Fort Worth’s Murder Castle: America’s first serial killer came within a hair’s breadth of building his house of horrors downtown

Devil in the White City

Fort Worth’s brush with a macabre killer


Fort Worth Business

Considered America’s first serial killer, H.H. Holmes lured women – and some men – to a boarding house in Chicago during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair that was in reality a chamber of horrors.

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And he came within a hair’s breadth of constructing a similar chamber of horrors in Fort Worth.

Many have heard the tale of the charming, elegant, yet murderous Holmes, but recently local researchers now believe they have a better grasp of how he was sent packing out of Fort Worth. But for some disgruntled, unpaid workers and a tenacious local attorney, America’s first serial killer would likely have continued his killing spree here.

Holmes himself acknowledged he could not help the fact that he was born a murderer.

“No more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing,” he said.

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The smooth-talking psychopath admitted he was born with the devil in him. Considered America’s first serial killer with as many as 200 victims, the Torture Doctor’s unnerving story has inspired numerous books, short films, and even an upcoming movie (starring Leonardo DiCaprio) recounting his cruel existence in Chicago in the late 1800s. It was then that the medical school graduate masterminded the infamous “Murder Castle.”

Holmes, who was born Herman Webster Mudgett in 1861, purposely opened his hotel in conjunction with the 1893 World’s Fair to attract unknowing tourists. The ominous building had a maze of more than 100 windowless rooms and there were doorways that opened to brick walls, oddly-angled hallways and stairways that led to nowhere. Many doors were able to be opened only from the outside and served as gassing chambers.

Even more frightening was the castle’s basement – the home of Holmes’ laboratory, where he would torture his victims and gain profit for selling their skeletons and organs. There were furnaces, acid pits and even a stretching machine. Holmes cleverly lured in guests, primarily women, and they began disappearing.

“He’s just like all sociopaths,” said Quentin McGown, associate judge and prominent local historian. “Remorseless.”

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McGown has spent many hours studying the history of Holmes, but even more so the history of D.T. Pratt – that was Holmes’ alias during his time in Fort Worth. America’s first serial killer spent approximately four months here in 1894 with one goal in mind – to build a second murder castle, in downtown Fort Worth at that.

“We know from the Chicago story that Holmes would have a group of workers build part of the building, get rid of them, and bring another group in. Nobody ever saw his entire building,” McGown said. “It seems that’s what he was doing here.”

Before the World’s Fair, Holmes met Minnie Williams, a Mississippi native who was adopted by her wealthy uncle from Dallas. Williams was heiress to a valuable piece of property in Fort Worth which Holmes fancied as his for the taking. Holmes killed Williams and her younger sister Anna, but not before forcing Minnie Williams to sign over the deed to her Fort Worth property. Holmes then left Chicago, where suspicions about him were rising, and appeared in Fort Worth. He had successfully inherited Minnie’s property and was ready to build his second murder manor.

McGown has pieced together from historic Fort Worth Gazette articles that the property was located at the corner of second and Commerce streets, where the current Mercury Chop House patio now sits along with a portion of The Flying Saucer’s stage area. It didn’t take Holmes long to indeed erect a three-story building that a historic aerial photo shows sitting next to a former opera house and resembling his Chicago castle almost identically. He might have succeeded, but for one flaw, says McGown.

“But he wasn’t paying his contractors,” McGown said. “So it was the complaints of the workmen that started putting some suspicion on him and that’s when he bailed out of town. I think if he had paid the workers he might well have finished the thing and started his activities here.”

Another factor leading to Holmes’ departure was Fort Worth attorney William Capps, who started one of the city’s earliest law firms along with Sam Cantey.

“William Capps was representing the heirs – Minnie Williams, her sister and her brother. Holmes killed all three of them,” McGown said. “I don’t think Capps was going to let go until he figured out what was going on. So Holmes’ days were already numbered.”

Holmes was finally arrested in Boston in 1894. He was held on an outstanding warrant for horse theft in Texas. His week-long trial took place in Philadelphia where he was hanged on May 7, 1895. But the building he left in Fort Worth would just begin its tenure as a downtown landmark.

“Everybody knew who he was and they actually used his name to market the building. It was known as Holmes Castle,” McGown said. “The building became a series of hotels and went through several ownerships. There are no records that show it after the mid ‘30s. By that time that end of downtown had become used tire shops and car repair shops.”

McGown says a Gazette article he came across mentions chutes traveling from the third floor to the basement in the building once it was first explored after Holmes departed.

“They actually said there was a funny smell coming from the gutter behind the opera house like he maybe had experimented,” McGown said. “It’s fascinating because it was right across the street from the old city hall and fire station. By the time he was here the city hall had moved to 1000 Throckmorton St. where it is now. But the fact that he was building right under the noses of the municipal complex is surprising.”

But Fort Worth’s brush with America’s first serial killer was a short and – as far as is known – a bloodless one.

In The Devil in the White City, the popular book written by Erik Larson that shares the Holmes saga, Williams’ guardian is noted to have hired Capps after her correspondence ceased. McGown says it’s reasonable to assume that after Holmes arrived in Fort Worth to file the forged deed to the lot, Capps’ search became more urgent.

“He was in touch with others investigating Holmes’ other frauds and crimes,” McGown said.

In a letter to Carrie Pitezel, a famous Holmes’ acquaintance whose children and husband he eventually murdered, Holmes wrote that he would rather spend five years in jail up north than a year in a Fort Worth jail.

“He said, ‘I dislike fearfully to go to Fort Worth to serve a term, as the prisons there are terrible,’” McGown said.

Scorsese, DiCaprio to adapt

‘Devil in the White City’

Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City is finally headed to the big screen, with Martin Scorsese directing and Leonardo DiCaprio starring in it.

Paramount Pictures confirmed Aug. 10 that it has optioned Larson’s best-seller. The screenplay will be adapted by Billy Ray, who scripted Captain Phillips and The Hunger Games.

The film marks the sixth feature together for Scorsese and DiCaprio, who last joined for The Wolf of Wall Street.

Published in 2003, Larson’s nonfiction book is about the architect of Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair and a serial killer who used the fair as a setting for his murders. The book has long been a hot property in Hollywood, particularly pursued by DiCaprio.

For news about the film of Devil in the White City