H. H. Holmes’ victims: Mr. Warner

This one takes a little bit of explanation. Readers of Holmes’ confession, published in April 1896, had already likely followed the progression of his case. The strange circumstances of his arrest in November 1894 and the huge amount of publicity leading up to his murder trial – including the publication of his memoirs – meant that anyone picking up the Philadelphia Inquirer wouldn’t be coming to the case cold.

Part of what had been followed in the media after Holmes’ arrest and prior to his trial was the excavation of his “Murder Castle.” This was a building Holmes had had constructed by hiring and firing workers at such speed that he didn’t have to pay them. Popular legend says he also did this so nobody knew the entire layout of the Castle, leading to secret passages and the like, but Adam Selzer found sources where clerks in the first-floor shops admitted to sleeping in the secret passages, so … they weren’t exactly so secret.

But there were discoveries in the Castle’s basement – and some real ones to go along with the horrific headlines that ended up being retracted later, in fine print, buried somewhere deep inside the newspapers. Yes, there were human remains found (but not nearly as many as the legend suggests). And there was also a strange kiln.

It was, as reported, a glass-bending kiln, and therefore built for a specific purpose. Holmes is meant to have used it as a sort of personal crematorium to aid in the disposal of his victims, at times claimed to be over 250 in number. (That’s a Devil in the White City claim. Adam Selzer’s H. H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil blows it out of the water.) However, there was some sort of brick oven found in the Castle’s basement, and it did seem to be about the right size to fit a human body.

In his April 1896 confession, Holmes writes that it was in fact a glass-bending kiln, although it wasn’t his. It belonged instead to Mr. Warner, no first name given, “the originator of the Warner Glass Bending Company.” Holmes doesn’t explain how or why the kiln had been built in his own basement, although it was apparently meant for Mr. Warner to exhibit his patents. (As far as I know, nobody’s found any records of anyone going into the Castle basement in order to view any such thing.)

Also according to Holmes, the kiln was much bigger than initially published. It was, in fact, much like the room-sized, airtight (but not quite soundproof) safe he’d had installed in one of the Castle’s other rooms. On the day of Warner’s death, both men had gone inside the kiln, ostensibly so Warner could show Holmes something about its workings. Holmes left, shut the door, and turned on both the oil and steam that, Holmes writes, made the kiln “so intensely hot iron would be melted therein.” (For the curious, that’s approximately 2,800°F, around the temperature at which glass melts. Maybe he figured more people would be familiar with molten iron over molten glass. Standard cremation furnaces reach around 1,800°F so, if all claims were true, then yes, the kiln could have been used for body disposal.)

Holmes admits to having used the kiln this way just once, for Warner himself. Many of his other victims, as he wrote earlier, were sold for profit.

There’s another interesting point here that once again shows Holmes’ issues with keeping his own timelines straight: he writes that there had been a coat discovered outside the kiln during this excavation, and claims the coat belonged to Warner. So apparently this random coat had been in the basement for years, without being noticed, stolen, or moved – in spite of the fact that the kiln had been meant for exhibitions and that its inventor had gone missing.

Once again in keeping with Holmes’ usual motivations, he killed Warner in order to get at his money. Apparently Warner had written Holmes two checks, written apparently freely, but Holmes doctored them by adding the necessary zeroes and the word “thousand” so that, according to the man himself, he very nearly cleaned out two of Warner’s bank accounts. It seems that Holmes feels more regret about not quite getting all of the money than murdering 27 people.

It’s a good sort of scary story, making full use of what the newspapers had already published about the Castle and the discoveries underneath it, but Warner had something in common with Miss Kate Durkee: he was still alive at the time of the written confession. There might have been some sort of kiln discovered in the Castle’s basement, one that quickly found its way into Holmes Lore, but Warner wasn’t killed in it.

At this point, can we believe anything published in this confession? Why do you think Holmes told so many lies?

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