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Scientists Dig Up Infamous Serial Killer's Grave To Settle Rumors Of Escape


Tom Hale

Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

Senior Journalist

Dr HH Holmes's mugshot in 1895. Public Domain

Dr HH Holmes was perhaps one of America’s first ever serial killers. Around the 1890s, this rogue pharmacist lured dozens of people to his “Murder Castle", toyed around with them like the guy from Saw, killed them, then toyed around with their bodies some more. What a charmer.

Like most serial killers, his life and death are surrounded by curiosity and mystery. One of the most enduring rumors was that the notorious Holmes managed to escape his execution. So, to settle this speculation, a judge ordered the exhumation of his grave earlier this year, following requests from a History Channel series called American Ripper.


HH Holmes, real name Herman Webster Mudgett, set up a hotel in Chicago around the time of the 1893 World's Fair. However, this was no normal hotel. It was a creepy maze of trap doors, fake doors, winding corridors, hidden gas vents, and a human-sized kiln in the basement. After “playing around” with his victims, Holmes would then kill, dissect, and skin them. 

He confessed to killing 27 people in total, both in his "hotel" and elsewhere, although the exact body count remains unknown. His killing spree finally ended when he was arrested in Boston on November 17, 1894. By 1896, he was sentenced to swing from the gallows. Due to his reputation as a con man, many have questioned whether Holmes managed to bribe his way out of prison, escaping execution and making a run for South America.

Associated Press reports that the results from the grave exhumation are now in. The tests from anthropologists at the University of Pennsylvania concluded that the remains in the pine coffin were indeed of Dr HH Holmes. So, it seems that rumors of his escape were false.

Researchers used his teeth to identify him. However, they were given a few other gruesome clues.


At Holmes's own request, his grave was filled with cement and buried deep enough to be below the water table. These airless conditions meant that his body had not decomposed as much as you would expect for a 120-year-old corpse. The researchers found that his mustache was still attached to his skull and much of his clothing was still intact.

“It stank,” Samantha Cox, who was asked by the History Channel to do the forensic science, told NewsWorks. “Once it gets to that point we can’t do anything with it. We can’t test it, can’t get any DNA out of it.” 

At least we know for sure he got his just deserts.


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