H.H. Holmes, one of the most infamous serial killers of all time, was executed on May 7, 1896.
Or so they say.
In the century since his death, rumors have persisted that the brilliant and undoubtedly evil murderer actually managed to escape, living out the remainder of his life in South America.
Now, Holmes’ descendants are hoping to put this persistent myth to rest once and for all — ironically by having their ancestor’s worst nightmare realized.
Last week, researchers in Philadelphia dug up the coffin in which Holmes — born Herman Webster Mudgett — was presumably buried.
They are now testing the bones to determine whether or not they indeed belonged to the legendary figure, who was accused of murdering as many as 200 people.
It’s not the number of victims, though, that sets Holmes apart from history’s other twisted villains. Rather, it’s the way he killed them — in his stranger than fiction “Murder Castle”.
The three-story Chicago building was the perfect evil lair. Filled with secret passageways, door-less rooms, fake staircases and an elaborate alarm system, only Holmes himself knew all of the building’s secrets.
Obsessed with the human body, Holmes would kill his victims in gas chambers before dropping their corpses into the basement with laundry chute-like slides.
There, in his underground laboratory, he would dissect the women (the vast majority of his targets were female) and sell their organs on the black market.
Undeniably clever, he would then dispose of the bodies using chemical baths or his human-sized stove. For this reason, the exact number of people who lost their lives in the castle will never be known.
After Holmes was finally arrested, found guilty of murder and sentenced to death, he only had one request in his final days: He wanted to be buried in a cement coffin.
All too familiar with the horrific things that one can do to a corpse, Holmes presumably made this appeal in the hopes that his own body could decompose more peacefully than those of his victims.
Or — conspiracy theorists will tell you — because he knew his body wouldn’t be in the coffin after all.
No matter what the motivation, his request was granted and the body was placed in a double-deep coffin, which was then covered and buried in seven 3,000-pound barrels of cement.
Suspicions began spreading immediately.
A janitor from the Murder Castle claimed that he had seen letters proving Holmes had tricked his lawyer, jail officials, and a priest into putting another dead man in his place (though he never shared these letters). He said his ex-boss had escaped to a coffee farm in Paraguay.
Others thought Holmes had faked his death and snuck out of prison inside the casket.
“Within two hours of the hanging an undertaker’s wagon containing a casket drove out of the prison yard,” the Chicago Daily Inter-Ocean reported in 1898. “That casket was supposed to contain the body of Holmes. Instead, it contained Holmes living.”
Though most of the rumors were riddled with plot holes (for example, the janitor said Holmes was living in a Paraguayan town that doesn’t exist), it’s hard to not get lost in the what-if’s.
“It’s very tempting [to believe it,]” writer and Holmes expert Matt Lake said. “Because this guy was a consummate trickster!”
So tempting, in fact, that even Holmes’ great-grandchildren are a little skeptical of who lies under the Philadelphia grave site.
Cynthia Mudgett Soriano and John and Richard Mudgett recently petitioned the Delaware County Court to have their most famous ancestor’s body dug up.
The DNA tests — which are often accurate even so long after death — are being conducted by anthropologists from the University of Pennsylvania.
But even if it is concluded that the body belongs to someone other than Holmes, the court order requires that the remains — no matter whose they are — be returned to their same resting place within 120 days.
The court also required that “no commercial spectacle or carnival atmosphere shall be created either by this event or any other incident pertaining to the remains.”
But that might be hard for them to control.
Next, take a look inside H.H. Holmes’ incredibly twisted murder mansion. Then, read about the hospital serial killer known as “The Angel of Death,” who was recently murdered in prison.