H. H. Holmes’ victims: Miss Kate Durkee

After a sort of weird diversion with Holmes’ supposed murder victims, we’re back to his more usual motive with the stated murder of Miss Kate Durkee: she had land and money. Holmes wanted it. So he killed her to get it.

In his confession, Holmes refers to her solely as “Miss Kate” and describes how he “acted as her agent” when she came to Chicago from Omaha. He talks himself down a bit, admitting that he’d used multiple names to hold property, act as a notary public, and carry on general business, just to name a few of his activities, and it’s another instance where he actually tries not to talk too much. Even though it’s his confession, he writes that this has all been written about before, in such detail, so … he apparently doesn’t have to actually go into it himself.

According to Holmes, he’d made contact with Miss Kate before she’d even come to Chicago. He said he had a good deal for her, so he should help her convert everything she had to cash. She agreed and then came up to Chicago to take her money. Holmes gave it to her and had her sign a receipt, which was apparently also dated, because he was thinking ahead. He’d need proof that he’d been honorable in his single dealing with Miss Kate, because she was about to become the next victim of his room-sized vault.

She died slowly, but Holmes doesn’t seem to have been overly affected by it, even though “her prayers are something terrible to remember.” He didn’t care – he had the forty thousand dollars, and he had the receipt she’d signed to prove he’d given it to her. Oh, but he also adds in a coda that he didn’t actually kill Miss Kate’s sister, as had been rumored. And that’s the end of it.

Although printing that Holmes had murdered Miss Kate Durkee led to an issue: she wasn’t actually dead. In fact, in 1896, after the confession was printed, she gave the statement “I have never been murdered – not by HH Holmes or by anyone else.”

Adam Selzer has a great write-up about Kate Durkee – I love how enthusiastic he is about her as a person. (Adam’s the one who wrote H. H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil. If you loved Devil in the White City, don’t read it – you’ll be sad that Holmes wasn’t half of who that book says he was. But, if you’re interested in the truth behind the myths …)

He explores more of her character, backing it up with a transcript from one of Holmes’ lawsuits. Kate Durkee’s answers to the questions put to her are … let’s call them “cagey.” She admits to having known Holmes for four years at the time, so it wasn’t a single instance of interaction, and it’s difficult to tell if she was attempting to play Holmes or if she’d gotten suckered by him like so many other people had. Miss Kate hadn’t lost forty thousand dollars by being locked in Holmes’ vault – her name had been on multiple property papers, including that of the Murder Castle.

So why did Holmes claim he’d killed her? The rumor that she’d become a victim had started after Holmes had first made headlines. She was no longer in Chicago, and there was a time when Holmes was named as the explanation for any possible wrongdoing that could be connected to him. Kate Durkee had been known to associate with Holmes; Kate Durkee hadn’t been around for a while; so therefore Kate Durkee had been murdered by Holmes. It was rumored, and Holmes was going to hang in two weeks, anyway, so why not use his confession to claim it?

(The alternate explanation is, of course, that Holmes himself didn’t actually write the confession. Whoever did would have heard the same rumors and used Kate Durkee to boost the number of victims. And again, it didn’t really matter – the papers sold and the uproar would have just drawn more attention to it. Holmes was set to hang, anyway, so it wasn’t like a false confession was going to make things worse for him.)

Miss Kate Durkee stands out because she can be proven both to have been a real person, and also not to have actually been his victim. But again, the reason Holmes gives for murdering her – money – falls in line with a number of deals he was known to have made. Holmes wanted money, and he wasn’t overly choosy about how he got it. In fact, it seems to have been more fun for him to swindle people than earn it honestly.

In Holmes’ confession, Miss Kate is reduced to just another victim too foolish to be careful. According to Adam Selzer, she’s not only feisty, but also perhaps a bit of a black widow – far more interesting, especially when she’s at the center of her own story instead of a side character in Holmes’.

Why do you think Holmes’ confession lists “Miss Kate” as a victim? After a lifetime of swindling (and at least a few murders), do you think he cared about a lie?

H. H. Holmes’ victims: Miss Anna Betts and Miss Gertrude Conner

Holmes opens his confession in the Philadelphia Inquirer with a lament that his physical self has now, finally – post-trial, that is, when he was still claiming innocence – turned as monstrous and twisted as his inner self. Now, the illustration at the bottom of the front page doesn’t exactly illustrate it, but some of his offhand descriptions of his supposed murders certainly do.

“Holmes Writing His Confession.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, Sunday April 12, 1896.

Holmes admits to murdering two young women in a row, Miss Anna Betts and Miss Gertrude Conner, solely so he might be called to witness their deaths. That’s really the entire story. He even remarks that Miss Conner’s death “is so similar to the last that a description of one suffices for both.” That’s all she gets.

Apparently Holmes substituted poison for the women’s prescriptions. They each lived near enough to the Castle that he hoped he’d be the physician called to witness. However, Miss Betts was attended by her own physician, and Miss Conner had returned home to Muscatine, Iowa, before she died.

Let’s pick this apart a little.

As a pharmacist, Holmes purposefully turned two prescriptions into poison. In a row. They might not have been filled back-to-back, but he places these women as murders 14 and 15. Apparently he went on streaks of how he preferred to murder instead of mixing things up, or maybe he didn’t get what he wanted from Miss Betts, so he had to try it again.

Second, Miss Conner didn’t die until she’d returned home to Iowa. Fine, maybe he wanted the poison to be slower-acting to put some distance between its purchase and her death, but my first thought was “How bad do you have to be at poisoning someone for them to last that long?”

Third, Holmes notes that Miss Betts’ prescription is still on file in case authorities want to see it, since apparently her death was thought to “reflect upon Miss Betts’ moral character.” That’s one way to plant suspicion that might not even have been a rumor previously. Plus he not only murdered a woman, but apparently let her name be slandered after her death. (What kind of prescription would clean up questionable moral character? Anything that meant she wasn’t either being treated for a sexually transmitted infection or died as a result of an abortion, I’m guessing.)

Fourth, he writes, so casually, that “these two cases show more plainly than any others the light regard I had for the lives of my fellow-beings.” Uh, yeah. He poisoned two women in Chicago just to watch them die … and then didn’t even get to watch them die.

The thing is, so many of Holmes’ confessed murders have some sort of concrete cause. He wants money from them, either because he’s robbing them or because he’ll sell their corpses; they’re his mistresses and he’s tired of them; or they caught him doing something he doesn’t want made public knowledge. It’s a theme of self-preservation, and Miss Betts and Miss Conner break this theme. They didn’t annoy him, threaten him, or come with the promise of money or land. They simply lived near enough to the Castle that he thought he’d be the physician summoned if they took deathly ill.

The thing is, phrenology and atavism were strongly-held beliefs back then. Bad people were supposed to look monstrous. It should be easy to glance at a man’s face and tell that he should be avoided. But then this image is printed on the first page of the article, with Holmes calmly rattling off this entire list of murders he committed … and he doesn’t look like a monster.

This isn’t news to anyone today – Ted Bundy, anyone? – but Holmes, who gets frequent billing as “America’s first serial killer,” was a shocker. A well-educated, good-looking man killed so many people, was sentenced for one of those deaths, and then comes out with this confession of 27 murders (and six more attempts) two weeks before his appointment with the gallows. Someone like Holmes should not have been able to do such horrific things without it showing on his face, as some divine punishment … although someone who looks like the average man would certainly have more opportunities to continue to commit murders.

Even if Holmes never actually murdered Miss Anna Betts and Miss Gertrude Conner – even if they weren’t actually real people – this casual description certainly sounds monstrous. Being only two weeks away from his execution, what do you think he had to gain from it? Considering how his final words were a complete and total retraction, was Holmes just seeing how far he could push his infamy? Or did he have some other motive for this newspaper confession?

H. H. Holmes’ victims: Robert Latimer

Most of us tend to rather narrow in our definition of “serial killer.” We think of people like Jack the Ripper or Ted Bundy who killed for sexual pleasure. The sorts of murders that include mutilation and an up-close involvement. These killers are categorized as lust murderers, and yes, most of the “famous” serial killers qualify. H. H. Holmes, though, isn’t one of them.

You’ve probably noticed by now that his range of victims is pretty broad. He doesn’t just stick to killing women, for example, or even killing women who’ve been his mistress and are now apparently annoying. Holmes seems to have both no scruples and no people skills. If anyone’s continued life could threaten him in some way, or if their death could benefit him, he’s all for murder.

Robert Latimer had worked for Holmes as a janitor for many years when Holmes apparently decided, out of the blue, to kill him. The justification he offers is that Latimer knew about some of his insurance scams, but the confession states that all of that had happened “some years previous.” It wasn’t something Latimer had recently learned. It was something he’d apparently kept to himself for years, but apparently being a janitor didn’t pay well enough. Latimer wanted money from Holmes.

Money never flowed away from Holmes if he could at all help it.

Holmes murdered Latimer and then boasts about selling his corpse for a profit, like it’s mildly amusing instead of murder. He also very casually mentions that he trapped Latimer in a secret room in his Murder Castle and then slowly starved him to death. The room was, of course, soundproofed, so nobody could hear Latimer’s cries.

Apparently Latimer wasn’t dying fast enough or quietly enough, since Holmes needed the room for something else and “his pleadings had become almost unbearable.” Since this was the secret room equipped for gas, he could murder Latimer much more quickly. Except Holmes only did so because he was annoyed.

Considering this confession is in a newspaper and has to cover 27 deaths, there isn’t much room devoted to any single victim, but this one is particularly creepy. Think about it: oh, this guy tried to blackmail me for my past illegal actions, so I locked him up so he could starve to death. Think about how long that would take. Granted, it’s probably the lack of water that would actually do it, but we’re still talking days. Possibly over a week. Long enough for Holmes, who seems so blasé about so many things, to get annoyed. (And apparently the soundproofing wasn’t total, if he could hear Latimer’s increasingly weakened cries.)

Then there’s this final point: Holmes concludes his discussion of Latimer’s murder by pointing out that others had already noted some of the brick and mortar in that room had been pulled up. He notes that this “was caused by Latimer’s endeavoring to escape by tearing away the solid brick and mortar with his unaided fingers.”

Holmes moves right on to his next victim, but let that sink in. Someone’s alive long enough, and desperate enough, to start trying to tear down a brick wall with his bare hands. This makes it into the paper in a very offhand way, by a man who had previously claimed there was nothing monstrous about him. Now that he’s confessing, though, he seems ready to take it as far as he can and give minute, yet gruesome, details along the way.

Remember that, two weeks later, on the gallows, Holmes claimed all of this was a lie and he’d only accidentally killed two people in his life while performing surgery on them. Still, it’s there in print: he wanted to starve a man to death, but it was really too inconvenient to him to follow through.

What do you think? Is this the worst one so far?

H. H. Holmes’ victims: Miss Rosine Van Jassand

One of the questions that frequently comes up about serial killers is how, considering their large number of victims, they were able to get away with it for so long. Wouldn’t they have been caught trying to dispose of the bodies? (Holmes says he wasn’t, because apparently he knew who to sell them to.) Weren’t there any cases where someone tried to escape? Well …

After his successful murder of Emeline Cigrand, Holmes claims that he tried to murder three young women who were then working at his restaurant. Apparently he would have received $90 from his agent, had he delivered all three bodies, but Holmes’ hubris interfered. He admits to attempting to chloroform all three at once. Apparently he couldn’t even manage to drug one of them, since they all “ran screaming into the street, clad only in their night robes.” (He doesn’t clarify where, exactly, he was trying to administer the chloroform.)

You’d think this sort of spectacle would get Holmes all sorts of unwanted attention, but all he says is that, though he was arrested the next day, he wasn’t prosecuted.

It’s not entirely unheard of for serial killers’ intended victims to escape, or even for the police to go ahead and deliver them right back so they can then be murdered. When 14-year-old Konerak Sinthasomphone escaped Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment, that’s exactly what happened. Dahmer convinced them they were witnessing a lovers’ spat. But Holmes doesn’t go into any detail about the consequences of this failed triple murder, or even how he managed to avoid prosecution. It’s simply noted between the murders of Emeline Cigrand and Miss Rosine Van Jassand, and lamented because of the boost it would have given his overall body count.

Rosine Van Jassand was initially employed in Holmes’ fruit and confectionery store, but this was only Holmes’ initial gambit. Once she was there, he forced her to live with him, “threatening her with death if she ever appeared before any of my customers.” (Clearly he had enough employees to keep the buisness running without her, although he doesn’t mention if anyone asked what had happened to the newest recruit.)

Holmes doesn’t say why he killed her. He kept her hidden from other people, forcing her to live with him, and one day simply killed her with poison. Holmes apparently didn’t think this through, though, since he admits it would have been suspicious for a large box to be seen leaving the store, so he simply buried her in the basement. Since the Castle had been undergoing excavations to look for human remains, Holmes taunts his readers by saying he expected to hear that similar investigations would have been undertaken at the confectionery store, as well.

Was this woman even real? Holmes had spent his entire trial insisting that he had only been married to one woman, and that he had been faithful to her, and yet this tantalizing story reveals a forced mistress. Even her name is questioned, reported in other papers as Anna instead of Rosine. Perhaps she could have disappeared easily without questions, but how easy is it to bury a body deep enough in a cellar so that the smell won’t put off potential customers? Holmes claims he murdered Rosine “with more caution” than he showed with his previously attempted triple murder, but he still didn’t plan far enough ahead to sell her body to his agent and make any sort of profit off the situation.

Is Holmes just trying to pad his numbers (while including his story of the failed triple murder to make it look like he isn’t)? Or was he honestly so heartless that this story takes up a bare few lines and it’s time to move on to the next one?

H. H. Holmes’ victims: Lizzie

I don’t know that we can say there are acceptable reasons for a serial killer to commit murder, exactly, but there are certainly reasons more common than others. Even Holmes himself follows a pattern: he meets someone, discovers they have money, and murders them to get it. Sometimes he murders someone to keep them from telling other people that he murders people. But, in this case …

Lizzie (no last name given) was apparently under Holmes’ employ in the Castle restaurant. He doesn’t say exactly when this was, since most of his confessions don’t include a year. What he does say is that his janitor, Quinlan, was paying far too much attention to Lizzie, and Holmes just couldn’t have that. Apparently Quinlan was far too valuable to Holmes to get distracted because … he might reveal that his employer was a serial killer? Holmes doesn’t actually say.

Quinlan completed suicide in 1914 and left a note saying simply “I couldn’t sleep.” His surviving relatives said that he’d been haunted by the ghosts of Holmes’ victims in the months prior to his death. Because Holmes had killed so many under his nose and he hadn’t known about it? Or because he had? Quinlan was never officially accused of participating in any of Holmes’ crimes and by this point I think we all know better than to take Holmes’ word.

Instead of firing Lizzie, Holmes decided to kill her. Apparently he was worried she’d simply find other work nearby and continue to entrance his janitor. It’s that crass and that simple: he no longer wanted to employ her, so he decided to murder her.

Holmes says Lizzie was the first victim to suffocate in the by-then-infamous vault in his Castle office. He doesn’t explain how he lured her inside or how long it took her to die. Perhaps suffocation in a sealed vault was supposed to be interpreted as a peaceful death.

In a technique that he claims to use again and again, Holmes made Lizzie write letters before she died, explaining her sudden absence to her loved ones. Did he get her to hand over the letters and then shove her back inside to seal her up and wait for her to die? Or did she calmly allow herself to be suffocated without thinking that she could tear them up and ruin his plans? Clearly readers aren’t supposed to concern themselves with such grisly scemantics.

Holmes even attempts to end this description of murder on a lighter note. The prosecutor in the Pitezel case apparently offered to track Lizzie down, based on the letters she had sent, believing she was still alive. Somehow proving that Lizzie had actually gone west as her letters claimed was meant to help Holmes defend himself in the case of Benjamin Pitezel’s death by proving that he was not, in fact, a murderer. Holmes seems both amused at the notion and pleased that his ruse worked so well … although again we’re not supposed to wonder how his innocence in one case is supposed to prove his innocence in another.

Is this a serious confession so that Holmes can go to his execution with a clear conscience or a criminal gleefully crowing over his crimes?

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?

H. H. Holmes’ victims: Rodgers and Charles Cole

Not all of H. H. Holmes’ murders occurred within his Murder Castle in Chicago, even after he’d begun killing people there. And not all of his murders are worth more than a couple paragraphs. The two we’re discussing today, a man only referred to as Rodgers and a man named Charles Cole, have very little information attached to them.

Holmes confesses to murdering Rodgers as his fifth victim in 1888, even though his previous murder – the double murder of Julia and Pearl Conner – took place around Christmas 1891. Wait, what?

Similar things happened in Holmes’ previously published autobiography, Holmes’ Own Story, where the timeline jumps around as though the reader won’t notice. It’s entirely possible they won’t – although Holmes opens Rodgers’ tale with the year, the only date he includes in his short discussion of the Conners is in reference to when the newspapers caught the story. The casual reader, eager to snap up the Sunday edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer, wouldn’t be looking for such inconsistencies.

Apparently murdered in 1888, although now of course in doubt as to his standing as fifth, Rodgers was murdered in West Morgantown, Virginia, while Holmes was “boarding there for a few weeks.” Why was he in Virginia? Holmes doesn’t say.

What he does say – and what tracks with some of his other stories – is that he found out Rodgers had money and decided to kill him for it. Holmes invited Rodgers on a fishing trip and killed him with his near-trademark single blow to the head, this one on purpose and using the boat’s oar. Although Rodgers’ body was found about a month later, Holmes writes that he wasn’t suspected until after his trial for the murder of Benjamin Pitezel. Apparently upwards of fifty people in Virginia recognized Holmes’ picture in the papers and therefore suspected him of the then-unsolved murder.

Because Holmes wasn’t home in Chicago, with his usual method of disposing of a body, he apparently had to leave it. How much money he took from Rodgers, and what he did with it, is left up to readers’ imaginations.

Charles Cole suffered a similar fate, although he met his death in Chicago. Cole was a Southern speculator who had been corresponding with Holmes for some time and had finally been convinced to come visit the Castle. Cole died because of a single blow to the head, yes, but there’s an added wrinkle here: Holmes didn’t strike him. It was apparently his job to distract Cole while “a confederate” wielded a pipe and “crushed his skull to such an extent that his body was almost useless to the party who bought” it.

Hang on.

Holmes, in writing his final confession to be published mere weeks before his execution, tells the world that he didn’t act alone in all of his murders. In the case of Charles Cole, he both lured and distracted the man, but someone else killed him. Someone Holmes refuses to name. He simply teases readers by observing it was likely the other man’s first murder, but that the unnamed other man is even “more heartless and bloodthirsty” than Holmes is when Holmes is awaiting execution and confessing 27 murders … but he doesn’t name him. He’s just dropping hints that hey, there’s still another murderer wandering around Chicago, and he’s probably got some help, too.

In other words: dear reader, this doesn’t stop with me.

Holmes may not have been much for keeping his timelines straight, but he was an accomplished liar and teller of tall tales. He knew how to capture other people’s attention – usually in person, but in writing, too. His confession, real or fake, was written in order to sell newspapers, and Holmes added his own flair. A flair that Ted Bundy would repeat almost a century later when he threatened “We serial killers are your sons, we are your husbands, we are everywhere. And there will be more of your children dead tomorrow.”

These contrasts exist throughout Holmes’ confession: the reassurance that all of his victims died suddenly, as the result of a single blow, so he’s actually less of a monster than he might seem … followed by references to his accomplices and helpers, people who have killed for him or kept his secrets, and who are still anonymous and out there, ready to strike again.

At this point it seems ridiculous to ask if Rodgers and Charles Cole actually existed, and if they were murdered the way Holmes claims. Instead, let’s focus on the storytelling aspect. Knowing he was two weeks away from his execution, what do you think Holmes was trying to accomplish? Did he only write these things so he could entertain, or was he hoping for a stay of execution while people fought to get those names out of him?