H. H. Holmes’ downfall: Detective Frank Geyer

I’ve been going through the 27 victims Holmes claimed to have murdered in his newspaper confession, but we have to remember that Holmes was executed on May 7, 1896 for one murder and one murder only: that of Benjamin Pitezel. He wasn’t ever put on trial for any of the other murders – or even suspected of a lot of the ones he confessed. (And especially not the ones where the supposed victim turned out to be alive – Kate Durkee, for example.) Now we know that Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City accuses Holmes of far more than 27 murders, and Adam Selzer’s True History of the White City Devil puts the number at maybe 9, but … was there ever enough evidence to conclusively conclude Holmes murdered anyone other than Benjamin Pitezel?

We need a bit of a timeline to set up the answer to that question. Holmes, along with Carrie Pitezel, was arrested in Boston on November 17, 1894. He gave his first confession: Benjamin Pitezel was alive, and his three middle children were with him. Then, after it seemed inevitable that Pitezel would be disinterred once again for identification purposes, Holmes changed his story to say that yes, that was Pitezel who had died, and the three middle children were abroad with Miss Minnie Williams. Outside elements – the insurance company’s plan to determine the identity of the man who had been buried as B. F. Perry – influenced this change.

As Holmes sat in Moyamensing Prison in Philadelphia, awaiting trial for the murder of Benjamin Pitezel, Detective Frank Geyer decided to see if he could discover what had happened to the absent Pitzel children.

First note that months had passed between Holmes’ and Carrie’s arrest and this attempt to find the children. Seriously nobody thought that Holmes could have murdered them – they wanted to believe that the children were abroad and in hiding, safe with someone else. It was only after Miss Williams failed to present them that the worries began.

Geyer faced the confusing task of trying to follow Holmes’ backtrail during his circuitous travels of the Midwest and Canada. This was when Holmes was moving Carrie Pitezel and two of her children, the three middle children (Alice, Nellie, and Howard), and his third wife (Georgiana Yoke) in three separate groups; finding them lodging in various cities; and registering everyone under different names. On top of various hotels and other lodging houses, Geyer also had to look for any houses Holmes might have rented in the various cities – or their outlying suburbs. It was a daunting task.

Geyer later wrote about it in his book The Holmes-Pitezel Case: A History of the Greatest Crime of the Century and of the Search for the Missing Pitezel Children, which is available as a reprint for anyone interested in reading his personal account. The vast scope of his task was almost overwhelming. In Toronto, where Holmes had been most recently, he and his assistants spent a long day visiting various rental partners to go over their spiel: last year, did you rent a home to a man who may or may not have looked like this photo? He may or may not have had children with him: two girls and a boy. He may also have given a story about his sister’s ill health, or just generally … well, have you seen this man?

The problem was that, at every stop, they had to not only go through the whole story, but wear down any misgivings the rental agents might have over discussing past clients. It was frustrating, and time consuming, considering how long of a list they had still to go. That was when Geyer got his brilliant idea, calling together a press conference so he could make the front page of the next day’s paper, answering all of those questions. When he went out the following morning, he was able to get his answers much more quickly, since agents had seen the paper and already consulted their records.

This was how Geyer discovered the remains of Alice and Nellie Pitezel in Toronto and, using the same technique as he traced Holmes’ backtrail, Howard’s remains in a house outside of Indianapolis. They finally had hard evidence of the children’s deaths and descriptions of a man who did indeed look like Holmes renting out the house and furnishing it during the given timeline. Geyer’s case looked solid.

Unfortunately for all involved, Holmes received the daily paper while in prison, and the paper reported the discoveries to him before he could be questioned and surprised with the news. This was when Holmes first told the story of one Edward Hatch, who was Miss Williams’ lover and possible husband … and who looked almost identical to Holmes himself. Because of his access to the newspapers, Holmes’ defense for the murders of the three Pitezel children was heard for the first time.

Holmes was never charged for the murders of Alice, Nellie, and Howard. Even though evidence – including part of Howard’s jawbone – had been brought to Philadelphia, it wasn’t allowed in the courtroom. Guilt in one murder is not evidence for guilt in another, even, the judge ruled, when the murders are family members and they seem to all be part of an overarching scheme. Only in Holmes’ newspaper confession did he admit to murdering Alice, Nellie, and Howard – and confess that he apparently also tried to kill Carrie and her two remaining children.

On the scaffold, right before his execution, Holmes retracted all of it and charged his listeners with the task of finding Benjamin Pitezel’s real killer.

Thanks to the hard work of Detective Frank Geyer, though, Carrie Pitezel learned what had happened to her children, and the world learned who was responsible.

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