What do you do when you find out your ancestor was the first serial killer in the United States? For Jeff Mudgett – the great-great-grandson of H. H. Holmes – the discovery led him on a totally different path than the one he was already on.
Mudgett was 40 years old, and a practising lawyer in California, when his grandfather revealed the dark family secret.
In a phone interview, Mudgett recalled the incident that prompted the revelation. “My grandmother was convinced we were related to a civil war general, and she was spending quite a bit of money to prove this theory. Well, my grandfather thought it was time to come clean with the terrible truth he’s been keeping. After a dinner party, he told us that our ancestor was indeed the most evil man in American history.”
Dr Henry Howard Holmes was the alias for Herman Webster Mudgett who confessed to 27 murders. But, later he changed his statement saying he killed only two. However, it is believed that he may have killed at least 200 people although only nine could be proven. An expert liar, Holmes ran an insurance scam by stealing cadavers and collecting insurance money claiming they died in accidents. He would later kill for this purpose; one of his known victims was his friend Benjamin Pitezel.
Circa 1893, Holmes bought a property in Chicago – now known as the Murder Castle – for the purpose of murdering his victims, mostly female. The property had (as listed by mentalfloss.com) 51 doorways that opened to brick walls, 100 windowless rooms, stairs that led to nowhere, two furnaces and body-sized chutes to an incinerator. Although caught by the authorities, Holmes was initially charged only for his insurance scam. An inspector found a discrepancy in Holmes’ tall tale and figured out he wasn’t telling the whole truth. In 1896, the 34-year-old killer was executed.
Naturally Mudgett couldn’t believe he was related to the “Devil In The White City”. Nonetheless, Mudgett started researching into Holmes through the personal diaries of his great-great grandfather which he inherited, only to realise his family line kind of explained some of his own character traits.
“I didn’t want to murder anyone,” clarified Mudgett. “… but it explained my short temper, and getting angry over things that other people would just move on from.”
From that point on, Mudgett made it his life’s work to learn more about Holmes and detailed his investigation in the book Bloodstains.
Presently, his investigations brought him to co-host History’s American Ripper, an eight-part series that seeks to prove that Holmes and Britain’s notorious Jack The Ripper were the same person!
On American Ripper, Mudgett partners with ex-CIA analyst Amaryllis Fox, using the latest scientific tools and forensic methodology to showcase that Holmes was Jack The Ripper.
When asked how he came up with this theory, Mudgett answered: “Let me start by telling you, and I think you will notice when you watch the show, in my opinion and my professional training, H. H. Holmes was Jack the Ripper. I think it’s only a matter of time before the world accepts it.
“On the show, we go through every piece of evidence, exploring every thing that I have (on Holmes). There was a team with me, spending months, researching everything … production engineers going through mountains of evidence including new ones I have never seen.
“If Holmes were alive today, I know the English would have him stand trial for the murders of (Jack The Ripper’s victims) Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, etc.”
Mudgett has no regrets giving up his career as a lawyer to concentrate on his family’s dark past. There are still many questions revolving around Holmes that remain a mystery. Still it must have taken a toll learning the horrifying truth about an ancestor.
“When I first started on my journey, my other family members were very upset with me. They wanted me to leave it alone as the Mudgett family had done over a century … But I looked into it over their objections.
“I can tell you now, after the success of my book and History’s American Ripper, my family is 100% behind me in demonstrating to the world that, despite our origin – having the genes of this terrible monster – none of my family went on to commit any crimes. All of us have decided to be good American citizens. And I think that is something that should be recognised and something the family can be proud of.”
American Ripper airs Wednesday at 9.55pm on History (Astro Ch 555/HD 575).
(Listen to an excerpt of the group interview with Jeff Mudgett below.)