Musings on unsolved crimes, inspired by the Writing Community Chat Show

I was on The Writing Community Chat Show last week – here’s a link to the episode – as part of a panel of authors. Panel talks are cool but also challenging: you want to talk, but you don’t want to go on and on and make it all about you, or cut in if someone else has something to say, or veer back if the topic’s already moved on. So, for instance, when a really cool question comes up … you don’t always get to answer it.

But this blog is all about me, so I’m answering it here.

When considering True Crime, how important is it to the guests that the crime is solved? Are there any unsolved crimes that intrigue and have inspired the panel?

Darren Pengelly

First, thank you, Darren, because I love this question. I could go on for hours about it. So it’s probably good other people jumped in and we moved on.

The thing about true crime is that, as a genre, it loves crimes that have been solved. When Ann Rule signed the contract to write about “the Ted Murders,” she knew she wouldn’t be getting it published until after there’d been a trial and sentencing. The Stranger Beside Me was first published in 1980, after Bundy had been found guilty of two murders, three counts of attempted first-degree murder, and two counts of burglary. It came out quickly enough that an update needed to be added when he received his third death sentence for the murder of Kimberly Leach, but it still wasn’t sent to print until Bundy had been found guilty.

True crime likes stories that get wrapped up neatly and tied with a bow. It’s all about the solved cases and the plucky law enforcement agents who went toe-to-toe with the cunning criminals and came out on top. True crime doesn’t like unsolved cases or systemic problems that can’t be pinned on a single person in a catchy mug shot.

Okay, there are some exceptions.

Says the woman who’s written two books on Jack the Ripper. But, in that case, the Ripper isn’t still out there, ready to murder anyone reading a book about him. (Imagine the Golden State Killer reading I’ll Be Gone in the Dark before he was finally caught. That’s the premise for Catherine Ryan Howard’s The Nothing Man. The Golden State Killer didn’t actually go on to murder because of the book, but in that case, it was a possibility. He hadn’t been caught. Not enough time had passed to be sure he was dead.) But the Ripper was in 1888, he only killed poor East End sex workers, and he’s dead by now – all layers of safety between the Ripper and the average true crime reader.

If someone writes about an ongoing crime that’s unfolding right now – say, a serial killer – then there’s not that barrier. Maybe, like the Green River killer, there’s a clear victim type and readers can assure themselves that they don’t fit it. If we don’t get into cars with strangers, and never go out after dark, and always take a buddy, and learn self-defense, and message our friends to tell them where we are, and check in with each other, then we won’t be the next victim.

That’s what true crime wants us to believe, and it’s so much harder when there’s an unsolved case out there. Jack the Ripper, the Zodiac Killer, and the Monster of Florence are the exceptions that prove the rule. Two of them aren’t even American, and we all know America likes to think it’s the world leader in serial killers, both having them and catching them.

Considering Ripper’s Victims and Media and the Murderer (and the whole Jack the Ripper tag on my blog) I probably don’t have to go on too much about any unsolved cases that particularly influence me, but I’d like to mull on a related topic for a moment:

What about unsolved crimes in fiction?

This is where it gets tricky. We like fiction because it doesn’t have to follow real-life examples. We can add a full narrative structure, including a proper beginning and an end, the way we do when telling stories about our own lives, but we don’t actually live in a narrative structure. (Narrative theory was one of my three comprehensive exam areas. Can you tell?) We try to make real life into stories, but we’re often restricted by details like evidence and proof. If we’re making the story up, though …

I do think there’s a difference between a character solving the case and the audience knowing the answer. It could be that the main characters have to give up, for whatever reason, before finding the solution. Or, like was mentioned during the chat, there could be a Hitchcockian suspense scenario where the audience knows the killer early on but can only watch as the main character tries to figure it out. That dual cat-and-mouse layer features in true crime: the police hunt the killer hunts the victims. It’s like one of those math problems where two trains are moving at different speeds toward a destination and you have to calculate how long it’ll be before one overtakes the other.

I’m thinking of things like the Lincoln Rhyme series where you can have a character like The Watchmaker who gets identified as the criminal … but not truly identified. He’s the Moriarty or the Big Bad, Rhyme’s intellectual equal and therefore more than capable of keeping out of the clutches of the police. Even the “real” name they come up with for him might not be right, and he’s been behind some of the single-book bad guys who don’t get to come back for a curtain call. The case isn’t solved in a legal sense, since he’s never put on trial and sentenced, but Rhyme knows. And the readers know.

It’s not like The Colorado Kid, which might be the only completely unsolved fictional mystery that I’ve read. Stephen King wrote a book about how frustrating it is for a crime to be a true unsolved mystery, with an unsolved mystery at its center. The main characters even say multiple times that it’s not a story, not exactly, because there’s not a single mysterious element and a single “must-have-been.” A man from Colorado ended up dead on an island off the coast of Maine with a Russian coin in his pocket and a bite of steak caught in his throat. And … that’s about it.

You don’t even know for sure that it was a crime, or just a very weird accidental death. There’s enough to make you think that yes, you’re missing a lot of the pieces, but even the characters who have spent decades knowing the story haven’t been able to find them. It’s an incredibly frustrating story that isn’t really helped by the fact that the characters let you know from the start that it won’t be neatly tied up with a bow. You’re right there with Stephanie as she hears the story for the first time, asks questions, and keeps running up against the fact that there aren’t any answers.

And honestly, it’s probably something only a household name could get published on a grand scale, because that’s not what we want from our fiction, is it? It doesn’t matter if Stephanie and the two older reporters don’t know the full backstory for the Colorado Kid, but King doesn’t even relent and let Constant Reader in on it. We just get to the end and think “Wait did I just waste my time reading that or …?”

Have you read any fiction that deals with an unsolved crime that remains unsolved at the end of the book? Did it feel like a waste of time? Do you think all crime fiction needs to be solved in order to fit the genre? Share your thoughts!

Ripper suspect: Richard Mansfield

We must once again remember that it doesn’t take much to be accused of having been Jack the Ripper. If a man can be shown to have been near the East End in the fall of 1888, then his name has likely shown up on the list.

Richard Mansfield, an English actor, was accused of being Jack the Ripper in an anonymous letter dated 1888. It’s hard to determine exactly how seriously the suggestion was taken, especially considering how phrenology and atavism were still in vogue. People were (and still are, to an extent) convinced that the darkness in someone’s soul would have to show on their faces and in their bodies. The more “rough” a person looked, than the rougher his character, and brutal murders of strangers was about as rough as it came.

But what, people started wondering, if there happened to be a man who could change his appearance so that he only looked like his essential self – a brutal, ugly murderer – part of the time? Sort of like how people think Ted Bundy is attractive despite the whole murder thing. In part that explains how he was able to isolate and then murder so many young women, but it also makes things scarier when we can’t look at someone and immediately identify them as dangerous.

Promotional material emphasizing Mansfield’s shift from Jekyll to Hyde.

Enter Richard Mansfield, who happened to be playing the dual roles of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in a West End theater during the Autumn of Terror. Audiences at the Lyceum watched as Mansfield transformed in front of their eyes, contorting his body and his face into the violent and base Hyde. The rumor was even spread that he managed all of this without any help from makeup or prosthetics, although the lighting choices certainly helped his transformation. It turned out that Mansfield did have some assistance, but at least one theater-goer bought into the belief that he could, in fact, change his physical self at will.

The novella was published in 1886, two years before the Ripper murders, and explored the idea of the alter ego or the gothic double. It seems that the restraint of the Victorian era was too much for Dr. Jekyll, outwardly the perfect gentleman, and he only needs the slightest push to revert to his baser instincts. This “push” comes in the form of a serum Jekyll drinks, so at least it’s not going to spread like some sort of social disease, but it’s also incredibly addictive. Even though Jekyll promises he won’t drink anymore and won’t become Hyde again, he can’t help it. First he drinks out of compulsion, and then he transforms into Hyde without even needing the serum.

On the one hand, it might make sense to accuse an actor of being the Ripper, since he would apparently have had the skills needed to blend in with others in the East End at least long enough to commit the murder and make his escape. On the other, Mansfield was only accused because of this dual role and his apparently perfect inhabitation of both of the characters. It was a role that made Mansfield’s reputation as an actor, so he must have done well.

The accusation did have an impact on Mansfield’s career, so it wasn’t completely ignored. In response to the publicity surrounding the suspicion, he put on a performance of the comedy Prince Karl as a benefit for reformed sex workers. Whether or not the police took the letter seriously, he certainly convinced his audiences that there was something to it.

Mansfield continued acting, including taking many roles on Broadway, and also went on to have a successful career as a theatrical manager. After his death at age 50, the New York Times declared that “As an interpreter of Shakespeare, he had no living equal.” Despite being accused of being a serial killer in his own lifetime, at the time of the murders, Mansfield managed to shake off suspicion and prosper.

12 Challenge, book one – Dark River: The Bloody Reign Of The Ohio River Pirates

Late last December, I decided to go ahead and do the “12 Challenge” that was going around Twitter: 12 months to read 12 books recommended by 12 friends. I specifically requested true crime and thrillers, looking for good books I haven’t read yet. I’ve finished my first selection from that list: Dark River: The Bloody Reign Of The Ohio River Pirates, by Robert Walsh and Wayne Clingman, recommended to me by Robert himself.

It’s a subject I knew nothing about. I read a lot of true crime, sure, from various centuries, but river pirates were new to me. I even looked through the indices of some of the surveys of murder in America that I’ve read to check for some of the names Walsh and Clingman mention, and nothing popped up. So at least I didn’t already read about these people and then forget them.

They cover multiple groups that worked along the Ohio River prior to 1850, and they all seem to be groups. River piracy wasn’t for loners, and it died out with the paddle steamers. Pirates depended on outnumbering their victims and being able to make a quick getaway.

There are different chapters for different groups, and some highlights include:

The Harpes, brothers – or maybe they were cousins – who get presented as “often been called America’s first serial killers.” This is where I first went to my other books, because … who? I’d never heard of them. But apparently river piracy wasn’t just for men who wanted to rob the rich. It was a good profession for men who just wanted to kill people.

James Ford, who was either “Lucky Luciano or Fagin with a Southern accent.” A lot of these pirates have a very mobster feel to them, and I don’t usually read books about the mob. The way to get around the law – aside from crossing the river and moving to land under control of another country entirely – was being the law, or at least paying those who had high positions.

The Potts Hill Gang, who may or may not have been fictional, but who had a very interesting story. Possible spoilers here: a son who had been kicked out of the gang decided to return years later, in disguise, to surprise his family. A “spotter,” sent out to gage the apparent wealth of travelers so the gang would take an unnecessary risk killing a poor man, decided the son looked like a good target. When the “stranger” came along, the father killed him. Which seemed fine, until rumors started that the son was supposed to have come back. In order to keep his wife from wailing that he’d committed filicide, the father dug up his latest victim so she could have a look … and positively identify her son. (Moral of the story: don’t try to trick pirates.)

There’s also some interesting information about forgery, a crime I also don’t usually read about. It’s very much situated in the time and place, between different countries and with changing/emerging laws to contend with, along with Regulators and lawmen and the rest.

It was an interesting read, although I think it’s pretty niche – these stories aren’t usually covered even in lengthy surveys of the history of crime in America. If that’s a crevice you’re interested in exploring, pick up a copy and dive in.

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.

H. H. Holmes’ victims: Alice and Nellie Pitezel

We have come to Holmes’ final two confessed victims. After he murdered father Benjamin Pitezel in Philadelphia, and younger brother Howard near Indianapolis, Holmes still had five family members under his control: mother Carrie, with her eldest and youngest child; and sisters Alice and Nellie.

It’s unclear how Holmes might have explained Howard’s absence to his sisters, but he didn’t intend for that to be an issue for long. After leaving Irvington, Indiana, he rented a house in Detroit and followed his already-established MO of looking for a house to rent. Presumably he meant to kill Alice and Nellie in Detroit, but that didn’t happen. Instead, he took all of his traveling companions – remember he kept them separated from each other into three groups: Carrie and her two children; Alice and Nellie; and Holmes’ own third wife – across the border into Canada.

Alice and Nellie arrived in Toronto on October 19, and Holmes rented a house on the 20th. He once again rented a stove and furnished the house, as though he were going to stay there for a while with the children. On October 25th, he took the girls to the house for the last time, but not before another strange event: Holmes took the girls shopping for clothes that they would never wear.

This was also the day when Carrie Pitezel, sick of staying in the rooms Holmes rented for her, also went out shopping. She crossed paths with Holmes in the clothing store. At some points it was reported that he happened to be holding underwear for Howard when they met – even though Howard had been dead for over a week at the time. In all their strange travels, this seems to be the closest Carrie came to being reunited with her children.

Holmes put Carrie on a train for New York that very night, even though he must have known he wouldn’t have to worry about her running across her children again. He killed the girls that night by locking them in a trunk and filling it with gas.

In his confession, Holmes really takes pleasure in exactly how malicious an act this was. For example:

consider for eight years before their death I had been almost as much a father as though they had been my own children

although he’d already contradicted this earlier when writing about Alice and saying that

her death was the least of the wrongs suffered at my hands.

Not content to simply confess to murder, Holmes also strongly suggests that he also raped Alice – an accusation that he at other times had stridently denied. Apparently since he was making a “full” confession, he thought he should add that in and show the world exactly how monstrous he was.

But, having killed Alice and Nellie, buried their bodies, and burned their clothes, Holmes wasn’t quite finished. He confesses to three more attempted murders: that of the remaining Pitezels. Apparently Carrie was meant to carry “a bottle of dynamite” from the basement of a rented house up to the third story, and Holmes hoped she would drop it, killing herself and her two remaining children.

On the one hand, since he’d already killed four Pitezels, it makes sense for him to want to clear the slate and make sure Carrie especially couldn’t testify against him. On the other … if he even actually did this, did he actually think it would work? It’s very hands-off compared to his other confessions, and although he didn’t have a scheme in place that would mean Carrie’s death would be profitable to him, surely preventing her from testifying would have been enough of a motive to actually making sure she was dead.

In fact, after murdering Benjamin Pitezel, Holmes honestly seems to have lost the plot. He needed Alice to help identify her father’s remains, but why didn’t he then send her back to her mother and simply disappear with the money? Why make so many trips to new towns with so many different people, knowing that none of them could even know the others were there? Even bringing Georgiana Yoke (Holmes’ third wife) was a risk, because she might turn on him and testify to the various cities and help construct the timeline of his movements.

It turns out that Holmes’ strange travels did, in fact, play in his favor for months. While he was arrested under other charges and then charged with Benjamin Pitezel’s murder, the whereabouts of Alice, Nellie, and Howard remained a mystery for months. It was only the following summer that Philadelphia city detective Frank Geyer started retracing Holmes’ winding steps.

H. H. Holmes’ victims: Howard Pitezel

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.

H. H. Holmes’ victims: Benjamin Pitezel

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.

Option 1

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.

Option 2

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 …

Option 3

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.

H. H. Holmes’ victims: Baldwin Williams

Do you remember Minnie and Nannie Williams? They’re sisters whom Holmes counts among his victims in his newspaper confession of 27 murders, but previously – in Holmes’ Own Story – he had claimed that Minnie had not only killed her own sister (out of jealousy over Holmes himself, no less) but that Miss Minnie Williams had been involved with the murders of the Pitezel children. Baldwin Williams is their brother and, coming in at victim 23 of 27, is the final victim prior to members of the Pitezel family.

Supposedly, after murdering the Williams sisters, Holmes found an insurance policy “made in her favor by her brother, Baldwin Williams.” He doesn’t clarify which sister he meant, and it doesn’t matter. Holmes simply wanted that money, so he traveled to Leadville, Colorado, in early 1894 and shot Baldwin. Apparently Holmes made it look like self-defense. He then details how he ended up with thousands of dollars from the Williams estate. But …

Well. Let’s start with “Baldwin Williams.” There was a man by that name who came from Leadville and died in early 1893, but no cause of death was given. The timing is off by a year – we know Holmes was rather awful about dates and timelines – which matters in this case because February 1893 is before he can be proven to have met, or murdered, Minnie Williams. The narrative doesn’t play out.

In Holmes’ Own Story Holmes reports Minnie as telling him about the death of her brother by railway accident, and that she moved from Colorado to Chicago shortly afterward. So it seems Holmes knew that there had indeed been a man named Baldwin Williams, and that he had died. In Holmes’ Own Story, Holmes himself was innocent of all charges. Benjamin Pitezel had committed suicide and his three children were murdered by Minnie Williams and her new fiancé (or possibly husband) Edward Hatch, who looked very much like Holmes and could have been mistaken for him. Baldwin’s death was part of Minnie’s tragic backstory that she confessed to Holmes shortly after they had met, and it certainly wasn’t a murder.

So did Holmes add Baldwin’s name purely to up his body count, assuming that readers wouldn’t connect the name back to either Holmes’ Own Story or to the real Baldwin Williams’ death? This wasn’t a victim made up completely, but the adoption of a man’s death for his own story. Holmes himself observed in his autobiography that he seemed to be accused of any unsolved crime that had occurred while he was a free man, wryly observing that he was glad to be in prison when the Murder Castle burned down so he couldn’t be suspected of that, too. Was this Holmes simply bowing to public perception and adapting the technique of making more headlines for himself?

Baldwin Williams merits, however, only a short mention, since Holmes’ grand finale is up next. Two weeks away from his date with the gallows for the murder of Benjamin Pitezel, Holmes moves into his confessions of murder of four members of the Pitezel family, which is the real draw for those who purchased the newspaper with his confession on the front page.

H. H. Holmes’ victims: a man … whose name I cannot recall

You might recall – although Holmes could not entirely – that he previously confessed to murdering a woman “whose name has passed from my memory.” It seems to be a solid technique for adding to his body count in a way that cannot entirely be denied, as it could in cases such as Miss Kate Durkee, who made her continued existence known after the publication of Holmes’ confession. Being an equal-opportunity murderer, Holmes declares that his twenty-second victim was a man “whose name I cannot recall.”

The story itself is fairly simple: the man came to Chicago to attend the Exposition – if you’re a Devil in the White City fan, that’s the White City; if not, that’s the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Holmes met the man somehow, perhaps because he roomed at his Murder Castle, and used him for a while. However, the nameless young man wasn’t nearly as talented as Holmes had originally thought, so – in a technique apparently useful for both assistants and mistresses who have outlived their usefulness – he decided to murder the man.

Holmes then decided to bury the body, since he hadn’t sold any cadavers to his “‘stiff’ dealer” for a while, in the basement of a house he used to own. (Presumably the “used to” refers to the time of the written confession and not the time of the murder, because then Holmes would have had to break into a house he no longer owned in order to bury a body in the basement.) The body was not discovered at the time of publication, although we have to wonder how the current owners of the house felt (if there indeed was a house at the intersection Holmes mentions).

Here’s the weird part: Holmes can’t remember the man’s name, but he gives a list of all the peoples the police should check if they want to discover it. Seriously a list:

… the Hartford Insurance Company, a Mr. Lasher, of the Stock Exchange Building; D. F. Duncombe, Metropolitan Building; all of Chicago; a sash and door manufacturing company opposite the Deering, Illinois, Station, or F. L. Jones, a notary public at Indianapolis …

By making inquiries there, Holmes suggests that authorities might discover that “his name or handwriting may have been preserved.”


Okay, so let’s take a peek in the middle for a second: “all of Chicago.” If the authorities question all of Chicago, they might discover the man’s identity. In the 1890s, Chicago was home to over a million people, and the Exposition brought in so many travelers. But sure, question all of Chicago.

But then he lists three very specific names, with locations where those men can apparently be found. If Lasher, Duncombe, and Jones are indeed real people, still alive and in those locations … what, exactly, does Holmes think the police should ask them? They’re meant to remember a man from three years previously, at a time when Chicago would have been busier than usual? Or in the case of Mr. Jones in Indianapolis, someone from further back? Was the unnamed man meant to have seen each of these explicitly named men in the company of Holmes, which might aid in his identification? Or … what, exactly?

Holmes has a lot in common with Ted Bundy, who came along almost a century later. Both were highly educated men who, for a time at least, served as their own lawyers during their murder trials. When his execution date was approaching and it seemed he would no longer receive a stay, Bundy started confessing in the hope that he could leverage his unidentified – or undiscovered – victims into a longer life. Is that what Holmes is doing here?

Remember that Holmes was ever only convicted of a single murder. Bundy was convicted of more – in case the death penalty from one trial was overturned – but Holmes only went to trial for the murder of Benjamin Pitezel. He was certainly suspected of more, although that number has skyrocketed in the decades since his execution, but according the law, Holmes had only murdered a single person. He was sentenced to execution on a date that was quickly approaching when he wrote this confession, and he did not write it for free. Holmes in fact sold it for thousands of dollars.

So: is this unnamed man real? Are any of the men whose names and locations Holmes somehow managed to remember? Or is this just more manipulation from a silver-tongued devil?

H. H. Holmes’ victims: a woman, whose name has passed from my memory

So we’ve already established a few different things about Holmes: he likes to write. He was very willing to change his story when it suited him. And he was a con man who made use of all available resources. He certainly wasn’t above lying, or making up victims when it suited him, or “forgetting” what those victims’ names were.

His nineteenth confessed victim, known only as “a woman, whose name has passed from my memory,” certainly qualifies as this last. And, since she can’t be identified, her existence cannot be proven. But, like in his description of his eighteenth victim, Holmes once again introduces the idea of a likewise anonymous accomplice.

Both the woman and the male accomplice were Holmes’ tenants. When the first arrived at his Castle, the second quickly became smitten. However, the man was already married, and apparently his wife knew of his infatuation with the other women. The married couple was already fighting, and seeing her husband make eyes at another woman did not increase marital bliss. The man, in his distress, turned to Holmes for help.

It seems that the man and his wife were tenants elsewhere, and that the wife could be convinced that her husband had gone off on a trip of some kind, because Holmes suggested that the man come live in the Castle with the other woman as though they were already married. (The very same way, you may recall, Holmes said he moved in with Minnie Williams.)

Apparently Holmes even presented the idea that, if the mistress didn’t satisfy the man, then she might be murdered and the man and Holmes would divide her wealth. It certainly seems like something Holmes might plan, considering how many people he claimed to murder for their money (whether or not they were actually dead) but just think about it for a moment: he’s supposed to have told an infatuated man not only to commit adultery in such a way that apparently his wife has no clue, but has also casually said that the two of them could murder the mistress.

The man agreed. On both points, apparently. He moved into the Castle with the woman, quickly grew tired of her, and called upon Holmes for that next step in the plan. Holmes administered chloroform while the man “controlled her violent struggles.” Then, apparently, they split up her money and the man … what, went back to his wife? Holmes isn’t exactly concerned with that particular outcome, but he admits that the murder occurred in 1893 and that a “long coffin-shaped box” had been seen being taken out of the Castle. It seems that the police had been notified of this event, and this is Holmes’ attempt to once again make use of previously-published headlines.

It’s really just a quick blurb, but think about it for a minute: a man unhappy in his marriage isn’t simply given the opportunity to live with a woman who has caught his eye, no strings attached. Holmes offered them the space to live as husband and wife, apparently without drawing attention from anyone who would have known the man – and realized that the woman wasn’t his wife – but that wasn’t all. The offer also came with the suggestion that, when the man eventually got sick of his mistress, as apparently all men do, Holmes had a ready response: murder. So apparently he said “Oh, come and live with her in the Castle for a while, then, and when you get tired of her, we’ll murder her. What do you say?”

So, uh … exactly how many men in the world do you think would have agreed to that prospect? Did Holmes actually find someone who did this, or is he trying to create a character even worse than himself?