Grave of H.H. Holmes, ‘America’s 1st serial killer,’ to be exhumed amid rumors he escaped execution

Grave of H.H. Holmes, ‘America’s 1st serial killer,’ to be exhumed amid rumors he escaped execution
H.H. Holmes (Image: Chicago History Museum)

On the morning of May 7, 1896, thousands of people gathered outside the high stone walls of the old Moyamensing Prison in South Philadelphia to await the hanging.

Herman Webster Mudgett, better known to the world as H.H. Holmes or “America’s first serial killer,” was set to hang for the horrific murder of his late business partner, Benjamin Pitezel. While Holmes confessed to killing 27 people and is rumored to have done in more than 200 in his Chicago home, dubbed the “Murder Castle,” it was the death of Pitezel – whom he burned alive to collect $10,000 in insurance money – that sent him to the gallows.

At around 10:15 in the morning, the prison’s superintendent fitted the noose around Holmes’ neck and the trap was sprung. After the drop, Holmes twitched uncontrollably for 15 minutes as he slowly strangled to death, but after 20 minutes on the rope prison officials officially declared him dead.

But was he really dead?

Following the hanging, rumors spread far and wide that Holmes – a master con man and manipulator – had paid off prison guards to hang a cadaver or some unsuspecting fellow inmate in his place and let him slip off into hiding in South America.

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