Who was America’s first serial killer? Part II

Last week I started to introduce you to H. H. Holmes, aka Herman Webster Mudgett, aka any number of other pseudonyms. We ended with Holmes in prison in Philadelphia, awaiting trial for the murder of his friend, Benjamin Pitezel. At that point three of Pitezel’s children had been discovered dead, too, and Holmes had to do some quick thinking.

He’d already given two different spoken confessions. Let’s sum them up:

newspaperFirst confession in Boston, right after being taken into custody: at this point nobody was all that concerned about the children, so Holmes said that they were with their father, Benjamin. Who was totally alive. In South America somewhere, but totally alive. He had first stolen and then mutilated a corpse to be buried in Pitezel’s place.

Second confession, once the newspapers warned him that people were looking at disinterring Benjamin Pitezel, aka B. F. Perry, for a second time: the danger here was that Holmes was being held for insurance fraud. If he confessed that the man was indeed Benjamin Pitezel, then there was no insurance fraud. Aha! thinks Holmes. He confesses that he discovered his friend dead of suicide and merely staged the body to look like an accident, thereby ensuring that his widow and children would have the money. And, uh, those children? The missing ones? They’re with Holmes’ old friend, Minnie Williams, who also happens to be a school teacher, so you know they’re being taken care of. At this point Holmes even managed to get a “secret message” into some foreign newspapers, calling Miss Williams to come out of hiding and bring the children, alive and well.

This is where Holmes’ story sat last week when the newest headlines declared that Alice, Nellie, and Howard’s bodies had been found.

own storyThis is also where Holmes switched from spoken explanation to written. Holmes’ Own Story, published before his autumn trial for Benjamin Pitezel’s murder, is a multi-part book that starts with Holmes’s autobiography. It continues into the second part which is meant to be his prison diary. Then, once the diary structure falls apart, he finally gets around to his explanation of how Alice, Nellie, and Howard could be dead … but it wasn’t his fault.

It turns out, according to Holmes’ Own Story, that the strange journey around the Midwest and into Canada involved two other people Holmes hadn’t previously mentioned. One was Miss Minnie Williams, who had some history with Holmes, and the other was Mr. Edward Hatch, Miss William’s new love interest. Hatch looked very much like Holmes and had even styled his hair to look the same, Holmes stressed, and the last time he saw any of the children, they were going into the care of Miss Williams.

Hatch is, of course, the man various witnesses claimed to have seen with the Pitezel children near the time of their deaths. Holmes himself was nothing but loving and caring toward them, and he didn’t harm them a bit. He simply made the poor choice of selecting Miss Williams as their caretaker and entrusting them to a near-stranger simply because Miss Williams had chosen him.

So here we have a completely innocent Holmes. He is guilty of insurance fraud, yes, fine, because he came upon his friend after Pitezel had committed suicide and proceeded to stage the scene, but he can’t be hanged for that. And even Mrs. Pitezel will tell the court how much Holmes has done for her family since. It pains him, truly, that the children are dead, but none of it was his fault. Holmes could go to trial confident that he would not be convicted of murder.

In October 1895, Holmes was found guilty of the murder of Benjamin Pitezel and sentenced to hang.

And yet … we’re still not done with him.

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