Clara Lovering eloped with 17-year-old Herman Webster Mudgett before a New Hampshire justice of the peace in 1878. She didn’t expect him to abandon her and the son born two years later.
Nor did she realize until later that she was lucky to escape the marriage alive.
Herman Webster Mudgett, aka Dr. H.H. Holmes, lured victims into an elaborate ‘murder castle’ during the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. He may have killed as many as 200 people, though he admitted to only 27. He also ran elaborate life insurance scams, which led to his arrest and conviction.
Clara Lovering was a beautiful young woman from a prominent family in Loudon, N.H. It wasn’t until he was caught in Boston 16 years later that she learned the truth about the man she loved.
Herman Webster Mudgett was born in Gilmanton, N.H., on May 16, 1861, a month after the Civil War broke out. His parents, Levi Horton Mudgett and Theodate Page Price, were devout Methodists and strict disciplinarians. Levi, a farmer and a violent alcoholic, beat his children and locked them in the attic when they misbehaved.
Herman was a mama’s boy who spent a lot of time reading Edgar Allan Poe and Jules Verne. He also liked to invent things.
Young Mudgett stood out at school, Gilmanton Academy, as a small, odd and unusually bright boy. On his way to school he had to pass the office of a village doctor who left his door unlocked.
Mudgett’s schoolmates found out he was afraid of the doctor’s office and dragged him to it, he later claimed ‘struggling and shrieking.’ They brought him face-to-face with a grinning skeleton.
“It was a wicked and dangerous thing to do to a child of tender years and health, but it proved an heroic method of treatment, destined ultimately to cure me of my fears, and to inculcate in me, first, a strong feeling of curiosity, and, later, a desire to learn, which resulted years afterwards in my adopting medicine as a profession,” Mudgett claimed — from his prison cell.
More likely, wrote Erik Larson in The Devil in the White City, ‘far from struggling and shrieking, he merely gazed at the skeleton with cool appreciation.’
Trouble seemed to follow him even as a boy. His only friend died from a fall when they were playing alone in an abandoned building. And he developed a hobby of dissecting animals.
Herman Mudgett developed courtly manners, a dapper wardrobe and a winning way with women. He graduated high school at 16, and got a job as a teacher in Alton, N.H. There he met Clara Lovering, whose father represented the district in the New Hampshire state Legislature.
Clara was intensely attracted to Herman, but bothered by his insistence on sex. After courting for more than a year, they eloped on July 4, 1878.
She gave birth to their son, Robert Lovering Mudgett, in 1880 in Loudon, N.H. By then Herman Mudgett tired of teaching and went to work as a clerk in a Concord, N.H., grocery store. For a year he lived in Concord while his wife lived with his parents in Gilmanton. He decided he wanted to be a doctor. Clara agreed to support Herman through medical school.
He enrolled in the University of Vermont‘s medicine program in Burlington, frequently visiting his young family. Clara supported him ‘doing services to various people’ (probably sewing), according to newspaper reports.
After a year Herman Mudgett transferred to the University of Michigan, a medical school that emphasized dissection. She joined him in Ann Arbor, but after a year they decided she’d be better off at home in New Hampshire.
His Michigan professors recalled him as a roue who breached his promise with a widow from St. Louis. He stole cadavers, mutilated them and tried to collect insurance money by saying they died in an accident.
During the summer of his junior year he took a job as a traveling salesman for a book publisher in Northwestern Illinois. He kept the proceeds and fell in love with Chicago.
Life After Medical School
Herman Mudgett graduated in 1884 and set out to find a place to practice. He tried Portland, Maine, where he got another sales job. In his travels he discovered Mooers Forks, N.Y., where he was hired as a grade school principal. He corresponded with Clara by mail, and he visited her several times. He contributed little to support his family.
In Mooers Forks, he was rumored to have caused the disappearance of a boy seen in his company. He also plotted – but didn’t execute – an elaborate life insurance fraud involving a cadaver.
In October of 1888, he visited Clara and Robert at home and told them he had business in Chicago. He didn’t want her to join him. That may be because he had already married another woman. Clara took him to the train station in Concord, and didn’t see or hear from him again for six years.
Clara decided she would have to support herself and her young son. She learned dressmaking in Concord, then set up a successful shop in Tilton.
“There is a modest little tin sign tacked on a simple white building on Main st. opposite the hotel, right in the center of this seminary village, which reads, “Mrs. C.A. Mudgett, Dressmaking,” reported the Boston Globe. She lived in an apartment above the store with her son.
Meanwhile, Herman Mudgett was working insurance scams around the country. According to the Boston Globe, “On one occasion Holmes insured his own life for $20,000. Then he went to a hotel in Rhode Island, wearing a beard. He got a body, took it two miles from the hotel, cut the head off, and buried the rest. He shaved, went to the hotel, registered under a new name and asked for Holmes. They said he had gone out, but was staying at the hotel. The swindler took the head, charred it in the hotel furnace and tried to identify it as his own. This particular scheme fell through.”
Mudgett moved to Chicago and began calling himself Dr. Henry Howard Holmes. He bought a pharmacy, and the owner mysteriously disappeared. Across the street he built a three-story building with living quarters, torture chambers, trapdoors and chutes into the basement kiln. During the Columbian Exposition he opened his home as a hotel for unlucky visitors to the fair. He seduced his female guests, swindled them, killed them and burned their remains.
He also married a third women without divorcing Clara or his second wife.
Mudgett was finally jailed in St. Louis for selling mortgaged goods. He brought a fellow inmate in on one of his schemes. When Mudgett failed to deliver, the inmate tipped off authorities.
In early October 1894, Clara Mudgett got a typewritten letter that her husband sent to his brother in Jamaica Plain from Indianapolis. He explained he was in a train wreck that fractured his skull, then confined in a Minneapolis hospital where he completely forgot who he was. He gradually came to his senses and worked so he could earn enough to come home, set up a business and support his wife and child.
Clara wrote to him, and he responded he was leaving Chicago for Tilton via Montreal. He then sent her a letter from Montreal where he said he was detained on business.
Mudgett was actually hiding out in Burlington, renting a house with the wife of an accomplice he had murdered. He tried to kill her by planting a bottle of nitroglycerine in the basement and asking her to bring it to him. She wisely refused.
One day he went to pick up his mail in Burlington and saw Pinkerton detectives in the post office. He quickly disappeared.
At noon on Monday, Nov. 5, 1894, Herman Mudgett arrived in Tilton by train and found out where Clara and 14-year-old Robert were living. ‘The home-coming was a joyous one for the wife,’ reported the Globe. “The wife hugged and kissed the returned wanderer, wept over his narrow escape from death and long illness, desiring no further explanation of his absence, satisfied with his being home at last and for always, for he had told her so.”
They had a festive family dinner, and then he went to visit his parents in Gilmanton for a few days. He returned to Tilton for about a week, then said he had business in Boston. But Pinkerton detectives were on his trail, and arrested him on Saturday, November 17.
A Boston Globe reporter came to Clara’s house and asked her about her married life. She told him, then asked why. When the reporter told her of her husband’s arrest, she burst into tears and said, “Perhaps he has another wife, too, somewhere.”
Mudgett was tried for murder in Philadelphia and hanged on May 7, 1896. Robert became a certified public accountant and city manager of Orlando, Fla.
This story was updated in 2020.