Family patriarch Benjamin wasn’t the only Pitezel family member H. H. Holmes murdered. The story of Benjamin’s murder is confusing because of all the various explanations Holmes offered afterward at different points between his arrest and his date with the gallows. The story of the three murdered Pitezel children is confusing simply because it seems inexplicable.
The time shortly after Benjamin’s death was confusing in and of itself. Pitezel had been living in Philadelphia under the name Perry, but the large life insurance policy was for Pitezel. In order to see that money, new widow Carrie Pitezel had to prove that the man who had been buried was indeed her husband. Because she wasn’t in the best of health at the time, and she needed her eldest daughter to help her look after the baby, Carrie sent fourteen-year-old Alice to make the identification.
Imagine that for a moment: sending a fourteen-year-old girl to look at the body of a man who had been for a while, and who may or may not have been her father. The man discovered in the patent office had been burned around the face, just to make matters worse. Think about how ill Carrie must have been, and how desperately the family needed the insurance money.
Young Alice made the identification in the cemetery alongside Holmes, who had traveled separately. This was where Holmes used a knife from his own pocket to remove the identifiable growth on the back of Pitezel’s neck – a move that apparently even the men charged with the disinterment couldn’t bring themselves to do. And then young Alice was placed in Holmes’ care, joined shortly by her next two younger siblings. Nellie and Howard.
When Holmes and Carrie Pitezel were eventually tracked down and both arrested in Boston on November 17, 1894, the authorities couldn’t believe that Carrie had no idea where those three children were. Holmes had convinced Carrie to send the other two along while she visited her parents, so she wouldn’t be overburdened, and then kept moving Carrie and her two children from city to city around the Midwest states and even into Canada. Holmes kept promising that they would meet up with Benjamin after the next train ride, at the next hotel, but each and every time it seemed that the authorities were hot on his tail. If Pitezel were found alive, then they would all be in trouble for the insurance scam, and that money was gone – most of it given to Holmes.
During the weeks between the identification of Benjamin Pitezel’s body and the Pinkerton National Detective Agency finally catching up with Holmes, he kept up these strange travels by negotiating three separate groups of people from city to city. Holmes needed to keep Carrie and her two children separate from Alice, Nellie, and Howard so that they wouldn’t cross paths and start sharing information that would prove he was a liar. On top of them, he also took along his wife, Georgiana Yoke, who believed herself to legally be Mrs. Howard. Holmes already had two wives – a Mrs. Holmes and a Mrs. Mudgett, his first and therefore only legal marriage – but Miss Yoke was not aware of this at the time. Nor was she aware of any of the Pitezels.
It was only in April 1896 that Holmes finally addressed these strange activities, albeit to a limited degree. Although his newspaper confession admits to 27 murders, the first 23 were really only a lead-up to the discussion of the Pitezels. Here, Holmes finally confesses that his 25th victim was young Howard Pitezel.
All three Pitezel children had been delivered to the Circle House in Indianapolis on October 1.This seemed to be Holmes’ usual MO: meeting the children’s train, finding them a place to stay, and giving the proprietor some sort of story about orphans before leaving the children largely alone. He had other trains to meet, and other people to install in other hotels. On top of this, he had to intimidate the various Pitezels to make sure they stayed indoors and didn’t accidentally meet up with each other.
Holmes’ description of what happened in Indiana also lays the foundation for his usual actions in a new city. After taking some time away to deal with lawyers and the insurance money, he returned to Indiana and started looking for a house to rent. He found a suitable place in Irvington and paid the rent on October 6. This meant multiple interactions with locals: paying the rent, picking up the keys from a former occupant, and dealing with a repairman. Then, on the 7th, he interacted with yet another local, stopping by the Irvington drug store not once, but twice, to pick up lethal drugs. Even though he was a physician, Holmes apparently believed he hadn’t picked up the proper dosage on his first trip.
It perhaps makes sense that Holmes would want a house for the planned murder, since it would lessen the chance of being overheard, but hiring someone to make repairs to the house and then getting furniture for it don’t seem to make much sense. He might have wanted a stove delivered with some idea of using it to help get rid of remains, but all his other activities just left him open to being seen by more people, neighbors included. Then, once Holmes left, it would simply drive up their curiosity: why had this man paid so much money and taken so many steps with a house he barely lived in?
It seems that Howard, the youngest of the three Pitezels in that group, was too much for Holmes to handle. He of course missed his parents, and had been continually left alone with his sisters in strange places before being moved along to the next room. Holmes apparently decided to murder Howard first because the boy annoyed him. He brought Howard to the rented house, poisoned him, cut up his body, and “proceeded to burn it with as little feeling as ‘tho it had been an inanimate object.” What Holmes could not burn, he buried in the basement. Then he went back to pick up the girls and begin moving them all to the next city.
There are so many unanswered questions about Holmes’ actions and his motives throughout the autumn of 1894. So many of his other murders, confessed or real, centered around more understandable circumstances: Holmes killed his mistresses when they became tiresome, and other people for their money. He had something very clear to gain from each of those deaths, Benjamin Pitezel’s included. But why take three of the children away from newly widowed Carrie and keep them alive for so long, having to pay for them and worry that they might see their mother? If Holmes had planned on killing them from the beginning, then surely there was an easier way for him to have done it.
After Howard’s death, Holmes explained the boy’s absence to his sisters in some way before moving them to Detroit, where he secured another house. This one was not used for murder. He next moved his various captives along to Toronto and the site of his final murders.