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Descending from Evil: The Story of Herman Webster Mudgett

On the surface Herman Webster Mudgett seemed to be a productive member of society. Born and raised in the small state of New Hampshire, Herman turned his fascination with the human body into a career when he graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School in 1884. Wealthy, well-educated and refined, the young doctor moved to Chicago where he became the owner of a drugstore, and eventually opened a hotel. Women were drawn to the handsome, finely-dressed and charismatic businessman.

He was a total lady-killer.

The 60-room hotel loomed over the Englewood suburb of Chicago, opening its doors shortly before the 1893 World’s Fair. Beneath the cover of a successful entrepreneur, Herman Webster Mudgett - better known as H.H. Holmes - designed the hotel with one thing in mind: murder. During construction, Holmes used several different contractors so that none of them would catch on to his monstrous plans. The hotel, or “Murder Castle,” came complete with stairways to nowhere, windowless rooms fitted with gas lines and body chutes used to drop his sedated victims down to the basement level.

Once in the underbelly of the castle, victims were subjected to real-life horrors that would make Dexter’s “Dark Passenger” sit up and take notice. The basement came complete with vats of acid, lime pits, an oven and a surgical table. It was here that Dr. H.H. Holmes, the living-breathing monster - worse than anything Hollywood could ever imagine - dissected his victims, selling their organs and skeletons to medical schools across the country.

Located just two miles away from the World’s Fair, H.H. Holmes had a steady flow of female victims to choose from and many times he profited off of more than just their bodies. It was while studying at the University of Michigan Medical School that he also became proficient in the art of insurance fraud. Holmes would regularly steal cadavers from the school, taking insurance policies out on the deceased. He would then disfigure the bodies to claim they had been killed in an accident so he could collect on the insurance. Later, with his living victims, Holmes would befriend and manipulate them into signing over power of attorney. Shortly after, the trusting victims would wake to find themselves in the basement of Holmes’ castle.

Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, America’s first serial killer, was eventually caught and hanged for his crimes on May 7, 1896, at Moyamensing prison in Philadelphia. Convicted of murder, he admitted to killing 27 people, but was believed to be guilty of up to 200 murders. Holmes was laid to rest in an unmarked grave, encased in 10 feet of cement at nearby Holy Cross Cemetery. After months of dominating newspaper headlines and redefining the nightmares of their readers, Herman Webster Mudgett was left to be forgotten.

Although H.H. Holmes has been dead and buried for over a century, his genes live on. At the end of his life, he was married to three different women and had an unknown number of mistresses and children.

When we set out looking to uncover the history of our families, most are excited and motivated by the thought of finding connections to war heroes, presidents, the Mayflower or even royalty. However, what we don’t consider is the fact we may unearth skeletons our family has been trying to keep hidden for generations.

This was the reality for Jeff Mudgett, author of “Bloodstains” and second great grandson of Herman Webster Mudgett. At the age of 40, Jeff learned of the monster he descends from, and it left him questioning everything he thought he knew about himself and his family. The new information forever changed him, propelling him down a new path in search of the truth.

However, diving into Holmes’ life only led him down a darker path; a path that could potentially solve the mystery of Jack the Ripper. In 2006, using 13 eyewitness accounts from 1888, Scotland Yard and the BBC had a computer composite made of the Ripper, and the similarities to Holmes are shocking. Along with the composite, Jeff had H.H. Holmes’ handwriting compared to the infamous Jack the Ripper letter. One expert, recommended by the British Library, concluded both were written by the “same hand,” while a computer program used by the Postal Service and Department of Justice stated it was a 97.95% match.

Jeff is currently investigating whether Holmes was in London during the Ripper, but in the mean time, the composite and handwriting samples can be viewed on his site at www.bloodstainsthebook.com. Could these two men be the same monster? Judge for yourself.

If you were faced with the reality of descending from a man like Holmes, how would you handle the information? Would you share it with your family or throw the skeleton back into the closet you found it in? History holds just as many villains as it does heroes, so would you have the guts to claim yours as publicly as Jeff has in his book?

If you want to learn more about H.H. Holmes, and hear how his descendants have coped with this, check out my new video blog “Claiming Your Villain” where Jeff Mudgett helps me tackle a question I often receive: “Are some family secrets better off forgotten?” He will also share how he’s grown from this experience, and gives others advice on how to handle their own dark discoveries.

Watch the interview with Jeff here:

By Kris Williams Twitter: KrisWilliams81

If you didn’t hear the news, we just added more than 18,000 yearbooks to our growing U.S. Yearbook Collection. The new additions, spanning 1806-2008, include schools across the United States, from junior highs and high schools to colleges and universities. You can browse this rich collection for a glimpse into relatives’, friends’ and celebrities’ past, from more formal class portraits to team photos and fun, candid shots. In total, the collection now stands at 53,000 yearbooks and approximately seven million images.

Win Screening Passes for NEW Steven Spielberg film, ‘Lincoln’

Attention Ancestry.com fans! We are collaborating with DreamWorks Pictures and Twentieth Century Fox’s Lincoln, in theaters November 16, 2012. We will soon be announcing some exciting news in a few weeks, so sit tight.

LINCOLN is in theaters November 9th, 2012 (Limited) and
Nationwide November 16th, 2012.


One Day - Advance Screening Pass Giveaway - Tuesday, October 9

In the meantime, we have a special giveaway for you to act on NOW! Be among the first to attend a special advance screening of DreamWorks and Twentieth Century Fox’s Lincoln in Seattle and Los Angeles. The date is October 10 at 4pm PT. And afterwards stay for a very rare Q&A live satellite with Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis. You could be chosen to ask a question! 

We have a limited amount of tickets for Seattle and Los Angeles. Be one of the first 10 people who answer the question, “What makes you so excited to see the new Lincoln movie?” by emailing socialsupport@ancestry.com your answer using any unique username you chose in answering the question in the comments section, and include your name and phone number. Winners will be chosen on a first come, first serve basis so act quickly as tickets will go fast. Giveaway is one ticket per person. We will confirm you have won the advance screening ticket and provide details.

Remember, there is no wrong answer. Just be one of the first 10 in Seattle or Los Angeles area to answer the question. We ask that you be sure you can attend the Wednesday, October 10 advance screening and Q&A. We would be disappointed if you had a ticket and couldn’t attend. If you are looking for a friend or two to join you, share the blog post with your friends so they can also have a chance to win.

Watch the movie preview here:

© 2012 DREAMWORKS II DISTRIBUTION CO., LLC and TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX FILM CORPORATION

Movie Synopsis

Spielberg directs two-time Academy Award® winner Daniel Day-Lewis in “Lincoln,” a revealing drama that focuses on the 16th President’s tumultuous final months in office. In a nation divided by war and the strong winds of change, Lincoln pursues a course of action designed to end the war, unite the country and abolish slavery. With the moral courage and fierce determination to succeed, his choices during this critical moment will change the fate of generations to come. 

Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook and Tommy Lee Jones, “Lincoln” is produced by Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy, with a screenplay by Tony Kushner, based in part on the book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. The DreamWorks Pictures/Twentieth Century Fox film, in association with Participant Media, releases in U.S. theaters exclusive on November 9, 2012, with expansion on November 16, 2012.