H. H. Holmes’ victims: Mrs. Sarah Cook, her unborn child, and Miss Mary Haracamp

We’re used to serial killers doing what Holmes usually writes about: killing one person at a time and gradually building up his victim count. After all, it’s hard enough to get rid of a single body without coming under suspicion. But even the smartest serial killer has to adapt to the given situation.

Holmes writes that a Mr. Frank Cook moved into “the Castle” in 1888. When he married Sarah, Holmes himself was present at the wedding. He apparently even lived with the couple in his own Castle for a while. There were many threads connecting him to them, which of course means danger even for the most intrepid serial killer.

Miss Mary Haracamp, a niece of Mrs. Cook, also came to Chicago in order to work for Holmes as a stenographer. (He seemed to have a bad habit of killing the young ladies who came to Chicago to work as his stenographer.) In this case, though, it wasn’t because he was having an affair with her (or her aunt). It was because Mrs. Cook and Miss Haracamp somehow got their hands on a master key and happened to walk in on Holmes while he was “busily engaged preparing my last victim for shipment.”

Like Bluebeard, Holmes cannot let the women live once they’ve unlocked the wrong door. Unlike some of his previous murders, though, the solution isn’t a single blow to the head. No: Holmes managed to get the women into his large vault and then forced them to write a letter to Mr. Cook telling him that they were sick of life with him and were going away. Never coming back. Don’t follow. Etc.

And then he killed them, presumably by keeping them sealed in the now-infamous airtight vault. Holmes does admit that he only got the letter out of them by saying he’d let them live if they did actually leave Chicago, never to return, but of course he lied. Presumably he got the letter from them and gave it to Mr. Cook, although he would have had to open the vault to do that, risking their escape. Leaving it inside with them while they died would have meant they could have torn it up and left him with nothing.

Holmes doesn’t discuss how Mr. Cook took either the women’s sudden absence or their letter, but he does end this short segment with a very interesting sentence: “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.”

Well now. Holmes really likes this long sentences, and he’s packed a lot into this one.

He’s got a bit of a Dexter thing going on when he rates these murders as “particularly sad.” Apparently killing rascals doesn’t tug at the heartstrings (although none of the previously described murders have been of particularly bad people). Is he trying to appeal to the masses by telling readers what he thinks they want to hear? Showing some sort of remorse to prove he’s not entirely a monster? Simply tossing in some flowery language to pad his word count?

Then there’s the fact that he counts Mrs. Cook’s unborn child as one of his 27 supposed victims. It’s long been theorized that the murder of Julia Conner might actually have been an accidental death during an illegal operation – that is, an abortion. Granted, admitting that he’d had an affair with one of his tenant’s wives would not have been a good look for Holmes, who’d married three women under three different names without ever divorcing any of them, but it’s still an intriguing question. Holmes counts Mrs. Cook’s unborn child among his victims, boosting the number, but makes no mention of Mrs. Conner’s possible unborn child, which he could have used to push the count to 28.

Is Holmes still somehow trying to protect his honor in the middle of a confession to 27 murders? Prior to his trial he certainly clung to the idea that he had only one wife and he’d never been disloyal, to keep Georgiana Yoke from testifying against him during the Pitezel murder trial, but this confession came after the death sentence had already been handed down. It was meant to be Holmes finally telling the truth about everything and owning up to being the worst criminal monster the world had ever known … although apparently even criminal monsters don’t want the world to discover exactly how morally monstrous they are.

If Mrs. Cook had been a real person, it seems that Mr. Cook – and anyone else who knew her – would have known she was pregnant and could then have pointed this out after Holmes’ confession was published. If he’d omitted it, the world would know. However … Holmes made up a number of murder victims from whole cloth, and confessed to murdering people who then made it known they were still alive, so clearly he wasn’t above lying or padding his confession. So … why, then?

What do you think this account of murder tells us about H. H. Holmes?

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