Herman Webster Mudgett, a.k.a. Dr. H.H. Holmes
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.  

This week’s entry: List Of Serial Killers Before 1900

What it’s about: The public often thinks of last week’s subject, Jack The Ripper, as the original serial killer. But he was far from the first, or the most brutal. With only five victims, he’s an amateur compared to some of history’s greatest monsters. As far back as the second century B.C.—when Han prince Liu Pengli was convicted of more than one hundred murders—certain butchers were already renowned, either for the brutality of their killings or the sheer quantity. With 20th-century events relatively well-documented, and 21st-century ones over-documented, Wikipedia breaks out a list composed solely of serial killers from the 19th century and earlier.


Strangest fact: Four different women on the list were baby farmers. While there’s really no way that phrase could have a positive connotation, the practice seems set up to encourage murder. In the late Victorian era, parents could pay someone to take their baby off of their hands and care for it, either through toddlerhood or indefinitely. Often this was because the child was illegitimate. However, the practice was also an unregulated form of foster care and adoption. In some cases, rich parents simply farmed out their child-rearing duties much like they do today—except instead of having an au pair in the house, children were sent away (Jane Austen and her siblings were raised by baby farmers for their first few years). The hitch: Baby farmers were paid a lump sum to take care of the children, often not enough to cover long-term care. So it was more profitable for the farmer if the baby died, and the sooner the better. Numerous baby farmers were neglectful or murderous, and the serial killer list only covers a few notable examples (including the only woman ever to be executed in New Zealand and an Englishwoman who may have killed as many as 400 children) of what seemed to be a widespread practice until the U.K. Parliament began regulating baby farms in 1872.

Biggest controversy: Those living in the 1830s Deep South and singled out for treating their slaves badly must have known their lives had taken a very dark turn. That was the case with Delpine LaLaurie, a New Orleans socialite infamous for torturing and murdering slaves. While the pre-1900s list only credits her with two to four murders, her personal Wikipedia page notes that she was believed to have killed hundreds of people. She had already been investigated after a 12-year-old girl fell to her death from the roof, after running away from a whip-wielding LaLaurie. Police found her guilty of illegal cruelty to nine of her slaves, who she was forced to sell. She managed to buy them back shortly thereafter, and beat her own daughters when they attempted to feed the returned slaves. Finally, in 1834, a fire broke out in LaLaurie’s kitchen, and police found the cook chained to the stove, confessing she had started the fire as a suicide attempt. She feared punishment in the uppermost room of the house, claiming anyone taken there never returned. Other rescuers reached slave quarters and found seven mutilated victims of LaLaurie, still alive, but “suspended by the neck, with their limbs apparently stretched and torn from one extremity to the other.” LaLaurie’s shocking brutality quickly went public, and an angry mob attacked the house. LaLaurie, however, managed to flee to Paris, and was never prosecuted of her crimes, dying of natural causes in either 1842 or 1849.

Thing we were happiest to learn: Class warfare has become slightly less deadly than actual warfare over the years. Pre-1800, servants seemed to be fair game for their masters’ murderous impulses, including 16th-century Hungarian countess Elizabeth Báthory, who tortured hundreds of servant girls to death; Catalina de los Ríos y Lisperguer was investigated for the deaths of 40 servants and slaves in 1600s Chile (then a Spanish colony), but never convicted; and Russian aristocrat Darya Nikolayevna Saltykova tortured female serfs and beat them to death.


Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Go back far enough, and not only were serial killers far more brutal, but their punishments were as well. Two unrelated killers in the Holy Roman Empire in the late 1500s—Peter Stumpp, who claimed to be a werewolf and confessed to killing and eating 14 children, including his own son, and two pregnant women; and Peter Niers, a bandit who was convicted of 544 murders—were sentenced to being “broken at the wheel,” a punishment in which the victim was tied to a wagon wheel and beaten until his limbs were broken. After this treatment, Stumpp was beheaded and burned; Niers was drawn and quartered while still alive. A more fitting punishment was bestowed on the Parisian “Werewolf Of Chalons,” also known as the “Demon Tailor.” In the late 1500s, he lured children into his shop, where he tortured, raped, and murdered them; afterward he cooked and ate their remains. He was presumably executed, but all court documents were deliberately destroyed, so that his name would be forgotten and he would gain no infamy from his gruesome crimes.

Also noteworthy: One of the most bizarre stories is that of H.H. Holmes, widely regarded as America’s first serial killer. Herman Mudgett (who went by the name of Dr. Henry Howard Holmes) was a con man who, among other things, stole bodies from a medical-school lab, then claimed they were accident victims to collect insurance money. He moved to Chicago in 1886 where he took the name Holmes and got a job at a pharmacy, which he eventually took over. In 1889, he built a hotel, intended for use in the upcoming World’s Columbian Exposition. But this was no ordinary hotel. It consisted of over 100 windowless rooms, arranged so that hallways twisted and turned at odd angles, doors opened onto brick walls, and stairs led nowhere. Holmes used the rooms to murder hotel guests, lovers, and hotel staff (who were required to take out insurance policies, with Holmes as the beneficiary). Some rooms were fitted with gas lines Holmes could use to asphyxiate his victims. One was a soundproof bank vault where victims would suffocate. The bodies were dropped through a chute to the basement, where Holmes dissected them. Some were reduced to skeletons and sold to medical schools; some were destroyed in furnaces or pits of acid. He moved out of Chicago without being caught, and traveled the country for years afterward. He was finally caught when he convinced an associate to fake his death and collect the insurance money, but instead of swapping out a cadaver, Holmes simply killed the associate. He even went so far as to convince the widow to go on the lam, leaving three of her children with him, all the time assuring her that her husband was alive and in hiding. He killed the children, and was finally caught by Pinkerton detectives who had been tracking him since the non-faked death. He’s estimated to have killed as many as 200 people in his murderous career.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: The man considered by some to be history’s most prolific serial killer was Behram, the leader of the Thuggee cult in India. The Thuggee (based on the Hindi word for “thief,” and the source of the English word “thug”) were a large-scale criminal gang that operated with impunity in pre-colonial India, and are estimated to have murdered anywhere between 50,000 and two million people over 150 years. The group’s favored method was to insinuate themselves into groups of traders or travelers far from home, and then garrote their victims, using a reinforced turban or scarf, before stealing the victim’s possessions. Behram himself claimed to have been present at 931 killings and had personally strangled around 125 people, although he was never prosecuted, as he turned informer when the British made a widespread (and successful) effort to eradicate the Thuggee. Nominally a religious cult, the Thuggee worshiped the Hindu goddess Kali, although many of the group’s members were Muslim. Infamous worldwide in their day, fictionalized Thuggee have played villains in everything from Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom to Gunga Din to Help!


Further down the wormhole: As mentioned above, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency was a remarkable organization, a private law enforcement agency that at one point had more members than the U.S. Army. Besides protecting valuables and doing detective work, the Pinkertons did everything from providing security to Abraham Lincoln, to busting unions, to tracking outlaws like Jesse James, Butch Cassidy, and the Sundance Kid. One former Pinkerton agent who went on to fame was Dashiell Hammett, who drew on his experience with the agency to write hard-boiled crime novels, including The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man. Hammett left the Pinkertons because he was disillusioned with their anti-union activities, and became a staunch anti-fascist and pro-labor activist for the rest of his life. He belonged to the American Communist Party in the 1930s, and after serving in WWII, was elected president of the Civil Rights Congress. That organization was devoted to calling attention to racial injustice, and as such was placed on the Attorney General’s List Of Subversive Organizations. We’ll peruse that list next week.