For Jeff Mudgett, the fantasy of his great, great grandfather – known as America’s first serial killer – is an obsession.
“He is evil personified,” Mudgett said.
"He" is H.H. Holmes, the murderer believed to have terrorized Chicago during the 1893 World’s Fair.
Holmes, who was born Herman Webster Mudgett, confessed to over two dozen murders, though some believe the body count is much higher.
What is undisputed is that Holmes operated a building at 63rd and Wallace. The so-called “murder castle” is said to have been equipped with gas chambers, hallways to nowhere, even a crematory.
When Holmes was finally arrested in Philadelphia, newspaper reports at the time indicated he may have pulled off one final swindle – escaping death by having someone else hanged and buried in his place.
Mudgett had to know for sure. He petitioned the courts to exhume the body in Holmes’ grave to match DNA samples of the remains to his own.
In late April, digging began at Philadelphia’s Holy Cross Cemetery.
“It actually brought tears to my eyes, and I was trying to figure out, ‘Why am I crying for this monster of a man?’” Mudgett said of finding the tomb for the first time.
Mudgett said archaeologists at the University of Pennsylvania first found a fake pine box, which may have been used as a decoy. But a few feet deeper, they discovered a cement sarcophagus.
Lore has it that Holmes requested his body be encased in cement.
“Cracking open the 125- to 130-year-old cement, as you can imagine, is tough work,” Mudgett said.
Inside the coffin, Mudgett said they found a man’s skeleton.
“Chills went up and down my spine. To see that skeleton and that skull with the brain still inside, which is a phenomenon that scientists still have not explained… scared the heck out of me,” Mudgett said.
The remains are still at UPenn, while anthropologists conduct tests. The results are pending.
Meantime, Mudgett hopes the grave dig inspires another one in Chicago.
Today, the site of Holmes’ alleged death factory is the Englewood Post Office. Holmes’ building and the federal building are said to overlap just four to five feet.
Mudgett said much of the land is undeveloped and untouched, and he believes evidence of Holmes’ fiendish crimes is buried underneath.
But some skeptics aren’t so sure.
Adam Selzer, author of the new “H.H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil,” said the land was excavated in 1895 and again in the 1930s during construction of the post office with no major discoveries.
“In 1895, the police and reporters spent a good three weeks digging up every inch of the basement,” Selzer said.
But he acknowledges, “I wouldn’t call it an archaeological investigation. It was more Keystone Cops than CSI.”
“Even if they found some bones, it would be very difficult to say this was definitely a Holmes victim.”
But Mudgett said it’s worth asking the federal government for permission to dig again.
“Excavating those grounds to identify those victims who, you know what? They deserve that,” Mudgett said.
Mudgett is currently co-hosting a series on The History Channel, investigating a theory that Holmes is in fact Jack the Ripper, the notorious, unidentified serial killer who brutally murdered women in London in the 1880s.