The Murder Castle

Once a month here on the Molten Sulfur Blog, I run content taken from our book Archive: Historical People, Places, and Events for RPGs. This post is one of eighty entries in Archive, each more gameable than the last!

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The Murder Castle
Hotel Hell

On the outside, it was a three-story brick building in downtown Chicago. Shops rented space on the first floor. The upper floors held a hotel with sizable rooms. H.H. Holmes, the architect and owner of the building, had an office on the second floor, but left most of the rooms for his guests. Many of them ended their lives trapped in a labyrinth of twisting hallways, false staircases, and torture cells. How many Holmes murdered is unclear, but it may have been hundreds.

In the late 1880’s, Holmes moved to Chicago and got a part-time job at a drug store. After his boss died, Holmes tried to buy the drugstore from the man’s widow. He agreed to let her continue living above the store, but when Holmes didn’t pay, she filed a lawsuit against him. She mysteriously disappeared shortly thereafter. Holmes then purchased the much larger lot across the street from the drugstore and began building his hotel. During construction, he had a habit of hiring a contractor to build one section of the hotel, then firing them, hiring a new one for another section, and later firing them. This meant no one but Holmes knew the layout of his labyrinth.

The “World’s Fair Hotel” was completed just in time for the 27 million people streaming into the city for the 1893 World’s Fair. Holmes hand-picked mostly female guests and employees to abduct. The hotel was a windowless maze: nearly 100 rooms, dead-end staircases, circular hallways, doors that opened to brick walls, and trap doors. Secret hallways and closets connected the bedrooms for spying, greased chutes led stray victims straight to the basement, and most of the bedrooms in the hotel were airtight asphyxiation chambers connected to gas lines. This allowed him to kill prisoners quickly if he wanted, but the other rooms were far more interesting for him.

There were iron plates in some walls, soundproofing them and preventing guests from breaking out of their rooms. Some walls had gas-driven blowtorches built into them, meant to burn and torture victims. In the basement, Holmes kept a dissecting table that he used to slowly remove body parts, sometimes while the victim was still alive. Through connections from medical school, he was able to sell skeletons and organs with little difficulty. He also had a crematory and acid vats in the basement where he would dispose of bodies, again sometimes while victims were still alive. Every room had alarms that would buzz in Holmes’ office if a victim tried to break out.

As far as anyone knows, no one ever escaped the Murder Castle.

The Murder Castle in Play

Caves, tombs, and ancient ruins for dungeons can get old, so why not lead your PCs to a seemingly delightful hotel? Different shops on the ground floor can prepare them for future adventures, fooling players into thinking the hotel isn’t one. Keep the PCs in a group or split them up in their rooms and let them wake in the night. Maybe someone switched on sleeping gas, then moved them elsewhere. As the PCs wander the looping halls, they could climb stairways leading to nowhere or open doors into walls. Trap doors and secret passages could lead them to an area where they can see fellow party members, but the soundproof room doesn’t permit shouted warnings. The Murder Castle could make a great horror twist in a campaign. Can your PCs be the first to escape?

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