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?

H. H. Holmes’ victims: Dr. Russell

You may recall that Holmes’ first alleged victim, Robert Leacock, was also a doctor. Leacock was “a friend and former schoolmate” whom Holmes killed in for his life insurance. (If you’re at all familiar with serial killers, you know that choosing a victim who’s actually connected to you is just a bad idea if you want to stay out of jail.) Holmes’ second confessed victim, Dr. Russell, was a tenant in Holmes’ so-called Murder Castle.

It seems that, while Holmes plotted and intended to kill Leacock, Russell was in fact a mistake. He had been behind in his rent and, when the two men argued about payments, Holmes “struck him to the floor with a heavy chair.” This single blow was enough to make Russell stop breathing.

Since the men had been in Holmes’ office, he locked the door and then thought quickly. He had a second body on his hands and no planned means of disposal, and his first thought – handing the body over to a Chicago medical college to be used for dissections – was apparently foiled, although he doesn’t say how. Instead Holmes sold Russell’s body to a man he refuses to name, although he hints that he’s told other people the man’s name in the past.

Holmes spends more time talking around this anonymous buyer than he does about Russell’s murder. He informs his readers that this man paid between $25 and $45 for each body and that, when Holmes doesn’t explain how he disposed of his 27 victims, he sold their remains to this man. Even though Holmes is writing and publishing this confession mere weeks before his own execution, he refuses to name this man.

There is also nothing in Holmes’ confession about how he covered up this supposed murder in other ways: cleaning out Russell’s apartment, or fending off concerned friends and relatives, for example. He only writes about – or rather, around – getting rid of Russell’s body before moving on to the murders of Julia and Pearl Connor.

Unlike Julia and Pearl, whose mysterious disappearances had been noticed and connected to Holmes prior to his newspaper confession, Dr. Russell does not seem to have been a true victim. His name and the scant details of his death, very much mimicking the fictional death scene of Nannie Williams in Holmes’ Own Story, seem to have been added to boost Holmes’ supposed body count.

The speed of Russell’s supposed death after the single blow with the heavy chair is suspicious, although there wasn’t enough time left for anyone to question Holmes about it. He simply presents Russell’s murder as part of his argument about how, now that he’s taken a human life, it’s so much easier to do it again. Leacock was killed for money, but Russell was murdered accidentally in a moment of high emotion. It was a mistake, yes, but Holmes was able to respond in such a way as to remain free – and free of suspicion – in order to enact 25 more murders.

The main argument about Dr. Russell’s death seems to be that killing is a slippery slope, and that Holmes had found his preferred means of body disposal early on in his career. Nothing exists of Russell but his last name and he’s quickly bypassed as Holmes moves on to two better-known victims his readers will have already heard about.

Was H. H. Holmes really a “serial killer”?

He gets called “America’s first serial killer,” but H. H. Holmes – born Herman Webster Mudgett – was hanged in 1896 for a single murder. Only one count was ever brought against him a courtroom, and we know by now that his confession to 27 murders isn’t believable. So was he really a serial killer, or is that just part of the myth?

The thing is, Holmes didn’t know the phrase “serial killer” when he was confessing. The backstory that everyone seems to know today – absent father, abusive mother, history of starting fires and harming animals and wetting the bed, etc. etc. – didn’t become common knowledge until the last quarter of the twentieth century. (Mindhunter, anyone?) Although the term may have been coined earlier, it still wasn’t in enough time for Holmes to have known it.

And when you consider the “big names” of serial killing – what Peter Vronsky calls the Golden Age – they look more like Jack the Ripper than H. H. Holmes. The most famous serial killers murder and mutilate for their own personal pleasure, and the crimes are usually messy. These get categories as “lust murders,” and Holmes wasn’t a lust murderer.

The murder for which he was hanged, that of Benjamin Pitezel, was part of an insurance scam. Holmes tried to stage his friend’s murder as some sort of accident so that Pitezel’s widow could collect on the $10,000 life insurance policy … and Holmes could relieve her of much of it.

The Pitezel children – Alice, Nellie, and Howard – are harder to explain, considering the strange journey Holmes took them on before killing them, but he used Alice to identify her father’s body and then all three children to control their mother. Holmes may not have had a plan fully hatched by the time he took possession of Nellie and Howard, and he may have abandoned the children in multiple cities, but he doesn’t seem to have tortured them. When Holmes decided it was time to kill Howard and then the girls, he didn’t use a knife. Holmes opted for poison and suffocation.

His earlier murders, at least the ones it seems reasonable to think he actually committed, weren’t killing for the sake of killing. Holmes killed for money, or when one of his mistresses either tired or annoyed him, but he wasn’t a lust murderer. When Holmes could con someone or talk his way out of something, he did.

Not all serial killers are lust murderers, a subset of hedonistic killers. But Holmes doesn’t really fall under any of the other main categories of visionary, mission-oriented, or power/control, either. He doesn’t come across as looking for revenge, trying to eliminate a certain group of people, or someone who gets any sort of pleasure out of murder. For Holmes, it feels like the next step for a con man when he can’t talk his way out of a situation and he doesn’t particularly care about the sanctity of human life.

Where Holmes does fit the definition, though, is how he killed multiple people at different times and in different locations, returning to “normal life” between the murders. He hid the murders, getting rid of physical evidence and even writing letters to cover up for his victims’ absence when noticed. He knew that what he was doing could lead to legal persecution, but that’s exactly what he used murder to avoid.

So: is Holmes a serial killer? The answer is “Yes, with a few buts.” Yes, but he isn’t a lust murderer like Bundy. Yes, but it’s hard to diagnose him for certain considering the time and place in which he killed.

Yes, but he wasn’t America’s first. Just the first one to show up in most contemporary timelines. Serial murder existed long before the term and the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit (now the Behavioral Analysis Unit), and therefore long before expert definition and explanation could be applied during their lifetime. Holmes made his mark – and started his own myth – at a time when he couldn’t claim the title for himself.

H. H. Holmes’ victims: Emeline Cigrand

Emeline Cigrand is the eleventh victim H. H. Holmes claims in the newspaper confession published two weeks before his execution. She is likely one of his real victims – not a lie created to bump up his body count.

She was also connected to Holmes long before his confession.

Emeline Cigrand was brought to Chicago to work as Holmes’ stenographer. Depending on the version of the story, Holmes either hired her through a Chicago typewriter firm, or Benjamin Pitezel met her while he was away on the “Gold Cure” for alcoholism and then informed Holmes of the beautiful secretary. Either way, it was known that Emeline Cigrand moved to Chicago in order to work for Holmes.

The story Holmes tells in his confession is the same one he sold her parents after her disappearance: that she had met a man and was going to leave him for her. The difference is that, in responding to Peter Cigrand in a letter, Holmes argued that Emeline had indeed married this unnamed man and had then moved away with him suddenly. In a second letter, sent a few weeks later, Holmes claims that the new “Mrs. Phelps” has been located and her unexplained absence satisfactorily clarified.

The Cigrands carefully examined the last letters they received from their daughter. One of them said she was going to get married, and the very last one lamented that she had in fact married a bad man and would leave him as soon as possible. Upon closer inspection, this last letter was determined to be a forgery.

The truth, at least as Holmes claims it in his confession, centers on the large vault he had installed inside his “Murder Castle.” Because Emeline had become his mistress as well as his indispensable secretary, he couldn’t let her go.

Holmes writes that Miss Cigrand stopped by on her way to her wedding and Holmes offered her a counter proposal: if she wrote a letter to her fiancé telling him that she decided, at the last moment, she could never be happy with him, Holmes would take her to another city and live there with her as husband and wife. The letter to the fiancé made it clear that it would be useless to look for her, thereby covering Holmes’ trail.

He says she was “very willing” to write the letter, except he also tells readers that, at the time he made this proposal, Emeline Cigrand was locked in the room-sized vault. The only way for her to escape it is to agree to write the letter, which she apparently did, before suffering a slow and lingering death.

It seems that, in spite of this turn of events, Emeline did not think to destroy the letter, or perhaps Holmes forged one to the fiancé the way he seems to have done with one to her family. Either way, Emeline disappeared at the end of 1892 and Holmes did not confess until 1896. He maintained that she had married and gone abroad with her new husband.

Emeline Cigrand is believed to be a “true” victim of Holmes, along with Julia Connor (and her daughter) and Minnie Williams because she was known to be his mistress. Holmes killed for money, the way it seems he killed Minnie’s sister, Nannie, but he also killed women once he had tired of them or they became annoying to him. It seems that Emeline Cigrand may have also known more of Holmes’ dealings than he felt comfortable and so, in his mind, the only way to ensure her silence was through her death.

Holmes’ bald statement that he locked Emeline Cigrand in the vault and left her there to die just increased the legend surrounding his Murder Castle and his own status as a heartless killer. While this confession may have allowed her family to gain some measure of closure, it would have also been terrible for them to read.

H. H. Holmes and the 27 body problem

There are many considerations that come along with being a serial killer, some of them more practical than others. One of these is “What do you do with the bodies?” In order to be labeled a serial killer in the first place, there have to be multiple victims. Serial killers therefore have to figure out what to do with the bodies so that they don’t get caught. But what are your options if you’re a nineteenth century physician living in Chicago?

One answer is, of course, H. H. Holmes’ “Murder Castle” … and that might offer up some actual solutions in the midst of all of the myth. There were at least some human remains discovered in the basement, but hardly enough to credit Holmes’ claim of 27 total victims, even if the final 4 were killed elsewhere. At times Holmes has also been suspected of buying a “glass-bending furnace” in order to cremate his victims, especially when authors like to multiply that number by a factor of 10. If Holmes used his “castle” as a hotel during the Columbian Exposition, then there are at least 250 bodies that have to be accounted for.

The bodies of his final victims – Benjamin, Alice, Nellie, and Howard Pitezel – were all found. So if Holmes didn’t bury or cremate the others, what happened to them?

  • sunk in a lake – in Holmes’ Own Story, after Holmes says Minnie Williams killed her sister, Nannie, he helped Minnie get Nannie’s body into a trunk and then rowed out into Lake Michigan and threw the trunk over.
  • sold – Holmes had, after all, been a medical student and would have known that medical schools had difficulty finding cadavers for practice. He claimed to have sold some of the bodies to “a party … whose name I withhold” and who paid him between $25 and $45 per body. (Even in his “confession,” Holmes refuses to reveal the names of anyone who supposedly helped him with the 27 murders. This mysterious party is likely still out there, buying corpses for either medical dissection or insurance scams, as Holmes wrote those words.)
  • used for insurance – Holmes claims he killed his first victim because he knew the man was insured for a large sum. He doesn’t explain how he got his hands on any of that money, especially since he gets confused in referencing his own previous stories, but presumably this man’s body had to be identified and returned to his loved ones.
  • left to be discovered – Holmes claims he killed one man after taking him out on a fishing trip. Holmes learned the man had money and presumably killed him in order to rob him. How he explained the absence of his fishing partner at the end of the day isn’t clarified.
  • self-defense – Holmes also says he shot at least one of his victims in self defense. In this case the body was quickly discovered and taken care of.

Even in his written confession to 27 murders, Holmes doesn’t always mention what, exactly, became of the bodies after he killed them. But remember, Holmes was writing in 1896. No one was watching CSI or reading true crime books. When he makes a casual mention of storing a body for months, nobody questions what state it would be in by the time he would have wanted to stage his insurance scam.

Holmes makes one nod to the realities of hiding a dead body when he admits that he selected the Pennsylvania office for Benjamin Pitezel because of its proximity to the city morgue. People in the area would be used to the smell of decomposition, so he hoped that Pitezel’s body would not be discovered until he was unidentifiable. But this raises a question: if he knew that a single dead body could alert the neighbors, how in the world was he supposed to kill over a dozen in one location without being discovered?

Holmes’ confession, lengthy as it is, still leaves numerous questions surrounding his supposed victims, and his reliability already falters because he named victims who were in fact still alive. There is no doubt that Holmes was a murderer, but not of 27 people.

Ripper Suspect: H. H. Holmes

There’s been this trend lately of explaining unsolved murders by blaming someone who was caught for a different series of murders. While on the one hand it makes sense – at least in these cases the chosen suspect has indeed proven to be a murderer – it can also feel like grasping at straws. In the case of Jack the Ripper, some have proposed that American killer H. H. Holmes was actually responsible for the deaths in Whitechapel in 1888.

If you need to review who Holmes was, here are Part I, Part II, and Part III of his rather lengthy, and often convoluted, story. So: what does Holmes have going for him?

He was alive at the time: check. He was a confessed murderer – at least sometimes: check. And, um … well …

The problem with Holmes is that all of his confirmed murders were very closely tied up in money or other personal gain. Holmes doesn’t seem to have murdered because murder was fun and all he needed to enjoy himself, the way many serial killers are depicted. Holmes was a con artist who talked his way out of situations if he could but killed people to clear the way if he had to. This M.O. does not describe what happened in Whitechapel in the autumn of 1888.

Further, although Holmes was alive at the time, there are no records of his having traveled to England at all. (Adam Selzer looks at this in his book, H. H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil, if you want to read about the reasoning behind dismissing this, and other, Holmes rumors.) True, Holmes liked using false names, but Selzer has also tracked down various stateside interactions during those specific months. In none of his various confession or life stories does Holmes mention traveling to England, although he does suggest that Minnie Williams took the Pitezel children there.

It would seem that, if Holmes concocted his 27 supposed victims for his newspaper confession in order to make money and help them sell more headlines, that he really should have mentioned the Ripper murders if he had been responsible. Instead, this confession outlines the murders of people who then turned up to announce they were still alive, and also created fictional people to add to his death toll. It is true that Holmes was accused of many crimes after his arrest, but the Ripper murders were not one of them.

Granted, as a confessed murderer whose confessions must be in doubt, Holmes makes a better Ripper suspect than many. But why accuse him in the first place?

Holmes is marketed as “America’s first serial killer,” while the Ripper often gets the byline of “world’s first.” Even the origin of the term “serial killer” is debated between an American and a Brit. If the Ripper turns out to be American, then Holmes becomes “world’s first” and America can claim the dubious honor and add more titles to the true crime bookshelf.

Was Holmes a murderer? Yes. How many people did he actually murder? That’s still a mystery, but the number is far below his top claim of 27. Did he murder Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly? No.

Who did? Good question.