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True crime. Casually done.

H.H. Holmes: Ladykiller and Child-Murderer

Written by David Baker

Philadelphia City Detective Frank Geyer
By Frank P. Geyer – 1896 book: The Holmes-Pitezel case; a history of the greatest crime of the century and of the search for the missing Pitezel children. Philadelphia, PA: Publishers’ Union, 1896., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65768065

Detective Frank Geyer stood in the dirt-cellar of Number 16 St. Vincent Street. The smell of rotting flesh hung in the air. Taking the shovel he had borrowed from a next-door neighbour, he began to dig. With a sense of dread, mingled with resignation, he knew exactly what he was likely to find.  

Frank Geyer was a 19 year veteran of the Philadelphia police force. He was no stranger to murder. Aged 42, with a stout figure, sharp serious eyes, thinning slicked-back hair, and a large bushy moustache partially occluding his bitter scowl, he sank the shovel into the loose soil of the cellar, working steadily, quietly, alone with his thoughts. Dirt sprinkled his dress shoes and the cuffs of his tailor-made trousers.

It was the summer of 1895. For 8 months, Frank had traced the movements of Dr. Henry Howard Holmes across the northern United States and into Canada. Frank was on the trail of the three missing children of Benjamin Pitezel [pie-teh-zel], a man who had been murdered by being chloroformed and set on fire. After the murder, three of Pitezel’s five children were said to be in the custody of H.H. Holmes, their exact whereabouts unknown.

Frank had been assigned to find them. And Frank was very good at his job.

The detective had arrived in Toronto, where he had spent 8 days searching for signs of a house that H.H. Holmes may have rented. It was then he received a tip that the house on St. Vincent Street had been rented by a man fitting Holmes’ description. He was said to be travelling with two young girls. No word was said of the little boy who was also missing.

Months earlier, in late October 1894, a neighbour, Mr. Ryves [reevz], saw Alice and Nellie Pitezel sitting on the veranda of 16 St. Vincent Street. Nellie clutched a wooden egg that opened at the top, launching a spring-loaded toy snake out of it, much to the young girl’s amusement. Holmes had borrowed a shovel from Ryves, saying he wanted to dig some furrows in the dirt cellar in order to grow some potatoes. The shovel which Holmes had borrowed was the same tool that Detective Frank Geyer now clutched. There was no sign that any potatoes had been planted in the cellar.

As Frank continued to lift the dirt out of a recently disturbed patch of earth, the stench of putrid flesh only grew worse. It became overpowering. Whatever or whomever was buried down there in the dark cellar had already become badly decomposed. The decay was worsened by the summer heat. Digging down to the depth of only three feet or 91cm, Frank discovered a bone belonging to a small human being. A young girl’s forearm. Continuing to excavate the scene, more gently now, so as not to damage any further human remains, Frank uncovered the frail bodies of Alice and Nellie Pitezel. They had been stripped naked and each of them lay on their sides, facing each other, in the fetal position. Some accounts claim that Nellie’s feet had been cut off, so the girl could not be identified by her club-foot. Other accounts attest that the bodies were interred in the cellar completely intact and whole.

The bodies of the two girls were indeed in an advanced state of decomposition. Tiny red worms infested their shallow grave. Their skin and vital organs had already begun to liquify in the damp, malodorous earth. When later called upon to identify the bodies of her children, what remained of their flesh was blackened and falling off, and Carrie Pitezel could only identify Alice by the thick braid of her hair.

Some accounts claim that H.H. Holmes murdered the two girls by forcing them into a steamer trunk, whereupon he pumped it full of noxious gas with a hose in order to asphyxiate the girls. Other accounts simply state that H.H. Holmes had poisoned the girls by slipping essence of nightshade and a mixture of other deadly toxins into their food. Dr. Holmes, after all, had for some years run a pharmacy. He knew what he was about.

H.H. Holmes had attempted to burn the clothing the girls were wearing at the time he murdered them, but he had packed the delicate bundles of cloth too tightly into the small metal chimney, and large scraps of their clothing survived. Holmes also appears to have made no attempt to destroy or remove Nellie’s snake-egg contraption from the home and several short notes the girls had written to their mother. These belongings were discovered by Frank Geyer and packed away into evidence.

After murdering the two young girls, Holmes abandoned 16 St. Vincent Street and disappeared. When another tenant moved into the house, they could not bear to go down into cellar or use it for storing anything, due to the terrible smell which hung in the air, refused to dissipate, and only grew stronger.  

With the discovery of the bodies of Alice and Nellie Pitezel, Frank’s job was not yet finished. He set about locating the whereabouts of the little boy, Howard Pitezel, just 8 years old, who some weeks earlier had been separated from his sisters. Using oblique references to Howard in the letters that Holmes had periodically sent to the boy’s mother, and using witness testimony from Toronto neighbours who had spoken with Alice and Nellie, Frank determined that Howard Pitezel was allegedly attending school in Indianapolis, back in the United States. Frank gravely doubted this was actually the case.

Arriving in Indianapolis, Frank spent weeks dropping by almost every rental house in the city. Roughly 900 houses in total. He was looking for any sign that H.H. Holmes and a small boy had been there. Finally, Frank alighted on the suburb of Irvington, where the detective discovered that Holmes had rented a house for a few days before disappearing again. This was two weeks before Holmes murdered the Pitezel girls in Toronto.

On October 3rd 1894, H.H. Holmes had gone by a repair shop in Indianapolis to get some surgical equipment sharpened. Eyewitness testimony stated that a small boy was with him at the time. On October 5th, Holmes hired a spotty-faced teenager named Elvet Moorman to help him set up a large wood stove in the Irvington house. That same day, Holmes entered a drugstore near Irvington and purchased cocaine, chloral hydrate, and chloroform. We also know that at the time Holmes had a vial of cyanide and a clutch of wolfsbane in his possession. On October 8th, Holmes picked up his surgical equipment from the repair shop, the blades and bonesaw now having dutifully been sharpened. On October 10th 1894, Howard Pitezel approached a local housemaid, asking her where he could buy food. Holmes had put him in charge of finding dinner for the evening. The housemaid gave the boy some eggs and butter, and Howard insisted on paying for it with the money Holmes had given him. Elvet Moorman, the local errand boy, claims he saw Howard Pitezel for the last time round 6pm that evening.

On the very same night, October 10th, H.H. Holmes murdered the 8 year old boy. Some accounts claim Holmes poisoned him by spiking his food. Other accounts claim he chloroformed and strangled the child. After murdering him, Holmes used his surgical equipment to dismember his corpse. A consummate professional, Dr. Holmes left no bloodstains behind. He then stuffed the boy’s arms, legs, head, and torso into the wood stove he had constructed, along with some gnawed old corn cobs and chunks of wood. He then doused the child’s body in oil and set it ablaze.  

The fire burned hot and successfully cremated much of the body. What little remained of Howard Pitezel was then quickly scattered and buried at various points around the property. The house’s caretaker, Peter Ireland, later said that the stench of the remains grew so bad that he just covered the whole house with lime powder because he couldn’t locate the exact source.

On the same night as the murder, Holmes swiftly left the house for the train station, where he arrived at 9pm. This means that in the few hours between the last sighting of Howard Pitezel at 6pm and Holmes’ arrival at the train station, the man had quickly murdered, dismembered, and cremated the boy, burying and scattering the remains, and scarcely leaving any trace of the killing. All in under 3 hours. Holmes thereupon caught a train to Chicago, where he arrived late at night, and checked into a hotel.

In his haste to leave, H.H. Holmes neglected to clean out the “flue” underneath the stove. A flue is a pipe on a stove that takes waste gases, smoke, and small solid particles emanating from a fire and blows them outside of your home. When, months later Detective Frank Geyer arrived at the rental house in Irvington, he looked inside the flue, and he found a few of Howard Pitezel’s teeth and some small bits of his bones. Because Frank conducted his investigation long after Howard had been killed, the charred viscera Holmes scattered around the property had already badly decomposed into almost nothing. As a result, a few teeth and some bone fragments were the only signs that Howard Pitezel ever existed.

Nevertheless, Frank was moving closer to discovering the extent of the callous and horrific crimes committed by H.H. Holmes, whom the mustachio’d detective, in characteristic 19th century purple prose, referred to as, quote, “verily, an artist in roguery.”  

The discovery of the scanty remains of the young boy ended Frank’s assiduous and painstaking 8 month search for the Pitezel children. They had all been slain in the coldest fashion imaginable. But at least now the facts were known. The detective later wrote, “All the toil, all the weary days, and weeks of travel… alternating between faith and hope, and discouragement and despair, all paid off in that one moment… Truth, like the sun, sometimes submits to being obscured. But, like the sun, it submits only for a time.”

The truth of the career of H.H. Holmes was soon to dawn upon the 19th century world. To the utter shock and horror of those who heard the tale.

Meet Herman Webster Mudgett

Born Herman Webster Mudgett, also known as Dr. Henry Howard Holmes or H. H. Holmes
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:H._H._Holmes.jpg

“Come with me, if you will, to a tiny quiet New England village, nestling among the picturesquely rugged hills of New Hampshire… Here, in the year 1861, I, Herman W. Mudgett, the author of these pages, was born.” These words were written by Mudgett, alias H.H. Holmes, in his autobiography Holmes’ Own Story, which the child-murderer scrawled down on paper in his prison cell in 1895. The autobiography itself is of little evidential value, because, in addition to being a killer, its author was a compulsive liar.

Herman Mudgett was born in the hamlet of Gilmanton, New Hampshire on May 16th 1861, to Levi Horton Mudgett, a farmer, house-painter, and later postmaster, and Theodate [theo-dah-tay] Page Mudgett, a dutiful housewife. They were devout Methodists. Herman was the third born of five children. The Mudgett family’s reputation in the community was spotless. No tales of alcoholism or abuse. In fact, by all accounts it would appear Herman Mudgett had a perfectly normal childhood. Quite unusual for most children who grow up to be serial killers.

It is also unclear whether Herman was born with primary psychopathy, another hallmark of serial killers, which usually offers an explanation for those murderous individuals who do not come from broken homes. The classic telltale sign of a psychopathic child is, of course, the torture of animals. Yet, when interviewed, Herman’s mother, Theodate, said, quote, “I never knew him to torment animals. Some boys, you know, like to torment kittens and sometimes they are very cruel to them, but Herman was too tenderhearted for anything like that.” This does not preclude the possibility that Herman was a psychopath, but it does rule out the most obvious manifestations of it in childhood. 

A school friend described Mudgett as quiet, studious, faithful, with refined tastes, not joining in with the rough-and-ready games of other boys at school, and almost always coming top in his class. The other mothers in the neighbourhood knew him as a well-behaved boy, and he was a favourite of theirs. Another school friend describes Mudgett as, quote, “the mildest tempered, most inoffensive man I’ve ever met.” All of this would imply that, as far as serial killers go, Mudgett’s case is quite unusual. No childhood abuse. No psychopathy.

But there is an alternative explanation: even as a child Mudgett was skilled at pulling the wool over people’s eyes. If we look below the surface, a few cracks begin to appear. Neighbours accused Herman of a petty theft to the tune of 43 cents, and trying to get paid twice by the local priest for the same job, and defaulting on a payment for a pair of shoes. Other neighbours attest that while Herman was never really rude or horrible to people, he was fairly dishonest and grasping around money.

All of this would point toward a budding psychological profile of a conman. Many such people are also psychopaths, but their game is to defraud people of money rather than to rape or murder them. Such a profile would appear to fit Herman Mudgett quite well. Clean-cut and inoffensive on the outside, and on the inside compulsively driven to deceive and steal whatever he could.

Herman Mudgett was born “wall-eyed”, with his left eye always straying to the side. As such, Mudgett rarely looked at people in the eye when he spoke to them, heightening the impression of shiftiness and duplicity. He was also something of a loner, not keeping any close friends amongst the other children. 

In his autobiography, Herman Mudgett claims that two older boys, who were bullying him, dragged him into the local doctor’s office to show him a human skeleton. Rather than be frightened, Herman said he was fascinated and this drove him to want to enter the field of medicine. While much of his autobiography is nonsense, this particular story has the ring of truth.

When Herman was 16, he met Clara Lovering of the nearby town of Loudon, New Hampshire. The story of their meeting goes that, at a church social, Herman Mudgett saw Clara flirting with another boy, and an infuriated Herman asked the boy to step outside, whereupon a jealous Herman threated to punch his lights out if he didn’t leave Clara alone. Evidently, Clara’s heart fluttered at this display of masculine aggression, and Herman escorted her home arm in arm, which in 1877 was tantamount to second base. 

The next day, Herman claimed to his friends that he and Clara were engaged to be married. For 15 months, Herman and Clara were virtually inseparable, and the two married in secret on July 4th 1878, in front of a justice of the peace. Initially, the marriage was kept a secret and Herman and Clara continued to live separately with their respective parents. 

When Herman eventually told his mother of the marriage a few months later, she quipped, “She couldn’t have done much worse. She probably will have to support you.”

Dr. Smegma

Clara’s family gave Herman a job working as a clerk in a grocery store in East Concord. Not long after, Clara gave birth to their son, Robert Mudgett. At the time, Herman’s salary meant he could not even afford to keep a household for his family, so Clara and the baby continued to live with her parents. But Herman’s ambitions were to become a medical doctor. In 1879, Herman quit his job at the grocery store, and returned home to Gilmanton to study under Dr. Wight, a Civil War army surgeon in his late 60s. There he performed numerous dissections on cadavers with the good doctor.

After a year’s apprenticeship, in 1880 Herman Mudgett left Gilmanton to formally study medicine at a school in Burlington, Vermont, on Dr. Wight’s recommendation. While at medical school, Herman stayed at a boarding house, with a roommate named Fred Ingalls. Herman asked Ingalls not to tell anyone he was married. Ingalls raised an eyebrow but agreed to keep it a secret. Herman Mudgett then promptly started hitting on the landlady’s daughter to the point that people whispered they were going to get engaged. This pissed Fred Ingalls off, and he told everyone that Mudgett was already married, ruining Mudgett’s chances of bedding the girl. A little later, Herman caught Ingalls using his moustache wax without his permission, and an infuriated Herman beat the living sh*t out of Ingalls, giving him two black eyes and a scratched-up face.

At the boarding house, Herman Mudgett conducted chemistry experiments, using a variety of beakers, vials, and chemicals he’d lifted from the laboratory. He also tried bringing home cadavers. One day the landlady was attracted upstairs by a foul rotting smell. She found a dead baby under Herman’s bed. A traumatised landlady forbade Mudgett from bringing any more dead bodies home with him.

While at medical school, Mudgett took out ad space in the Burlington Free Press offering to teach shorthand writing, a way for note-takers to quickly jot things down in cypher. The whole thing was a swindle. Mudgett did not know shorthand. He took in a bit of money up front from unwitting customers and then dismantled the business. 

After a single term at med school, Mudgett had run out of cash, so he went on hiatus to teach at a school back in Gilmanton to save up more tuition money. At the school Mudgett is said to have regularly and brutally whipped the kids. An anonymous account states that, on one particular occasion, Mudgett borrowed an amputated foot from Dr. Wight and brought it into class to show the children a bit of anatomy, thoroughly horrifying them. After Herman’s arrest in 1894, the school superintendent vehemently denied that this ever happened on his watch. But Herman was dismissed from the school that same year, so it is unclear whether it happened. Herman was furious and wrote a ten-page letter to his former employer, vowing revenge.

In 1881, Herman Mudgett took his wife Clara and infant son Robert to Ann Arbor, where he continued his medical studies at the University of Michigan. Clara’s family supplemented their living situation. The couple lived in a boarding house with other students and their families. Clara found work as a dressmaker. Clara and Herman fought constantly and firsthand accounts attest to the fact that Herman beat her rather savagely and rather frequently. Clara was seen on more than one occasion sporting black eyes. The domestic abuse got so bad that in 1883, Clara took her son, Robert, and just upped and left. Although they remained married, Clara had very little to do with Herman from that point forward.

Herman’s fellow med students at the University of Michigan took note of the relish and enthusiasm with which he dissected bodies. One student reports that Mudgett talked animatedly about picking apart cadavers and claimed that Mudgett once again decided to take a dead baby home in order to pick it apart. On another occasion, while in the dissection lab, Mudgett reportedly cut off the foot of a dead child, put it in his pocket, and took it away for unknown purposes.

In 1882, Herman Mudgett teamed up with the anatomy lecturer, Dr. Herdman, to make trips to local cemeteries to find extra bodies for dissections. The grave-robbing, quite common in those days, was done by doctors and medical students who referred to themselves rather grandly as “resurrectionists.” While the University of Michigan was regularly supplied in those days with the bodies of dead homeless people, apparently this was not enough to sate both Mudgett’s and Dr. Herdman’s appetites. Apart from a macabre interest in dead bodies, it is likely that Mudgett joined Herdman on these expeditions for a little extra cash.

Herman was not popular at the University of Michigan. His grades were mediocre to poor. Many former students claimed (after he was charged with murder, of course) that they thought he was shifty and never trusted him. Apparently, Mudgett also exuded such a strong stench of body odor that it earned him the nickname, “Smegma” which is the gunk found under a man’s unwashed foreskin, otherwise colloquially known as “dick cheese.” Mudgett’s med school reputation was thus quite different from the well-behaved little lad back in Gilmanton who was the apple of everybody’s eye. It is quite clear that when Mudgett wasn’t working a con, he would turn off his charm and could be quite the unpleasant, sullen, and taciturn fellow. 

While the male opinion of Mudgett in Ann Arbor was generally low, local female opinion of the budding Dr. Dick Cheese was a little more sympathetic. Mudgett’s manners may have lacked something to be desired, but he was rather strapping and masculine, with a big bushy moustache, which seemed to have an effect on some women. However, at medical school Mudgett did not have a reputation as a lady’s man. Which is why people were all the more surprised to find out that Mudgett had a wife back home.

They were even more surprised when Mudgett suddenly appeared in the middle of a local sex scandal. Or, rather, what passed for a sex scandal in Michigan in the Victorian Era. Mudgett had been paying a lot of attention to a widow named Mrs. Fitch, who was his landlady and also worked as a hair-dresser in town. Evidently, Dr. Smegma’s charms worked on the fair damsel, and the two fell into bed together. Allegedly, as a pick-up line, Mudgett had asked the widow to marry him. Then she discovered a letter Mudgett had written to Clara, who was still his wife. 

Mrs. Fitch had been bedded and dishonoured without anything to show for it. For our younger 21st century audience members, this means that Herman Mudgett, quote, “ran dat ass into da ground and didn’t even put a ring on it.” Few things were more disgraceful for a Victorian lady than getting her undercarriage serviced outside of the institution of marriage, so Mrs. Fitch sued Herman Mudgett for “breach of promise,” to regain some semblance of her honour.  

Mudgett flatly denied that he had ever promised to marry the woman. If her allegations were true, as a punitive measure the University of Michigan would not have allowed him to graduate. They couldn’t in good conscience allow such an immoral, womanizing snake-in-the-grass into the medical field, after all. Such, at any rate, were the morals of the time.

Mudgett’s reputation as a sexually disinterested loner during his time in med school served him well. Most of his colleagues regarded Mrs. Fitch’s allegations as a joke. The grave-robbing professor, Dr. Herdman, defended Mudgett before the faculty. Ultimately, Herman was acquitted. However, at his graduation ceremony in 1884, Mudgett walked up to Dr. Herdman, shook his hand, and promptly told him Mrs. Fitch’s allegations were true. Herdman was shocked and affronted. He later went on to accuse Mudgett of trying to steal several valuables from his house. When Mudgett later wrote Herdman for a recommendation so he could become a medical missionary in Zululand, Herdman refused.

For reasons best known to himself, five months later, Mudgett ran an announcement in the local paper that he had indeed won an appointment to go to Africa. Perhaps just to spite his former mentor. Perhaps just because that is what compulsive liars do. In reality, Mudgett just buggered off back to New Hampshire.

Mudgett’s Vaccine Mandate

Herman Mudgett spent the summer of 1884 in New Hampshire with his parents. In the autumn, he moved to the town of Mooers [moors] Forks, in New York state, where he worked as a doctor and moonlighted as a science teacher at the local school. Holmes told everyone in Mooers Forks that he was unmarried and proposed marriage to at least two women during his time there. One such woman had an ailing father who was Dr. Mudgett’s patient. He died under suspicious circumstances. The body was scarcely cold when Mudgett proposed marriage to the woman, who had just received a sizeable inheritance. Neither marriage proposal went through.

Mudgett also formed a “””friendship””” in heavy quotations with primary school teacher Minnie Everett, and started taking quote-unquote “French lessons” from her in his spare time. After a few months, Everett broke off all association with Herman, claiming that, quote, “There is something lurking in that man’s character that time will reveal. I do not like him. I firmly believe that he would commit murder.” This statement is often quoted in biographies of Dr. Dick Cheese, but I find it a bit too on-the-nose and prophetic. In all likelihood the quote is apocryphal, or at the very least said by Everett in retrospect after his arrest. In all probability, Mudgett’s friendship with Everett broke down for other reasons. Like a sullied romance or a broken engagement, for instance. Mudgett was also in the habit of screwing his patients. The townsfolk of Mooers Forks circulated a rumour that Mudgett was treating two women for quoteunquote “organic trouble” for which he employed some quote-unquote “carnal methods.”

In addition to being a womanizer, Mudgett made himself quite unpopular in the town by being a deadbeat and a fraud. He would constantly buy things on credit and then blow off his debts. His landlord, Mr. Hays, loathed him for neglecting to pay his rent for his luxurious house. It sometimes took weeks to even get a partial payment out of the guy. 

Despite the fact a doctor’s wage was respectable and far above average, Mudgett had embarked on a career of criminal fraud. An outbreak of smallpox broke out in New York State in 1885. Mudgett got his hands on a case of vaccine and went around town, claiming he was appointed by the government, and said the vaccine was not only mandatory but would cost 25 cents per shot. That is roughly 7 dollars per jab in today’s money. While even with inflation this may not sound like much, Mudgett vaccinated pretty much everyone in Mooers Forks, so it netted him about $1000 or nearly $30,000 today. The townsfolk were not impressed to find out that Mudgett had charged them for no reason and from that point forward he was persona non grata.

One day, a man named Mr. Steele arrived in the Mudgett’s doctor’s office. Steele was accompanied by a dying soldier. Steele explained that the man was dying a premature death because of a bullet that had been lodged in his torso years ago and had not been removed. However, the US Army doctors claimed the former soldier was dying of malaria instead. What this meant was if the soldier died of malaria rather than a bullet, the soldier’s family would not get a pension payout. After the soldier died, Mudgett performed an autopsy on the man and discovered that the soldier had indeed died from an old bullet. Mudgett even removed two of the shattered ribs from the corpse as proof. But Mudgett refused to turn the evidence over to Steele unless he was paid a substantial share of the army payout that was due to go to the soldier’s grieving family. Steele told Mudgett to get stuffed and fortunately managed to prove his case to the US Army by other means. Mudgett kept the soldier’s ribs.

By the autumn of 1885, Mudgett owed his landlord over a thousand dollars in rent, or over 30 thousand today, and so he promptly borrowed money to purchase a train ticket to Chicago and left town. Naturally, it goes without saying, the person who had lent Mudgett the money for the ticket was never paid back. Mudgett drifted around Chicago in the winter of 1885, living large and quickly spending his money on women, sharp suits, luxury apartments, and expensive champagne. It was also around this time, Mudgett started wearing his signature high-crown bowler hat. 

When Mudgett was broke, he took a large wagon and headed east again. He got as far as Norristown, Pennsylvania. Running low on cash, Mudgett had to sell off all his possessions, his wagon, and both of his horses in order to buy food. He burst into the local police station saying he was going to kill himself because he was starving. The police took pity on him, gave him a bit of grub, and let him sleep in a prison cell while they found him a job. Due to his medical experience, they found him a job as an orderly in the local insane asylum. By all accounts, Mudgett did a decent job. Except he was no longer calling himself Mudgett. He had told the police and his employers that his name was Herman Howard, and that he was from Texas and his father had been a colonel in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. 

Mr. Howard, aka Mudgett, detested his work in the insane asylum. To be fair, this is not unreasonable. In the late 19th century, madhouses were extremely unpleasant places. They were little more than jails to lock up the mentally unwell, giving them little to no treatment, medication, or palliative care. They were underfunded, unsanitary, and patients were kept in cruel and deprived conditions, yelling, babbling, fighting, and self-harming in an environment that was functionally a fresh pit of Hell. I can imagine this must have been a disturbing life even for a member of staff like Mudgett. Writing in his autobiography, Mudgett said, quote, “So terrible was it that for years afterwards, even now sometimes, I see their faces in my sleep.” He disappeared from the Norristown asylum in early 1886 after working there only two months.

H. H. Holmes’s mugshot (1895)
By though likely a mugshot. – http://murderpedia.org/male.H/h/holmes-photos.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27571258

The Birth of Dr. Holmes

Mudgett arrived in the city of Minneapolis in the spring of 1886, where he began working as a clerk for a local pharmacist, Dr. Hyman. By this time, Mudgett was operating under the pseudonym of Dr. Henry Howard Holmes. And so was born his most notorious alias – H.H. Holmes – the name by which he would be known to history. Although some early accounts say he chose the name from Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had not yet published the first of those stories. Instead, it would appear that Holmes chose the name entirely at random.

While living in Minneapolis, H.H. Holmes met Myrta Belknap, a 24 year old woman who worked as a clerk in a store that sold sheet music. Not long after, Holmes proposed marriage. There is no record of this marriage on the books and it is likely that Holmes confected the ceremony, making it seem more legal than it really was. 

Nevertheless, Holmes made a half-hearted attempt to secure a divorce from his legal wife, Clara. In those days, there was no such thing as a “no-fault divorce”. So when Holmes filed the papers, he claimed that Clara had been sleeping with a man named J.M. Downer while the married couple had lived in Ann Arbor in 1883. When Holmes found out, the divorce papers said, he promptly threw Clara out and took sole custody of their son, Robert. In actual fact, Clara had taken Robert when she walked out on Holmes in 1883 after years of domestic abuse. For 3 years, Clara had been living with Robert back in New Hampshire, making a living as a dressmaker. Holmes was not a part of their lives. In fact, by the time Holmes married Myrta Belknap, he had largely cut off contact with his mother and father as well. After a few years of silence, the Mudgett family had pretty much given him up for dead.

Nothing came of the divorce proceedings, which stalled because no witness could support Holmes’ claim of adultery. And it is highly likely that this man, J.M. Downer, with whom Clara was allegedly sleeping, did not exist. Most absurdly, Clara was never informed of the divorce lawsuit at all. 

In May 1886, Holmes and Myrta moved to Chicago. On July 15th, he passed a three day exam to get a pharmacy license in order to work at a drugstore. He began working at a local pharmacy owned by Dr. Elizabeth Holton, a fellow medical grad from the University of Michigan, that same month. When Holton fell pregnant with her second daughter in early 1887, she sold the drugstore to Holmes. And while the compulsive liar delayed paying for a while, Holton actually managed to get him to cough up without too much difficulty or resorting to a lawsuit. 

At the beginning of 1887, Holmes also purchased a vacant lot across the street. This 63rd street location in the Chicago suburb of Englewood was the future site of his notorious “Murder Castle.”  

Over the course of 1887, Holmes took out loans and sought investors for the building which was to house shops on the first floor, rented apartments on the second floor, and a hotel on the third floor. Holmes chose a good time to get involved in real estate as the population of Englewood exploded from just 2000 people in 1880 to 50,000 people in 1890, due to the suburb’s absorption into the wider city of Chicago. Construction of the Castle began in August 1887. The first and second floors were in operation within months, and Holmes moved into one of the apartments with his second wife Myrta in early 1888. Holmes also set up another drugstore on the first floor, selling the Holton business he had purchased across the street. The hotel on the third floor wouldn’t be finished for another 5 years. 

After construction was underway, Holmes transferred ownership of the property to his wife Myrta, and then to Myrta’s mother, Lucy, so Holmes could avoid having the building repossessed when creditors and investors came after him looking for money. Indeed, Holmes never paid Aetna Iron and Steel a dime for the materials used to construct the building, nor did he pay the architects who designed that damn thing. When Aetna Iron and Steel sued Holmes in 1888, he claimed he was not liable, since he was not the property’s owner – his mother-in-law was. When that didn’t shake off the lawsuit, Holmes claimed that one of the steel beams Aetna provided was too short, thus negating the entire contract. This was just one of dozens of lawsuits levied against Holmes and the building, with numerous pissed off investors, coowners, construction workers, and furniture manufacturers looking for their money. 

The Castle had a large hidden compartment between the first and second floors over top the drugstore, where Holmes’ employees sometimes slept overnight. The castle also had a hidden staircase that could be accessed from a trapdoor in a bathroom on the second floor. There were also numerous hidden compartments scattered all over the building, where Holmes would hide furniture and various other items from repo men who came to take them once Holmes inevitably failed to pay for them. The most famous story of this kind was when repo men came to repossess a large safe that Holmes had bought on credit. When the men arrived, Holmes said, “Go ahead and take the safe, but I warn you not to damage the building.” The problem was that there was no way to remove the safe without tearing down the walls in which it had been embedded, and so the repo men were forced to leave it, and the safe company had to write it off as a bad debt.

Holmes’ most common swindle was to buy goods on credit, sell them for cash, and not pay back the creditors. Holmes also really liked cheating bike sellers. He’d rent a bike or two from a store, sell them, and not return them. Evidently, Holmes also pulled the same thing with stores that sold collectible windup music boxes, which were something of a fad at the time.

From 1886-1894, over sixty lawsuits were opened against H.H. Holmes. Some of them were for the simple act of borrowing 50 dollars and not paying it back. A more extreme lawsuit was levelled against him by a man named Herman Haaf for 10,000 dollars, or $315,000 in today’s money, for Holmes allegedly leading the man up the primrose path with various investments in real estate and agriculture.

In 1887, Holmes began advertising the sale of high quality mineral water that was healthier than tap water and had various healing properties. Holmes claimed he had access to this water via a, quote, “artesian well.” Holmes sold bottles of the stuff, which had a strange bluish colour. In reality, Holmes had merely tapped into the water mains of the Castle, stealing from the water company without paying for it. The water itself was discoloured by a cloud of millions of copper particles floating in it, which had chipped off the building’s cheap plumbing. Far from being healthy mineral water, if you drank too much of it, you’d wind up with a serrated gut and permanent damage to your kidneys and liver.

Holmes also claimed he had invented a “gas generator” that could take a simple tank of water and turn it into natural gas, which could then be used to fuel lamps, machines, furnaces, and buildings. Holmes built a giant iron contraption in the basement of the Castle, and gave public demonstrations where he threw in a variety of chemicals which produced colourful wisps of smoke and strange smells. And, indeed, the generator produced natural gas. So convincing was the display that the local gas company came to investigate and initially offered Holmes $2500 (or $78,000 today) for his invention. In reality, Holmes had secretly connected his generator to the Castle’s own gas pipes in order to produce the final product. Once the gas company’s investigator figured this out, the deal was called off.

In 1890, Holmes set up “The Warner Glass-Bending Company.” He claimed that he had been to a glass factory in New Jersey and had ferreted out their secret patented way of bending glass. Curved glass might not sound like anything special today, but back then it was relatively new. Again, Holmes built an elaborate furnace in the basement of the Castle and gave public demonstrations. No one ever saw him bend glass in person. But one night he staged a scene, wrapping a tiny amount of glass around a metal bar next to the furnace. The next morning he called two drugstore employees downstairs, who saw the glass and were duly conscripted to tell all and sundry about it. Holmes promptly conned dozens of investors for a several thousand dollars without ever producing anything for sale.

In 1891, Holmes bought into the A.B.C. Copier Company, purchasing 50% of the shares for $9000 or $285,000 in today’s money. Or rather he got the shares but never paid any money for them. Holmes had said he would pay the amount in cash once a real estate deal of his went through, but then he showed up with a promissory note saying he’d pay the amount in one year. He never did. The A.B.C. Copier Company used a newly invented technology that mixed gelatin, glycerin, and water together to produce copies of books and drawings. Unusually for one of Holmes’ wheezes, the technology was actually legit. But when Holmes took charge of the company he did not manufacture or sell very many copy machines. Instead, he mostly used the company to defraud investors of their money and sold off the territorial rights to sell the copying machines to other salesmen. A fellow could pay $5000 or $157,000 in today’s money for the exclusive rights to sell the copy machines in a particular US State. However, if you purchased the exclusive rights to sell the machine in, say, Ohio, you could be certain H.H. Holmes sold off these same rights to about half a dozen other men in Ohio at the same time. 

Through these various scams and more legitimate forms of revenue, Holmes was grossing an estimated average of $48,000 a year or $1.5 million annually today. While sitting in a jail cell in 1895, Holmes himself claimed that he was pulling in $300,000 or $9.5 million dollars a year. But I think we can take that latter figure with a massive f*cking grain of salt. 

Death Comes to Englewood

On July 4th 1889, Myrta gave birth to a daughter, Lucy Theodate Holmes. The girl’s first name was taken from Holmes’ mother-in-law, and her middle name from his own mother – but back in New Hampshire Theodate Mudgett had no idea whether her son was still alive, didn’t know he was married, and the old woman didn’t know she had a granddaughter for another 6 years. She only discovered that bit of news around the same time she found out her son was a murderer.

On April 18th 1891, John De Breuil [brew-ill] stepped off the train at the station right outside the Castle on 63rd street. De Breuil was an investor in the Castle and part-owner of the building, who, like many other investors, was in a protracted legal dispute with Holmes over thousands of dollars in revenues and investment returns that De Breuil was owed. Suddenly, right in view of the drugstore, De Breuil collapsed on the sidewalk and began having what was likely an epileptic fit. Holmes dashed out of the drugstore, ostensibly to assist the convulsing man. An eyewitness states that upon reaching De Breuil, Holmes poured a vial of dark liquid down his throat. 

Moments later, the man was dead. 

The next two deaths at the Castle were, to put it lightly, troubling. Back in September 1889, shortly after the birth of Holmes’ daughter, a man named Ned Conner, a jeweler from out of state, his 30 year old wife Julia, and their 4 year old daughter Pearl, moved into an apartment in the Castle. Ned began working the jewelry counter at the drugstore. Julia and Ned fought bitterly and constantly, at one point with Julia threatening to take poison and kill herself. Meanwhile, Holmes got Julia a job working as a cashier in the drugstore, and began having an affair with her almost immediately. In January, 1890, Holmes convinced Ned to buy his drugstore, having cooked the books and inflated the store’s revenues to look more profitable than they really were. Holmes also persuaded Ned to take out a bunch of loans, and hand the money to him, which the conman promised to swiftly repay. He never did. 

In the meantime, Ned and Julia filed for divorce. In March 1890, Ned informed Holmes that he was divorcing his wife and leaving Chicago, and that he’d like to sell the drugstore back to Holmes since it wasn’t very profitable. Holmes agreed to buy it back at a cutthroat price. Julia stayed on in Chicago, working at the drugstore, and continuing to sleep with Holmes. He even convinced Julia to pay him $1942 or $61,000 in today’s money in order for her to become part-owner in the drugstore, which the now divorced drugstore cashier agreed to pay in installments. Naturally, the story of becoming part-owner was a lie and Julia was never legally made any such thing on paper. 

Julia and Holmes kept up their affair throughout 1890 and 1891, with Holmes feigning a paternal interest in Julia’s 5 year old daughter, Pearl, whom Holmes allowed to play out in the streets of Chicago until well after dark. In 1891, Holmes sold the drugstore again, this time to a fellow named A.L. Jones. Before the sale went through, Holmes sold most of the store’s remaining stock to himself, hid it upstairs in the Castle, before selling it off privately behind Jones’ back. Holmes retained ownership of the Castle. Or, rather, his mother-in-law did.

As an aside, in early 1891 H.H. Holmes was also trying to have sex with Ned Conner’s 20-year-old sister, Girtrude Conner, who had moved to Chicago from Iowa. But Gertie wasn’t having any of it and rebuffed him. In April 1891, Gertie moved back to Iowa to look after her dying mother. In July, it was actually Gertie herself who wound up dying a premature death from heart disease. According to multiple accounts, Holmes thought this was hilarious. 

In September of 1891, Holmes sued Julia for the remainder of the money she owed him for a false share of the drugstore business. Holmes assured Julia that the lawsuit was merely of a formality. But Julia wasn’t pleased and became increasingly distressed. She started to express her doubts about Holmes to various friends and acquaintances. On Christmas Eve 1891, Julia helped some neighbours set up a Christmas tree in their apartment. She arranged to meet with them the next day and never showed up. Another resident in the building, a Mrs. Crowe, said she thought she’d seen Julia heading out on Christmas morning. That was the last time anyone reported seeing Julia or Pearl Conner alive.

Julia and Pearl were expected in Davenport, Iowa, on December 31st to attend the wedding of Julia’s sister. They never turned up. Julia’s apartment remained empty for five months. In May 1892, Holmes rented out the place to the Doyle family. When Holmes was showing Mrs. Doyle the place, the woman noted that the dining room table still had dirty plates on it. She also noticed the night-clothing of a woman and a small girl on the floor. The bed sheets were in disarray and had not been made. Mrs. Doyle also saw a doll known to be Pearl’s. Holmes quickly kicked the doll under the bed. On top of the dresser, Mrs. Doyle saw a bunch of women’s cosmetics. The drawers were still full of clothes.  

At this point, a slightly uneasy Mrs. Doyle inquired after the previous tenant. Holmes told her Julia had left suddenly to stay with a dying sister in Davenport, Iowa. Mrs. Doyle immediately thought to herself that, “No woman would leave for a trip, however suddenly, without taking at least a few of the toiletries which I saw on the dresser.”

Throughout 1892, Holmes continued to talk about Julia and Pearl as if they were still alive, and even feigned attempts to locate them once it was clear they were missing. In October 1892, Holmes wrote Julia’s mother asking her whereabouts. Her mother wrote back saying she did not even know Julia was missing and now she was extremely worried and upset. 

Ned Conner, the ex-husband, didn’t really care about Julia’s disappearance or ask after his daughter Pearl, since he merely assumed a vindictive Julia was trying to keep him from seeing the little girl. 

Holmes admitted in confidence to his lawyer that he had killed Julia Conner while he was performing an illegal abortion on her. He did not go into detail about why he also killed Julia’s daughter, Pearl. Either the abortion story is true, and Holmes then murdered Pearl because she could incriminate him, or else Holmes murdered both Julia and Pearl simultaneously because his relationship with Julia had gone sour or she threatened to expose his crimes. According to Holmes’ later M.O., he likely poisoned the mother and daughter, stripped them naked, dismembered and burned their bodies, before disposing of the remains. This accords with Julia and Pearl’s bed clothing being seen on the floor of their apartment and the rest of their clothes being in the drawers. This also accords with the fact that, years later, when police were digging up the basement of the Castle, they found the charred bones of a girl – the limbs, head, and torso broken into segments – estimated to be between the ages of 6 and 10. 

Pearl Conner would have been 6 at the time of her death.  

In May 1892, five months after the disappearance of Julia and Pearl Conner, a young blonde woman by the name of Emeline Cigrand [sih-grand] began working for Dr. H.H. Holmes, Chicago’s foremost entrepreneur and real estate developer, at his office in the Castle. Not long afterward, Emeline began having an affair with Holmes. She did not live at the Castle, but rented a series of flats down the street, never staying in one place for too long, at Holmes’ instruction. One of Emeline’s landladies commented that she was often absent in the evenings, staying out till quite late. Emeline replied that a gentleman friend of hers, named “Mr. Belknap” would take her out in his carriage. Belknap was the maiden name of Holmes’ wife, Myrta, who at this point was living in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette with her daughter Lucy – and also Holmes when he wasn’t working or sleeping at the Castle.  

According to witnesses, Emeline Cigrand was infatuated with “Mr. Belknap”, would talk about him endlessly, and speak of how he was always buying her flowers and little presents, or taking her to the theatre, or going with her on scenic bike rides. Holmes, in turn, told some people that Emeline was his cousin. He and Emeline spent most days in each other’s company, eating all their meals together in Holmes’ office, which they had sent up from a restaurant on the first floor of the Castle. 

In October of 1892, Emeline’s actual cousin, a dentist named B.J. Cigrand, came to visit her. Emeline told the dentist of her impending marriage to one, “Mr. Phelps.” Another pseudonym used by H.H. Holmes. Emeline said they had begun taking music lessons together. Emeline’s story about being on the verge of marrying someone seems genuine. In a tale as old as time, would appear that Holmes had told her he intended to divorce Myrta and settle down with her instead. Soon after, however, it appears Emeline began to have a change of heart. It must have become clear at some point that Holmes had no intention of divorcing his wife. Also people started to warn her about Holmes being a womanizer and a trickster. Emeline, for her part, seemed to take heed, and regularly went out of her way asking people what they thought of Holmes. Meanwhile, she was rumoured to be pregnant with Holmes’ child.

On December 6th 1892, Emeline told a friend she was going to spend Christmas with her family in Lafayette, Indiana. Her friend chided her not to leave Chicago permanently, because, quote, “Dr. Holmes could never get along without you.” After a moment’s reflection, Emeline said quietly, but with conviction, “He could if he had to.” This was the last time anyone saw her.

On December 7th 1892, H.H. Holmes printed some wedding announcement cards which proclaimed Emeline Cigrand had married a “Robert Phelps”. He sent them to Emeline’s friends and family, including the girl’s parents. Nobody had any idea who this Phelps fellow really was. When some of them asked Holmes, he replied, “Oh, he is a fellow Miss Cigrand met somewhere. I don’t know anything about him except that he is a travelling man.” On December 8th 1892, Holmes printed a wedding announcement in a Lafayette newspaper, again announcing Emeline’s marriage to this “Robert Phelps.” In one passage of the announcement, Emeline’s move to Chicago is described as, “where she met her fate.” This was meant to be a reference to Emeline meeting her husband. But one suspects Holmes took some sick pleasure at the phrase’s double meaning. Emeline indeed had come to Chicago and “met her fate.”

When Emeline’s panic-stricken father wrote H.H. Holmes looking for his daughter, Holmes told him that Emeline and Phelps had decided to move to England. A few months later, Emeline’s mother received a trunk full of her daughter’s clothing, with a type-written note saying that Phelps had enough money to buy her new clothes, and she was jetting off to start a new life in Europe. When Emeline’s mother opened the trunk, she saw that her daughter’s clothing had just been tossed carelessly inside.  

There is no record of any Robert Phelps of this description ever existing. Or record of a Phelps migrating from Chicago to England with Emeline, or to any other European country for that matter. Emeline Cigrand’s body was never found. It was likely dismembered, cremated, and scattered like all the others.

The Devil in the White City

As 1893 approached, Chicago’s citizens started to get excited about the World’s Fair: six months of exhibitions and entertainments held between May and October of that year. H.H. Holmes was no exception. He rapidly developed the third floor of the Castle into a hotel to capture the bump in tourism. However, it seems Holmes had no real intention of having guests stay there. He just used the addition of a hotel to guzzle more money from unwitting investors. Holmes bought furniture for the hotel rooms on credit, and sold it without repaying. He used the cheapest materials and construction methods. One siteinspector actually punctured a hole in the floor just by walking on it. Holmes sent him a bill for $75.

Ultimately the plan was to make thousands in insurance payouts by burning the whole f*cking thing down. Using different pseudonyms, Holmes took out insurance policies with three separate companies in October and November of 1892. The payout ran to $100,000 or 3.5 million dollars today. The design of the third floor hotel was strange. Some closets had two doors, allowing someone from the adjoining room to sneak into the closet and burst into the room. The walls had hidden sliding panels. The doors to some rooms were covered with wallpaper so that stolen goods could be concealed in them. 

In January 1893, H.H. Holmes hired Minnie Williams as a secretary and stenographer. Minnie was 28 years old and had been orphaned along with her siblings in childhood. As the eldest of her siblings, in 1870 Minnie inherited a large ranch from her uncle valued at $10,000 or $342,000 in today’s money in Fort Worth, Texas. Minnie was described as a brilliant conversationalist, a good musician, and graceful, elegant, but not beautiful. She was also described as standoffish around boys, and, to use the phrase of the time, “a man-hater”, which was sometimes used by the Victorians as code for “lesbian.” Minnie left Texas, studying to become an expert in elocution at the Boston Conservatory from 1886 to 1890. Elocution is the study of formal pronunciation and grammar, something important for society ladies at the time. During her stay in the North, Minnie made the acquaintance of H.H. Holmes, and allegedly even had her photograph taken with him. 

In 1891, Minnie mortgaged her Forth Worth property for $6000 and used the money to start a theatrical company. It quickly went bankrupt. Minnie then spent a couple of years travelling the US as an actress. Rumour has it that Minnie fancied herself the Vaudeville version of Meryl Streep, but in reality wasn’t very good. In January 1893, she gave upon on her acting dream and began to work for Holmes in Chicago. It was at this time that Minnie began to have an affair with H.H. Holmes. This may sound strange since Minnie was a rumoured lesbian, but it was the 19th century and marriage to a wealthy doctor turned real estate mogul offered Minnie an escape from the humdrum life as a penniless secretary. Holmes, of course, was still married to Myrta at the time, along with (lest we forget) Clara Mudgett back in New Hampshire.

In the spring of 1893, Minnie wrote her sister, Nannie, that she had become engaged to a Dr. Harry Gordon. Minnie knew Holmes’ real name but used an alias when discussing him in order to prevent a scandal from breaking out. Minnie evidently expected Holmes to divorce Myrta and throw in his lot with her instead. In March 1893, Minnie sold a portion of her ranch in Fort Worth for $2528 ($86,000 today) and passed the money to Holmes, who also took out a huge loan in Minne’s name. Minnie later signed over the deed to her property to Holmes for $1. He used the alias Alexander Bond. On June 7th, Holmes and Minnie moved into an apartment on Wrightwood Avenue, in Lincoln Park, registered as Mr. and Mrs. Gordon. There was no record of a wedding. Around the same time, Minnie’s sister, Nannie, came to stay with them and enjoy the World’s Fair.  

In a letter to their Aunt Lucy in Mississippi, dated July 4th 1893, Nannie Williams said she was enjoying herself in Chicago and that she liked “Dr. Gordon” very much. She told her aunt that tomorrow they would be going to Milwaukee, then to Maine by way of the St. Lawrence River. Then they would go to New York, where Nannie would look into studying art. Then they planned to sail to Germany by way of London and

Paris. 

Nannie Williams added, “If I like [it there] I will stay and study art; if not, I will return to New York in time to make you a visit before beginning my work [studying there]. Brother Harry says you need never trouble any more about me, financially or otherwise. He and sister will see to me. I hope our hard days are over.” There is some implication that Holmes actually forged this letter, but it is also possible that he convinced Nannie into thinking the roadtrip plans were legitimate. 

The last time anyone saw Minnie and Nannie Williams alive was July 5th 1893. The method of the murder is unknown, but given Holmes’ M.O. the sisters were likely poisoned, dismembered, cremated, and scattered. Their remains were never found.  

Joseph Oker, landlord of the Wrightwood apartment, saw the two sisters walking down Seminary Avenue in the morning. Holmes murdered the both of them that night. On July 6th, several property transactions were made in Minnie’s name. The same day, Holmes took out another loan in Minnie’s name for $6250 ($214,000 today). On July 7th, Joseph Oker found that the Wrightwood apartment had been vacated, showing signs of a hasty exist. A steamer trunk full of Nannie Williams’ clothing was abandoned at a Chicago shipping depot and it was not claimed for more than a year, until the police came sniffing round.  

After the murder, Holmes moved Myrta, his daughter Lucy, and his mother-in-law into the house he had built in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette. This house was actually registered in the name of Minnie Williams. Myrta had no idea she was living in a house owned by her husband’s slain former mistress.  

A month after the double-murder, Holmes met his next target at the World’s Fair, Ms. Georgiana Yoke.  

By Unknown author – [1]/alt source: http://wuapomen.blogspot.com/Published in Geyer, Frank P. The Holmes-Pitezel Case: A History of the Greatest Crime of the Century and of the Search for the Missing Pitezel Children. Philadelphia, 1896., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36506836

The Infernal Castle

As the Chicago World’s Fair carried on from May 1st to October 30th, the hotel at the Castle continued to not do business. The hotel was not listed in travel literature. The rooms were constructed so shoddily that they were barely habitable. There was no front desk, no lobby, no nightly rate. Then on August 13th 1893, a fire broke out in the Castle hotel. The day before, Holmes had cleared out all the furniture, books, papers, and valuables from the third floor. He also removed the door knobs and locks, a $75 porcelain tub, and all the marble sink basins. Holmes didn’t even bother to try and make the fire look accidental. He merely claimed that a firebug must have snuck in and deliberately set fire to the building.

As successful as Holmes had been as a conman, defrauding three insurance companies all at once proved to be a bridge too far. All three companies came down on Holmes like a ton of bricks, and placed him under harsh scrutiny and 24-hour investigation. They threatened to arrest him for fraud. Holmes went into hiding, moving quietly between rented apartments and several hotels. He wore fake beards and elaborate disguises. As far as we know, Holmes did not collect a cent of insurance money.

In autumn of 1893, Holmes was living in an apartment with a man named Ben Pitezel, his five children, and a woman who identified herself as “Minnie Williams” but who was in fact Pitezel’s wife, Carrie. The purpose of this ruse was to convince people that Minnie was still alive, since her name was on several important business documents related to the fraud investigation. Hell, sometimes Julia Conner was still being sued by Holmes’ creditors despite the fact she had been dead for 2 years.

In January 1894, the Chicago police laid a trap for Holmes. One of the three insurance companies sent a telegram to the fake address of one of Holmes’ aliases, saying that the insurance payout was approved and ready for pickup. Holmes showed up the next day and was confronted by the police. Holmes immediately confessed that he had been using an alias when he took out the insurance policy on the hotel. But Holmes knew that in order to be prosecuted for arson, charges needed to be laid within one year of the event, so Holmes was determined to play for time and skipped town. 

H.H. Holmes immediately fled for Denver, where he planned to sue a Colorado mining company for the wrongful death of Minnie Williams’ brother, Baldwin. Naturally, Holmes pretended that Minnie was still alive and that he represented her interests. Holmes used the alias “Mr. Howard”, a nod to the famous outlaw Jesse James who had also used that alias. While in Denver he got married for the fourth time.

Georgiana Yoke was 25 years old, tall, blonde, and considered ridiculously beautiful, except that she had somewhat over-sized, dinner-plate blue eyes that some witnesses, journalists, and dime-novel men went as far as to describe as “deformities.” She was reputedly very charismatic and could win over pretty much anyone she met. A total “Stacy.” According to acquaintances, Georgiana also had a reputation for sleeping around. She had previously taught at a primary school in Indiana, and had famously saved the kids from a fire before rushing back into the school to save the class dictionary. Then Georgiana abruptly left teaching and went to Chicago in 1893, where she worked at a department store, then a cloak room, then another store, before running into Holmes at the World’s Fair.

The conman told Georgiana his name was H.H. Holmes, but that he had inherited a property from an uncle in Fort Worth, Texas, on the strange condition he change his name to “Henry Mansfield Howard.” Georgiana bought this bullsh*t explanation. 

Holmes also told Georgiana not to turn up at the Castle, since he was being stalked by Myrta, whom he said was his “ex-lover” rather than his wife. And given Holmes’ marriage to Myrta was almost certainly a sham one, he was kinda telling the truth…

As for their relationship, it would appear that Georgiana idolised Holmes and followed him round like a puppy dog. Holmes seems to have been genuinely smitten with Georgiana as well. Or at least as far as a psychopath who discards women like tissue paper is capable of forming an attachment to anyone. They were married in Denver on January 17th 1894, with the witness being Carrie Pitezel, signing her name under the alias, “Minnie Williams.”  

After ripping off the Colorado mining company for a settlement of $10,000 ($342,000 today) Holmes, Georgiana, and Carrie headed to Fort Worth, Texas. There they met up with Benjamin Pitezel, who did not know he was living on borrowed time.

Benjamin Pitezel
By Unknown author – http://www.prairieghosts.com/holmes.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36510061

A Chloroform Cocktail

Benjamin Pitezel was, for all intents and purposes, Holmes’ creature. A sh*tty, low-rent, alcoholic Dr. Watson. A two-bit conman and incompetent criminal. He was also, to his eternal credit, not a psychopath. And he loved his family. At the time of his death, Pitezel was 38 years old. He married his wife, Carrie, in 1878 and they had 5 kids together: Jeanette, always called Dessie, was 15 at the time of his death, Alice was 14, Nellie was 12, Howard was 8, and the last boy, Wharton, was only a baby. Benjamin Pitezel has been described as awkward, scrawny, with a peach fuzz moustache. He was an alcoholic. He had multiple run-ins with the law. He first came to Chicago in 1888 when he was fleeing a warrant for his arrest in Galveston, Illinois. In 1890, Pitezel invented a new kind of coal bin, and rented out office-space in the same building as Holmes’ fraudulent Warner Glass-Bending Company. It was there they met. Pitezel began doing odd-jobs for Holmes and quickly became his bag-man. Pitezel’s name first appears on paperwork for the A.B.C. Copier Company in 1893.

Holmes almost certainly had Pitezel’s help in torching the Castle in August of 1893. After the fire, Pitezel left without telling his wife for Terre Haute, Indiana, to hide out. He was arrested there in October carrying 6 to 7 thousand dollars in forged bank notes (around $225,000 today). In November, Holmes paid Pitezel’s bail and he was released, skipping his trial. In December, Pitezel headed to Texas in advance of Holmes to sort out the Fort Worth property that belonged to the murdered Minnie Williams. Naturally, Holmes was plotting another scam. He planned to build another Castle on Minnie’s land.

Holmes, Georgiana, and Carrie Pitezel arrived in Texas in late January 1894. A resident of Fort Worth describes Georgiana Yoke quite favourably, but describes Holmes as an asshole and a cad. Quote, “Except for a habitual scowl, his face was not unattractive. That scowl, however, ruined him for me. It was a sneer at all the world.”  

Holmes and Pitezel bought materials for the Fort Worth Castle on credit, of course. And never paid, of course. They initially paid construction workers for their services, but after a couple of weeks, they stopped and most of the workers quit. Thereafter, Holmes did each new construction job by hiring a different contractor each time, and then never paying them. The Fort Worth Castle used the same architectural plans as the Chicago one, because Holmes saw no reason to hire another architect to make something different. The building was the same, right down to the weird trapdoors and secret compartments. But this Castle was never used to house any businesses, tenants, or hotel guests.

Meanwhile, Holmes took out tens of thousands of dollars in mortgages and loans on the building, pocketing the cash. The amount ran to at least $50,000 or 1.7 million dollars today. He may also have intended to burn the building down like in Chicago, or perhaps Holmes may have learned his lesson. We shall never know. 

While in Texas, Holmes developed the habit of buying horses on credit and then selling them for cash, not repaying the original owners. And one thing you do not want to do while in Texas is to f*ck with Texas ranchers. In April 1894, Holmes, operating under the alias O.C. Pratt, was indicted by the state legal system for horse theft. Meanwhile, friends of Minnie Williams who knew the Castle property was hers, and that she had been missing for nearly a year, began to talk to police. In May 1894, Holmes abandoned the Fort Worth Castle and skipped town. 

He took Georgie to Denver, and then to St. Louis [hard s], Missouri. In June 1894, Henry Mansfield Howard (aka H.H. Holmes) bought a drugstore that had fallen on hard times from A.P. Gest, for just $850, in exchange for Holmes taking on the store’s debt. A.P. Gest was paid in promissory notes and stock shares in a fraudulent company that did not really exist. Holmes convinced the drugstore’s estate lawyer, Doran, to not file the debt papers so that he could buy some initial goods on good credit. Holmes then began to sell off the goods on the down-low without repaying his creditors.

Benjamin Pitezel and his family arrived in St. Louis in July. It was at that point Holmes told Carrie Pitezel about his next plan. They were going to con the Fidelity Mutual Insurance company out of $10,000 ($342,000 in today’s money) by faking Benjamin Pitezel’s death. Holmes would use his medical experience to locate another corpse and make it look like Benjamin had died in an accident. Carrie later claimed that she was not in favour of the plan, and wanted Benjamin to “go straight”, but who knows if she was just saying this to avoid prosecution later on.

Meanwhile, the world was closing in on H.H. Holmes. In July 1894, Deputy Sheriff Rea of Forth Worth went to Chicago to figure out what the f*ck was going on. Who was this Pratt fella? While in Chicago, Sheriff Rea discovered the identical Castle and uncovered Pratt’s alias, H.H. Holmes. He also found out that nobody there had seen Minnie Williams in over a year. Rea also found out that Holmes was wanted for arson in Chicago, but that the statute of limitations was running out next month.

Back in St. Louis, Missouri, Holmes took out 2 separate mortgages on the drugstore, telling neither of the loan companies of the other loan, and pocketing the cash. When an inspector showed up at the drugstore, he found the place closed down in the middle of the day. The inspector got suspicious, informed the drugstore’s estate lawyer, who contacted the police. Holmes was arrested in St. Louis in possession of $400 (or $13,000) worth of unpaid goods he’d effectively stolen from the store. Holmes was tossed in prison for the first time in July 1894. Holmes made bail and tried to flee. He was arrested at the train station. Holmes was thrown back behind bars.

While in prison, Holmes met legendary Wild West train-robber Marion Hedgepeth, who was arrested by the Pinkertons in 1891 for train robbery, and was sentenced to a 21-year stretch. Holmes proposed to Hedgepeth that he’d cut him in for $500 from the life insurance scam he was cooking up, if Hedgepeth could put him in touch with a crooked lawyer. Hedgepeth suggested Mr. Jeptha Howe. After 3 weeks, Georgiana managed to convince St. Louis authorities to release Holmes pending trial for $800 ($27,000 in today’s money) which Georgiana paid by giving a separate loan agent fake land deeds in exchange for cash. Holmes was bailed out of prison on July 31st.

Holmes made a run for it, first travelling to New York City, and then on to Philidelphia. He instructed Benjamin Pitzel to meet him there. Pitzel left his wife and children behind in St. Louis. Ben Pitzel arrived in Philly on August 17th 1894. Over the next two weeks, he wrote Carrie several letters, saying that he wanted to “go straight” and settle down somewhere.  

Holmes meanwhile insistently pushed ahead with the plan to scam Fidelity Mutual by faking Benjamin Pitzel’s death. The $10,000 pay-out would be split between Holmes, Carrie Pitzel (as beneficiary), and the crooked lawyer, Jeptha Howe, who would smooth over the process of confirming the body was Benjamin Pitezel’s.

Benjamin rented an apartment at 1316 Callowhill Street in Philidelphia. He used the alias “B.F. Perry” and posed as a merchant who bought and sold patents for new inventions. Pitezel did not expect to have any customers. Nevertheless, a man named Eugene Smith, a carpenter and amateur inventor, came by on August 22nd to sell Pitezel a patent for a hand-saw he had invented. Pitzel seems to have been legitimately interested and may even have seen a future for himself in the patent trade. Smith paid Pitzel several visits over the next two weeks.

On one visit, Smith saw a man he later identified as H.H. Holmes. 

It is unclear when Holmes decided to murder Benjamin Pitezel rather than finding a fake body. Holmes had been studiously paying the life insurance premiums on Pitzel since late 1893, so why not make his death a legitimate one? It would spare Holmes having to share the money with Benjamin. Perhaps he’d also kill the rest of the Pitezel family if Carrie wouldn’t keep quiet…

On September 1st, Holmes left Georgiana at their rented apartment in Philidelphia. Holmes met up with Pitezel, who told Holmes that the scam had to be delayed as his infant son, Wharton, was sick and he was returning to St. Louis. This story was bullsh*t. In reality, Pitezel had gotten cold feet and planned to do a runner. It would seem that Pitezel really intended to go straight. That afternoon, Pitezel went to the tobacconists and bought a couple cigars for the journey, and went to a saloon, where he got some small change to use on the train journey.

On September 2nd, Holmes instructed Georgiana to start packing their bags and that they’d be leaving Philidelphia that afternoon. Holmes left her at 10:30am, and went over to 1316 Callowhill Street. There he bid Pitezel a good morning and tempted the alcoholic with splitting a bottle of whisky as a means of saying “farewell.” As Pitezel got progressively drunker, Holmes spiked his whisky with chloroform, which Pitezel drank and passed out. Holmes then continued to pour chloroform down Pitezel’s throat (in the same fashion he may have done to disgruntled investor John De Brueil way back in 1891) until Pitzel overdosed and died. Holmes then broke a bottle of benzene (an industrial solvent used in explosives, degreasing metal, and, in 1894, in after-shave) and laid a tobacco pipe and burned match next to Pitzel’s body. The idea was to make it look like Pitezel had lit up too close to a bottle of explosive material. Holmes then proceeded to light Pitzel’s body on fire. Holmes then left to catch an afternoon train with Georgiana to Indianapolis.

Benjamin Pitezel was dead and Holmes was now planning to murder the rest of the Pitezel family. The phrase “no honour among thieves” doesn’t seem to cut it here.

April 12, 1896, newspaper, the New York Journal, showing at top the exterior and interior of Holmes’s “Castle”; the bottom picture is the trunk he used to murder the Pitezel sisters
By The Journal (New York), April 12, 1896 – https://www.loc.gov/resource/sn84031792/1896-04-12/ed-1/?sp=2, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=73576187

Frenzy

On September 4th, Eugene Smith dropped by Pitezel’s office again to discuss his nifty hand-saw invention. Smith rather liked the man he knew as “Perry” and enjoyed talking to him. The door was unlocked and the smell of charred flesh hit Eugene the moment he walked inside. Moments later, he discovered B.F. Perry’s body lying on the floor.  

Smith ran to a nearby drugstore and came back with Dr. William Scott, who immediately suspected foul play. Dr. Scott had expected to find a man burned to death in an explosion. What he found was a corpse that had been burned post-mortem, his tongue swollen, and with chloroform leaking out of his mouth. Even more would come squirting out when Scott applied pressure to Pitezel’s stomach. Smith also noticed that the broken benzine bottle had most of the glass shards inside of it, not scattered about the room if it had exploded. 

Nevertheless, the coroner’s inquest came back with the verdict of accidental death, just as Holmes had planned.

From Indianapolis, Holmes headed back to St. Louis to meet with Carrie Pitezel, having murdered her husband three days prior. Holmes told Carrie that the plan went off without a hitch and Benjamin was in hiding. Holmes then threatened Carrie that if she didn’t do exactly as he said, Benjamin would probably get arrested, and so would she. Carrie Pitezel felt she didn’t have a choice but to obey his commands. Holmes told Carrie to send her 14 year old daughter, Alice, to Philidelphia to help identify Pitezel’s body. The bent lawyer, Jeptha Howe, began drafting the paperwork to claim the insurance money. He told Fidelity Mutual that B.F. Perry was an alias for Benjamin Pitezel.

On September 22nd, a young Alice Pitezel and Jeptha Howe went to a cemetery in Philidelphia to identify Benjamin’s corpse. They were joined by H.H. Holmes who volunteered to also help identify the body in his capacity as Pitezel’s friend and business partner. Holmes insisted to the coroner that the corpse was Pitezel. It was ambiguous. His skin was now rotting and could be scraped away from the body. Alice was duly brought in, and she burst into tears. She identified her father’s body by recognising her father’s teeth. Holmes later told her this was a trick he had learned in medical school.

A check for $10,000 was promptly made out payable to Carrie Pitezel, and Holmes rushed back to St. Louis with it, sending Alice on to Indianapolis where the teenager was told to wait in a hotel for Holmes. In St. Louis, Jeptha Howe took $2500 of the money. Holmes took $7000 of it, saying that Ben Pitezel owed him $4500 for the Fort Worth Castle. Carrie accepted this story and was left with a measly $500. Having gotten the lion’s share of the money for the actual death of Benjamin Pitezel (ruled accidental by the insurer), there was, at this point, no strong reason for Holmes to murder the rest of the Pitezel family. But in order to eliminate potential witnesses that could connect him to Pitezel’s murder, Holmes decided to slay the entire family anyway. 

On September 27th, Holmes demanded that Carrie Pitezel surrender 12 year old Nellie and 8 year old Howard, claiming that he’d take them to be with Benjamin. In a sick way, he was telling the truth. Holmes took the children to Indianapolis, collected Alice, and took the 3 siblings to Cincinatti. Holmes was joined there by Georgiana Yoke, his sham fourth wife, whom he installed at a separate hotel, and whom he kept entirely in the dark about the existence of the three Pitezel children. 

Meanwhile, Holmes realised that the law was looking for him: horse theft in Texas, fraud in Missouri, multiple frauds in Illinois, and even Fidelity Insurance in Philidelphia began to suspect, wrongly, that the body wasn’t Benjamin Pitezel’s and that Holmes had participated in some sort of con-job. The Pinkerton Detective agency was thus enlisted to track Holmes down. 

Holmes wrote to Carrie in St. Louis instructing her to bring her 15 year old daughter Dessie and infant child Wharton to Indianapolis. Holmes and Georgiana proceeded there as well, with Alice, Nellie, and Howard travelling alone on a separate train. In Indianapolis, Holmes installed Carrie, Dessie, and Wharton in one hotel, Georgiana in another, and Alice and Nellie in yet another. They were all oblivious to the fact they were in the same city. 

Holmes also separated 8 year old Howard from his sisters, took him to a rental house in Indianapolis, murdered him, dismembered him, cremated him, and scattered his remains. He told Alice and Nellie he had enrolled Howard in school. The night of October 10th Holmes went to Chicago for a meeting with an unknown person, perhaps just to develop an alibi he never used. On October 12th, Holmes arrived back in Indianapolis and took everyone, in separate parties, to Detroit, where they remained until the 18th.

Holmes then caught wind that the Pinkertons were hot on his trail, so he pulled everybody out and crossed the border into Canada, arriving in Toronto on October 19th. Holmes then murdered Alice and Nellie Pitezel by poisoning them on October 25th and burying their bodies in the cellar of a rental house on St. Vincent Street. That same day, Holmes instructed Carrie, Dessie, and Wharton to go to Ogdensburg, New York State, where he claimed Carrie would meet up with her husband.

On October 26th, Holmes took Georgiana to Prescott, Canada, for one night, then went to Burlington, Vermont, where he had been a medical student all those years ago. He wrote Carrie and demanded she come to Burlington as well, claiming that Benjamin Pitezel was drunk and hiding from the Pinkertons in Montreal and couldn’t make it to Ogdensburg, but he would join them in Burlington soon.   

In Vermont, Holmes attempted to lure 15 year old Dessie to a second location in order to murder her. This plan failed when she refused to go with him. While staying at a rental house in Burlington, Carrie told Holmes she was fed up with waiting, and was going to Canada to fetch her husband and three other children. Holmes abruptly got up and said he was going to get a gas-lamp from the basement. Several minutes later, Carrie went downstairs to find him, and discovered Holmes digging a hole in the basement and boarding up the windows. She refused his invitation to share a meal, and after Holmes left, she checked that all the doors and windows were firmly locked. 

A few days later, Holmes delivered a supply of nitroglycerine to Carrie’s rental house and set up a tripwire, rigging it to blow in the basement. The next day, he wrote Carrie instructing her to carry the nitro upstairs, in a probable attempt to kill her, but she refused to move it, thinking of the safety of the neighbours by moving an explosive substance. It did not really occur to her at the time that Holmes was trying to kill her and make it look like an accident.

Nemesis

On November 5th, Holmes made the astonishing decision to take Georgiana to New Hampshire. He first went to the town of Tilton where his quote-unquote “first wife”, Clara Mudgett, was living. There Holmes laid eyes on Clara for the first time in a decade, and explained that he had been in a train accident, which put him in a coma, and given him amnesia. 

It was only now that he had regained his memory. Meanwhile, he had married Georgiana Yoke, the wealthy young patroness of the hospital who had nursed him back to health. Quite incredibly, Clara Mudgett swallowed this story hook line and sinker, and embraced Holmes, thrilled to have him home. His now 15 year old son, Robert, was similarly excited to be reunited with his father.

From there, Holmes went to Gilmanton, New Hampshire, to see his mother and father, Levi and Theodate Mudgett. They were also overjoyed to see the filthy murderer. He repeated the story about the train wreck, his amnesia, and introduced them to his new wife Georgiana. Holmes then spent the next two days in Gilmanton, going on a sort of nostalgia trip, visiting his childhood haunts. But it was in Gilmanton that Holmes was spotted by a Pinkerton detective and secretly followed.

The Pinkertons were under strict instructions not to engage or arrest H.H. Holmes, while Fidelity Mutual Insurance built their legal case against him for fraud, now having suspected incorrectly that Benjamin Pitezel was alive and well. On November 13th, the Pinkertons followed Holmes and Georgiana to Boston. Initially, Fidelity Mutual wanted an arrest warrant issued for Holmes on the basis that the coroner in Philidelphia was now claiming that Pitezel’s body was a fake. The Boston police considered this allegation weak and scrubbed it. Instead they telegramed Fort Worth and asked what Holmes was wanted for there. Sheriff Rea replied in a telegram of just 4 words, “Larceny of one horse.” That was good enough for the Boston police.

On November the 17th H.H. Holmes was arrested while strolling the streets of Boston for being a horse thief. While in custody, he was questioned about Fidelity Insurance, and he immediately confessed to faking the death of Benjamin Pitezel, whom he claimed was now hiding in South America with Alice, Nellie, and Howard. Obviously, Holmes preferred to go down for fraud rather than multiple murders. This story was corroborated by the train-robber Marion Hedgepeth, still in a St. Louis prison, who had come clean when he realised he wasn’t going to get his $500 commission for hooking up Holmes with the crooked lawyer, Jeptha Howe. Holmes was extradited to Philidelphia to face fraud charges.

Holmes told police they could find Carrie, Dessie, and Wharton hiding out in Burlington. She too was arrested on charges of insurance fraud. Upon interrogation, Carrie said she was beginning to think her husband was dead, and that she was worried about the fate of her three missing children. Meanwhile, the lawyer Jeptha Howe was arrested in St. Louis for his role in the fraud scheme. He argued, craftily, that he didn’t commit a fraud at all. He warned police that the body identified in Philidelphia was actually Pitezel’s. Turns out he was right.

Throughout the majority of December 1894, Holmes sat in a prison cell, thinking he’d get away with murder and only get a 2 year sentence for insurance fraud. Then on December 27th, confronted by the allegations of Carrie Pitezel, Holmes changed his story. He said that Benjamin Pitezel had killed himself and left instructions to Holmes to torch the body so his family could still collect on the insurance. Suicides were not eligible, but accidents were. 

But if Pitezel was dead, where were his three missing children? At this point, Philidelphia police began to be extremely worried that Alice, Nellie, and Howard were dead. Detective Frank Geyer was duly dispatched and he spent the next 8 months re-tracing Holmes’ footsteps across the northern United States and Canada. 

On July 25th 1895, Geyer made the gruesome discovery of the bodies of the two girls in Toronto. This set off a firestorm in the media. A crowd of 5000 people gathered in front of the Castle in Chicago to watch police excavate the basement. Newspapers began speculating that H.H. Holmes had killed a bunch of different people over the years, dredging up names like Julia and Pearl Conner, Emeline Cigrand, and Minnie Williams. They also speculated that Holmes had killed a great many more people, including some of his own aliases they mistook for actual people like “Robert Phelps” and “Harry Gordon.”  

Meanwhile, after a grieving Carrie Pitezel identified the scarcely recognisable decomposing bodies of Alice and Nellie, a small funeral was held for them. Their graves were never marked.

On July 29th 1895, Holmes released a statement through his lawyer, “Some bones may be found in Timbuctoo or the Sandwich Islands that may be brought as incriminating evidence against me. I am ready to stand trial anywhere in the wide world as far as the charge of murder is concerned.” On August 19th, the Castle in Chicago was firebombed by unknown perpetrators. They were unlikely to be connected with Holmes trying to cover up evidence. Instead the perpetrators were likely a few people enraged at Holmes’ murder of two girls, and perhaps countless others. On August 27th, Frank Geyer located the remains of 8 year old Howard Pitezel in the flue of a stove in Indianapolis. His teeth and bone fragments did not even get a grave. 

In October 1895, the autobiography Holmes’ Own Story was published. It admits to many swindles but does not admit to murder. Holmes published it for money, still delusionally thinking that he’d only get 2 years for insurance fraud.  He also blackmailed a number of people for money in order to keep their names out of it. 

At trial in November 1895, Holmes was found guilty of the murder of Benjamin Pitezel. When the verdict was read, Holmes just stared blankly ahead. On November 30th he was sentenced to death. As such, he was never tried for any of the other murders. He quite likely killed 9 people, possibly 11, in his career. After receiving the death sentence, Holmes made plans to appeal to the Supreme Court. He ate a big dinner in his cell, cool as a cucumber, and opened the evening newspaper. 

During his incarceration, he was subjected to a physical and mental examination. He was recorded as aged 36, five foot seven, 150 pounds, excessively hairy on his body, and with a penis and testicles noted by the doctors as “unusually small.” His psychological exam unsurprisingly diagnosed Holmes as incapable of remorse, accepting no responsibility for his actions. In short, he was a psychopath.  

Liar, Thief, Filthy Murderer

Moyamensing Prison. The execution of H. H. Holmes, scene while he was making his final address. Sketched in the Prison by Newmar, Times artist. From Holmes’ Own Story (1895) by Mudgett, Herman W. https://archive.org/details/HolmesOwnStory1895
By Herman W. Mudgett – Holmes’ Own Story (1895) https://archive.org/details/HolmesOwnStory1895, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81651926

The Supreme Court rejected Holmes’ appeal and the execution date was set for May 7th 1896. Holmes said he expected as much and was prepared to die. In early 1896, Holmes received an offer of thousands of dollars to confess to his murders. Although money was scarcely any use to him now, Holmes compulsively accepted and admitted to murdering 27 people, many of whom were still alive and well. In his confession, he said, theatrically, “I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to song.”

After publishing his confession, Holmes began pretending to be insane, perhaps hoping at the last moment to cheat the executioner and get locked up in an asylum instead. When that didn’t work, he became a devout Catholic and spent time reading the Bible and chatting with priests. 

The day before his execution, Holmes made a public statement denying he ever killed anyone, except Julia Conner and Emeline Cigrand while performing illegal abortions on them.

Holmes woke up on the day of his execution saying he had enjoyed a wonderful night’s rest. He ate a meal of dry toast, eggs, and coffee at 8am. Thereafter he was escorted to the scaffold. Speaking to the crowd, Holmes again asserted he only killed two women by accident during abortion procedures. He then turned to his defense lawyer, Samuel Rotan, and said, “Goodbye, Sam. You did all you could.”

When the black hood went over Holmes’ head, he said to the executioner, “Take your time. You know that I am in no hurry.” The trapdoor was released, and Holmes dropped down 5 feet. His neck did not snap. He slowly and agonisingly asphyxiated to death. His body contorted for several minutes, spinning around, his legs doing the “Dead Man’s Jig.” Holmes’ fists opened and closed rapidly. Two people in the crowd fainted.  

Then Holmes’ body relaxed. 15 minutes after the botched hanging, he was declared dead. In the end, it turns out Holmes was right. He wasn’t in a hurry.

Dismembered Appendices

  1. H.H. Holmes may have claimed in his obviously fallacious confession to have murdered 27 people, but the hysteria surrounding his trial and the excavation of his Chicago Castle made people speculate he was a butcher the like of which was never before seen in American history. Popular culture in the past 130 years has elevated Holmes’ kill count to over 200. Most notable is the myth that the hotel Holmes used during the World’s Fair in 1893 was a death trap designed to capture, torture, and murder unsuspecting guests. Hotels are naturally creepy places, so it makes for a good story. Alas, it is nothing more than that.
  2. H.H. Holmes is one of 99 gazillion people theorised to be Jack the Ripper because Holmes lived contemporaneously with the Ripper killings. There is, however, no firm evidence that Holmes ever travelled to London during the time that the killings took place. Moreover, the brutal nature of the Ripper killings is completely foreign to Holmes’ cold and fastidious M.O.  
  3. Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio were attached as executive producers alongside Paramount TV for a movie on H.H. Holmes. The plan then changed to make the story into a TV miniseries. At time of writing, production has not yet commenced.
  4. What is perhaps most intriguing about Holmes’ case is how he was a psychopath whose primary compulsion was fraud, theft, and deception, not murder. He may have gotten off in his pantaloons to lying and stealing sh*t but it is unlikely that he derived any emotional or sexual pleasure from killing his victims like other famous serial killers. It is, however, proof that a psychopath engaged in compulsive deception has no qualms committing murder if they feel that their goals are threatened. As such, in the wrong circumstances a supposedly “non-violent” psychopath is just as much a danger to society as more classic killers. A harrowing thought when you consider an estimated 1-5% of the population suffers from some degree of psychopathy. That is 1 in 100 people you meet in daily life. Or even 1 in 20. Sleep tight, ladies and gents.

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