The Morbid Thing H.H. Holmes Sold To Medical Schools

H.H. Holmes has the dark distinction of being America's first serial killer. Born in Gilmanton, New Hampshire, Holmes committed his most infamous and deranged acts in Chicago, where he moved and found a job as a pharmacist in 1886, according to Crime and Investigation. In 1889, he began construction on his so-called "murder castle," into which he lured at least nine and possibly as many as 27 victims to their death (via History).

Holmes spent years building elaborate secret passages, false doorways, and staircases to nowhere at his hotel at 601-603 West 63rd Street. Construction on the hotel was elaborate and time-consuming. It was also costly. Although Holmes had made a fairly lucrative career out of running cons and scamming people, along the way he had also found another way to make some quick cash. Holmes had obtained his medical degree from the University of Michigan's Department of Medicine and Surgery, per Michigan Today. As a student, he had made quite a few connections with researchers and doctors, and he had one thing that medical schools at the time desperately wanted: human bodies. Taking advantage of his network, Holmes would sell the partially dissected bodies of his victims to medical schools, or strip the flesh from the corpses and sell the skeletons to medical supply houses, per Michigan Today.

Medical schools needed human cadavers for research

In the 1800s, performing medical research on real human bodies was difficult, as a decline in executions, as well as poor refrigeration methods, meant medical students had less access to fresh bodies that they could dissect and study, per PBS. However, medical schools were still desperate to get their hands on real cadavers for anatomical lessons, and they were willing to pay whenever someone came along with a fresh body for their research, They were even willing to turn a blind eye if it appeared the body had come into its owner's possession under nefarious circumstances — as quite a few of them did, seeing that really the only ways to get your hands on a dead body then were via grave robbing or outright murder, according to Smithsonian Magazine.

For Holmes, selling the bodies also provided an added benefit. At the medical school, the bodies would be poked, prodded, dissected, and generally manhandled, and whatever else remained was simply dissolved in lime or acid, per Mental Floss. It effectively destroyed much of the evidence of his crimes, enabling him to go on killing until a stolen horse finally led to him being caught and brought to justice in 1894.