Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Murder Castle - Today! (or, Good Grief - MORE H.H. Holmes)

NOTE: this post has been replaced by a much bigger, more detailed one that I wrote after a trip into the basement of the post office with the History Channel in June, 2012. CLICK HERE for the new, updated one! (or just scroll down, as most of the info has been appended to here)


The murder castle of H.H. Holmes was torn down in 1938. There were rumors that it was haunted while it was still standing, and a few stories now circulate about the basement of the current building on the grounds.

The government bought it in order to put up a post office on the site. This one, to be specific:



Notice the fallout shelter sign on the door - apparently, nowadays people go to the basement to LIVE (at least in theory). t doesn't occupy the EXACT same footprint - the left hand side of the building would have been in the middle of Wallace Street in the Murder Castle's time - but it does occupy a portion of the grounds. The drugstore Holmes ran would have been on the right hand side, possibly stretching into the empty space besides the station.  Dr. Holden's pharmacy, the other drug store Holmes took over, was across the street (in what is now an Aldi parking lot). As far as we know, not a bit of structure from either building remains, though I suspect we might find some foundation if we dug the place out. I don't think they'll be letting us do THAT anytime soon, though (update: the basement below IS said to be partly original - CLICK HERE for "The Murder Castle- Today! Part 2

Here's a diagram showing what overlap there was, based on overlaying three versions of the Sanborn fire insurance maps. The "Castle" is in blue:



As you can see, there's SOME overlap, but not a lot. The mysterious gas tank said to be used for cremations was well away from the post office itself. But I always say that if someone can come back from the dead, surely they can walk down a hall, too, right?

I DID just have a woman on the tour who lived near the castle when she was young - when it was still standing. She said remembered feeling spooked by the place - enough so that she'd cross the street so as not to walk by the site - but didn't know why until decades later.

(due to the popularity of this page, I've appended the later post from June 2012 right here):

THE MURDER CASTLE: TODAY (Continued)


So, is there anything left of the infamous H.H. Holmes "Murder Castle?"

"The Holmes Castle" was a well-known building in Englewood well into the 20th century; contrary to popular belief, the 1895 fire did not burn it to the ground. The top two floors had to be rebuilt and remodeled, but the place was still standing until the late 1930s, when it was torn down to make room for the new post office. I've spoken to a couple of people who still remember the place from when they were kids - the story was generally forgotten then, but people were still superstitious about the buildings.



above: Adam in the "tunnel" in the post office basement


The post office doesn't occupy the EXACT same footprint as the castle, though. In fact, there's not much overlap at all. Most of the castle would had been in the grassy area directly east of the castle. The railroad tracks were grade-level at the time the castle stood.  Climbing the back tree might take you right into the airspace of the "asphyxiation chamber."



By lining up the three versions of the fire insurance maps (two from when the castle was there, and one from the post office), we can see that it did overlap with the portion of the post office that juts out on the left - between a third of it to all of it, depending on how you measure things (lining up these hand-drawn maps is not an exact science, though lining up the railroad tracks helps a lot).  Here's an overlay of two of them, with the castle shaded in. You can see just a bit of overlap:
And here's my best attempt at superimposing the castle where it would have done. 


So, this brings up the major question: is there anything left? Perhaps of the old foundations? Certainly some of the basement overlaps with the original footprint. Recently, I had the chance to explore the place on a TV shoot with the History Channel.


Down below, there's a point where you can climb a step-ladder into a hole in the wall that leads to a sort of tunnel/crawlspace. The ceiling is about 5.5 feet off the ground in the tunnel, and there's one line of bricks:





According to the post office, this was an escape hatch from the "castle." Now, I've never actually seen any account of there being a tunnel down there, and no such thing was mentioned during the investigation in 1895. But these were the same investigators who found a large tank filled with gas and emitting a noxious odor, and decided to light a match to get a better look.

It's a bit west of the castle site; it's possible the 1895 investigators could have found it if they knocked out a western wall.  I sent some close-ups of the bricks to Punk Rock James, our official archaeologist, who said that the bricks look right for being from the 1890s; the lower couple of rows were probably underground foundation lays, and the upper ones show some fire damage (which is just what you want to hear if you want to imagine that these are from the castle).  This portion of the tunnel is west, and probably a bit south, of the foundation, so I'd say they're more likely from a building next door, if it's not actually an escape hatch.

 But at the end of the tunnel it takes a left hand turn to the north, and this part certainly goes RIGHT into the castle footprint:


So, this brings us to the big question: is the place haunted?

I took a number of photos and had an audio recorder running in the basement. I can't reveal what I found just yet (there are a few toes I don't want to step on, and I'm still vetting it). Also, I always like to point out that there's no such thing as GOOD ghost evidence, only COOL ghost evidence.  But I got a couple of the coolest things I've ever found down in the basement - a series of photos that I'd rate as a B+, and an audio recording that is a solid A.  I recorded several minutes of silent audio, both in the tunnel and in the grassy knoll, for use as a play-along podcast where listeners can listen for ghosts themselves - it'll come out in time. But there's one bit from the tunnel that I don't' mind saying is knocking my socks off, and I'm a snot-nosed skeptic about all this stuff. This is, as far as I know, the first cool ghost evidence ever collected at the castle site:






Some people call spooky audio recordings like this "E.V.P. (electronic voice phenomenon)." On TV, the "EVP" guys are usually the ones saying "are there any spirits here who have a message for me?" I keep hoping there'll one day be an episode where a ghost says "Yes! Your wife said she wanted you to pick up milk on the way home!"

Most of the time, when someone plays me an "EVP" file, I have to use a lot of imagination to hear what they're talking about. But now and then we do get something I can't help but think is pretty cool - like this thing from the basement.

So I don't make grand claims stating that this is ghostly girl who has come back to life or never crossed over or what have you, especially given that it sounds to me as though she's saying "Sorry Beefalow," which doesn't mean anything. It sounds like the worst Chef Boyardee product ever to me. One suggestion is that the voice is trying to say "buried deep below."  But I've no idea what that voice could REALLY be, and any claims I made would just be me talking out of my ass.     Here's a recipe for sorry beefalow!


I'm even skeptical about about the castle itself - I would only say with confidence that three people were killed there. Six to eight tops, including a couple of who died off-site after being given poison there.   Holmes probably only burned a couple of bodies in the castle before deciding that destroying a body in a crowded building was too much trouble and shipping them off-site to one of his "glass bending" facilities (he had a weird pre-occupation with bending glass; people eventually guessed that he was probably really using the massive furnaces he built for that purpose to get rid of bodies. He sure as hell never used them to bend any glass).

 I tend to think of Holmes as a swindler, first and foremost, who happened to kill people now and then, not as a regular serial killer. His suspected number of victims stood at 10-12 in his lifetime, and didn't start inflating until about the 1940s. Nowadays it seems to go up by a hundred or so every Halloween. But as far as hauntings go, the story still checks out - a few murders are more than enough, and as long as ANY of the current building overlaps, I think it's fair game to look for ghosts there. If you can come back from the dead, you ought to be able to make it down the hall.


For more photos and videos (and much of this same info), see our Murder Castle Audio/Video page.

So, I'll have more info for you guys eventually. In the mean time, consider one of Chicago Unbelievable's line of Holmes-lore ebooks!

Our "Murder Castle of HH Holmes" ebook has now been expanded to nearly triple its original size - it's now a full-length compendium of diagrams, drawings, eyewitness accounts, and more primary sources, all with detailed commentary - everything down to the combination to the soundproof vault, including a long-lost interview with Holmes himself.

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Our other Holmes-lore books:



A detailed analysis of his 1896 confession(s) for Kindle or nook. Did he really kill 27 people, or were more than half of them lies? The complete text of the confession from the Philadelphia Inquirer, with comparisons to a version published in other papers simultaneously (which contained some major differences) and the mysterious version published the day before in another paper, including the famous "I was born with the devil in me" section. Fully illustrated with newly-discovered evidence. 



Did the people who participated in the trial that sent Holmes to the gallows die mysteriously? The Holmes "evil eye" was not just a story invented by pulp writers years later; papers were speaking of it even before Holmes died, and continued to retell the story for years. Find out all about it in this mini ebook! Amazon (kindle) BN (Nook)



And for more on Punk Rock James, there's a whole interview with him in The Smart Aleck's Guide to Grave Robbing, which includes everything you need to launch YOUR career as a 19th century resurrection man - the Smart Aleck way! We here at Chicago Unbelievable strongly suspect that Holmes chose to attend the University of Michigan because of its reputation as a hub for body snatching.



11 comments:

Anonymous said...

According to what I've read the "castle" burned down while HHH was still in jail...not torn down or demolished as you suggest in 1938.

Adam Selzer said...

There was a fire there while he was still in jail that destroyed most of the evidence - but it didn't burn to the ground (many books have mistakenly said it did, though). The building was still there until the city bought it to tear down in 38; most of the pictures of it are from that era, in fact.

S. R. said...

It's great that someone else has finally figured out that the Castle survived the 1895 fire and wasn't demo'd until the 1930s. It's obvious from some of the pics, which show '20s era automobiles and the name "Campbell" chipped off at the top of the corner turret (it once read "Campbell Block"). However, Wallace originally ran where the railroad tracks are now (in the 1890s, the tracks ran right in the street, "at grade"... old drawings show this). Wallace's right-of-way on the north side of 63rd was relocated a bit to the west, I believe. On the south side of 63rd, next to where the Castle stood, Wallace was vacated as the tracks were elevated. Therefore, the current post office's footprint is mostly west of where the Castle stood (there is some overlap, though). The grassy area east of the post office, right next to the "alley" (originally Wallace), would have been the location of the entrance to Holmes' drug store, right under the turret.

Adam Selzer said...

That sounds about right, S.R. On the tours I take to the site, I usually tell people the castle itself would have occupied roughly half of the footprint, owing to the fact that Wallace was a through street at the time (it still runs right up to 63rd on the North side of the street.

Do you happen to know when the pointed turret was added? We've got pictures of the thing with a pointed turret (circa 1905) that I haven't seen in other shots.

S. R. said...

I didn't know that the Castle ever had a pointed turret roof (I've never seen the photo you speak of). I would guess it was added after the 1895 fire, though, possibly to give the building an updated or different look. (What a mess it must have been to establish title to the property after Holmes was gone.) Obviously the pointed turret roof was removed sometime before the 1938 demolition. Are there any good, clear photos of the Castle as it looked in Holmes' time? I wonder if other architectural details were altered after the fire as well. It's funny: most books of today describe the Castle as a strange, grotesque, out-of-the-ordinary structure; yet, architecturally, it's similar to so many commercial buildings of the era that had apartments above. I've seen a few 1880s-1890s buildings around Chicago that could almost pass as twins for the Castle... yet, I've seen none as large (wasn't it 150 feet deep?) as the Castle was. Maybe that's what made it unique.

Adam Selzer said...

There's one fairly good shot of it going around - it looks sort of unfinished, and surprisingly bright, compared to the pics from the 30s (the darkness was blamed on soot and age at the time). There's a small version of it at http://www.themediadrome.com/Images/history/holmes_castle.gif I've also seen a shot of the furnace inside of the sign shop from the 30s. I'm not 100% sure of the accuracy of either shot (I've never found an original source on the castle pic from the 1890s, but it DOES match newspaper drawings of the day). The earliest photos I have that I can source date to 1905 (though they were probably taken before then and kept on file). By then, it looked about like it would in the later pictures.

There was a guy who owned the place as of 1895, by which time Holmes had abandoned it (though he and his wives appear to have swung by from time to time). It was actually condemned at the time, even BEFORE the fire, as having been cheaply built and falling apart. Sources that mention the fire (it didn't warrant much attention at the time) seem to differ as to how much damage it did. I'd guess there must have been a big renovation in 1896 or so, but 1895 wasn't the only time it caught fire - there were a couple more in the building in 1905 and 1907 (and probably a few more)

gothmug said...

I have heard rumors that at least part of the original basement existed after the 1938 demolition : Has anyone actually seen or heard of this?
Has anyone gone checked out that fallout shelter, access from the Post Office?
Who did the "finish out" of the shelter, and where are the plans?
hmmm damn I wish I lived in chicago.

Adam Selzer said...

A lot of people have speculated that some of the foundations wouldn't have been removed (this is common around here), but it's tough to confirm. Often, the reason that basements aren't removed is that it could mess with the nearby structures (for instance, the one original wall of the Iroquois theatre was shared with the building next door). in this case, there ARE no nearby structures, so there'd be nothing to stop them from tearing out the foundations in the 1930s, but it's anyone's guess. Certainly there's nothign visible around the grounds today to suggest the castle was there; it's all been fully landscaped. There ARE some bricks that appear to be foundations of Holmes' "sobieski street factory" on the North Side, though all that can be totally confirmed is that the bricks seem to date from the 1890s (and the tree that grew over one of them is certainly not new).

I wouldn't be surprised if there might be some structure left, but I don't imagine the post office is very keen on letting people into the basement (and only part of it occupies the same footprint to begin with). It's also in perhaps the most notoriously bad neighborhood in town, which has probably dissuaded some investigating in recent years.

EJ said...

Yeah you don't wanna go near that office. Bad part of town. and there are definitely other buildings in town that do look strikingly similar, almost exact dimensions, just different color brick, etc. holmes must have been inspired by other buildings downtown that have similar stylings.

Anonymous said...

From the drawing, why does the castle outline look so small compared to the post office. When you look at the pictures and people walking in front, it's clear that the castle is very large. Larger than the post office. Is that part of the castle drawn on the plans?

Adam Selzer said...

The castle was taller and more imposing than the post office, but certainly not larger. It was about 50 feet wide; the fire insurance drawings do make it look narrower than it seems to have been, though. Lining them up isn't an exact science. See also: http://www.chicagounbelievable.com/2012/06/murder-castle-today-or-good-grief-more.html

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