'American Ripper': What it's like when you discover your ancestor's a serial killer

MANILA, Philippines – As far as family secrets go, Jeff Mudgett’s is perhaps on the darker end of the spectrum. His ancestor, Herman Webster Mudgett, is actually HH Holmes – who confessed to murdering 27 people but is believed to have killed many, many more.

The 19th century doctor was so famously murderous that many suspect him of being Jack the Ripper – arguably the most famous serial killer of all time. Of course, to Jeff, Holmes is more than that – he is also the ancestor he never knew he was linked to, until 20 years ago.

Jeff was 40 years old and a practicing lawyer when his grandfather revealed the family secret at a dinner party. From that point on, Jeff embarked on an almost-obssessive journey to find out more about his dark forefather, described by some, including Jeff himself, as “the most evil man in American history.”

Holmes was known for building a “Murder Castle” – a towering structure in Chicago – fitted with trap doors, secret passages, acid vats, and a crematorium – where Holmes carried out his crimes. The serial killer is also surrounded by the myth of a “Holmes Curse”, which is said to have befallen the policemen, judge, and jury involved in his arrest and trial – many of whom were found dead in freak accidents, illness, or suicide.

This was the figure Jeff sought to demystify, and his meticulous research has led him to write a book, Bloodstains, which combines personal history with details of Holmes’ crimes. Now, Mudgett’s investigation continues in American Ripper, a new crime documentary airing on HISTORY.

 

In an interview with  Rappler  and other publications, Jeff talked about the moment he discovered his shocking family secret, and what it was like to go deeper into his family’s horrific origins.

How did you feel when you found out that you were descended from HH Holmes? What went through your head?

Jeff:  I tended not to believe much of it but then as I researched the legend and lore of this horrible American I started to realize that many of the idiosyncrasies of my life and my character could now be identified. I’d never thought of murdering anyone. I never thought of actually hurting anyone. But I knew that I was different. I knew that I was unique, and now these idiosyncrasies had a name. 

How has this impacted your other family members?

Jeff: When I first started on my journey they were very upset with me. They wanted me to leave it alone, as much of the Mudgett family had done for over a century. He was known as the devil, and the family had run away from that. I decided I wasn’t going to do that. I sought justice. I sought truth. I decided to look into it. So, over their objections, I continued.

But I can tell you now after the success of my book, Bloodstains, and the success of American Ripper, my family is 100% behind me in demonstrating to the world that despite our origins –  the genetics from this terrible monster – none of my family went on to commit any crime. Two are war heroes, one was a mayor in Florida. All decided on choices of their own to be good American citizens, and I think that’s something that should be recognized. I think that’s something the family has learned to be proud of.

How did you go about researching for your book?

Jeff: I read as many historical narrations as I could find, and on Holmes there were literally hundreds of books. Every major newspaper was there at his trial so I pulled up as many as I could, trying to see which of the articles had a basis in fact, and which were tied to statements Holmes himself had made. The man was a pathological liar. He lied perhaps more than anyone else in history. I think he lied to himself when he talked to himself. And when you go find the newspaper articles that have quotes from Holmes in them, the red light goes off in your head that here’s another lie that we have to determine some fact from or just discard completely.

How did you feel when you saw the show for the first time?

Jeff: My heart was beating as if I had just run a marathon. I was very nervous. When I took on HISTORY's request that I host the television show with my brilliant co-host Amaryllis Fox, the forensic scientist from the CIA, I warned them that I wasn’t an actor. But they said they knew that. They were looking for my sincerity as a descendant of this man out on a quest, and they wanted my emotions to come across on the screen. I think when you watch the first episode, you see that’s exactly what happened. They did a great job of portraying how I was feeling.

Could you share any chilling experiences while producing the show?

Jeff: There was a scene in Irvington, Indiana where HH Holmes had murdered an 8-year old boy when he was trying to escape incarceration. He had decided that the boy had to go. We were at the scene of the murder which was chilling to say the least. A historian described how the city legend was that people had watched Holmes hold surgical valise in his left hand and the little boy's hand in his right, as they walked into town for the blacksmith to sharpen the knives that Holmes was going to use to murder the boy. That was perhaps the most chilling moment of the 20 years that I’ve now known who my ancestor was. I almost came to tears.

In the show you are presenting a theory that Jack the Ripper and Holmes were the same person. What is your basis of this theory and what got you so convinced that they’re the same person?

Jeff: On the show we go through every piece of evidence, every fact that I had. The people at HISTORY’s reputation was at stake. They were a team with me telling this theory to the world. They spent months researching every fact that I could give them. In the year of production, they had literally hundreds of production engineers going through every piece of material we intended to put forth and discovering new ones I had never seen. I think it’s a mountain of circumstancial evidence. If Holmes were alive today, I know that English prosecutors could come to America, they’d obtain an arrest warrant, have an order for extradition, and Holmes would need to stand trial in England for the murders of Catherine Eddowes and Elizabeth Stride.

American Ripper premiered on HISTORY on November 15. It airs on Wednesdays at 9:55 pm. – Rappler.com

Amanda T. Lago

After avoiding long-term jobs in favor of travelling the world, Amanda finally learned to commit when she joined Rappler in July 2017. As a lifestyle and entertainment reporter, she writes about music, culture, and the occasional showbiz drama. She also hosts Rappler Live Jam, where she sometimes tries her best not to fan-girl on camera.

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