H. H. Holmes and the 27 body problem

There are many considerations that come along with being a serial killer, some of them more practical than others. One of these is “What do you do with the bodies?” In order to be labeled a serial killer in the first place, there have to be multiple victims. Serial killers therefore have to figure out what to do with the bodies so that they don’t get caught. But what are your options if you’re a nineteenth century physician living in Chicago?

One answer is, of course, H. H. Holmes’ “Murder Castle” … and that might offer up some actual solutions in the midst of all of the myth. There were at least some human remains discovered in the basement, but hardly enough to credit Holmes’ claim of 27 total victims, even if the final 4 were killed elsewhere. At times Holmes has also been suspected of buying a “glass-bending furnace” in order to cremate his victims, especially when authors like to multiply that number by a factor of 10. If Holmes used his “castle” as a hotel during the Columbian Exposition, then there are at least 250 bodies that have to be accounted for.

The bodies of his final victims – Benjamin, Alice, Nellie, and Howard Pitezel – were all found. So if Holmes didn’t bury or cremate the others, what happened to them?

  • sunk in a lake – in Holmes’ Own Story, after Holmes says Minnie Williams killed her sister, Nannie, he helped Minnie get Nannie’s body into a trunk and then rowed out into Lake Michigan and threw the trunk over.
  • sold – Holmes had, after all, been a medical student and would have known that medical schools had difficulty finding cadavers for practice. He claimed to have sold some of the bodies to “a party … whose name I withhold” and who paid him between $25 and $45 per body. (Even in his “confession,” Holmes refuses to reveal the names of anyone who supposedly helped him with the 27 murders. This mysterious party is likely still out there, buying corpses for either medical dissection or insurance scams, as Holmes wrote those words.)
  • used for insurance – Holmes claims he killed his first victim because he knew the man was insured for a large sum. He doesn’t explain how he got his hands on any of that money, especially since he gets confused in referencing his own previous stories, but presumably this man’s body had to be identified and returned to his loved ones.
  • left to be discovered – Holmes claims he killed one man after taking him out on a fishing trip. Holmes learned the man had money and presumably killed him in order to rob him. How he explained the absence of his fishing partner at the end of the day isn’t clarified.
  • self-defense – Holmes also says he shot at least one of his victims in self defense. In this case the body was quickly discovered and taken care of.

Even in his written confession to 27 murders, Holmes doesn’t always mention what, exactly, became of the bodies after he killed them. But remember, Holmes was writing in 1896. No one was watching CSI or reading true crime books. When he makes a casual mention of storing a body for months, nobody questions what state it would be in by the time he would have wanted to stage his insurance scam.

Holmes makes one nod to the realities of hiding a dead body when he admits that he selected the Pennsylvania office for Benjamin Pitezel because of its proximity to the city morgue. People in the area would be used to the smell of decomposition, so he hoped that Pitezel’s body would not be discovered until he was unidentifiable. But this raises a question: if he knew that a single dead body could alert the neighbors, how in the world was he supposed to kill over a dozen in one location without being discovered?

Holmes’ confession, lengthy as it is, still leaves numerous questions surrounding his supposed victims, and his reliability already falters because he named victims who were in fact still alive. There is no doubt that Holmes was a murderer, but not of 27 people.

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