Earlier this year, a team of researchers exhumed the grave of Herman Webster Mudgett, alias H.H. Holmes, pursuing century-old rumors that America's first serial killer escaped his execution in 1896. The unearthing process is featured in the new History channel eight-part series American Ripper, which premieres on Tuesday, July 11th. In the show, retired trial lawyer Jeff Mudgett – Holmes' great-great-grandson, who describes himself as "the descendant of the devil" – partners with former CIA operative Amaryllis Fox to figure out just what is buried in the cement coffin. They've got a larger mission, though: to prove Holmes was Jack the Ripper.
After learning about his family roots two decades ago, Mudgett began researching Holmes' life and eventually jumped on a theory that it was Holmes who terrorized London beginning in the fall of 1888, before wreaking havoc on Chicago during the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893. Mudgett, who first connected the killings in his 2011 memoir Bloodstains, refuses to be labeled a conspiracy theorist, and sees himself instead as a logical lawyer who can be a "fresh pair of eyes" to help solve the cold case. Fox offers a hand as a career government agent who has tracked international terrorists using her knowledge of criminal networks and psychology profiles. Together, the duo embark on an investigation, interviewing experts and historians across America and England.
"I don't think I'll ever be content knowing my great-great-grandfather was this monster," Mudgett tells Rolling Stone. "While this will stay with me to my dying day, I do take satisfaction in knowing that my quest is for the murder victims and making sure that they are identified. My job is to identify those victims and pay some memorial to them."
In between dramatic re-enactments in the first episode, Mudgett and Fox analyze Holmes' hand-written diaries and schematics of his Murder Castle – a hotel once located on the southwest corner of 63rd and Wallace Streets in Chicago, which featured a maze of dead-end hallways and meticulously designed guest rooms which doubled as gas chambers. Holmes had a secret chute to transport bodies to a hidden basement where he would dispose of his victims in quicklime, or dissect them before incinerating their remains in a high heat furnace.
In the series, Mudgett and Fox build a psychological profile of both Holmes and the Ripper, then proceed to try and prove they are the same person. They travel to Gilmanton, New Hampshire, where historians share stories and records detailing Holmes' childhood involving his studies under a village doctor, a failed attempt to teach and the unusual deaths of several children – including two of his cousins – while he grew up in the 1860s and 1870s.
In one scene, Mudgett tests his theory aloud: If Holmes murdered the kids, how could that knowledge help make the connection between Holmes and the Ripper? "If it is true that Holmes is responsible for the death of his cousins then that means his killing style evolves over time," Fox replies on the show. "From taking his victims and drowning them outside, to possibly killing hundreds in the Murder Castle. If this is the case, maybe the Ripper murders are part of his evolution as a killer."
Mudgett and Fox search Chicago public records of Holmes' marriage to Clara Lovering Holmes – Mudgett's great-great-grandmother. They find documentation of at least two fraudulent marriages, bogus promissory notes, insurance scams, civil case and liens on the property relating to the construction of the Murder Castle. And what is the point of mapping out Holmes' whereabouts according to the legal transactions? If Holmes could be pinned down to Chicago in the fall of 1888, then he was not in London committing the Ripper killings. "It has the potential to nullify everything I’ve been working on for the past 20 years," Mudgett says.
Even as the show premieres, Mudgett's blood is still being compared to the DNA pulled from the grave, to prove whether Holmes was actually executed and buried. The show will later reveal how the results affect the theory that Holmes was the Ripper.
"I'm on pins and needles, but I haven't seen anything that would change my theory of H.H. Holmes being Jack the Ripper," Mudgett says. "I know Jack the Ripper is one of those subjects that cause anger when a new theory comes up. But there's no doubt in my mind that if Holmes was alive today I could get probable cause, get a warrant issue, and get him arrested for the murders in London."
Watch an exclusive clip from History's new series American Ripper.