Making of a Monster: Dr Herman Howard Holmes

Pick Me Up! magazine asked for my professional opinion on Herman Webster Mudgett (Dr Henry Howard Holmes), one of the first documented American serial killers. Holmes opened a hotel in 1893 designed specifically to  facilitate his murders. While he confessed to 27 murders, four of which were confirmed, his actual body count could be as high as 200. Out in the 21st February 2013 edition, I supplied the following psychological insight.


What effect did the religious mania of Herman’s mother have on him?

Religious indoctrination through regular Bible readings can be dangerous to the mental health of children. It is not a coincidence that a number of serial killers had parents with strong religious convictions that were forced onto them. Some religious content can be extremely scary for children, contributing to fearful and anxious adults who only have their childhood understanding to go on. Fear played a significant role in Herman’s young life.

What can we make of the incident where he was made to touch a skeleton by his classmates?

Herman was scared of skeletons and of the doctor, hence why the bullies used a skeleton to torment him. However, it would appear that Herman’s fear was so great that in order to cope his brain literally went from fear to fascination in an effort to gain some control over what was initially a traumatic experience. This drastic change in his perceptions of skeletons, from something to fear to something to obsess over eventually led him to medical school.


What would make a child like him become so obsessed with death?

Children can become obsessed with death for a range of reasons, most notably because the concept of death is difficult to understand – sometimes even for adults. Therefore, brief obsession can be healthy and a sign that a child is developing and starting to question the world around them. The concern is when the child can’t move beyond that obsession, which can be due to fear of death and a need to control it, or even due to a fascination with the peaceful aspect of death, the latter most often being the case if children are in pain and want the pain to stop. For Herman, it is likely that he wanted to control death, just like he wanted to control his emotions. He wanted to make anything that seemed beyond the control of others to enter his control. Power was important to him.

He started stealing bodies and disfiguring them while a medical student. What motivated this?

Herman was an ‘entrepreneur.’  He was motivated by money and saw an opportunity in medical school to steal bodies and then disfigure them in order to claim they were killed in an accidentally so that he could collect insurance money from policies he took out on them.


Was his polygamy solely motivated by financial gain, or was it something more sinister? A power game, perhaps?

The way in which Herman made a business out of stealing the skeletons of the deceased in many ways demonstrates an ambitious, albeit sinister, side. Just as his crimes would mount, so would the number of wives and children he had. Holmes was never happy with what he had and always thrived for more. It is likely that this did make him feel powerful. Indeed, Herman might have recalled the many examples of polygamy in the bible, as read to him by his mother, as well God’s commandment to “multiply and replenish the Earth.” Interestingly, polygamy and the subsequent necessity to support and provide for more than one wife and child often leads to hardship – not for Herman though – finances were not a problem given his ‘trade.’


How was he able to con the widow of a man who died of cancer? What prevented him from having any pangs of conscience?

Herman was purely financially motivated, at least the beginning of his crimes. He wanted to become more successful by expanding into pharmaceuticals. This poor widow was, in his eyes, the only thing preventing him.


Why did he feel the need to create such a complicated way of killing his victims?

As we have seen, Herman didn’t see this as murder as such, but more like a business that required a ‘production line.’ By using thought and intellect rather than pure emotion, it is likely that he was able to convince himself that he was an entrepreneur, not a cold-blooded murderer.


Why did he choose such varied ways to dispatch his victims? Some were asphyxiated, others tortured and so on.

This is less about variety of dispatch and more about Herman’s crimes progressing in severity and intention. While he started his crimes motivated by money, he would later take more interest and involvement in the actual act of murder, with torture rather than asphyxiation facilitating this.


What can we understand from his dissecting his victims and selling their skeletons to medical schools?

As sinister as it might sound, the simple fact appears to be that Herman was a business man with a keen eye for how to make money.


He seems to have killed his partners in crime, the Pitezel family. Why would he have felt it necessary to do this?

Just as the widow of the pharmacy was a ‘tool’ to be disposed of when she was no longer needed, so were the Pitezel family.


During his trial, he said he was possessed by Satan. Could he truly have believed this?

The evidence would indicate that Herman never truly believed this.  He was an intelligent man with a history of lying and the ability to think up complex systems of murder. Herman knew what he was doing.


Before his execution, he was reported to have been in a jolly mood. How could anyone facing execution feel like this?

Just as Herman had turned the childhood bullying from a situation of fear to fascination, he was able to cope with his execution by adopting a fearless, even happy, mood. Even up to his death, it was essential for Herman to be the one to control his emotions – no one else.


Why are the people still so fascinated by this story? 

The story of H.H. Holmes is by far one of the most unique cases of serial killing in history. The sinister act of making a business out of murder is so difficult to comprehend, even more so than comprehending murder itself. People are intrigued and what to know how this man’s mind worked. What drove him to this? As America’s first documented serial killer, Herman remains an enigma. 




Categories: Psychology

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3 replies

  1. I respectfully refute your reasoning for why Holmes committed the crimes he did. While it’s true that his backgrounds are as you say they were, I don’t believe the complication of him, “Herman’s fear was so great that in order to cope his brain literally went from fear to fascination in an effort to gain some control over what was initially a traumatic experience.” There are no real grounds, at list by the scientific community, that a change would occur. Most likely, him fearing and then realizing that his fears were groundless was the cause. Thus, curiosity.
    Secondly, his, “want[ing] to control his emotions” is also untrue. People who suffer from Antisocial Personality Disorder do not experience emotions as those inflicted do. They do possess greed, disregard for rules, and impulsive acts, and a wanting of ownership. While the psychological community does not label individuals with ASD until the age of 18, it is acknowledged that Holmes displayed signs at a young age, thus qualifying your statement of the effects of religious zeal impressed from his mother.
    In total, I find myself unsatisfied with this report, as you do not have facts or other historical references that qualifies your arguments, nor do you have actual experience with the person of diagnosis, as I’m sure there was more he did not reveal.

  2. Good article!

  3. Only note I want to add: Polygamy, in a non-polygamous society, is a subtle and easy way to make each involved person feel less worthy. I had seen it practiced in the borderzones to prostitution & forced money-making.

    Best summary I can share freely:èMPietroschekOnline/posts/XU2vG7jDFFr

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