Locating the Site of H. H. Holmes’s “Murder Castle” in Fort Worth, Texas

by Chris Silver Smith

Fort Worth Map of Downtown, Circa 1885If you’ve ever tried to piece together the location of where some historical events occurred, you often will find that it’s very, very hard to do. I find myself doing this every so often, and each time I’ve thought that there is likely a large niche for a site which could attach timeline information to locations. There are often times when it would be useful (or interesting) to know what past events happened at a particular place, or to find the more precise locations for some notable historical event. Since there isn’t any central site for this sort of thing, people end up trudging around trying to find often-vague historical documents which mention the historical event, then try to match the historical locations up with current maps.

I found myself in this situation just this past week. I was half-watching Whitechapel, a crime mystery show set in England on BBCA, and the detectives had been in the home of a batty old woman who suffered from obsessive hoarding. Another character in the show was a sort of consultant for the police about historical crimes, and he’d mentioned a serial killer in America in the late 1800s, H. H. Holmes, who’d murdered potentially considerable quantities of people he’d lured into the hotel he operated, and the rooms were set up in some maze-like arrangement. Since Holmes was entirely unfamiliar to me, and since the whole story sounded so over-the-top, I figured it was fictional. But, not so! When I Googled this on my Android cellphone, I quickly discovered that there was indeed such a killer!

The Wikipedia article for Doctor H. H. Holmes described how he’d built with the help of a carpenter accomplice and other contractors a three-story hotel in Chicago at the time of the World’s Fair in 1893. The street-level floor was for shops and his pharmacy, while the upper two stories were hotel rooms (or boarding house rooms) and his office. However, the upper two stories were layed-out like a maze, with doors that opened into walls, stairways that went nowhere, and gas pipes which he apparently controlled to suffocate people. There were also chutes and a dumbwaiter, purportedly intended to deliver the bodies of his victims to the basement where he might bury them, burn them in his own crematory ovens, or dissect and render them (in acid) in order to convert them to skeletons to sell to medical schools. He apparently lured quite a number of women into these torture chambers / charnel house, as well as a few men, before he was eventually found out.

Later, when information about Holmes’s crimes began emerge, newspaper reporters dubbed the hotel a “murder castle”.

Aside from the astonishingly extreme nature of his crimes, my attention was caught by some other details involved in his story. He also traveled about, committing various fraudulent con jobs on people, and taking murders out in many of the places he visited. And, one of the places he came to was Fort Worth! A couple of the women he’d murdered had apparently been sibling heiresses of a railroad fortune, so he took ownership of one of the sisters’ (Minnie Williams’s) real estate property in downtown Fort Worth.

So it was that Henry Howard Holmes came to Fort Worth (using the alias “O. C. Pratt”) along with another woman he’d duped, and his carpenter from Chicago, Benjamin Pitezel (using the alias “Benton T. Lyman”), and they apparently began construction of another hotel for a brief period before they were run out of town under a cloud (Texans apparently caught on quickly that “Pratt” and “Lyman” were committing fraudulent transactions — particularly one involving absconding with a shipment of horses — and horse theft was so reviled in the Wild West that they risked getting rapidly hanged for such a thing).

So, I was quite curious — did they build yet another “Murder Castle” in Fort Worth? How far could they have gotten in construction? And, most interesting of all — where was this structure located, and does it still stand?

Many of the articles on the subject seem to reiterate information from the Wikipedia article, so most of them are pretty vague on the details around what Holmes and Pitezel specifically did while in Fort Worth, and where they were doing it.

So, while digging into it, I found a book that mentioned a specific location in Fort Worth where Holmes and his accomplice were apparently trying to set up shop all over again. In that reference, it states that “Minnie Williams’s property consisted of a large, vacant lot on the corner of Second and Russell streets, not far from the Tarrant County courthouse.”

Looking at a current map in Google, there is no “Russell St” that crosses 2nd, and 2nd St is relatively short, and the only other Russell St in Fort Worth is out near White Settlement.  Soooo…. 2nd street is near the courthouse and isn’t very long, so I thought that street name was likely correct. However, I thought either a street changed name since the late 1800s, or the author of that book had the wrong cross street name. With further digging, I find that the author got the street name wrong, AND the street changed names.

I found an old copy of the Fort Worth Gazette from 1894 which talks about the Williams sisters likely being murdered (“Fort Worth Girls Murdered“), and refers to Holmes and his accomplice building “the Rusk Street Fire Trap”!

Even better, I located an old 1927 map of downtown which shows that Commerce Street, which crosses 2nd near the courthouse, was earlier named “Rusk St”. (click on map icon above to view)

That Gazette article goes on to say that “a fine three story building and site will go for a few thousand dollars”, indicating that it’s to be auctioned off to repay Holmes’ creditors in Texas, and it would likely be sold cheap.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure which corner of the intersection the building was located on — and if it was poorly constructed, it likely was replaced in the intervening years.

It appears to me that current, much more modern buildings likely entirely replaced the building they constructed, although there could be remnants of it incorporated in one or two of the buildings around that spot.

Considering how there are many historical photos of Ft. Worth, it likely should be possible to locate a pic of what would have become the “Texas Murder Castle”, if H.H. Holmes had not been run off by the good folk of Texas who just don’t put up with that sh*t!


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4 Responses to “Locating the Site of H. H. Holmes’s “Murder Castle” in Fort Worth, Texas”

  1. Amber says:

    Thank you for doing this research! I was recently watching a documentary on H.H. Holmes and they mentioned this property of his in Ft Worth. As I live in nearby Keller I just had to know if this building was still standing and if it was worthwhile or even possible to visit. A little disappointing to hear that it is most likely no longer around but interesting to know where it used to be!

  2. Dale says:

    The Holmes Castle, aka Pratt Building in Fort Worth was at the SW corner or Commerce (Rusk St) and 2nd. I have been looking into this for several years and have quite a bit of information on it if you’re interested. I’m one of the directors of the Fort Worth Police Historical Assoc. let me know…Dale

  3. Adam says:

    Hi, Dale! Do you still have the info? I’ve gathered quite a bit on the Ft. Worth building while finishing up a book on Holmes for Sky Horse Press. A couple of papers published drawings of it, and on paper even threw together a diagram of the second floor. Architecturally it was very similar to the Chicago building, only larger (and never really used; it was, even moreso than the Chicago building, just an excuse to swindle people).

    It’s certainly no there now, but I’m having trouble figuring out exactly when it was demolished. It last made major news after a fire in 1919; by that time many papers had forgotten that this wasn’t the same building as the “castle” in Chicago!

  4. Karen says:

    Thank you for this great research. I’m a Google addict, and from Ft Worth, so had to look this up as soon as I read