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Corpse of H.H. Holmes, 'America's first serial killer,' to be exhumed

Descendants of the famed mass murderer want to know if Holmes faked his own death by hanging.
H.H. Holmes, known as "America's first serial killer," is having his body exhumed from a Pennsylvania cemetery. (Wikimedia Commons)

H.H. Holmes killed at least nine people, claimed responsibility for the deaths of 30 and is believed to have possibly murdered hundreds.

But one death remains a mystery: his own death by hanging in Philadelphia in May 1896. Rumors have long swirled around the execution, and some believe Holmes actually faked his own death.

To settle those theories, Holmes' descendants have asked that the corpse buried in Holmes' plot at Holy Cross Cemetery, in Yeadon, Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia, be exhumed.

Holmes' great-grandchildren John and Richard Mudgett and Cynthia Mudgett Soriano requested the exhumation, the Associated Press reported. The three submitted their DNA to the University of Pennsylvania, where it will be compared against the remains in Holmes' grave. The family is not commenting on the process. It is unknown when the results of the test will be announced.

Long before John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer or Ted Bundy, H.H. Holmes used his medical practice to murder an unknown number of people.

He was born Herman Webster Mudgett and took on the moniker H.H. Holmes after getting his medical degree and moving to Chicago.

His obsession with corpses is believed to have begun at an early age when he started playing with skeletons he found. As a medical student, he reportedly mutilated corpses he found in the morgue and left them in public, posed as victims of recent crimes.

In Chicago, he built an absurdly complicated so-called murder castle which doubled as a hotel. Some rooms were designed so they could be filled with gas, murdering the occupants by a single switch of a button at Holmes’ bedside. There was one room especially designated for hanging victims.

Not only hotel guests but prospective employees and women responding to advertisements Holmes printed seeking a wife came to the “murder castle,” never to be seen again.

Holmes even exploited the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago to lure more out-of-town guests into his castle and then take their lives.

Beyond murder, Holmes participated in more run-of-the-mill scams: stealing horses and insurance scams. He collected the insurance policies for many of the people he murdered, and he plotted with accomplices to fake each other’s death so they could collect insurance money.

Holmes was arrested in Boston after a former accomplice ratted Holmes out to police for the insurance scams, according to the Crime Museum. He was detained at Moyamensing Prison in Philadelphia before allegedly being hanged.

But rumors quickly sprung up that Holmes convinced prison guards to aid him in faking his own death as part of yet another scam.

Author Adam Selzer’s book, “H.H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil,” details how a former accomplice told local media Holmes convinced prison guards to swap his body with a corpse just before the hanging and smuggle him out in a coffin. 

The upcoming test will either put that legend to rest, or it could potentially spark a new hunt for what really happened to Holmes.