The 13th Floor

The REAL History Behind AMERICAN HORROR STORY: HOTEL’s James March & Actual Serial Killer HH Holmes

Last week we reported on how the setting for AMERICAN HORROR STORY: HOTEL was based on the real life Hotel Cecil in Los Angeles. Read about it here-

But did you know the HOTEL main character of James March and his wild torture chambers are also based on real history?

Stairs to nowhere, doors that opened to brick walls, and endless secret passageways. This concept did not originate with the Hotel Cortez from AMERICAN HORROR STORY: HOTEL, and it wasn’t originally built by James March. The year was 1886 when a real man calling himself H.H. Holmes arrived in Chicago, Illinois. H.H. Holmes (aka Doctor Henry Howard Holmes aka Herman Webster Mudgett, aka Henry Gordon, aka Alexander Bond) purchased a block of land where he began construction on a hotel that would be completed in time for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. A huge hotel for the time, the three-story structure took up the entire length of the city block. It was named the World’s Fair Hotel, but acquired the nickname “The Castle” because of its size.


Just like its creator, the hotel’s construction was deceptive. Filled with angled hallways, trapdoors, rooms that could be only entered from the outside, and soundproof rooms fitted with gas lines, this was not your typical hotel. During it’s original build, Holmes was constantly replacing his workers and designers claiming they were incompetent. The real reason behind his revolving crew was to keep any one person, other than Holmes, from discovering the true purpose of this unique hotel.

Before his venture into hotel ownership, Holmes’ primary business was insurance fraud, a path that began while he was studying medicine at the University of Michigan.  There he would collect insurance payouts on cadavers he had stolen from the school. After graduation, Holmes turned up in Mooers Forks, New York, where he was questioned about the disappearance of a young boy he had been seen with earlier. Although there was no formal investigation, Holmes quickly left town. He then arrived in Philadelphia where he took a job at a pharmacy. Once again, Holmes found himself answering questions about another dead child. Feeling the heat, Holmes departed for Chicago.

Using the money he made off of his scams, and with the help of some hefty loans, Holmes was able to build his hotel. Completed in time for the Chicago World’s Fair, the hotel gladly welcomed its first tenants as Holmes welcomed his first victims. In the beginning, Holmes preyed on his hotel employees, mostly women who were required to take out insurance policies with Holmes as the benefactor. Soon afterwards, his hotel guests began to disappear as did a number of his lovers.

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The second floor of “The Castle” was designed to kill.  Some rooms were fitted with gas lines to asphyxiate victims while they slept. Other rooms were reinforced with metal plates and gas powered blowtorches to burn victims alive.  In the “hanging room”, chloroformed victims were hung by the neck until they were dead.

An airtight bank vault in Holmes’ office was another means by which Homes’ would murder his victims. Annie Williams of Fort Worth, Texas would spend her final moments in that vault, right after she had signed over a property deed to Holmes. After a killing, secret metal chutes leading to the basement provided Holmes with a means of transporting his victims out of the hotel without alerting any of the other guests.

During his spree, Holmes began an affair with Julia Smyth, an estranged wife and mother of a young girl named Pearl. When Smyth became pregnant, she began pressuring Holmes to marry her. Holmes decided instead to murder Smyth and Pearl.

A short time after he began his work, Holmes once again found himself on the run.  However, it was not the law, but his creditors that had him fleeing from Chicago to Fort Worth, Texas. Quickly finding himself in trouble for another scam and horse theft, he ran to Philadelphia where he rejoined his one-time accomplice Benjamin Pitezel. There the pair concocted a plan to fake Pitezel’s death. In charge of procuring a cadaver, Holmes decided it was best to just use the real thing. Holmes set fire to Pitezel just after knocking him out with chloroform. After collecting on the insurance policy, he fled with Pitezel’s unsuspecting wife and her children to Canada. The bodies of the Pitezel children were later found in a steamer trunk buried on a home Holmes had rented in Toronto. Pinkerton detectives caught up with Holmes in Philadelphia where they held him on a horse stealing warrant from Texas while they attempted to piece together more evidence.

Back in Chicago, investigators were making several shocking discoveries. Throughout the hotel, they found secret passageways to hidden rooms and suspected torture chambers. On the third floor, police found a women’s gold chain and hair in a stove. Inside of the hotel bank vault, they also found scratch marks made by Annie Williams when she attempted to claw her way through the vault’s metal door as she slowly ran out of oxygen. In the basement investigators, found lime and acid pits, as well as two furnaces used to dispose of bodies. Most disturbing of all was the collection of various acids and a dissection table used to skeletonize bodies so that Homes could sell victims skeletons to medical schools.

At trial, H.H. Holmes served as his own lawyer, initially proclaiming his innocence then later claiming to being possessed by Satan. Despite their findings, the law could only convict him for the murder of Benjamin Pitezel, a crime he was sentenced to death for.

Before his execution Holmes confessed to murdering twenty-seven people, but always the conman- some of the people he confessed to killing turned out to be still alive. It was one final con played out for his amusement. Many believe his confession to be modest believing his death toll to be anywhere between 100 and 200 victims even though only nine murders at the hotel could actually be confirmed. Holmes was executed by hanging on May 7, 1896.  “The Murder Castle” was demolished in 1938 and is currently the site of a post office.