Herman Webster MUDGETT
A.K.A.: "Dr. H. H. Holmes"
Classification: Serial killer
Characteristics: To collect insurance money - Torture
Number of victims: 27 +
Date of murders: 1886 - 1894
Date of arrest: November 17, 1894
Date of birth: May 16, 1861
Victims profile: Men, women and children
Method of murder: Several
Location: Indiana/Pennsylvania/Illinois, USA - Canada
Status: Executed by hanging at Moyamensing Prison, Philadelphia, on May 7, 1896
Herman Webster Mudgett (May 16, 1861 – May 7, 1896), better known under the alias of "Dr. H. H. Holmes," was an American serial killer.
Holmes trapped, tortured, and murdered possibly hundreds of guests at his Chicago hotel, which he opened for the 1893 World's Fair.
The case was notorious in its time, and received wide publicity via a series of articles in William Randolph Hearst's newspapers. Interest in Holmes' crimes was revived in 2003 by the publication of a best-selling book about him, The Devil in the White City.
Although Holmes is sometimes referred to as America's first serial killer, his crimes occurred after those of others such as Thomas Neill Cream, the Austin Axe Murderer and the Bloody Benders
He was born in Gilmanton, New Hampshire, son of Levi Horton Mudgett and his wife, formerly Theodate Page Price. His early criminal career was based on fraud and forgery, including a cure for alcoholism, real estate scams, and a machine that purported to make natural gas from water. Holmes earned a doctor's degree from the University of Michigan.
On 8 July 1878, he married Clara A. Lovering of Alton, New Hampshire. On 28 January 1887, he (bigamously) married Myrta Z. Belknap in Minneapolis, Minnesota; they had a daughter named Lucy. He filed a petition for divorce from his first wife after marrying his second, but it never became final. He married his third wife, Georgiana Yoke, on 9 January 1894. He was also the lover of Julia Smythe, the wife of Ned Connor, one of his trusted associates. She later become one of his victims.
He managed to secure a Chicago pharmacy by defrauding the pharmacist, and built a block-long, three-story building on the lot across the street. He called this building "The Castle," and opened it as a hotel for the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893. The bottom floor of the Castle contained shops, the top his personal office, and the middle floor a maze of over one hundred windowless rooms. Over a period of three years, Holmes selected female victims from among his hotel's guests, and tortured them in soundproof and escapeproof chambers fitted with gas lines that permitted Mudgett to asphyxiate the women at any time. Holmes had repeatedly changed builders, to ensure that no one truly understood the design of the house he had created who might report it to the police. Once dead, the victims' bodies went by chute to the basement, where they were either sold to medical schools or cremated and placed in lime pits for destruction.
Following the World's Fair, Holmes left Chicago and apparently murdered people as he traveled around the country. He was arrested in 1895 when he was discovered with the body of a former business associate, Benjamin Pitezel, and three of his children.
The same year, Holmes's "castle" in Chicago burnt down on August 19, revealing the carnage therein to the police and firemen. His habit of taking out insurance policies on some of his victims before killing them may have eventually exposed him regardless. The number of Holmes' victims has typically been estimated between 20 to 100, and even as high as 200. These victims were primarily women, but included some men and children.
Holmes was put on trial for murder, and confessed to 27 murders (in Chicago, Indianapolis and Toronto) and six attempted murders. He was hanged on May 7, 1896, in Philadelphia. It was reported that when the executioner had finished all the preliminaries of the hanging, he asked, "Ready, Dr. Holmes?", to which Holmes said, "Yes. Don't bungle." The executioner did "bungle," however, because Holmes' neck did not snap immediately; he instead died slowly and painfully of strangulation over the course of about 15 minutes.
Borowski, John (Director), H.H. Holmes, America's First Serial Killer (Motion picture documentary), Waterfront Productions, 2004.
Borowski, John (2005). Dimas Estrada (editor) The Strange Case of Dr. H. H. Holmes. ISBN 0975918516.
See also the list of many references on the Memorabilia page.
Geary, Rick (2004). The Beast of Chicago: The Murderous Career of H. H. Holmes. Nantier, Beall & Minoustchine.
Larson, Erik (2003). The Devil in the White City. New York: Vintage Books.
Schecter, Harold (1994). Depraved. New York: Pocket Books.
Michod, Alec (2004). The White City. New York: St. Martin's Press.
Adams, Cecil, "Did Dr. Henry Holmes kill 200 people at a bizarre "castle" in 1890s Chicago?", The Straight Dope, 1979-07-06.
Herman Webster Mudgett (May 16, 1861 – May 7, 1896), better known under the alias of Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, was an American serial killer. Holmes opened a hotel in Chicago for the 1893 World's Fair, which he built himself and was the location of many of his murders. While he confessed to 27 murders, of which 9 were confirmed, his actual body count could be as high as 250. He took an unknown number of his victims from the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, which was less than 2 miles away from his "World's Fair" hotel.
The case was notorious in its time and received wide publicity via a series of articles in William Randolph Hearst's newspapers. Interest in Holmes' crimes was revived in 2003 by Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, a best-selling non-fiction book that juxtaposed an account of the planning and staging of the World's Fair with Holmes' story.
Mudgett was born in Gilmanton, New Hampshire. He was the son of Levi Horton Mudgett and Theodate Page Price. The family was descended from among the first settlers to the area. He grew up with a father who was a strict disciplinarian, and he was often bullied as a child. He claimed that, as a child, he had been forced by other students to view and touch a human skeleton after they found out about his fear of the local doctor's office. The bullies had initially brought him there to scare him, but instead he was utterly fascinated.
Herman Mudgett graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School in 1884. While enrolled, he stole bodies from the school laboratory. Disfiguring the corpses and claiming that the people had been accidentally killed, Mudgett collected insurance money from policies which he had taken out on each one. After graduating, he moved to Chicago to practice pharmacy. He also began to engage in a number of shady businesses, real estate, and promotional deals under the name "H. H. Holmes".
On July 8, 1878, Holmes married Clara A. Lovering of Alton, New Hampshire. On January 28, 1887, he married Myrta Z. Belknap in Minneapolis, Minnesota; he was still married to Lovering at the time, making him a bigamist. He and Belknap had a daughter named Lucy Theodate Holmes, born 4 July 1889 in Englewood, Illinois.
The family of three resided in the upscale Chicago suburb of Wilmette—although Holmes spent most of his time in the city tending to business. He filed a petition for divorce from his first wife after marrying his second, but the divorce was never finalized. He married his third wife, Georgiana Yoke, on January 9, 1894. He also had a relationship with Julia Smythe, the wife of Ned Connor, a one-time employee of his who later fled Chicago. Julia became one of Holmes' victims.
Chicago and the "Murder Castle"
While in Chicago, Holmes came across Dr. E.S. Holton's drugstore. It was located at the corner of Wallace and 63rd Street, in the neighborhood of Englewood. Holton was suffering from cancer while his wife minded the store. Through his charm, Holmes got a job there and then manipulated her into letting him purchase the store. The agreement was that she could still live in the upstairs apartment even after Holton died. Once Holton died, Holmes murdered Mrs. Holton and told people she was visiting relatives in California. As people started asking questions as to when she would be coming back, he elaborated the lie and told them she loved it so much in California that she decided to live there.
Holmes purchased a lot across from the drugstore, where he built his three-story, block-long "Castle"—as it was dubbed by those in the neighborhood. It was opened as a hotel for the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, with part of the structure used as commercial space.
The ground floor of the Castle contained, aside from Holmes' own relocated drugstore, various shops (a jeweler, for example), while the upper two floors contained his personal office as well as a maze of over one hundred windowless rooms with doorways that would open to brick walls, oddly angled hallways, stairways to nowhere, doors that could only be opened from the outside, and a host of other strange and labyrinthine constructions. Holmes had repeatedly changed builders during the initial construction of the Castle to ensure that only he fully understood the design of the house he had created, thereby decreasing the chances of any of them reporting it to the police.
Over a period of three years, Holmes selected female victims from among his employees (many of whom were required as a condition of employment to take out life insurance policies for which Holmes would pay the premiums but also be the beneficiary), lovers and hotel guests, and would torture and kill them. Some were locked in soundproof bedrooms fitted with gas lines that permitted him to asphyxiate them at any time. Some victims were locked in a huge bank vault near his office; he could sit and listen as they screamed, panicked and eventually suffocated, due to the fact that the vault was sound-proof.
The victims' bodies went by a secret chute to the basement, where some were meticulously dissected, stripped of flesh, crafted into skeleton models, and then sold to medical schools. Holmes also cremated some of the bodies or placed them in lime pits for destruction. Holmes had two giant furnaces as well as pits of acid, bottles of various poisons, and even a stretching rack. Through the connections he had gained in medical school, he was able to sell skeletons and organs with little difficulty. Holmes picked one of the most remote rooms in the Castle to perform hundreds of illegal abortions. Some of his patients died as a result of his abortion procedure, and their corpses were also processed and the skeletons sold.
Capture and arrest
Following the World's Fair, with creditors closing in and the economy in a general slump, Holmes left Chicago. He next appeared in Fort Worth, Texas, where he had inherited property from two railroad heiress sisters, one of whom he had promised marriage and both of whom he murdered. There, he sought to construct another castle along the lines of his Chicago operation.
However, he soon abandoned this project, finding the law enforcement climate in Texas inhospitable. He continued to move about the United States and Canada, and while it seems likely that he continued to kill, the only bodies discovered which date from this period are those of his close business associate and three of the associate's children.
In July 1894, Holmes was arrested and briefly incarcerated for the first time, for a horse swindle that ended in St. Louis. He was promptly bailed out, but while in jail, he struck up a conversation with a convicted train robber named Marion Hedgepeth, who was serving a 25-year sentence.
Holmes had concocted a plan to bilk an insurance company out of $20,000 by taking out a policy on himself and then faking his death. Holmes promised Hedgepeth a $500 commission in exchange for the name of a lawyer who could be trusted. He was directed to Colonel Jeptha Howe, the brother of a public defender, and Howe found Holmes’ plan to be brilliant. Holmes' plan to fake his own death failed when the insurance company became suspicious and refused to pay. Holmes did not press his claim; instead he concoted a similar plan with his associate, Pitezel.
Pitezel had agreed to fake his own death so that his wife could collect on the $10,000 policy, which she was to split with Holmes and a shady attorney, Howe. The scheme, which was to take place in Philadelphia, was that Pitezel should set himself up as an inventor, under the name B. F. Perry, and then be killed and disfigured in a lab explosion. Holmes was to find an appropriate cadaver to play the role of Pitezel.
Holmes then killed Pitezel, although some have argued that Pitezel, an alcoholic and chronic depressive, might in fact have committed suicide. Forensic evidence presented at Holmes' later trial, however, showed that chloroform was admistered after Pitezel's death, presumably to fake suicide. Holmes proceeded to collect on the policy on the basis of the genuine Pitezel corpse.
He then went on to manipulate Pitezel's wife into allowing three of her five children (Alice, Nellie, and Howard) to stay in his custody. The eldest daughter and baby remained with Mrs. Pitezel. He traveled with the children through the northern United States and into Canada. Simultaneously he escorted Mrs. Pitezel along a parallel route, all the while using various aliases and lying to Mrs. Pitezel concerning her husband's death (claiming that Pitezel was in hiding in South America) as well as lying to her about the true whereabouts of her other children—they were often only separated by a few blocks.
A Philadelphia detective had tracked Holmes, finding the decomposed bodies of the two Pitezel girls in Toronto. He then followed Holmes to Indianapolis. There Holmes had rented a cottage. He was reported to have visited a local pharmacy to purchase the drugs which he used to kill Howard Pitezel, and a repair shop to sharpen the knives he used to chop up the body before he burned it. The boy's teeth and bits of bone were discovered in the home's chimney.
In 1894 the police were tipped off by his former cell-mate, Marion Hedgepeth, whom Holmes had neglected to pay off as promised for his help in providing Howe. Holmes's escapade ended when he was finally arrested in Boston on November 17, 1894, after being tracked there from Philadelphia by the Pinkertons. He was held on an outstanding warrant for horse theft in Texas, as the authorities had little more than suspicions at this point and Holmes appeared poised to flee the country, in the company of his unsuspecting third wife.
After the custodian for the Castle informed police that he was never allowed to clean the upper floors, police began a thorough investigation over the course of the next month, uncovering Holmes' efficient methods of committing murders and then disposing of the corpses. A fire of mysterious origin consumed the building on August 19, 1895, and the site is currently occupied by a U.S. Post Office building.
The number of his victims has typically been estimated between 20 and 100, and even as high as 230, based upon missing persons reports of the time as well as the testimony of Holmes' neighbors who reported seeing him accompany unidentified young women into his hotel—young women whom they never saw exit.
The discrepancy in numbers can perhaps best be attributed to the fact that a great many people came to Chicago to see the World's Fair but, for one reason or another, never returned home. The only verified number is 27, although police had commented that some of the bodies in the basement were so badly dismembered and decomposed that it was difficult to tell how many bodies there actually were. Holmes' victims were primarily women (and primarily blonde) but included some men and children.
Trial and execution
While Holmes sat in prison in Philadelphia, not only did the Chicago Police investigate his operations in that city, but the Philadelphia Police began to try to unravel the whole Pitezel situation—in particular what had happened to the three missing children. Philadelphia detective Frank Geyer was given the task of finding out. His quest for the children, like the search of Holmes' Castle, received wide publicity. His eventual discovery of their remains essentially sealed Holmes' fate, at least in the public mind.
Holmes was put on trial for the murder of Pitezel and confessed, following his conviction, to 27 murders in Chicago, Indianapolis and Toronto, and six attempted murders. Holmes was paid $7,500 by the Hearst Papers in exchange for this confession. He gave various contradictory accounts of his life, initially claiming innocence, and later that he was possessed by Satan. His facility for lying has made it difficult for researchers to ascertain any truth on the basis of his statements.
On May 7, 1896, Holmes was hanged at Moyamensing Prison, also known as the Philadelphia County Prison. Until the moment of his death, Holmes remained calm and amiable, showing very few signs of fear, anxiety or depression.
Holmes' neck did not snap immediately; he instead died slowly, twitching over 15 minutes before being pronounced dead 20 minutes after the trap was sprung. He requested that he be buried in concrete so that no one could ever dig him up and dissect his body, as he had dissected so many others. This request was granted.
On New Year's Eve, 1910, Marion Hedgepeth, who had been pardoned for informing on Holmes, was shot and killed by a police officer during a hold up at a Chicago saloon. Then, on March 7, 1914, a story in the Chicago Tribune reported the death of the former caretaker of the Murder Castle, Pat Quinlan. Quinlan had committed suicide by taking strychnine, and the paper reported that his death meant "the mysteries of Holmes' Castle" would remain unexplained. Quinlan's surviving relatives claimed Quinlan had been "haunted" for several months before his death and that he could not sleep.
Holmes Sweet Holmes
On the outside, H.H. Holmes
By Liz Spikol
It's a windy day in Philadelphia--so windy, men's ties flip and twist like fish and women search the bottom of their crowded pocketbooks for hair bands. It's not cold out, but people scurry as if they're in a blizzard, surprised by the breezes that bend tree trunks and make stoplights wobble. It's a strange, surreal day--overcast and quiet. People go home early. Drivers stop honking at the bicyclists they generally despise. An old man says to a young girl, "It's a windy one, ain't it?" and she smiles instead of scowls.
On such a day you can almost imagine what Philadelphia might have been like in 1895--less populated, less congested, a friendlier city in a friendlier time, when people nodded politely as they passed, and were naive enough to believe certain things weren't possible--things like serial murder.
At 1316 Callowhill St., where murderer H.H. Holmes and his partner Ben Pitezel set up a phony patent office, there's now a parking lot that stretches the length of the block. Across the street, where the sturdy North American Building resides, there used to be a station for the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad.
Ask the attendant what the address of the lot is--or if he knows where 1316 Callowhill would have been--and he gives a sweeping look at the cars, as if they might know something. Then he shrugs. "We don't have an address here," he says in heavily accented English. "Maybe you go that way?"
He points toward the building that houses The Philadelphia Inquirer--the paper that covered Holmes' trial with a frenzy--then hurries to get out of the wind and back to his Plexiglas booth.
Traveling down Callowhill, trying to find remnants of Holmes' past, there's the Miller Detective Agency at 309 N. 13th St., a strange little place with a 1940s-style sign that seems to pop up out of nowhere, and evokes images of Humphrey Bogart and cigarette-smoking gumshoe detectives.
Walk through a tunnel smelling of urine between 11th and 12th and there's the J&J Trestle Inn, which juts out of a crumbling building on a deserted corner. The old script on the sign advertising go-go girls takes you back to an indefinable time--it could be the '50s, could be the '70s. Either way, the building is coated with a seamy veneer.
This is an odd half-neighborhood now, filled mostly with abandoned buildings, tucked between Chinatown and the poverty of North Philadelphia. But when H.H. Holmes roamed these streets, the city was very different.
In the early 19th century Philadelphia was the largest, wealthiest city in the country. Where other towns had wooden shacks and dirt roads, Philly had white marble buildings and cobblestone streets busy with horse-and-buggy traffic. It wasn't only the center of a new nation's political life. It was the height of fashion and high society.
By the late 19th century Philadelphia's grand status had evolved even further--with the largest population of African-Americans in the North, and painters like Thomas Eakins forging a link between this city and Paris. City Hall, that opulent example of Second Empire French architecture, was crowned with a statue of William Penn in 1894, as if to cement its grandeur. Philadelphia was so respected, a company chose the city's name to lend culinary sophistication to its cream cheese.
But the city's shine diminished in the last years of the century. Political power moved to Washington, and cultural power slid toward New York. Philadelphia became industrial, and with that industry came dirt, crowds and crime. It was this Philadelphia--half gleaming symbol, half grimy pioneer territory--that H. H. Holmes invaded, taking advantage of the confusion a city on the brink engendered.
Romanticizing the past is easy. The same can be said for criminals, who, no matter their sins, fascinate us. Ask the average guy on the street to name the president of China, and he'll balk. But ask about serial killers, and the names will come fast: Ted Bundy. Jeffrey Dahmer. Son of Sam. The Boston Strangler.
Most serial killers are psychopaths. They tend to share certain key characteristics. They're manipulative, cold, and lack what we might call a moral compass--they know right from wrong but are not invested in that distinction. Their only concern with their "wrong" behavior is getting caught, but because they are deceitful, callous and not subject to anxiety, they easily elude capture.
H.H. Holmes was, in this way, a model serial killer. Before he was finally executed in Philadelphia, it's believed he'd killed at least 100 people. Popular estimates at the time placed the toll as high as 200.
Holmes was born Herman Webster Mudgett in the small village of Gilmanton, N.H., in May 1861. If Mudgett or his brother or sister were bad, their strict Methodist parents sent them to the attic for a full day without speaking or eating. Mudgett's father was especially abusive after he'd been drinking--which was often.
Mudgett was curiously detached from the start. He'd attack animals in the woods and dissect them while they were still alive. And he had no friends--the one he did have died while the two were playing. Despite his odd upbringing--and the distance he kept from other children, who found him arrogant--he grew into an imposing young man. He was polished, bright and handsome, and was good at making people feel special. At 16 he left home, became a teacher and cajoled a young woman into marrying him. At 19 he went to medical school, and left his wife.
In the 1880s Mudgett--now Holmes--came to Philadelphia. He got a job as a "keeper" at the Norristown Asylum, which is now Norristown State Hospital. The experience horrified him, so he took a position at a drugstore instead. After a customer who took medicine he dispensed died, he left town.
His criminal career kicked into high gear in Englewood, Ill., just outside of Chicago, where he worked as a pharmacist and impressed people not only with his medical knowledge but with his power over women--who flocked to the store just to flirt with him. The proprietress of the drugstore sold it to Holmes after her husband died, but never saw any money from Holmes. When she filed a lawsuit, Holmes told people she'd gone to see family in California. She was never heard from again.
Though it's believed that Holmes killed people all over the country, the "Castle" he built in Englewood was the culmination of all his murderous desires--and a pleasure palace for the budding psychopath.
Holmes built the Castle in the vacant lot across from the drugstore in the fall of 1888, the same year Jack the Ripper started killing women in London. Holmes served as the architect, and when the building was finished two years later, he marketed it as a boarding house for young single women who were visiting Chicago or coming from neighboring towns to find a better life. As many as 50 of the women who came to the Castle during the World's Fair never left.
The Inquirer printed his confession, which mentioned only 27 victims but revealed some of his methods. Before he killed many of the victims, he asked them to write letters to relatives or friends explaining they'd gone away so their absences wouldn't be noticed. Two women, one of them pregnant, were told if they wrote the letters, they'd go free. But as soon as they signed the letters Holmes killed them.
In his confession, he wrote, "These were particularly sad deaths, both on account of the victims being exceptionally upright and virtuous women and because Mrs. Sarah Cook, had she lived, would have soon become a mother."
Because it was a boarding house, the Castle had a reception room, a waiting room and several rooms for residents. Aside from those and some hallways, the house was comprised of secret chambers, trap doors, hidden laboratories and rooms devoted to killing people.
One of them, which the media dubbed "the Vault," was a walk-in room with iron walls and gas jets that Holmes controlled from his bedroom. There was a dumbwaiter for lowering bodies and a "hanging chamber." He had a medieval torture rack in the basement, and a greased chute that went from the roof to the basement so he could dump bodies. He had a maze he sent his victims through and a terrifying "blind room."
Several rooms were airtight and without windows--one of them fitted with iron plates, another lined with asbestos. There was an asphyxiation chamber with gas jets that could be turned into blowtorches, perhaps to roast people alive.
When the police inspected the Castle after Holmes was in jail, they were horrified. It was beyond belief--for any century, but especially the 1800s.
There were claw marks on the walls of the Vault from people who'd tried to escape. In the basement there was a bloodstained dissecting table and surgical instruments. There was a vat of acid with human bones in it, and piles of quicklime, one of which yielded a girl's dress. There was an enormous stove to burn bodies in--and a stovepipe with human hair in it.
They found human skulls, a shoulder blade, ribs, a hip socket and countless other remains. They also found--perhaps more disturbingly--Holmes' victims' belongings: watches, buttons, photographs, half-burnt ladies' shoes.
The only comfort inspectors had as they traipsed through the building was that Holmes was already in custody at Philadelphia's Moyamensing Prison. But the story was far from over.
The tale of H. H. Holmes has been told before. It was told by Philly detective Frank Geyer in his book written immediately after the case. It was told in the trial transcript. It was the subject of the exhaustively researched true-crime book Depraved by Harold Schecter, and was featured in Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, which juxtaposes Holmes' Chicago crimes with the story of the Chicago World's Fair. It was told in the media at the time and is also told--though not to many--in John Borowski's documentary H.H. Holmes: America's First Serial Killer, which is awaiting distribution. Supposedly, both Tom Cruise and Leonardo DiCaprio are working on projects about Holmes.
Despite being America's first serial killer, Holmes is hardly a familiar name, and until now we haven't had any popular visual record of his crimes. But next month comes Rick Geary's graphic novel The Beast of Chicago: The Murderous Career of H.H. Holmes, the sixth in his series of graphic novels about 19th-century murders. Geary's Treasury of Victorian Murder series includes Lizzie Borden, Jack the Ripper and President Garfield's assassin.
Asked what got him started on these graphic novels, Geary says, "I've always been fascinated by true-crime cases and the Victorian period, and I first combined them in the early '80s with stories I did for National Lampoon and various graphic story anthologies. The first volume of Treasury of Victorian Murder, made up of three separate stories, came out in 1987."
Geary's style in Beast is simple and friendly, but it recreates in painstaking detail what the World's Columbian Exhibition looked like--the constructed "nations of the world" pavilion with an Egyptian temple, Moorish palace and Japanese bazaars. He has a keen eye for period specifics, like the hats the men wore and the high collars of women's dresses. Even the bottles in Holmes' pharmacy are period-perfect, marked "Mrs. Lymon's Blood Tonic for Ladies" or "Stomach Bitters."
Of such period details and historical markers, Geary says, "I aim, above all, for accuracy and clarity in the depiction of these cases, and I believe that the graphic story form is a perfect vehicle for achieving this. I'm especially drawn to the unsolved cases, and I love to make use of maps and overhead views in order to let the facts speak for themselves. For cases like Jack the Ripper and Lizzie Borden, I have no theories of my own to promote; I just enjoy the fact that they're mysteries. With someone like Holmes, as with any psychopath, the mystery is that of human motivation, and is more difficult to portray graphically."
Geary's visual portrait of Holmes has one distinguishing feature you won't get in the written accounts: eyes that betray a lingering sadness. On one page, Geary devotes a single panel to those haunting eyes--and you can't help but feel a little sympathy mixed in with the horror. It's a bold choice to make Holmes slightly vulnerable, and it belies Geary's merry narration and clean lines.
"Holmes was different from other killers I've depicted in that his particular character, that of a seductive con artist without a conscience, was the template for so many 20th-century killers."
During the Castle years, Holmes acquired a second wife--though he wasn't divorced from the first one--and pursued several other romantic entanglements. If they didn't resolve to his liking, or if a girlfriend got too needy, the woman in question would disappear.
One of his relationships was with Minnie Williams, who was a Texas heiress. Minnie's sister, Nannie, came to visit for the Exposition, but they both vanished in 1893. Detectives would later find Nannie's footprint in the Vault, which Holmes admitted was made "in the violent struggles before her death." Minnie's will left everything to Holmes' personal assistant, Benjamin Pitezel, who lived nearby with his wife and four children.
When Holmes and Pitezel went to Texas to try to collect on Minnie's will, they were almost arrested, so they left town. Holmes was soon picked up in St. Louis for stealing from a drugstore, but was released shortly thereafter.
For reasons unknown, Holmes chose Philadelphia as the site for his next venture. He insured Pitezel for $10,000 and made Pitezel's wife, Carrie--who'd stayed behind in St. Louis--the beneficiary. The plan was to fake Pitezel's death, collect the money from the insurance company and split the profits between them.
He installed Pitezel in a fake patent dealership at 1316 Callowhill St., which was right in front of the city morgue. Pitezel hung a sheet of muslin that read "BF PERRY PATENTS BOUGHT AND SOLD" outside the building to make it look legitimate. (Holmes had an apartment at 1905 N. 11th St., which is now on Temple's main campus.)
A patent-seeking carpenter named Eugene Smith came to the office one day in September 1894 looking for the man he assumed was named Perry. No one was in, but the door was open. The Holmes-Pitezel Case: A History of the Greatest Crime of the Century, by Detective Geyer, says Smith "hallooed" several times but didn't get a response.
When Smith went upstairs, Geyer writes, "His gaze met a sight that chilled his blood." It was a man lying on his back, his face "disfigured beyond recognition by decomposition and burning." It seemed there'd been some kind of explosion, and the rigid body was singed on one side--including half his mustache. There was, according to Geyer's book, "a considerable quantity of fluid" spreading out for more than a foot around the body.
The only person who knew the true identity of the corpse was H.H. Holmes, and he was more than happy to come forward to identify it as Ben Pitezel's. He even brought Pitezel's daughter, Alice, with him from St. Louis to seal the deal. Pitezel's wife, Carrie, still believed it was all a scheme, and that Ben was hiding out and waiting for her.
In his confession, Holmes said he'd been planning to kill Pitezel from the moment he met him, and that everything he did with the man, for seven years, led up to that very moment. Such a long-term investment, wrote Holmes, "furnishes a very striking illustration of the vagaries in which the human mind will, under certain circumstances, indulge," and compares the anticipation of Pitezel's murder to "the seeking of buried treasure at the rainbow's end."
The reality of Pitezel's death was far worse than what Eugene Smith saw. Holmes wrote in his confession that he went to 1316 Callowhill and found Pitezel drunk and passed out, as he expected. (Holmes had earlier forged a series of hurtful letters from Pitezel's wife, which caused Pitezel to start drinking--all part of the plan.) He bound Pitezel's hands and feet, and then he wrote, "I proceeded to burn him alive by saturating his clothing and his face with benzine and igniting it with a match. So horrible was this torture that in writing of it I have been tempted to attribute his death to some humane means--not with a wish to spare myself, but because I fear that it will not be believed that one could be so heartless and depraved."
After he collected the money, Holmes went to St. Louis and convinced Pitezel's widow to lay low too. He offered to place her children with his cousin, whom he called "Minnie Williams," until she and Ben could come out of hiding.
Geary writes, "Through the man's unimaginable powers of persuasion, Carrie agreed to surrender two more of her children." There was no pragmatic reason for Holmes to take the children. But as he wrote in his confession, he chose Pitezel as a victim "even before I knew he had a family who would later afford me additional victims for the gratification of my bloodthirstiness."
And so began the horrible journey of Alice, Nellie and Howard Pitezel.
A letter to Carrie Pitezel from Alice Pitezel, dated Sept. 20, 1894:
Just arrived Philadelphia this morning ... I am going to the Morgue after awhile ... We stopped off at Washington, Md., this morning, and that made it six times that we transferred to different cars ... Mr. H says that I will have a ride on the ocean. I wish you could see what I have seen. I have seen more scenery than I have seen since I was born ... You had better not write to me here for Mr. H. says that I may be off tomorrow.
A letter to Carrie Pitezel from Alice Pitezel, dated Sept. 21, 1894:
I have to write all the time to pass away the time ... Mama have you ever seen or tasted a red banana? I have had three. They are so big that I can just reach around it and have my thumb and next finger just tutch. I have not got any shoes yet and I have to go a hobbling around all the time. Have you gotten 4 letters from me besides this? ... I wish that I could hear from you ... I have not got but two clean garments and that is a shirt and my white skirt. I saw some of the largest solid rocks that I bet you never saw. I crossed the Patomac river."
Imperial Hotel, Eleventh, above Market Street, Hendricks and Scott, Propr's
These letters, and others like them, were never sent. Holmes kept them in a tin box, "stored them," Larson writes in Devil in the White City, "as if they were seashells collected from a beach." He dragged the children from city to city to complete various schemes, and sometimes took them to the zoo, which Alice wrote to her mother about. No matter what they did together, the outcome was to be the same: Holmes would kill all three Pitezel children.
By June 1895 the Fidelity Mutual Life Association, near 23rd and Fairmount Avenue, was suspicious of Holmes. Hadn't Pitezel's stomach emitted the stench of chloroform when the autopsy was performed? And didn't that suggest foul play?
Fidelity hired the Pinkerton National Detective Agency to find out if Holmes had faked Pitezel's death or simply killed him. When they determined it was the latter, the Pinkertons chased Holmes to Boston and arrested him. They brought him back to Philadelphia's Moyamensing Prison at 10th and Reed streets, where he occupied a 9-by-14-foot cell.
Larson writes, "The stone construction of the prison helped blunt the extreme heat that had settled on the city and much of the country, but nothing could keep out the humidity for which Philadelphia was notorious. It clung to Holmes and his fellow prisoners like a cloak of moist wool." Some things never change.
But Holmes was well taken care of. The guards let him read the newspaper, wear his own clothes and get food from the outside. Holmes' friendship with his jailers was just another example of his charm and manipulation.
The city of Philadelphia had more to worry about than Holmes' accommodations. Where, for instance, were Carrie Pitezel's children, who hadn't been seen or heard from since she entrusted them to Holmes' care? Holmes maintained the children were alive, and kept up the charade even in private documents.
Detective Frank Geyer was assigned to find the children. Geyer wrote about himself in the third person in his book: "He had been for 20 years an esteemed and trusted member of the Philadelphia Detective Bureau. He had had a vast experience in detective work, and more particularly in murder cases and justly enjoyed the friendship and confidence of the District Attorney."
Larson puts it differently: "[Geyer] knew murder and its unchanging templates. Husbands killed wives, wives killed husbands, and the poor killed one another, always for the usual motives of money, jealousy, passion and love. Rarely did a murder involve the mysterious elements of dime novels or the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle." By the time the trial was over, Geyer was known across the country as America's own Sherlock Holmes.
Using the scant geographical information the children's letters provided, Geyer took train after train to cities across the country, even going as far as Toronto, where he and a fellow investigator found the bodies of Alice and Nellie Pitezel, who'd been buried in a cellar. Nellie's feet were gone; Holmes had cut them off so police wouldn't be able to identity her by her clubfoot. He'd killed them by stuffing the two girls in a large trunk, poking a hole in it and leaking gas from the lamp into the trunk. When Carrie Pitezel was called to identify her girls' bodies, all that was left of Nellie was her thick black braid. The rest of her body had decomposed.
Weeks later, Geyer--who called Holmes "verily an artist in roguery"--found the body of Howard Pitezel in Indianapolis, where Holmes had strangled him, cut up his body and burned the remains in a large stove. Finding Howard was the tragic end to Geyer's mission.
In his book, Geyer wrote of the moment of Howard Pitezel's discovery: "All the toil; all the weary days and weeks of travel,--toil and travel in the hottest months of the year, alternating between faith and hope, and discouragement and despair, all were recompensed in that one moment."
Moyamensing Prison at 10th and Reed streets was once an enormous turreted building towering over the city like a dark cloud. Go to 10th and Reed now, and the prison has become an Acme. On the other corners of that same street are a CVS, a Colonial Village and the legendary Triangle Tavern. Passyunk Avenue and the bright lights of Geno's and Pat's twinkle in the distance, and people slam car doors in the large parking lots.
Standing at that crossroads of 21st-century Philadelphia, you need a bold imagination to conjure old ghosts. The street is painted now with thick yellow stripes, and the horse-and-buggies have become Volkswagens and Fords. Awnings that once snapped in the wind are now neon signs.
But certain things remain the same. When Holmes was imprisoned here, perhaps between the produce section and the laundry detergent, it was to the excruciating pleasure of Philadelphia's news media. As the case unraveled bit by bit, with Detective Geyer's revelations coming every day, the local press was in a frenzy to get the best coverage.
When Pitezel's body was dug up once again from the American Mechanics Cemetery at 22nd and Diamond in September 1895, the paper gave what it billed "A GRUESOME HISTORY," including the upcoming plan to have Carrie Pitezel identify her husband's teeth. "Dr. Sidebothom will boil [Pitezel's] head and remove what remains of the rotting flesh. He will then bleach and articulate the skull, taking great care to keep the teeth in their original positions. The head will then be mounted and turned over to District Attorney Graham ... When Mrs. Pitezel ... reaches the city the head will be shown to her, and if she can identify it by the peculiar teeth of her husband, another strong link will be added to the chain of evidence that is gradually closing in around H.H. Holmes."
The details provided were always elaborate. Every move Geyer made, every word Holmes spoke, every tooth submitted for identification became the subject of thick columns of labored prose.
In March 1896 the Supreme Court denied Holmes' petition for a new trial, and he was sentenced to death for the murders of Pitezel and his children. The other murders--at the Castle and elsewhere--weren't even pursued; law enforcement just wanted Holmes dead. The Inquirer provided several heads and subheads for the article trumpeting this success, as was customary at the time: "HOLMES' DOOM FIXED." "MUST PAY THE PENALTY." "LAWYER ROTAN'S SAD ERRAND." "ON HEARING THE NEWS THE MURDERER ALMOST LOST HIS GREAT SELF-CONTROL." The paper ran a prepared statement by the district attorney, as well as an in-depth dissection of the legal opinion.
If the editors at the Inquirer thought they had a good story with the ongoing Holmes case, they lost all self-control when he decided to publish his confession with them. In the issue of April 10, 1896, they hyped the confession with enormous ads and headlines: "The Most Fearful and Horrible Murderer Ever Known in the Annals of Crime. His Confession Was Written Exclusively for Next SUNDAY'S INQUIRER. The Most Remarkable Story of Murder and Inhuman Villainy Ever Made Public. CONVICTION LIES IN EVERY LINE. The only way to describe it is to say it was written by Satan himself or one of his chosen monsters."
Other ads for next Sunday's edition focused on the Inquirer's dominance in the media marketplace: "Holmes' original confession has been secured by the Inquirer and now lies locked in the safe at the Inquirer's office. No other paper can get it. No other paper can print it. Don't miss this exclusive chapter of the crimes of a century. The only way to get it is to read next SUNDAY'S INQUIRER."
Even the paper's advertisers got in on the act. One ad, in a bold circle, read, "HOLMES' CONFESSION is not as startling in its effect, or is it half as profitable to read, as the great bargains offered in Pianos and Organs at the warerooms of The Cunningham Piano Co. 1105 Chestnut St."
When the confession finally appeared, it took up more than four full pages of the newspaper, including illustrations of the house on Callowhill Street, of Holmes murdering the Pitezel girls in the trunk, of Holmes closing the Vault, of the cottage where Howard Pitezel was murdered, as well as drawings of the entire Pitezel clan and a floor plan of the Castle.
The day before the confession appeared, there was yet another front-page article on Holmes, this one headlined "HOLMES IS CHEERFUL." "HOW HE SPENT THE DAY." "His Mind at Rest by Reason of His Confession Through the Inquirer." In the meantime, they published the sad ongoing saga of Carrie Pitezel, who was in poor health, had no money and relied on sewing and her parents to scrape by.
In the month before Holmes' execution at Moyamensing, the press slowly began to lose interest in the famous prisoner. The Wednesday before the hanging, it ran an inside article with a small headline called "IN THE SHADOW OF DEATH," with a crude illustration of a guard sitting and watching Holmes in his cell. Though the paper printed a letter from Holmes to Carrie through her Philadelphia lawyer in which he declared his innocence, the comparatively short article was positioned between advertorial about homeopathic medicine and a piece about a race between two Delaware tugboats.
On the day Holmes died--May 7, 1896--a huge crowd showed up for the execution. Spectators had to be driven back by lines of policemen. The Inquirer wrote, quite eloquently, "There was a good deal of fin de siecle brutality about the crowds. There was nothing that they could possibly see, but the high forbidding walls. There was nothing they could hear. Yet they all seemed drawn to the spot by some morbid fascination. Coarse jests were bandied from lip to lip as the crowd surged to and fro."
It was pandemonium. A certain number of tickets were granted for the execution, but twice that got inside by sheer force.
When Holmes began to speak as he was standing on the gallows, the crowd went silent. He made a brief statement denying he'd killed Pitezel or his children. The executioner's hands trembled, and Holmes reassured him by saying--charming as always--"Take your time, old man."
"Death was indeed merciful to the man who in his life had shown so little mercy," read the Inquirer's account published on the same day. "For a few minutes there was a faint beating of the pulse, but the dying man felt no pain. With the springing of the trap, his neck had been broken.
After the execution, Carrie Pitezel told an Inquirer reporter, "Yes, it is a relief to me to know that he did not succeed in escaping the gallows. Still, that does not bring my husband and my poor little children back to me." Surely if the families of Holmes' many other victims could speak, they'd say the same thing.
It's another windy day in Philadelphia. The sun peeks through dark smudges of clouds. In a neighborhood with busy streets, kids chasing each other on the sidewalks, storefronts blaring music and buses rolling by, Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon feels like a quiet little town unto itself. Its graves are in straight lines, and many are marked by towering and extravagant tombs. One building looks like the old Merchants' Exchange Building at Third and Walnut streets, and if you look inside some of the tomb windows, you'll see gilded crucifixes, colorful stained glass and family portraits.
On one grave is a statue of an angel, her wings like parentheses around her body. In her hand she holds a wilting pink rose that someone placed between her stone fingers. The people buried here are mostly Italian and Irish, with names like Spatiola, Nardi and Toland. Some of the gravestones tell stories, like twins who both died at age 5. Too often, a husband dies only a couple months after his wife. If you're of a certain bent, you'll assume he died of heartbreak.
Holy Cross Cemetery is also where H.H. Holmes--now Herman Mudgett--is buried. After his jailhouse conversion to Catholicism--during which he claimed he was the devil--he requested burial here, in this spacious, tree-filled mini city.
Before his death, his body was the subject of some debate. The Wistar Institute wanted to buy his brain, but Holmes wouldn't allow it. When he died, the undertaker--following Holmes' orders--filled his coffin with cement, put his body in and covered it with more cement. At Holy Cross the coffin was lowered 10 feet into the ground and covered with yet more cement.
There is no headstone, and the place where he's buried is now a large patch of grass. Though Holmes' intention was to keep his body from being dug up, this inattention afforded him something else: anonymity. Without any marker on his grave--and with a new century beginning--Holmes and his crimes slowly receded into the annals of history. Finding his grave now is like a macabre parlor game.
Also buried at Holy Cross are several Philadelphia mobsters: Angelo Bruno, Antonio Pollina (who once tried to kill Bruno), Salvatore "Chickenman" Testa and Michael Maggio. Their graves are marked, and people feel a certain thrill when they see the tombstones of such evil--and charismatic--men.
As mob aficionados traipse across the grass with their cemetery maps looking for the understated elegance of Bruno's gravestone, their feet may land on a block of cement covering the greatest criminal of the 19th century--and America's first serial killer. They'll never know it, though.
Detective Frank Geyer, in The Holmes-Pitezel Case, uses an unattributed quote to end the chapter on the discovery of Howard Pitezel's body: "Truth, like the sun, submits to be obscured but like the sun, only for a time." But the sun--even in the leafy repast of Holy Cross Cemetery--always sets.
H. H. Holmes
By Troy Taylor
In 1893, Chicago, Illinois was host to a spectacular World’s Fair -- The Columbian Exposition -- that celebrated the anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America. It was a boom time for the city and thousands of people came from all over the country to attend. Unfortunately though, the list of those “gone missing” at the end of the fair was extensive and as the police later tried to track down where these people had vanished to -- the trail turned cold on the south side of Chicago. Everything was not as shiny and beautiful as the advertising for the Exposition’s “White City” would have everyone believe, for “a devil” that became known as America’s first real serial killer was alive and well on the city’s south side, luring visitors to his "hotel", where scores of them vanished without a trace --- never to be seen again.
The devil comes to Chicago
Today, the neighborhood of Englewood is a part of Chicago but in the late 1800’s, it was a quiet, independent community on the southern outskirts of the Windy City. It was a tranquil place and the abode of housewives and shopkeepers. Among these decent folk was a "Mrs. Dr. Holden", as the newspapers mysteriously referred to her, who ran a drugstore at 63rd and Wallace. There was almost too much trade for the woman to handle, as Englewood was rapidly growing, as so many of Chicago’s suburbs were in those days. She was delighted, therefore, to find a capable assistant who said that his name was Dr. Henry H. Holmes. He turned out to be a remarkable addition to the place.
In 1887, a druggist was a chemist and most drugstores were rather crowded places that were stocked with all manner of elixirs and potions. When Dr. Holmes compounded even the simplest prescription, he did so with a flourish, as if he were an alchemist in the midst of some arcane ritual. His long, pale fingers moved with a surgeon’s skill, his handsome face grew intense and his blue eyes grew bright. But he was no means a socially inept scientist, he was a gentleman of fashion and charming of manner. His politeness and humorous remarks brought many new customers into the drug store, especially the ladies in the neighborhood. In addition, he kept a sharp eye on the account books as well and was concerned with the profit the store was making. He was, in short, the perfect assistant to the proprietress.
It was not long before Holmes seemed to be more the manager of the store and less the prescription clerk. He began to spend more and more time working with the ledgers and chatting pleasantly with the ladies who came into the place, some of whom took a very long time to make a very small purchase. Dr. Holmes became a familiar figure as he strolled with his stick down 63rd Street, the main thoroughfare of Englewood. He appeared to be heading for a leading position in the local business community.
Trade at the drug store continued to improve, making Mrs. Dr. Holden exceedingly happy. But as for Holmes, he was still not satisfied with his lot and he had many plans and visions that drove him onward. Strangely, in 1887, Mrs. Dr. Holden vanished without a trace. A short time after, Holmes announced that he had purchased the store from the widow, just prior to her "moving out west". The unfortunate lady had (not surprisingly) left no forwarding address.
Two years later, he acquired a large lot across the street from the drug store and began construction on an enormous edifice that he planned to operate as a hotel for the upcoming Columbian Exposition in 1893. There are no records to say what Holmes decided to call this building but for generations of police officers, crime enthusiasts and unnerved residents of Englewood, it was known simply by one name -- "The Murder Castle".
Henry H. Holmes, whose real name was Herman W. Mudgett, was born in 1860 in Gilmanton, New Hampshire, where his father was a wealthy and respected citizen and had been the local postmaster for nearly 25 years. Early in life, Mudgett dropped his given name and became known as H.H. Holmes, a name under which he attended medical school and began his career in crime. He was constantly in trouble as a boy and young man and in later years was remembered for his cruelty to animals and smaller children. His only redeeming trait was that he was always an excellent student and did well in school.
In 1878, Holmes married Clara Lovering, the daughter of a prosperous farmer in Loudon, New Hampshire and that same year, began studying medicine at a small college in Burlington, Vermont. He paid his tuition with a tidy legacy that had been inherited by his wife. Even as a student though, Holmes began to dabble in debauchery. In 1879, he transferred to the medical school of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor while there, devised a method of stealing cadavers from the laboratory. He would then disfigure the corpses and plant them in places where it would look as though they had been killed in accidents. Conveniently, Holmes had already taken out insurance policies on these "family members" and he would collect on them as soon as the bodies were discovered.
A few months after he completed his most daring swindle, insuring a corpse for $12,500 and carrying out the plan with an accomplice who would later become a prominent doctor in New York, he left Ann Arbor and abandoned his wife and infant son. Clara returned to New Hampshire and never saw her husband again.
After that, Holmes dropped out of sight for six years. What became of him during most of this period is unknown and later on, even Pinkerton detectives were unable to learn much about his activities in these years, although they did come across traces of his trail in several cities and states. For a year or so, he was engaged in a legitimate business in St. Paul and so gained the respect of the community that he was appointed the receiver of a bankrupt store. He immediately stocked the place with goods, sold them at low prices and then vanished with the proceeds. From St. Paul, he went to New York and taught school for a time in Clinton County, boarding at the home of a farmer near the village of Moore’s Forks. He seduced the farmer’s wife and then disappeared one night, leaving an unpaid bill and a pregnant landlady.
In 1885, Holmes turned up in Chicago and opened an office (he was posing as an inventor) in the North Shore suburb of Wilmette. Upon his re-appearance, Holmes filed for divorce from Clara, Lovering but the proceedings were unsuccessful and the case dragged on until 1891. This did not stop him from marrying another woman however, Myrtle Z. Belknap, who father, John Belknap, was a wealthy businessman in Wilmette. Although the marriage did produce a daughter, it was nevertheless a strange one. Myrtle remained living in Wilmette while Holmes began living in Chicago. John Belknap would later discover that Holmes had tried to cheat him out of property by forging his name on deeds. He would also claim that Holmes had tried to poison him when he was confronted about the fraudulent papers. Myrtle ended the marriage in 1889.
Stories claim that the house in Wilmette where Myrtle lived is haunted today. One has to wonder if the spirits who walk here are that of John Belknap or Myrtle herself. Its possible that her unhappy marriage, and horror as the later crimes of her husband were revealed, has caused her to linger behind.
The murder castle
Shortly after Holmes married Myrtle, he began working in a drugstore in the Englewood neighborhood at the corner of 63rd and Wallace Street. The store was owned by a Mrs. Holden, an older lady, who was happy to have the young man take over most of the responsibilities of the store. Strangely, in 1887, Mrs. Holden vanished without a trace. A short time before, Holmes announced that he had purchased the store from the widow, just prior to her “moving out west”. The unfortunate lady had (not surprisingly) left no forwarding address.
In 1889, Holmes began a new era in his criminal life. After a short trip to Indiana, he returned to Chicago and purchase an empty lot across the street from the drugstore. He had plans to build a huge house on the property and work was started almost immediately. His trip to Indiana had been profitable and he had used the journey to pull off an insurance scheme with the help of an accomplice named Benjamin Pietzel. The confederate later went to jail as a result of the swindle, but Holmes came away unscathed.
Holmes continued to operate the drug store, to which he also added a jewelry counter. In 1890, he hired Ned Connor of Davenport, Iowa as a watchmaker and jeweler. The young man arrived in the city in the company of his wife, Julia, and their daughter, Pearl. The family moved into a small apartment above the store and soon, Julia managed to capture the interest of Holmes. He soon fired his bookkeeper and hired Julia to take the man’s place. Not long after, Connor began to suspect that Holmes was carrying on with his wife, and he was right. Luckily for him, he decided to cut his losses, abandoned his family and went to work for another shop downtown.
Now that Holmes had Julia to himself, he took out large insurance polices of the woman and her daughter, naming himself as a beneficiary. Years later, it came to be suspected that Julia became a willing participant in many of Holmes’ schemes and swindles. When he incorporated the jewelry business in August 1890, he listed Julia, along with her friend Kate Durkee, as directors.
By this time, much of Holmes’ ill-gotten gains had been funneled into the construction of this home across the street. It would later be dubbed the “Murder Castle” and it would certainly earn its nickname. The building was three-stories high and built from brick. There were over 60 rooms in the structure and 51 doors that there cut oddly into various walls. Holmes acted as his own architect for the place and he personally supervised the numerous construction crews, all of whom were quickly hired and fired. Most likely, he didn’t want anyone to have a clear idea of what he had planned for the place. In addition to the eccentric general design, the house was also fitted with trap doors, hidden staircases, secret passages, rooms without windows, chutes that led into the basement and a staircase that opened out over a steep drop to the alley behind the house.
The first floor of the building contained stores and shops, while the upper floors could be used for spacious living quarters. Holmes also had an office on the second floor, but most of the rooms were to be used for guests... guests would never be seen again. Evidence would later be found to show that Holmes used some of the rooms as “asphyxiation chambers”, where his victims were suffocated with gas. Other chambers were lined with iron plates and had blowtorch-like devices fitted into the walls. In the basement, Holmes installed a dissecting table and maintained his own crematory. There was also an acid vat and pits lined with quicklime, where bodies could be conveniently disposed of. All of his “prison rooms” were fitted with alarms that buzzed in Holmes’ quarters if a victim attempted to escape. It has come to be believed that many of his victims were held captive for months before their deaths.
The castle was completed in 1891 and soon after, Holmes announced that he plan to rent out some of the rooms to tourists who would be arriving in mass for the upcoming Columbian Exposition. It is surmised that many of these tourists never returned home after the fair, but no one knows for sure. This was not Holmes’ only method for procuring victims however. A large number of his female victims came through false classified ads that he placed in small town newspapers that offered jobs to young ladies. When the ads was answered, he would describe several jobs in detail and explain that the woman would have her choice of positions at the time of the interview. When accepted, she would then be instructed to pack her things and withdraw all of her money from the bank because she would need funds to get started.
The applicants were also instructed to keep the location and the name of his company a closely guarded secret. He told them that he had devious competitors who would use any information possible to steal his clients. When the applicant arrived, and Holmes was convinced that she had told no one of her destination, she would become his prisoner.
An advertisement for lodging during the fair was not the only method that Holmes used for procuring victims. A large number of his female victims came through false classified ads that he placed in small town newspapers, offering jobs to young ladies. When the ads were answered, he would describe several jobs in detail and explained that the woman would have her choice of positions at the time of the interview. When accepted, she would then be instructed to pack her things and withdraw all of her money from the bank because she would need funds to get started. The applicants were also instructed to keep the location and the name of his company a closely guarded secret. He told them that he had devious competitors who would use any information possible to steal his clients. When the applicant arrived, and Holmes was convinced that she had told no one of her destination, she would become his prisoner.
Holmes also placed newspaper ads for marriage as well, describing himself as a wealthy businessman who was searching for a suitable wife. Those who answered this ad would get a similar story to the job offer. He would then torture the women to learn the whereabouts of any valuables they might have. The young ladies would then remain his prisoner until he decided to dispose of them.
Amazingly, Holmes was able to keep his murder operation a secret for four years. H slaughtered an unknown number of people, mostly women, in the castle. He would later confess to 28 murders, although the actual number of victims is believed to be much higher. To examine the details of the story, the reader cannot help but be horrified by the amount of planning and devious detail that went into the murders. There is no question that Holmes was one of the most prolific and depraved killers in American history.
In 1893, Homes met a young woman named Minnie Williams. He told her that his name was Harry Gordon and that he was a wealthy inventor. Holmes’ interest in her had been piqued when he learned that she was the heir to a Texas real estate fortune. She was in Chicago working as an instructor for a private school. It wasn’t long before she and Holmes were engaged to be married. This was a turn of events that did not make Julia Connor happy. She was still involved with Holmes and still working at the store. Not long after his engagement became official, both Julia and Pearl disappeared. When Ned Connor later inquired after them, Holmes explained that they had moved to Michigan. In his confession, he admitted that Julia had died during a bungled abortion that he had performed on her. He had poisoned Pearl. He later admitted that he murdered the woman and her child because of her jealous feelings toward Minnie Williams. "But I would have gotten rid of her anyway," he said. "I was tired of her."
Minnie Williams lived at the Castle for more than a year and knew more about Holmes’ crimes than any other person. Police investigators would state there was no way that she could not have had guilty knowledge about many of the murders. Besides being ultimately responsible for the deaths of Julia and Pearl Connor, Minnie was also believed to have instigated the murder of Emily Van Tassel, a young lady who lived on Robey Street. She was only 17 and worked at a candy store in the first floor of the castle. There is no indication of what caused her to catch the eye of Holmes but she vanished just one month after his offer of employment.
Minnie also knew about the murder of Emmeline Cigrand, a beautiful young woman who worked as a stenographer at the Keely Institute in Dwight, Illinois. Ben Pietzel went there to take a drunkenness cure and told Holmes of the girl’s beauty when he returned to Chicago. Holmes then contacted her and offered her a large salary to work for him in Chicago. She accepted the job and came to the Castle -- only to never leave it. Emmeline became homesick after a few weeks in Chicago. She had planned to marry an Indiana man named Robert E. Phelps and she was missing him and her family. Holmes later confessed that he locked the girl in one of his sound-proof rooms and raped her. He stated that he killed her because Minnie Williams objected to his lusting after the attractive young woman. Some time later, Robert Phelps made the mistake of dropping by to inquire after her at the Castle and that was the last time that he was ever reported alive. Holmes described a "stretching experiment" with which he used to kill Phelps. Always curious about the amount of punishment the human body could withstand (Holmes often used the dissecting table on live victims), he invented a "rack-like" device that would literally stretch a person to the breaking point.
In April 1893, Minnie’s property in Texas was deeded to a man named Benton T. Lyman, who was in reality, Ben Pietzel, the already mentioned accomplice of Holmes. Later that same year, Minnie’s brother was killed in a mining accident in Colorado, which is said to have been arranged by Holmes. As with Julia, Holmes’ also managed to get Minnie to go along with his deadly schemes, although in Minnie’s case, it was even easier to manage her complicity. Apparently, in June 1893 (according to Holmes), Minnie had accidentally killed her sister, Nannie, during a heated argument. She had hit the other girl over the head with a chair and she had died. Holmes had “protected” Minnie by dropping the body into Lake Michigan. Some believe that Minnie had not killed her sister at all, but had merely stunned her with the chair. It had been Holmes, they say, who finished the woman off and who gained himself yet another accomplice.
A short time later, Holmes and Minnie traveled to Denver in the company of another young woman, Georgianna Yoke, who had come to Chicago from Indiana with a “tarnished reputation”. She had applied for a job at the castle and Holmes told her that his name was Henry Howard and that Minnie was his cousin. On January 17, 1894, Holmes and Georgianna were married at the Vendome Hotel in Denver with Minnie as their witness! After that, the wedding party (which apparently consisted of the three of them) traveled to Texas, where they claimed Minnie’s property and arranged a horse swindle. Holmes purchased several railroad cars of horses with counterfeit banknotes and signed the papers as OC Pratt. The horses were then shipped to St. Louis and sold. Holmes made off with a fortune... but it would be this swindle that would later come back and destroy him.
The threesome returned to Chicago and their return marked the last time that Minnie was ever seen alive. Although her body was never found, it is believed to have joined other victims in the acid vat in the basement. Holmes continued to kill, claiming several victims. One of them was Emmeline Cigrand, who was hired as a secretary. She became homesick after a few weeks in Chicago as she hoped to marry an Indiana man named Robert Phelps. Some time later, Phelps made the mistake of dropping by to see her at the castle and that was the last time that either one of them was ever reported alive. Holmes later confessed to killing them both and he described a “stretching experiment” with which he used to kill Phelps. Always curious about the amount of punishment the human body could withstand (Holmes often used the dissecting table on live victims), he invented a “rack-like” device that would literally stretch a person to the breaking point. He would also put the “stretching device” to use on a young lady named Emily Van Tassel, who lived on Robey Street. She was only 17 and worked at a candy store in the first floor of the castle. There is no indication of what caused her to catch the eye of Holmes.
The horror is revealed
In July 1894, Holmes was arrested for the first time. It was not for murder but for one of his schemes, the earlier horse swindle that ended in St. Louis. Georgianna promptly bailed him out, but while in jail, he struck up a conversation with a convicted train robber named Marion Hedgepeth, who was serving a 25-year sentence. Holmes had concocted a plan to bilk an insurance company out of $20,000 by taking out a policy on himself and then faking his death. Holmes promised Hedgepeth a $500 commission in exchange for the name of a lawyer who could be trusted. He was directed to Colonel Jeptha Howe, the brother of a public defender, and Howe found Holmes’ plan to be brilliant.
Holmes then took a cadaver to a seaside resort in Rhode Island and burned it, disfiguring the head and dumping it on the beach. He then shaved his beard and altered his appearance and returned to the hotel, registering under another name and inquiring about his friend, Holmes. When the body was discovered on the beach, he identified it as "H.H. Holmes" and presented an insurance policy for $20,000. The insurance company suspected fraud though and refused to pay. Holmes returned to Chicago without pressing the claim and began concocting a new version of the same scheme.
A month later, Holmes held a conference with Ben Pietzel and Jeptha Howe and his new plan was put into action. Pietzel went to Philadelphia with his wife, Carrie, and opened a shop for buying and selling patents under the name of B.F. Perry. Holmes then took out an insurance policy on his life. The plan was for Pietzel to drink a potion that would knock him unconscious. Then, Holmes would apply make-up to his face to make it look as though he had been severely burned. A witness would then summon an ambulance and while they were gone, Holmes would put a corpse in place of the "shopkeeper". The insurance company would be told that he had died. Pietzel would then receive a portion of the money in exchange for his role in the swindle but he would soon learn, as some many others already had, that Holmes could not be trusted!
The "accident" took place on the morning of September 4, when neighbors heard a loud explosion from the patent office. A carpenter named Eugene Smith came to the office a short time later and found the door locked and the building dark. For some reason, he became concerned and summoned a police officer to the scene. They broke open the door and found a badly burned man on the floor. The death was quickly ruled an accident and the body was taken to the morgue. After 11 days, no one showed up to claim it and so the corpse was buried in the local potter’s field. Days later, the police learned that the dead man (Pietzel) had come to Philadelphia from St. Louis and the police of that city were asked to search for relatives. Within days, attorney Jeptha Howe filed a claim with the insurance company on behalf of Carrie Pietzel and collected the money. He kept $2,500 and Holmes took the remainder. He later gave $500 to Mrs. Pietzel but then took it back, explaining that he would invest it for her.
The claim was paid without hesitation and everyone got their share of the money, except for Ben Pietzel and Marion Hedgepeth. Holmes never bothered to contact the train robber again, a slight that Hedgepeth did not appreciate.
He brooded over this awhile and then decided to turn Holmes in. He explained the scheme to a St. Louis policeman named Major Lawrence Harrigan, who in turn notified an insurance investigator, W.E. Gary. He then passed along the information to Frank P. Geyer, a Pinkerton agent, who immediately began an investigation.
Ben Pietzel never received his share of the money either, but even if he had, he would not have been able to spend it. What Holmes had not told anyone was that the body discovered in the patent office was not a cleverly disguised corpse, but Ben Pietzel himself! Rather than split the money again, Holmes had killed his accomplice then burned him so that he would be difficult to recognize. Holmes kept his part of the plan a secret as he and Georgianna were now traveling with Carrie Pietzel and her three children. She believed that her husband was hiding out in New York. The group was last seen in Cincinnati and then in Indianapolis on October 1. Carrie was then sent east and the children were left in the care of Holmes and Georgianna. Holmes made arrangements for Carrie to meet him in Detroit, where he assured her that her husband was now hiding. He arrived in Detroit several days before the appointed time and put the three children into a boarding house. Then, he went to Indiana and returned with Georgianna and installed her in a second boarding house. When Carrie arrived, she was lodged in yet another establishment. Then, he began moving about the country, apparently aware that the Pinkerton detective was on his trail. The journey lasted for almost two months but on November 17, 1894, Holmes turned up alone in Boston and was arrested and sent to Philadelphia.
As fate would have it though, he was not arrested for insurance fraud but for the horse swindle that he, Minnie and Georgianna had pulled off in Texas. He was given the choice of being returned to Texas and being hanged as a horse thief or he could confess to the insurance scheme that had led to the death of Ben Pietzel. He chose insurance fraud and was sent to Philadelphia. On the way there, Holmes offered his guard $500 if the man would allow himself to be hypnotized. Wisely, the guard refused.
The entire insurance scheme was now completely unraveling. A week later, Georgianna was located at her parent’s home in Indiana and Carrie Pietzel was found in Burlington, Vermont, where Holmes had rented a small house for her to live in while she awaited the arrival of her family. Holmes had lived at the house with her for several days but had left angry when she questioned him about a hole that he was digging in the back yard.
The police came to believe that he was digging her grave, but for some unknown reason, he chose not to kill her. Mrs. Pietzel was arrested and was taken to Philadelphia but was soon released. No charges were ever brought against her.
Detective Geyer was slowly starting to uncover the dark secrets of Henry Howard Holmes, he realized, but even the seasoned Pinkerton man was unprepared for what lay ahead. He was beginning to sift through the many lies and identities of Holmes, hoping to find clues as to the fates of the Pietzel children. At this point, he had no idea about all of the other victims. Holmes swore that Minnie Williams had taken the children with her to London, where she planned to open a massage parlor, but Geyer was sure that he was lying. In June 1895, Holmes entered a guilty plea for a single count of insurance fraud but Geyer expanded his investigation.
Throughout his questioning, Holmes refused to reveal any other explanation for what had become of Carrie Pietzel’s three children, Howard, Nellie and Alice. Fearing the worst Detective Geyer set out to try and discover their fate -- and his fears soon came to realization. In Chicago, Geyer learned that all of Holmes’ mail had been forwarded every day to Gilmanton, New York. From Gilmanton, it had been sent to Detroit, from Detroit to Toronto, from Toronto to Cincinnati, from Cincinnati to Indianapolis and then on from there. He followed Holmes’ trail for eight months through the Midwest and Canada, stopping in each city to investigate the house that he had been renting while residing there. In Detroit, a house that Holmes had rented was still vacant and a large hole was found to have been dug in the cellar floor. Geyer was relieved to discover that it was empty.
In Toronto, the Pinkerton searched for eight days before he found the cottage at No. 16 Vincent Street that had been rented to a man fitting Holmes’ description. The man had been traveling with two little girls. Holmes borrowed a shovel from a neighbor, which he claimed he wanted to use to dig a hole to store potatoes in. Geyer borrowed the same spade and when digging in the same location, found the bodies of Nellie and Alice Pietzel secreted several feet under the earth. In an upstairs bedroom, he found a large trunk that had a piece of rubber tubing leading into it from a gas pipe. He had told the girls that he wanted to play hide and seek with them, tricked them into climbing into the trunk and then had asphyxiated them.
This shocking discovery made Geyer work even harder to find what had become of Howard Pietzel. While questioning the neighbors, he learned that the Pietzel girls had told them that they had a brother who was living in Indianapolis. With this small clue, Geyer went to Indiana and painstakingly searched 900 houses for any clue of Holmes. Finally, in the suburb of Irvington, he found a house that Holmes had rented for a week. The place had been empty since Holmes’ occupancy and in the kitchen stove, Geyer found the charred remains of Howard.
Now the door was open for Geyer and Chicago detectives to search Holmes’ residence in the Windy City. Geyer was sure that the remaining answers that he was seeking could be found inside of the Castle. He entered the place with several police officers -- and neither Geyer nor the veteran investigators would ever forget what they found there!
Detectives devoted several weeks to searching and making a floor plan of the Castle. The bottom floor had been used by Holmes himself as a drug store, a candy store, a restaurant and a jewelry store. The third floor of the building had been divided into small apartments and guest rooms and apparently, had never been used.
The second floor however proved to be a labyrinth of narrow, winding passages with doors that opened to brick walls, hidden stairways, cleverly concealed doors, blind hallways, secret panels, hidden passages and a clandestine vault that was only a big enough for a person to stand in. The room was alleged to be a homemade "gas chamber", equipped with a chute that would carry a body directly into the basement. The investigators suddenly realized the implications of the iron-plated chamber when they found the single, scuffed mark of a footprint on the inside of the door. It was a small print that had been made by a woman who had attempted to escape the grim fate of the tiny room.
In addition to all of the bizarre additions to the floor, the second level also held 35 guest rooms. Half of them were fitted as ordinary sleeping chambers, and there were indications that they had been occupied by the various women who worked for Holmes, by tenants during the Fair or by the luckless females Holmes had seduced while waiting for an opportunity to kill them. Several of the other rooms were without windows or could be made air tight by closing the doors. Others were lined with sheet iron and asbestos with scorch marks on the walls, fitted with trap doors that led to smaller rooms beneath, or were equipped with lethal gas jets that could be used to suffocate or burn the unsuspecting occupants.
This floor also contained Holmes’ private apartment, consisting of a bedroom, a bath and two small chambers that were used as offices. The apartment was located at the front of the building, looking out over 63rd Street. In the floor of the bathroom, concealed under a heavy rug, the police found a trap door and a stairway that descended to a room about eight feet square. Two doors led off this chamber, one to a stairway that exited out onto the street and the other giving access to the chute that led down to the basement.
The “chamber of horrors” in the basement stunned the men even further. Here, they sound Holmes’ blood-spattered dissecting table and his macabre “laboratory” of torture devices, sharpened instruments and various jars of poison. They also found the acid vat and the crematorium, which still contained ash and portions of bone that had not burned in the intense heat. A search of the ashes also revealed a watch that had belonged to Minnie Williams, some buttons from a dress and several charred tintype photographs. Under the staircase, Geyer also found a ball made from women’s hair that had been carefully wrapped in cloth.
Buried in the floor, the police found a huge vat of corrosive acid and two quicklime pits, which were capable of devouring an entire body in a matter of hours. A loose pile of quicklime was also discovered in a small room that had been built into the corner. The naked footprint of woman was found embedded in the pile.
Dozens of human bones and several pieces of jewelry were found and could be traced to Holmes’ mistresses. A wood burning stove in the center of the basement contained scraps of cloth and Ned Connor was summoned to the castle to identify a bloody dress that had belonged to Julia. In a hole in the middle of the floor, more bones were found. After being examined by a physician, they were believed to be the bones of a small child between the ages of six and eight. The fate of Pearl Connor was also no longer in question.
On July 20, some city workers began excavating the cellar and started a tunnel underneath 63rd Street. The hazy smell of gas hung in the air and as the men tore away one wall, they discovered a large tank or metal-lined chamber. As soon as they broke through, the basement was filled with the stench of death, driving the crew back. Noting the metal lining of the tank, they sent for a plumber and he struck a match to peer inside of it. Suddenly, the tank exploded, shaking the building and sending flames out into the basement. The men were buried in piles of debris but no one was seriously injured. The tank was lined with wood and metal and was 14 feet long, although thanks to the explosion, no one will ever know that it was used for. The only clue in the room was a small box that was found in its center. When it was opened by Fire Marshal James Kenyon, an "evil smelling" vapor rushed out. The gathered men ran, except for Kenyon, who was overpowered by the stench. According to the New York World, "he was dragged out and carried upstairs, and for two hours acted like one demented."
Following the excavation, and the discovery and cataloguing of Holmes’ potential victims, the “Murder Castle” (as it came to be called) sat empty for several months. Not surprisingly, it drew onlookers and curiosity-seekers from all over the city. The newspapers were not yet filled with stories and illustrations about Holmes’ devious crimes but rumors had quickly spread about what had been discovered there. The people of Chicago were stunned that such things could take place... and in their glorious city! The people of the Englewood neighborhood watched the sightseers with a combination of fear and loathing, sickened over the terrible things that brought the crowds to their streets.
Then, on August 19, the castle burned to the ground. Three explosions thundered through the neighborhood just after midnight and minutes later, a blaze erupted from the abandoned structure. In less than an hour, the roof had caved in and the walls began to collapse in onto themselves. A gas can was discovered among the smoldering ruins and rumors argued back and forth between an accomplice of Holmes’ burning down the house to hide his role in the horror and the arson being committed by an outraged neighbor. The mystery was never solved, but regardless, the castle was gone for good.... although many would claim that its memories would linger!
The lot where the castle was located remained empty for many years until finally, a U.S. Post Office was built on the site in 1938. There would be many in the area who had not forgotten the stories of Holmes’ castle... or the tales from people who claimed to hear moaning and crying sounds coming from the grounds.
Even after the post office was constructed, local folks often walked on the opposite side of the street rather than pass too close by the site where torture and murder had taken place. Neighbors who walked their dogs pass the new building claimed their animals would often pull away from it, barking and whining at something they could see or sense.... something which remained invisible to their human masters.
In addition, postal workers in the building had their own encounters in the place, often telling of strange sounds and feelings they could not easily explain. The location was certainly ripe for a haunting and if the stories can be believed, it was, and is, taking place!
The curse of H.H. Holmes
The trial of Herman Mudgett, a.k.a. H.H. Holmes, began in Philadelphia just before Halloween 1895. It only lasted for six days but was one of the most sensational of the century. The newspapers reported it in a lurid and sensational manner and besides the mysteries of the Castle to report on, which were reported at length by several witnesses, Holmes created many exciting scenes in the courtroom. He broke down and wept when Georgianna took the stand as a witness for the state and eventually discharged his attorneys and attempted to conduct his own defense. It was said that Holmes’ was actually outstanding, clever and shrewd as an attorney but it was to no avail. The jury deliberated for just two and half hours before returning a guilty verdict. Afterward, they reported that they had agreed on the verdict in just one minute but had remained out longer "for the sake of appearances".
On November 30, the judge passed a sentence of death. His case was appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, who affirmed the verdict, and the governor refused to intervene. Holmes was scheduled to die on May 7, 1896, just nine days before his 36th birthday.
By now, the details of the case had been made public and people were angry, horrified and fascinated, especially in Chicago, where most of the evil had occurred. Holmes had provided a lurid confession of torture and murder that appeared in newspapers and magazines, providing a litany of depravity that compares with the most insane killers of all time. Even if his story was embellished, the actual evidence of Holmes’ crimes ranks him as one of the country’s most active murderers.
He remained unrepentant, even at the end. Just before he execution, he visited with two Catholic priests in his cell and even took communion with them, although refused to ask forgiveness for his crimes. He was led from his cell to the gallows and a black hood was placed over his head. The trap door opened beneath him and Holmes quickly dropped. His head snapped to the side, but his fingers clenched and his feet danced for several minutes afterward, causing many spectators to look away. Although the force of the fall had broken his neck, and the rope had pulled so tight that it had literally imbedded itself in his flesh, his heart continued to beat for nearly 15 minutes. He was finally declared dead at 10:25 am on May 7, 1896.
There were a couple of macabre legends associated with Holmes’ execution. One story claimed that a lightning bolt had ripped through the sky at the precise moment the rope had snapped his neck... but this was not the strangest one. The most enduring supernatural legend of HH Holmes' death is that of the “Holmes Curse”. The story began shortly after his execution, leading to speculation that his spirit did not rest in peace. Some believed that he was still carrying on his gruesome work from beyond the grave. And, even to the skeptical, some of the events that took place after his death are a bit disconcerting.
A short time after Holmes’ body was buried, under two tons of concrete, the first strange death occurred. The first to die was Dr. William K. Matten, a coroner’s physician who had been a major witness in the trial. He suddenly dropped dead from blood poisoning.
More deaths followed in rapid order, including that of the head coroner. Dr. Ashbridge, and the trial judge who had sentenced Holmes to death. Both men were diagnosed with sudden, and previously unknown, deadly illnesses. Next, the superintendent of the prison where Holmes had been incarcerated committed suicide. The reason for his taking his own life was never discovered. Then, the father of one of Holmes’ victims was horribly burned in a gas explosion and the remarkably healthy Pinkerton agent, Frank Geyer, suddenly became ill.
Not long after, the office of the claims manager for the insurance company that Holmes had cheated, caught fire and burned. Everything in the office was destroyed except for a framed copy of Holmes’ arrest warrant and two portraits of the killer. Many of those who were already convinced of a curse saw this as an ominous warning.
Several weeks after the hanging, one of the priests who prayed with Holmes before his execution was found dead in the yard behind his church. The coroner ruled the death as uremic poisoning but according to reports, he had been badly beaten and robbed. A few days later, Linford Biles, who had been jury foreman in the Holmes trial, was electrocuted in a bizarre accident involving the electrical wires above his house.
In the years that followed, others involved with Holmes also met with violent deaths, including the train robber, Marion Hedgepeth. He remained in prison after his informing on Holmes, although he had expected a pardon that never came. On the very day of Holmes‘ execution, he was transferred to the Missouri State Prison to finish out his sentence. As time passed, Hedgepeth gained many supporters to his cause, including several newspapers who wrote of his role in getting Holmes prosecuted. In 1906, he finally got his pardon and was released.
Despite the claims that he had made about his rehabilitation, including that he spent each day in prison reading his bible, Hedgepeth was arrested in September 1907 for blowing up a safe in Omaha, Nebraska. He was tried, found guilty and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He was released however when it was discovered that he was dying from tuberculosis. In spite of his medical condition, he assembled a new gang and at midnight on New Year’s Eve 1910, he attempted to rob a saloon in (of all places) Chicago. As he was placing the money from the till into a burlap bag, a policeman wandered into the place for no reason and shot him. Hedgepeth was dead before he hit the floor.
Perhaps Holmes got his revenge after all....
Herman Webster Mudgett
AKA: Henry Howard Holmes
SEX: M RACE: W TYPE: N MOTIVE: CE/Sex./ Sad.
VICTIMS: 27 confessed
MO: Suspected of killing childhood playmate; later medical student and career criminal specializing in insurance scams; constructed boarding house in Chicago, robbing/killing various tenants (mostly female), selling some corpses to medical schools for dissection; estimates of final body count range from 50 to 200+
DISPOSITION: Hanged in Ill., May 7,1896
H. H. Holmes: Dr Death, America's First Serial Killer
by Connie Filippelli
In the summer of 1886, evil stepped into the Englewood community. A growing suburb of Chicago, Englewood flourished with business opportunities due to its proximity to the railroads.
Mrs. Holton, wife of the local druggist, moved her overweight 63-year-old body up and down the counter filling orders. Hot and tired, her dress rustled from too much starch every time she moved, bent or stretched to reach a bottle of tonic. Her gray hair, matted and limp fell across her flushed face. Her customer Mrs. McNamara had flashing red hair and good teeth. "It's my boy, Johnny. He's feeling poorly, complains of a bellyache. Would you have something?" she asked.
"Be with you in a second, ma'am", said Mrs. Holton. Busy, her back turned; she checked the shelves for a stomach cure, unaware of a person entering the store. Mrs. Holton wrapped up a mixture in a small paper envelope and handed her the order. Every now and then she'd stop and look up toward the ceiling. Closing her eyes with every moan from her sick husband, his pain became part of her. The pain from the prostate cancer worsened every day. Even the morphine would not hold the pain at bay.
Although not a doctor, Mrs. Holton tried to fill the prescriptions she knew well enough, otherwise, she would run upstairs and ask her husband for help.
Turning, she saw a young man, handsome and fashionably dressed, standing near the door looking over the store. Gold cufflinks adorned his starched white cuffs. His vested suit tailored to fit his small frame gave him an air of elegance and grace. Immediately, he took off his derby and nodded when Mrs. Holton noticed him. She nodded back. "May I help you?" She asked.
"I am here concerning the position of pharmacist you posted in the daily newspaper. I'm Dr. Holmes."
"My husband is very ill.... he is no longer able to function as a pharmacist", her voice trailed off as a customer entered the store, pale and in pain. He held his left side, then, handed the prescription to her. Mrs. Holton read it and started to go toward the stairs to ask her husband for help. Hesitating, she turned, and gave the prescription to Dr. Holmes. He laid his walking stick against a shelf, stepped behind the counter, quickly taking bottles moving up and down, gathering the materials, grinding powders with the mortar and pestle, nimbly shifting the powder in a small envelope completing the order.
Impressed, Mrs. Holton hired him on the spot never checking his credentials, never knowing how he mixed a prescription poisoning a woman in Philadelphia several months before.
Herman W. Mudgett - aka H.H. Holmes (Illinois State Historical Library)
Within a short time, the suave, handsome Henry H. Holmes increased business in the drugstore. He had a way with the ladies that made them come back too often. This delighted Mrs. Holton, who could spend more time with her dying husband. Holmes took over the books. He understood the lucrative business of selling medicine.
When Mrs. Holton's husband died, Holmes saw the opportunity to approach the old woman. "You need to rest...retire from this business", said Holmes.
"Yes...but the store...there is so much to do...I can't abandon it." Always tidy, Mrs. Holton busied herself dusting the shelves.
"Madame, I can buy the business and pay you every month.... You would have an income for life without all the work and worry", Holmes said.
"I could never leave the rooms, I feel Mr. Holton is still in them...no, Mr. Holmes I can't sell."
"My dear woman", he took her hand and put the duster on the counter. "I never want you to leave your rooms. My interest is in the business."
"I can stay, and you will pay me money?" She smiled and nodded her head. "Yes, Mr. Holmes you can buy my business." She shook his hand, pleased at the great deal she made. Unfortunately it was her last deal.
When Holmes failed to pay Mrs. Holton the agreed-upon payments, she took him to court. Before the case closed, she disappeared. Customers asked about her whereabouts but Holmes told them she moved to California, too distraught after the death of her husband to live in his rooms. No one knew where she went and her body was never found.
Shortly after Mrs. Holton's disappearance, Holmes married Myrta Z. Belnap, a young, pretty woman with an innocent face framed by blond curls. Her sweet brown eyes and shy manners contrasted with Holmes' self-assured flirtatious charm. Myrta's devoted demeanor soon changed as she worked side by side with Holmes. His romantic interest in other women made Myrta angry. Yet this shy woman protested meekly to Holmes. People noticed that after a year of putting up with her husband's behavior, Myrta's gentle protest became angry outbursts in front of customers. Divorce was not possible because she had become pregnant. Holmes made an effort to divorce himself from his first wife Clara A. Lovering Mudgett of Alton, New Hampshire. Mudgett was his real name and Holmes one of his many aliases. Finally, Holmes sent Myrta to his parents. Now rid of a nosy wife, Holmes had an open field to pursue his needs.
Benjamin Pitezel, of Galva, Illinois married Carrie Canning after impregnating her at eighteen. Handsome, over six feet tall, with big shoulders and muscular arms, Benjamin cut a good-looking figure in those days. His face was fine featured with light blue eyes, dignified angular nose, black hair and a neatly trimmed mustache. A large warty growth on the back of his neck was his only physical flaw. His other flaw was a weakness in character. An early marriage, five children and a slew of jobs that dragged his family from town to town and a particular affection for liquor would change the handsome young man.
Benjamin worked as a janitor, lumber mill worker, railroad worker, circus roustabout and had done several stints in jail for petty crimes. No one knew when Benjamin met Holmes. Their symbiotic relationship began in November 1889. Benjamin bound himself to Holmes like a parasite. He fed off Holmes' bigger than life persona, gave himself up to his bidding without question and in the process lost his soul.
At 63rd and Wallace, Holmes began the construction of his castle. The 50-foot x 162-foot corner lot took on a mystery of its own. When the workers started to ask questions, they were replaced, usually within a week or two. In fact, by the end of the construction over 500 carpenters, laborers, and other craftsmen had been employed. An amazing fact considering the building was only three stories.
Holmes took advantage of the workers. After they worked a week or two, he had accused them of inferior work, fired them, and did not pay a penny in wages. If they sued, he would ask for one continuance after another until out of frustration, the worker gave up.
Holmes had installed an enormous walk-in safe in his office but stalled in paying. When the safe company sent over a couple of workers to remove the safe, Holmes threatened to sue. He built a room around the safe and warned them that they would pay for any damage. His tactic worked, the safe stayed.
Not only did Holmes cheat the workers out of their wages, but also he kept them in the dark about the building's design. He did not want anyone to question the enormous kiln with its cast iron door, or the vats of corrosives like quicklime and acid, or iron-plated rooms, secret passages, hidden chutes that ended in the basement directly above zinc-lined tanks, sealed rooms with gas-jets, stairways that led nowhere, and a secret room only Holmes could enter. Fifty-one doors and corridors snaked around like some mad house, trapdoors, closets with secret passages, dissecting table, surgeons' tools and even an invention Holmes said could stretch a human to twice their height. Truly, the modern looking building was a Castle of Horrors inside.
A year later, the castle was finished. Holmes sold the drugstore and opened another in the castle. The new drugstore captured the whole community's attention with its elegant design; roman columns, gold-lettered signs, polished wood paneling, frescoes, and arched ceilings. Next to the drug store he had a jewelry shop, restaurant, and barbershop. An astute businessman, Holmes invested in one of the first copier companies and even manufactured glycerin soap. In 1890, Holmes was 30 years old. His empire grew at a tremendous rate and he put an ad in the newspaper for more help.
Ned Conner had the same lifestyle as Benjamin, foundering from job to job, dragging his wife and daughter along. When he answered the ad for manager and got the job, Ned thought all his problems ended. He had married Julia Smythe, a 6-foot-tall, green-eyed woman with reddish brown hair piled in curls on her head. Holmes noticed her talent for detail and quickly fired his cashier, giving the position to Julia.
Thrilled about her good fortune, Julia invited her sister Gertie to Chicago. Gertie, all of 18, with a captivating innocence that caught Holmes at his first meeting, was flattered by the older man's attention. He wined and dined the young woman, showing her all the exciting sights of the big city. However, when Holmes professed love for her and told her he would divorce his wife, she was appalled. Rebuking his offer, she immediately confessed to her brother-in-law Ned. Ned helped her high tail it out of the city back to the small town of Muscatine.
Rejected by Gertie, Holmes turned his attention to Julia. In a short time, it was noticeable to the people around them that the two had become lovers. Ned seemed to turn a blind eye to his wife's infidelity and took comfort in the fact that he was working a good job and had a place to stay, after a stream of failures. One day everything changed when several friends cornered Ned to let him know about his wife's behavior. In a saloon down the street from the castle, Ned slugged back a few after work. This day, some of his bar buddies decided to let him know what everyone else knew.
"My wife saw them kissing from the window. They didn't even close the door to the back room," Ned said to his friend.
"Why I saw him touching her bottom as she stood to get some them there liver pills I use," said another man.
"Last week when you were downtown, he closed the shop. I saw both of them get into a cab."
By the time Ned heard everything, he was pretty liquored up. Slamming down his drink, sending the whiskey splashing all over the bar, he stormed out.
Julia opened the door to her room, reached to light the gas lamp on the wall. She wore a navy blue dress that curved around her body ending in a bustle. Her jacket, trimmed in red piping gave her a smart professional look; it matched her navy and red hat. Turning around, she was startled to see Ned sitting in the chair near the window. A cloud of smoke obscured his face. Julia walked over to the bed and removed her hatpins placing them on the night table.
"Had a talk with some people today", he said.
"Oh", said Julia, who began unbuttoning her jacket, "about what?" She walked to the closet and hung her jacket.
"About my dear, sweet, beautiful wife", he spit out as he put down his pipe, and walked to the bed, "being bedded by my employer!"
"I don't believe I like your tone, Ned ... people gossip, ignore them."
"No one had to tell me what I already suspected ... I wanted to believe it was just innocent flirting ... Holmes is a destroyer of marriage ... he wanted to divorce his wife for your sister ... you were just second best."
She whipped around the bed and faced Ned. "He loves me...he's handsome, successful, intelligent caring...everything you aren't. You couldn't shine his shoes, Ned Conner."
"I forbid you to see him again ... you will quit the job and be my wife. You don't have to work. Never see Holmes again."
"I will not quit my job. I will not stop seeing Holmes."
The fighting went on for hours and resulted in Ned packing and sleeping on the floor of the barbershop downstairs.
Julia continued her affair with Holmes and inevitably became pregnant. By that time, Ned had moved out of the castle, filed for divorce, and was about to marry another woman.
Julia had entrenched herself into Holmes' business so deeply she had become a threat. He convinced her she was the love of his life and wanted to marry her only if she had an abortion. When she thought of her daughter, Pearl, she could not bring herself to do it. Holmes persisted and assured Julia he had performed many such procedures during his time as a medical student. Julia kept putting it off. Finally, on December 24, 1891, Julia agreed to an abortion. Too upset to put Pearl to bed, she asked Holmes to do it. Afterwards, he led her down to the dark basement and makeshift operating room. Gripping his arm and sobbing she had no idea she would never see another Christmas again, and neither did Pearl.
The Medical Skeleton Business
Charles M. Chappell worked for Holmes doing a variety of jobs around the castle for about two years. His previous job was in the same building that housed the Bennett Medical School. Curious by nature, and good with his hands, Chappell picked up a rather unusual skill -- articulating skeletons. He first observed the procedure and, after a short time, he actually did the work. In the winter of 1892, a few months after the disappearance of Julia, Holmes summoned Chappell to his office.
"Charles, would you like to pick up some extra money?" asked Holmes.
Charles stood in front of his desk and smiled. "Of course, Mr. Holmes."
"I would like to use your special skills...to articulate a skeleton."
He led Chappell to a second floor room with poor lighting. On a table, a cadaver of a female lay. Chappell told authorities that the body looked like a jackrabbit that has been skinned by splitting the skin down the face and rolling it back off the entire body. He also said, considerable flesh had been taken off. Chappell thought Holmes was doing an autopsy on one of his patients. After stripping the flesh off and articulating the bones the body was prepared. Chappell was paid $36 for his work.
The skeleton was sold to Hahnemann Medical College for $200. Dr. Pauling, a surgeon, had the skeleton placed in his private offices in his home. Looking at the skeleton, he often wondered what had taken her life, consumption, childbirth, a bad heart? Fascinated with the skeleton he often would show visitors his unusual female skeleton that was over six feet tall.
Emeline Cigrand was a stenographer in her hometown of LaFayette, Indiana at the County Recorder Office. In July 1891, she began working in Dwight, Illinois, home of a sanitarium for alcoholics. Dr. Keeley, the director, had discovered a treatment for alcoholism by giving injections of bichloride of gold, a mixture of gold salts and vegetables.
Emeline's stunning beauty caught the eye of Benjamin Pitezel, a patient in for "the Cure." Tall, blond, with piercing blue eyes and a captivating smile, she fascinated Pitezel. Emeline enjoyed conversations with Pitezel about his job and his interesting, wealthy employer, Dr. Holmes.
Intrigued with Pitezel's description, Holmes wrote Emeline, enticing her with a job paying over 50% more than the sanitarium. She accepted the job working for Holmes and lived in a boarding house one block from the Castle.
Holmes began his seduction: sightseeing, flowers, dinner, jewelry and compliments. By summer they were lovers and Emeline had written back home about her fiancé, Robert E. Phelps, an alias Holmes told her to use so as not to jeopardize his eminent divorce from Myrta. Emeline wrote her sister Philomena, that they might be moving to England to share an estate with her beloved's father, an English lord.
In the fall, Emeline's relatives arrived. Holmes, conveniently busy, did not meet with them. One of them pointed out the poor workmanship of the building and the inferior quality lumber that was used. But Emeline did not want to hear any disparaging remarks about her perfect love, so she ignored the suggestions that Holmes was not what he appeared to be.
Holmes planned the wedding for December -- a civil ceremony with just his witness. "Simple, quick and then a long trip abroad, so I may spend all my time with you, only you", Holmes said.
"It will be beautiful no matter where we wed because I'll be with you", Emeline said. Her eyes traced his face; Holmes pulled back from their embrace, reached in his inner pocket and presented her with 12 envelopes.
"Address these my dear, with your beautiful handwriting to all the family and friends back home.... I have ordered printed announcements of our wedding etched in gold."
Holmes planned to kill her, not for money, but for lust. Only in a dead state could he achieve the ultimate sexual thrill. In early December, probably a few days before the wedding, Holmes summoned Emeline. He sat at his desk, papers stacked, looking busy. "My dear, can you fetch me the white envelope in the vault marked property deeds?"
"Of course," Emeline said. She unspun the lock and stepped into the vault. Standing on her tiptoes, she slid her hand back and forth along the shelf as she looked for the envelope. The light from the other room dimmed. She did not hear Holmes walk up to the vault door. She did not notice the door slowly begin to close until darkness surrounded her. Then, Emeline froze, as the vault door shuddered close, the lock spun, and the room became her tomb.
Holmes stood near the vault excited at what he had done. He pressed his cheek against the metal, feeling the coolness and the tiny thumps on the door as Emeline pounded for her life. Emeline's screams were deep and guttural. Holmes felt their vibration against his groin as he pressed against the door. Aroused, by the power of life and death, he exposed himself and masturbated as he listened to Emeline's screams. His eyes glazed in ecstasy as he chewed on his lower lip and jerked vigorously to his ultimate climax.
Holmes went back to work, occasionally listening to Emeline's screams, which according to Holmes, "continued for hours."
Several weeks after the incident, the LaSalle Medical School bought a skeleton from Dr. H.H. Holmes -- a young female.
One of the requirements of employment with Holmes was a life insurance policy for $5000 naming Holmes as beneficiary. This was money in the bank in case his other swindles slacked off.
When Jennie Thompson, 17, blond, blue eyed, small-town girl from Eldorado, Illinois came to work in the Castle, Holmes saw another opportunity. Jennie confided in Holmes that she had not written her family. Originally, she told the family she was going to New York to live. They had no idea she landed such a good job in Chicago. Again, he used the vault trick. Jennie suffocated in the vault; her body was stripped of flesh, skeletonized and sold to University of Illinois Medical School.
Another victim, Mrs. Pansy Lee, a widow from New Orleans, took a room in the Castle. Holmes used his usual charm after learning Pansy had $4000 in a false bottom of her trunk. He asked her to let him put it into his vault for safekeeping. Pansy refused, insisting she could take care of the money as she had done travelling all over the United States. Holmes killed her and cremated her body in his custom built oven.
Holmes' ever-faithful dog, Pat Quinlan, got a girl that worked at the Castle in trouble. His wife lived in Ohio, but she planned on joining her husband at the Castle sometime in the future. Heated arguments with his mistress made Quinlan confide in Holmes about his problem.
"Can ya deliver the baby, Dr. Holmes? I need to keep this quiet so the missus don't find out", said Quinlan. His eyes were tired; his thin nose flared, lifting his moustache with each heavy breath. Quinlan's agitation grew as Holmes stroked his chin, and stared at the distraught man before him.
"I'll do anything I can", said Holmes, smiling and patting him on his back.
Shortly after Holmes offered to help, Pat again found himself in a state of panic. Clutching a telegram, Pat paced back and forth in front of his boss's desk. Handing Holmes the telegram, he stepped back, hands in his pockets, waiting for the response.
"There's something else, sir besides my missus coming today...the girl knows and threatened to tell my wife."
"You know what must be done, Pat?" Pat hung his head and said, "Yes."
Quinlan unable to look Holmes in the eye cleared his throat. "One more problem...the girl told her sister."
"That makes one for each of us to take care of...doesn't it, Pat?"
Quinlan looked up. "I can't possibly..." Holmes' icy stare made Quinlan's words dissolve in fear. "I mean whatever ya say, Mr. Holmes."
That day, Quinlan brought the two women to a small room in a remote part of the building, explaining to his mistress and her sister that the room would be better for the baby so the child's crying would not disturb the other tenants. He left the two women and met Holmes in the basement. The two men turned on the various gas jets to the room. Within a few minutes the two sisters were dead. Their bodies disposed of in the usual manner.
In the early 1890's, Chicago became the site of a kind of world's fare celebrating the four hundred year anniversary of Columbus's voyage to America. Holmes's castle was a perfect place to lure tourists, steal their money and murder them. There were gas jets in the rooms to asphyxiate the victims and the kilns below to cremate the bodies. Fifty tourists who visited the Columbian Exposition and took rooms in the Castle never returned home. Many of those who met their doom in the "Castle of Horrors" were young women.
In the midst of his murderous pursuits as a hotelkeeper, Holmes fell in love with a young woman named Georgiana Yoke. To keep her interest, Holmes told Georgiana lies upon lies. First, he told her both his parents were dead as well as his brothers and sisters. His only family left was a bachelor uncle, Henry Mansfield Howard, telling her this to justify the reason he sometimes used two names H.H. Holmes or H. Howard -- his adopted name as opposed to his birth name.
When he asked her to marry him, she accepted him and his two names. Little did she know he was considered married to Myrta, who continued to live in Wilmette with their child Lucy. Technically, he was married to his first wife, Clara Lovering, who lived in Tilton, New Hamphsire where Holmes' parents lived.
Holmes and Georgiana decided to wed in the winter of 1893, but the stress of his murderous and larcenous past began to take its toll. Creditors caught up to Holmes, threatening to take the Castle.
Harold Schechter in Depraved says of Holmes: "Deception was so deeply ingrained in H.H. Holmes's character that he was incapable of telling the truth about the simplest matter...Nothing he said could be trusted or taken at face value...Ironically, Holmes possessed the sort of boldness, savvy and boundless ambition that might well have earned him the financial success he so frantically craved. His colossal energies (when they weren't being misspent on his countless frauds, scams, and far more sinister pursuits) were devoted to outwitting his creditors."
Holmes, always several jumps ahead, planned a quick retreat with Georgiana. A few weeks after Georgiana accepted Holmes' proposal, Pat Quinlan set the Castle on fire. The fire destroyed the top floor. As usual, he had insured the building with several companies for a total of $25,000. An astute investigator noted the fire started in several places. After investigating Holmes, his report that Holmes tried to defraud the insurance companies did not pan out. Holmes was not charged and was free to go. However, he did not collect the insurance.
The biggest scheme brewed in Holmes' mind long before the Castle swindles fizzled and proved to be his downfall. He convinced Ben Pitezel to take a $10,000 life insurance policy with Fidelity Mutual Life of Philadelphia and fake his own death. A corpse with a badly disfigured face would be Ben's double. Holmes assured Ben he would find a corpse to match his physical characteristics. "With my connections the corpse will be no trouble", he told Ben.
The plan was for Ben to go into hiding and not tell his family anything. Ben could not just disappear without saying something to his wife Carrie, so he went against Holmes' instructions. He told her about the scheme. Carrie, distraught that something could go wrong, begged her husband to reconsider. He did not. He told his older daughter Nessie not to believe anything she read in the newspaper about him. Ben Pitezel left Chicago and never returned.
Meanwhile, Holmes' creditors got wind of the arson at the Castle. They banded together, got an attorney, and threatened Holmes with criminal charges. November 22, according to witnesses, was the last time anyone saw Holmes in public, although, he did make a few clandestine visits to his wife and daughter.
On January 9, 1894 Homes married Georgiana Yoke in Denver. She became Mrs. Henry Mansfield Howard. From Denver, they moved to Ft. Worth, Texas and met Ben. Holmes told his new wife he had business to take care of in Ft. Worth. Again he changed his identity. The couple became Mr. and Mrs. H.M.Pratt. He, as Pratt, along with his assistant Ben formulated schemes to bilk wealthy Texas businessmen from money, property and business.
His psychopathic arrogance made him reckless in decisions. Instead of skipping town like any other embezzler, Holmes stayed in Ft. Worth. They stole a freight of horses and shipped them to Chicago. Texans did not take horse theft lightly. The crime was found out and the law latched onto their trail.
They worked their way across the country to New York, Philadelphia, Memphis, Denver, and St. Louis. Continued carelessness and greed landed Holmes in jail for the first time. He tried to defraud the Merrill Drug Company using a scam like the one in Chicago. The drug company found out and had him arrested. Georgiana, bemoaning the indignity of his husband's arrest, eventually bailed him out.
During his stay in jail, Holmes met Marion Hedgepeth, a very bad man, according to the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Marion was a celebrity criminal. Perhaps that was why Holmes felt comfortable. Comfortable enough to let his guard down and reveal his swindle. Marion gave Holmes the name of a lawyer, for a promise of $500. The lawyer would help him in the insurance scheme involving Ben. Now everything was in place for the insurance fraud.
Ben went on to Philadelphia, opened a phony patent office, rented the room in the back, and waited for the plan to unfold.
Holmes' stay in prison was short. He met with Jeptha Howe, the lawyer to whom Hedgepeth referred Holmes. Howe would take care of the details of the insurance fraud. Holmes returned to his wife Georgiana and they left for Philadelphia for business. Georgiana had been feeling poorly for a few days and was distressed Holmes could not wait until she felt better. "It's a great opportunity...I'll make $10,000 dollars for you", he said. His wife agreed and off they went on another journey.
Upon arriving in Philadelphia, he set up an appointment, and then cancelled it when he did not like the meeting place. Ben was disappointed. Holmes asked Ben if they could meet at his room. Ben agreed. It was the last agreement Ben would ever make to his trusted employer.
The next night, Holmes watched Ben from the shadows drink himself into oblivion at a local tavern. He followed his drunken friend back to his room, checking his pocket for the tools of his murderous plan and waited for the right moment. When Ben opened his door after several tries, Holmes jumped from the shadows, chloroformed his colleague, gently allowing the body to slip to the floor. Working quickly, he took a vial of chemicals from his pocket, poured it on Ben's face. A small explosion ensued, obliterating Ben's features. He arranged the body so that the face would get the full glare of the sun, thus ensuring quick decomposition. Holmes medical training came in handy once more.
Ben had missed an appointment with one of his potential inventors. The man had come by the shop a few times and felt concern for it was always closed. Finally, he pushed the door of the shop and it opened. He called out for Ben several times. Cautiously, he went toward the back of the store and reached the stairs to the upper rooms. He noticed a foul odor. Up, up he went until he arrived at the top floor. He opened the door slightly, saw a body on the floor, shot down the stairs, and ran four blocks to the police station.
Holmes lost no time at all. He returned to Georgiana at the rented rooms, told her the deal had gone through, and they should make $10,000.
Next morning, they boarded a train for Indianapolis and spent a short time in the city. He checked newspapers to see if Ben's death was discovered. A few days after arriving, he saw the notice. Holmes was delighted his scheme was working. He said good-bye to his wife and headed back to St. Louis.
Carrie Pitezel bordered on hysteria when she read the story about Ben's death in Philadelphia. Her daughter Dessie tried to calm her down by reminding her what her father said -- not to believe what was in the newspapers. Holmes's arrival at that moment could not have been timed better. Finding Carrie in a state of collapse, he pulled her into a private room, and chided her for believing Ben's death notice.
"He's hiding out...you must play along...this is what Ben wants...he is not dead."
After a while, she believed his smooth talking manner and calmed down. Holmes was worried Carrie would crack. Also, she and the baby had been terribly ill for several days. He knew that in this state she might blow the whole scheme. He convinced her to let him take Alice, even though she was only 15 years old. Dessie, the oldest, had to stay to take care of the baby while her mother was ill. Alice would be needed to identify the body in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, Holmes and Alice went to the insurance company. Carrie Pitezel gave the "power of attorney" to Holmes. The problem with the insurance company was that Ben had used a ficticious name. So, they needed a more positive identification.
Days had passed since Ben's death. He was already buried. An order for exhumation was filed to allow the positive identification. Fidelity insurance agents felt something suspicious, but chose not to pursue it at that time. According to the police report, the death was an accident. What alerted the agents had to do with the fact that Ben made his payment two days before he died by wiring it into the office last minute. Alice looked so impoverished and pitiful when she arrived at the office, the agents didn't have the heart to pursue an investigation.
The coroner had laid out the exhumed body of Ben Pitezel, covering his badly disfigured face. Alice frightened and nervous clutched Holmes for moral support. "Any distinguishing marks", asked the coroner of Alice.
"My father had a scar on his knee", Alice said, the coroner pulled back the cover to expose his knees, "and a mole on his neck." Both times she nodded yes. "That's my papa...I can tell by his hands", she cried.
Holmes lifted the covering on Ben's face, "Yes, that is Ben Pitezel, who has worked for me."
When the identification was over, Holmes took Alice to Indianapolis leaving her there while he returned to St. Louis.
Now it was Carrie's turn to finish the scheme. She accompanied Holmes to Jeptha Howe, the lawyer he got from his cellmate Marion Hedgepeth. After the paper work was signed at the insurance company, Holmes told Carrie there would be a lawyer's fee, and money Ben owed him on an investment in Texas. In the end, Carrie walked away with $500 dollars out of Ben's $10,000 insurance policy.
He also convinced Carrie to let him take Howard and Nellie to join Alice in Indianapolis so they could stay at a wealthy lady's home. Carrie returned to Galva, Illinois at her family's home and waited for Ben to contact her.
The insurance company received a letter from Marion Hedgepeth outlining the insurance fraud. Did Holmes merely forget to pay Marion? We'll never know, but it caused his ultimate downfall. Although Marion told the insurance company that Holmes had substituted a cadaver, the agents were convinced it was the real Ben Pitezel. They hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to investigate. The Pinkertons gathered a great amount of information about Holmes' past schemes from Chicago to Texas. They decided to follow Holmes from city to city as he dragged the three children along in a sojourn that was made to confuse anyone trying to follow him.
Finally, in Boston with the help of 20-year police veteran Frank Geyer, they were able to arrest Holmes. They intercepted a letter with Holmes' code sent to Carrie asking her to remove a bottle of expensive chemicals from the basement to the attic. Unbeknownst to Carrie, the bottle was filled with nitroglycerin. Holmes made arrangements on a steam ship to Europe. The Pinkertons had to move fast. Frank Geyer aided the Pinkertons in surrounding the Adams House, and arrested Holmes for "conspiracy to commit fraud". At the same time, Carrie Pitezel was picked up and brought to Philadelphia for her part in the conspiracy. Little did they know that Holmes was a serial killer.
Overnight Holmes became a notorious celebrity. News of his numerous swindles, horse thefts, and frauds gave people a sense of admiration for the sheer genius of his plots. By the time Carrie had arrived in Philadelphia, she was ready to confess to anything. Believing her husband alive and part of the elaborate scheme, Carrie kept faithful to Holmes' story. She verified that this was fraud not murder concerning her husband. When she had to identify the body of her husband Carrie, she turned on Holmes, screaming about the whereabouts of her children -- Howard, Nellie, and Alice. Holmes claimed the children were with a rich lady in England. Suspicious, Frank Geyer retraced Holmes' journey, traveling from city to city, from East Coast to Midwest, and even Canada. Dauntlessly, he pursed his gut feeling that Holmes had killed the children. Back at headquarters, police gave the real story about Holmes to his young naive wife -- Holmes, as bigamist, as swindler, as killer. Georgiana, realizing the police were telling the truth, cooperated as much as she could.
When the bodies of the children were found -- Howard buried beneath a house; Nellie and Alice suffocated in a trunk -- public opinion called for his death.
Herman W. Mudgett, alias H. H. Holmes was tried, convicted and sentenced to death. In the end, he thought his facial features had changed to that of a demon. His lawyer asked him how many people he killed. Holmes told him 133. Even in prison, he made money selling his story to William Randolph Hearst Corporation for $10,000.
On Thursday May 7, 1896 at 10:25am, H.H. Holmes was hanged.
Fearful of grave robbers, he left explicit instructions for his burial. Ironically, a man did offer a large sum of money for his body. A grave ten feet deep, eight feet long, and five feet wide was dug. In the coffin, Holmes' face was covered with a cloth, and cement poured over every part of his body. Thirteen men dragged the coffin to the grave. The weight of the coffin caused it to fall into the grave upside down. Instead of facing the heavens, he faced hell.
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Eckert, Allan W. The Scarlet Mansion. Little, Brown and Company. 1985.
Lane, Brian and Wilfred Gregg, The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers. Berkley Books. 1992.
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The New York Herald.
Nash, Jay Robert, Bloodletters and Badmen. M. Evans & Co. 1995.
Schechter, Harold, Depraved: The Shocking True Story of America's First Serial Killer. Pocket Books, 1994.
Schechter, Harold and David Everitt, The A-to-Z Encyclopedia of Serial Killers. Pocket Books. 1996.
Wilson, Colin, A Casebook of Murder. Cowles Book Company, Inc. 1969.
On April 9, 1896, just weeks before his execution, H.H. Holmes signed a statement of gruesome detail telling how he had murdered 27 people. He retracted the confession just before his hanging May 7, saying he killed only two women. This is a partial list:
Dr. Robert Leacock of New Baltimore, Mich., a former schoolmate Dr. Holmes killed in 1886 for $40,000 in life insurance.
Dr. Russell, a tenant of the castle, bludgeoned with a chair during an angry rent dispute. With his body, Dr. Holmes began the practice of selling corpses to medical schools for $25 to $45.
Julia Conner and her daughter, Pearl, killed Christmas Day 1891, either because they knew too much or for insurance. Julia's skeleton was mounted, then sold to a medical school for $200.
Mr. Rodgers of Virginia, struck on the head by an oar during a fishing trip after Dr. Holmes learned he had some money.
A maid named Lizzie, the first one suffocated in the vault. Dr. Holmes was afraid his married janitor might run off with her.
Emeline Cigrand, his stenographer and mistress. He suffocated her on the same day he was supposed to marry her.
Minnie Williams, poisoned and buried in the basement.
Nannie Williams, Minnie's sister, died in the vault after being forced to sign over everything she owned to Dr. Holmes.
Benjamin F. Pitezel, burned alive for $10,000 in life insurance. "The least I can do is spare my reader a recital of the victim's cries for mercy and his prayers, all of which upon me had no effect."
Howard, Nellie and Alice Pitezel, children of Benjamin Pitezel. Howard was poisoned, dismembered and burned; Nellie and Alice were placed inside a large trunk, gassed through a hole in the lid and buried. Source: "The Torture Doctor," by David Franke.