It’s time to finally address the one murder for which Holmes was tried and hung: that of Benjamin Pitezel. It’s confusing and complicated because of the number of versions of the tale that Holmes ended up telling. On the day of his execution, he even claimed that he had nothing to do with Pitezel’s death, and that the real killer was still out there. Let’s see if we can keep things straight.
When Holmes was in jail in July 1894, he had a conversation with a fellow inmate, Marion Hedgepeth, about a plan to defraud a life insurance company for $10,000. Hedgepeth put Holmes in contact with a lawyer named Jeptha Howe who could help him in this venture. Both Hedgepeth and Howe were supposed to profit from Holmes’ scheme.
Benjamin Pitezel moved to Philadelphia – conveniently where the life insurance offices were located, for a quick payout – and opened a patent office under the name B. F. Perry. He even made a last-minute payment on his plan shortly before a body was discovered above B. F. Perry’s patent office. The life insurance company payed Mrs. Pitezel, since they could hardly withhold money from a widow and her five children, but … was the dead man actually Benjamin Pitezel?
At this point, it very nearly turns into a choose your own adventure tale.
The dead man, whose features were distorted by an apparent explosion, was not in fact Benjamin Pitezel. Pitezel, working with Holmes, disfigured and staged a corpse in order to fake his own death. He was in on the plan completely, and it went off exactly as Holmes had described it to Hedgepeth. Mrs. Pitezel collected the live insurance, and Benjamin had to make himself scarce. He couldn’t turn up after he’d been declared dead, after all.
In this version, the three middle Pitezel children – Alice, Nellie, and Howard – were with their father someplace abroad. We’ll get into the children more in future posts, but remember that weird cross-country trip? Holmes had Mrs. Pitezel with both her eldest and youngest; the three middle children; and his wife, moving from city to city, always in separate groups. Georgiana Yoke, who thought she was Mrs. Georgiana Howard – one of Holmes’ pseudonyms – had no idea about either group of Pitezels, and Carrie Pitezel had no idea where her children were. She also believed Benjamin was dead.
If the body in Philadelphia was a plant, then Holmes’ first explanation could hold true: that Benjamin and his children had accidentally crossed paths during this strange journey, and therefore the children were with their father. They couldn’t be trusted to keep such a big secret, so they’d left the country with him. Everything’s fine, and all Pitezels are totally still alive.
Which doesn’t explain why the disinterred body happened to have Pitezel’s wart or why Holmes – or Carrie Pitezel – can’t get in touch with either Benjamin or the three children.
Rewind back to Philadelphia, where Pitezel is living as Perry, away from his wife and children, and has become increasingly depressed. Holmes knows about the life insurance policy, and how it has been paid up at the last minute. Still, he arrives at the patent office to make a horrific discovery: Pitezel has taken his own life. Worried that the insurance won’t be paid if it’s deemed a suicide, Holmes stages his friend’s accidental death.
This solves two disinterment issues: first, how the body could be dug up and determined to be Pitezel; and second, it prevented a second disinterment meant to answer just this question. (Holmes was allowed to get newspapers in prison, so he could keep up with what was going on concerning his own case.) It also allows Holmes to admit to insurance fraud, but keeps him from being a murderer. Except … the three middle Pitezel children are still missing. If their father isn’t alive to care for them …
Remember Minnie Williams? This is where Holmes takes her story and twists it for his own devices. The children are with Miss Williams, once again abroad. Holmes left them in her competent care, handing them off to her and her new fiancé, Edward Hatch, who looks very much like Holmes (and could therefore have been mistaken for him if seen on the street). When Holmes read in the headlines that the children’s bodies were found, he placed all the blame on Miss Williams and his lookalike, Hatch.
Even before Detective Frank Geyer found the children, this story broke down. Holmes argued that Minnie Williams was hiding because she had murdered her own sister – in a jealous rage over Holmes himself, no less – but that he could place a coded message in the paper and have her resurface, with all three children happy and healthy. Holmes could not produce any proof that Minnie Williams or the children were alive, or that Hatch existed.
And then his trial happened, and he was convicted of murdering Benjamin Pitezel, so we have …
Holmes had always intended to kill Benjamin Pitezel, from the first day they met. He’d just been biding his time and waiting for the right opportunity. The previous tale of Pitezel’s depression is apparently the truth, but Holmes himself manufactured it, first isolating Pitezel from his family and then writing letters supposedly from Carrie to feed into his depression and increase his reliance on alcohol.
Holmes protests that, because he was a doctor, he was able to kill Pitezel quickly and, because Pitezel had been drunk at the time, he felt nothing. (Kind of a weird flex with the medical degree, don’t you think?) Unfortunately, Pitezel was found much more quickly than Holmes had anticipated, but he’d already gathered his things and left Philadelphia. He had to be there for Carrie Pitezel long enough to get the money from her, although he forgot to pay off Hedgepeth, who read the story in the paper, considered for a moment, and informed authorities what Holmes had told him months previously.
In his confession, Holmes also admits something he’d been accused of in the papers: taking malicious pleasure in mutilating Pitezel’s body during the disinterment, using his own knife – which he had on hand – to remove the identifying wart from the back of his dead friend’s neck. In front of Alice Pitezel, no less, who had been sent to properly identify her father. But we haven’t even gotten to Alice’s story yet. This is still their father’s story.
And the winner is …
In spite of his gallows retraction, Holmes is believed to have murdered Benjamin Pitezel. He first lured his longtime companion to Philadelphia, even choosing the location of his shop as being close to a mortuary so the smell of a rotting body would be dismissed, if not unnoticed. Holmes did all this with the full intention of murdering Pitezel and taking as much of the insurance money as he could get his hands on. He fooled Pitezel into thinking it would be a scam, and then did not have to lie either to Carrie or in his identification of Pitezel’s body.
And this is, after all, the only murder for which Holmes was put on trial. In spite of his various confessions, he was hanged solely for the murder of Benjamin Pitezel.
But he wasn’t done, and his most confusing actions were still to come.