hidden passages, and peepholes. In this nightmarish edifice, Holmes tortured and killed a succession of wives, secretaries and office-girls, and paying guests to his hotel during the Exposition. Holmes dissected the bodies, performed chemical experimentation on them, them dissolved them in quick-lime or burned them in the furnaces, though some parts got saved in the vaults.

Wikipedia describes the gruesome doings, thus:

"Some were locked in soundproof bedrooms fitted with gas lines that let him asphyxiate them at any time. Some victims were locked in a huge soundproof bank vault near his office where they were left to suffocate. The victims' bodies went by secret chute to the basement, where some were meticulously dissected, stripped of flesh, crafted into skeleton models, and then sold to medical schools...Holmes had two giant furnaces as well as pits of acid, bottles of various poisons, and even a stretching rack. Through the connections he had gained in medical school, he sold skeletons and organs with little difficulty. Holmes picked one of the most remote rooms in the Castle to perform hundreds of illegal abortions. Some of his patients died as a result of his abortion procedure, and their corpses were also processed and the skeletons sold."
The Murder Castle could easily haunt a wild west or pulp setting, but I also think Holmes and his gruesome set-up could easily be transferred to a more typical fantasy setting. Perhaps Holmes's stand-in is an evil wizard? Certainly magic might add even more devilish traps to torment players. And luckily, The Chicago Tribune of Sunday, August 18, 1895, gave a diagram and supplementary drawing of the Murder Castle, suitable to get the gamemastering juices flowing:

8 comments:

limpey said...

In Michigan, we count Mudgett as one of our proud UM Alumni!
I watched 'H.H. Holmes,' a film by John Borowski, a few nights ago. The documentary was made on a shoestring budget, but the story was certainly compelling.

Trey said...

I hope the that trumpetted in your recruiting brochures. ;)

I had heard a documentary was made, but I haven't seen it. I probably need to check that out.

Risus Monkey said...

Seriously cool map! I'll have to use that at some point!

I assume, of course, that you've read The Devil in the White City? it's a great account of the 1893 World's Fair, focusing on the architects and planners of that event as well as Mudget/Holmes.

@limpey: As another UofM grad ('93), I had no idea that Mdgett was an alumni. Must have missed it my read.

Trey said...

Thanks. Actually I must confess to having not read The Devil in the White City, though I've heard good things about it. My acquintance with Holmes comes from Paradox Press' The Big Book of Bad, and Kenneth Hite's Suppressed Transmission article on him.

James said...

Great post!

Trey said...

Thanks, James.

The Lord of Excess said...

I agree great post ... just another example of truth being stranger than fiction. Very inspirational for diabolical inclusion in a game indeed.

Trey said...

For extra fun, try a mashup of Holmes's Murder Castle, and the Conan story "Rogues in the House."