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?

H. H. Holmes’ victims: Rogers, a wealthy banker

The eighteenth murder in Holmes’ confession has a few more twists and turns than some of the others, but I think you’ll still recognize some of his preferred tropes.

Rogers himself is described as “a wealthy banker” from a Northern Wisconsin town, who had to be enticed to come to Chicago. But not by Holmes. In this murder, Holmes works with an accomplice.

This accomplice was a young Englishman who met Holmes in 1891. (Maybe. We already know Holmes isn’t that great at dates.) This Englishman was a fine partner in Holmes’ usual real estate scams, and apparently he was good at the patent scam, too. In fact, this Englishman was such a good criminal that Holmes, somehow, decides to withhold his name completely. He starts off coy, arguing that said Englishman couldn’t be arrested simply on his own say-so, and simply refuses to give the Englishman a name.

It was, however, the Englishman who convinced Rogers to come to Chicago, not Holmes. The Englishman must have been just about as clever as Holmes, because he made sure that none of Rogers’ friends or family would know why, exactly, Rogers had come to Chicago. Those back home in Wisconsin wouldn’t be able to say who Rogers had gone to meet.

Holmes and the Englishman got Rogers to go into the Castle by saying they had patents in there for him to see, and at first Rogers – wisely, you might think – refused to sign the “checks and drafts for seventy thousand dollars” that were there instead. Granted, either Holmes of his incredibly criminal English friend could have forged them once Rogers was dead, but that’s apparently not how Holmes worked.

You’re probably figured out which room Rogers had been led to.

Holmes used the gas hookups in the room to nauseate Rogers – which probably wasn’t much of a trick, since Rogers had been in there long enough to starve – to convince Rogers to sign.

Now, here’s another of those things that readers today might not swallow: Holmes writes that Rogers signed the securities, “all of which were converted into money and by my partner’s skill as a forger in such a manner as to leave no trace of their having passed through our hands.”

Yeah. His partner was a skilled forger, but they still lured Rogers into the gas chamber, starved him, and hit him with the gas in order to get him to sign them. Did Holmes and his friend not already have exemplars of Rogers’ signature? Why couldn’t they just have gotten Rogers to Chicago, killed him, and forged everything without the extended torture?

Once the signatures were obtained, Holmes and his English friend apparently had a standoff about what to do with Rogers who was, at that point, still alive. Each tried to wait the other out so he didn’t actually make the suggestion of murder himself – although clearly they couldn’t have followed through with getting all of the money and still let Rogers go – but it was only when Holmes started getting ready to let Rogers leave that the Englishman made the murder suggestion.

And, in spite of the fact that Rogers was in the sealed room with the gas, Holmes made the Englishman kill Rogers using chloroform. Granted, Holmes was an accessory to murder, but he makes it clear that he did not kill Rogers himself, even though Rogers is counted among his 27 victims. The Englishman then left Holmes to deal with the body and apparently gambled away much, if not all, of his money before dawn.

So what we have here is Holmes presenting his readers with an unnamed stranger who is an excellent forger, willing to commit murder, and who had regaled Holmes with tales of “all other forms of wrongdoing, save murder, and presumably that as well.” By the end of Holmes’ recounting of Rogers’ death, the Englishman clearly is guilty of murder. But, just as he does with all other mentions of accomplices, Holmes refuses to give a name.

He instead teases his readers with the story of a man who is worse than Holmes himself, and who apparently gambled away $35,000 in a single night. Not only was Rogers murdered, but half his wealth didn’t even go to the murderers. Instead the three other men playing cards with the Englishman apparently became the big winners, and they didn’t need chloroform, either.

Holmes is, however, as untrustworthy when it comes to large sums of money as he is when it comes to timelines. The far more likely explanation is that he didn’t name the Englishman because there simply wasn’t an Englishman. He was simply trying to spin a tale that incorporated some of the more interesting headlines about himself, and perhaps didn’t want to attach a real name to a fake murderer, the way he has to fake victims.

Really Holmes is trying to be Bundy a century before Bundy rose to infamy. Bundy wanted to threaten people with the fact that, as bad as he was, he wasn’t the only one out there. They could send him to the chair, but that wouldn’t really save anyone. And that’s what Holmes is doing here, too: taunting his readers with the idea that someone just as bad as he is currently still walks free. Holmes could tell the man’s name, but he simply refuses. And what could they tempt him with, anyway? His execution was two weeks away.

So Rogers from Wisconsin is likely another of Homes’ made-up victims, the way his Englishman seems to be a made-up accomplice. But it’s not an effort to remove his own guilt, because Holmes counts Rogers as one of his own victims. It’s simply Holmes proud to have manipulated someone else into doing his bidding, the way he lived his life as a con man.

What do you think? Could the Englishman be real? Did Holmes go to his death without revealing the names of other criminals just as bad as he was – or worse?

H. H. Holmes’ victims: Mr. Warner

This one takes a little bit of explanation. Readers of Holmes’ confession, published in April 1896, had already likely followed the progression of his case. The strange circumstances of his arrest in November 1894 and the huge amount of publicity leading up to his murder trial – including the publication of his memoirs – meant that anyone picking up the Philadelphia Inquirer wouldn’t be coming to the case cold.

Part of what had been followed in the media after Holmes’ arrest and prior to his trial was the excavation of his “Murder Castle.” This was a building Holmes had had constructed by hiring and firing workers at such speed that he didn’t have to pay them. Popular legend says he also did this so nobody knew the entire layout of the Castle, leading to secret passages and the like, but Adam Selzer found sources where clerks in the first-floor shops admitted to sleeping in the secret passages, so … they weren’t exactly so secret.

But there were discoveries in the Castle’s basement – and some real ones to go along with the horrific headlines that ended up being retracted later, in fine print, buried somewhere deep inside the newspapers. Yes, there were human remains found (but not nearly as many as the legend suggests). And there was also a strange kiln.

It was, as reported, a glass-bending kiln, and therefore built for a specific purpose. Holmes is meant to have used it as a sort of personal crematorium to aid in the disposal of his victims, at times claimed to be over 250 in number. (That’s a Devil in the White City claim. Adam Selzer’s H. H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil blows it out of the water.) However, there was some sort of brick oven found in the Castle’s basement, and it did seem to be about the right size to fit a human body.

In his April 1896 confession, Holmes writes that it was in fact a glass-bending kiln, although it wasn’t his. It belonged instead to Mr. Warner, no first name given, “the originator of the Warner Glass Bending Company.” Holmes doesn’t explain how or why the kiln had been built in his own basement, although it was apparently meant for Mr. Warner to exhibit his patents. (As far as I know, nobody’s found any records of anyone going into the Castle basement in order to view any such thing.)

Also according to Holmes, the kiln was much bigger than initially published. It was, in fact, much like the room-sized, airtight (but not quite soundproof) safe he’d had installed in one of the Castle’s other rooms. On the day of Warner’s death, both men had gone inside the kiln, ostensibly so Warner could show Holmes something about its workings. Holmes left, shut the door, and turned on both the oil and steam that, Holmes writes, made the kiln “so intensely hot iron would be melted therein.” (For the curious, that’s approximately 2,800°F, around the temperature at which glass melts. Maybe he figured more people would be familiar with molten iron over molten glass. Standard cremation furnaces reach around 1,800°F so, if all claims were true, then yes, the kiln could have been used for body disposal.)

Holmes admits to having used the kiln this way just once, for Warner himself. Many of his other victims, as he wrote earlier, were sold for profit.

There’s another interesting point here that once again shows Holmes’ issues with keeping his own timelines straight: he writes that there had been a coat discovered outside the kiln during this excavation, and claims the coat belonged to Warner. So apparently this random coat had been in the basement for years, without being noticed, stolen, or moved – in spite of the fact that the kiln had been meant for exhibitions and that its inventor had gone missing.

Once again in keeping with Holmes’ usual motivations, he killed Warner in order to get at his money. Apparently Warner had written Holmes two checks, written apparently freely, but Holmes doctored them by adding the necessary zeroes and the word “thousand” so that, according to the man himself, he very nearly cleaned out two of Warner’s bank accounts. It seems that Holmes feels more regret about not quite getting all of the money than murdering 27 people.

It’s a good sort of scary story, making full use of what the newspapers had already published about the Castle and the discoveries underneath it, but Warner had something in common with Miss Kate Durkee: he was still alive at the time of the written confession. There might have been some sort of kiln discovered in the Castle’s basement, one that quickly found its way into Holmes Lore, but Warner wasn’t killed in it.

At this point, can we believe anything published in this confession? Why do you think Holmes told so many lies?

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: 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?

Writing and waiting

As of yesterday, I can finally – finally! – announce that my debut novel, the psychological thriller Not Your Mary Sue, will be published in June 2022 by Aesthetic Press. *throws glitter confetti everywhere* I’ve been sitting on this news since this spring, and really, the entire backstory to the book story is one of waiting.

I drafted the novel during National Novel Writing Month in 2017, which means I was vaguely plotting the novel since the beginning of that year. I had the idea based off of one of my favorite Stephen King novels, Misery, where the two characters are stuck together in a house. The author character is held prisoner and forced to write. I substituted Ted Bundy for King’s captor and the novel just flowed.

(Fun fact: you can look back at any of your NaNoWriMo stats if you’ve entered the project into the site. I finished the draft on November 27 that year.)

So I’ve known this story and my characters, especially my main two, since 2017. In fact, the part where they’re stuck together – on an island instead of a house in Colorado – hasn’t changed all that much since 2017. I’ve known this story and these characters for years, but only a few other people had any idea about them.

So first there was waiting while I let the story settle so I didn’t still think it was already absolutely perfect in every way. Time to gain some distance before tackling the revisions on my own. And then more waiting when I started sending out queries.

Lots of waiting.

Do you get the waiting part yet?

I was seriously querying for over a year when I got the request for the full novel. (Queries generally ask for the query letter, a synopsis, and the first three chapters or so – check before submitting, but keep those documents on hands for when a rejection comes in and you need to send them out again. Getting a request for a full is A Big Deal. It’s not a guarantee, not yet, but incredibly exciting.) More waiting. Then the offer. Dancing! And more waiting.

I’ve been sitting on the news of the deal for months, because publishing is allllllll about waiting. You still don’t get to see the cover – not yet. You have to wait until mid-September. And the book itself? Wait until next June. (No, this isn’t weird for publishing. Yes, this is how it works. And yes, it’s hard to wait!)

But then – then! – I’ll be able to talk about my story and my characters with more than just my dad and my husband and a few friends. We can have more in-detail conversations about how Misery and Ted Bundy inspired things. Maybe argue about what happens.

I can’t share too much more right now, but I can leave you with this teaser from my publisher.

A not so classic girl meets boy story begins when a televangelist’s adult daughter, Marcy, journeys to a secluded island resort where she awakens a captive of the handsome, charming, notorious Fresh Coast Killer who requests she pen his autobiography explaining all of his intentions and crimes in detail. She finds herself horrified that she is intrigued by him and maybe even…infatuated by him. He has more control than she realizes as he slowly begins to brainwash her just as the autobiography is completed. Once she is rescued and he is arrested, Marcy begins to pull her life back together only for her captor to escape and her brother becomes a new suspect in a cold case that alters what she thought she knew about her family.

Oh yeah. I’m excited. I can’t wait!

Ripper suspect: a Jewish slaughterman

One way of getting around naming an actual known person as having been the Ripper is to propose an occupation. In this case, I’m looking at the idea that the Ripper may have been a shochet, or a Jewish slaughterman. It’s a theory Robin Odell covers in the 1965 book Jack the Ripper in Fact and Fiction, but also one that appealed to newspaper readers in 1888.

Why pick “a Jewish slaughterman” as a Ripper suspect? Let us count the ways.

  1. Antisemitism was rife in London in the late 1800s. If you see a Ripper suspect described as a “foreigner,” chances are the person was using the then-common description for “Jew.” Not allowed to settle in other parts of London, Jewish immigrants gathered together to form their own communities and cared for each other with social programs not available to anyone else, because the government didn’t provide them. Rather than respond with frustration against the government, the people turned their anger against the Jews.

    It was also a major concern in the case on the night of the so-called Double Event because of graffiti chalked on a wall along the path the Ripper is thought to have fled after murdering Kate Eddowes. Called “the Goulston Street graffito,” the actual text was washed off before there was enough light for it to be photographed, and variations are all we have left. It said something along the lines of The Juwes are the men that will not be blamed for nothing and has been interpreted, variably, as either blaming the Jewish people for the Ripper murders, or having something to do with Freemason legends.

    At the time, Police Commissioner Charles Warren recommended that the message be erased before it could be seen by too many people because he suspected it would be interpreted the first way. The police were already struggling because they had arrested a Jewish man named John Pizer (nickname: Leather Apron) for the crimes but then had to let him go since he was in custody as they continued. This was also a time when mobs would descend on people, claiming they were the Ripper, causing these victims to turn to the police for protection. It was very easy, then, for East Enders to combine their fear of the Ripper with their antisemitism.
  2. It was already suspected that the Ripper had some knowledge of biology. The common image of the Ripper in a top hat and cape also has him carrying a doctor’s bag for this very reason. The killer was reported to have removed specific organs from his victims and worked very quickly in conditions of poor lighting, to the point where physicians commented that they could not have done the same thing in the given amount of time.

    Aside from causing actual physicians to frantically replace their usual bags with ones that didn’t carry the Ripper’s stigma, this also started a debate. Did the Ripper honestly have anatomical knowledge, or was he just lucky? Could he have gained such knowledge somewhere other than medical school?

    There were numerous slaughterhouses in the East End, so the Ripper could have come from any of them and gained whatever anatomical knowledge he might have had from his work there. As a bonus, it was a common sight to see men walking around covered in blood because of their work. A slaughterman could easily have escaped after the murders without necessarily having to clean himself thoroughly because he would have been expected to be in such a state, anyway.
  3. Unless someone was rather famous, it’s difficult to find records and therefore attach a name to a suspect. Rather than accusing someone famous, whose descendants might have something to say about that, it’s easier to look at a group of people who have the same presumed skill set and say “There were thousands of them. We’ll never know which one.”

… and that’s very likely true: we’ll never actually know who the Ripper was. We’ve narrowed it down to “someone who was alive in 1888 and at least near the East End,” but, other than that … we’re left grasping at straws. True, if we think that the Ripper did in fact exhibit some anatomical knowledge, a butcher seems to be a good candidate, but what about the men with proven medical training whose names have also been put forward?

What do you think? Does this theory belong on the books or in the bin?