Some Serial Killers Commit Murder For Profit

H.H. Holmes was the original American comfort/gain killer.

Posted Apr 20, 2015

Source: Wikipedia

Serial killers are quite varied in their motivations and they can be classified along those lines. Material gain or a comfortable lifestyle are the primary motives of comfort/gain killers, which are perhaps the oldest recognized and least complicated type of serial killers. Unlike hedonist lust killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer who are motivated by sex, for example, these predators primarily seek financial gain and an improved quality of life through the act of murder. 

They were more common in past centuries, during times of anarchic disorder around the worldwide, when the formal institutions of justice were weak and the value of life was lower than it is today. Pirates, bandits, black widow husband poisoners, bluebeard wife murderers and landlady killers are vivid examples of hedonist comfort/gain killers over the centuries (1). 

Although there are certain similarities between this type of serial killer and hired assassins (professional hit men), they are separate and distinct categories. Significantly, comfort/gain killers are not professionals because they select their own targets and do not receive a salary from a third party for committing murder. Instead, they commit murder in response to an emotional need for comfort or security. In contrast, professional hit men kill because it is their job to do so. Hit men are emotionally detached contract killers rather than self-serving serial killers.       

Prior to becoming comfort/gain killers, such criminals are sometimes involved in (and may have previous convictions for) theft, fraud, nonpayment of debts, embezzlement and other property crimes. Frequently, the victims of such killers are family members or close acquaintances. After the murder of a close friend or relative, a comfort killer will usually wait for a period of time before killing again to allow any suspicions by those in close proximity to subside. They often use drugs or poison, and most notably arsenic, to kill their victims (2). 

The first serial killer to receive broad notoriety in the U.S. was Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, a charming and ruthless comfort/gain killer who operated in Chicago during the late nineteenth century. Dr. H. H. Holmes murdered his victims, mostly females, for life insurance policy settlements and related inheritance gains. At the time of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, Holmes opened a hotel, dubbed the “Castle,” which he had designed and built specifically for the purpose of murdering his guests. 

The Castle featured secret dungeons, vaults, hidden passageways, torture chambers and gas chambers. After the completion of the hotel, Holmes targeted his mostly female victims from among his employees (many of whom were required to take out life insurance policies for which the premiums were paid by Holmes and he was the sole beneficiary), as well as his wealthy lovers and hotel guests. He tortured and killed many of them and disposed of their bodies in elaborate fashions.  

In October 1894, after the custodian of the Castle informed law enforcement authorities that he was suspiciously not allowed to clean the upper floors of the hotel, the police began a thorough investigation that uncovered Holmes's efficient methods of committing murder and disposing of corpses, including acid pits and a massive furnace in the basement. Upon arrest, Holmes confessed to twenty-seven murders of which nine were confirmed but some investigators and criminologists believe that Holmes may have actually murdered as many as 200 people. He was convicted of all charges and executed by hanging in 1896.  

The murderous exploits of H.H. Holmes are now part of U.S. popular culture. They have been chronicled in numerous books and films. Interest in Holmes's crimes was revived in 2003 by Erik Larson's best-selling non-fiction book The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America that juxtaposed an account of the planning and staging of the 1893 World's Fair with Holmes's serial murder career.

In my most recent book, I examine the twisted fantasies, desires and habits of notorious serial killers, including the “Son of Sam” and “Bind, Torture, Kill” based on my personal correspondence with them, in Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World’s Most Savage Murderers. To read the reviews and order it now, click:

(1) Vronsky, Peter. 2004. Serial Killers: The Method and Madness of Monsters. New York: Berkley Books. 

(2) Ibid.

Dr. Scott Bonn is professor of sociology and criminology at Drew University. He is available for consultation and media commentary. Follow him @DocBonn on Twitter and visit his website