A.K.A.: "Dr. H. H. Holmes"
collect insurance money - Torture
Number of victims: 27 +
Date of murders: 1886 - 1894
Date of birth:
Victims profile: Men, women and children
Method of murder:
Location: Indiana/Pennsylvania/Illinois, USA - Canada
Status: Executed by hanging
Philadelphia, on May 7,
Contemporary accounts of Holmes from The New York Times
Nov. 19, 1894
Nov. 20, 1894
Nov. 22, 1894
Nov. 22, 1894
Nov. 26, 1894
Nov. 27, 1894
Nov. 29, 1894
Jul. 16, 1895
Jul. 21, 1895
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Jul. 26, 1895
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May 8, 1896
May 9, 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
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
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
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
Borowski, John (2005). Dimas Estrada (editor)
The Strange Case of Dr. H. H. Holmes.
See also the list of many references on the
Geary, Rick (2004).
Beast of Chicago: The Murderous Career of H. H. Holmes.
Nantier, Beall & Minoustchine.
Larson, Erik (2003).
Devil in the White City.
New York: Vintage Books.
Schecter, Harold (1994).
New York: Pocket Books.
Michod, Alec (2004).
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,
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".
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
outside, H.H. Holmes
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.
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.
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.
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?"
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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:
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:
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
Imperial Hotel, Eleventh, above Market Street, Hendricks and Scott,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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 “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
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
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
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".
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
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
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....
M RACE: W TYPE: N MOTIVE: CE/Sex./ Sad.
VICTIMS: 27 confessed
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
Hanged in Ill., May 7,1896
- Anónimo: Sold to Satan, Holmes.
A Poor Wifes Sad Story, not a mere rehash, but something new never
before published. A Living Victim (1896).
- Anónimo: The Trial of Herman W.
- Charles Boswell y Lewis Thompson: The
Girls in Nightmare House (1955).
- Roger L. Corbitt: The Holmes
- R. Delorme: Le
Cháteau des supplices du Docteur Holmes.
- Allan W. Eckert: The Scarlet
- David Franke: The Torture Doctor.
The Only True Account of the Greatest Criminal the Police Ever Handled (1975).
- Frank P. Geyer: The Holmes -
Pitezel Case (1895)
- H. H. Holmes: Holmes'Own Story (1895).
- Holmes, the Arch Fiend, or.- a
Carnival of Crime (1895).
- John Bartlow Martin: 1894. The
Case of H. H. Holmes, en Chicago Murders (1945).
H. H. Holmes: Dr Death, America's First Serial Killer
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.
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.
a doctor, Mrs. Holton tried to fill the prescriptions she knew well
enough, otherwise, she would run upstairs and ask her husband for
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."
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
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.
Mudgett - aka H.H. Holmes (Illinois State Historical Library)
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.
Holton's husband died, Holmes saw the opportunity to approach the
old woman. "You need to rest...retire from this business", said
the store...there is so much to do...I can't abandon it." Always
tidy, Mrs. Holton busied herself dusting the shelves.
can buy the business and pay you every month.... You would have an
income for life without all the work and worry", Holmes said.
never leave the rooms, I feel Mr. Holton is still in them...no, Mr.
Holmes I can't sell."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
Julia, who began unbuttoning her jacket, "about what?" She walked to
the closet and hung her jacket.
dear, sweet, beautiful wife", he spit out as he put down his pipe,
and walked to the bed, "being bedded by my employer!"
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
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."
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."
went on for hours and resulted in Ned packing and sleeping on the
floor of the barbershop downstairs.
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.
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.
Medical Skeleton Business
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.
would you like to pick up some extra money?" asked Holmes.
stood in front of his desk and smiled. "Of course, Mr. Holmes."
like to use your special skills...to articulate a skeleton."
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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."
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
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.
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.
back to work, occasionally listening to Emeline's screams, which
according to Holmes, "continued for hours."
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.
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
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
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.
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.
anything I can", said Holmes, smiling and patting him on his back.
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.
something else, sir besides my missus coming today...the girl knows
and threatened to tell my wife."
what must be done, Pat?" Pat hung his head and said, "Yes."
unable to look Holmes in the eye cleared his throat. "One more
problem...the girl told her sister."
one for each of us to take care of...doesn't it, Pat?"
looked up. "I can't possibly..." Holmes' icy stare made Quinlan's
words dissolve in fear. "I mean whatever ya say, Mr. Holmes."
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
on to Philadelphia, opened a phony patent office, rented the room in
the back, and waited for the plan to unfold.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
hiding out...you must play along...this is what Ben wants...he is
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
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.
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
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.
lifted the covering on Ben's face, "Yes, that is Ben Pitezel, who
has worked for me."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
bodies of the children were found -- Howard buried beneath a house;
Nellie and Alice suffocated in a trunk -- public opinion called for
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.
May 7, 1896 at 10:25am, H.H. Holmes was hanged.
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.
Allan W. The Scarlet Mansion. Little, Brown and Company. 1985.
and Wilfred Gregg, The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers. Berkley
The New York
The New York
Robert, Bloodletters and Badmen. M. Evans & Co. 1995.
Harold, Depraved: The Shocking True Story of America's First Serial
Killer. Pocket Books, 1994.
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
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.