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?

Ripper suspect: George Chapman

George Chapman – no relation to Annie Chapman; birth name Seweryn Kłosowski – is one of the oldest Ripper suspects. Although he was arrested, tried, and hanged for three poisonings, police at the time thought he may have been the Ripper. Let’s see if we agree.

Chapman was born in Poland in 1865. At age 14, he was apprenticed to a surgeon, and in October 1885 he enrolled in a brief course in practical surgery at the Warsaw Praga Hospital. It’s unclear exactly when he left Poland for England, but he was working as a doctor’s assistant in Warsaw until December 1886, and a receipt from February 1887 still places him in Poland. He settled in the East End as a hairdresser’s assistant in either late 1887 or early 1888.

So far Chapman seems to be a plausible Ripper suspect. The Ripper was thought to have anatomical knowledge that could be attributed to being a butcher or a doctor, and Chapman had medical training. He had also moved to the East End shortly before the murders began and records can prove he was there during the Autumn of Terror. On top of this, he was a known serial killer. So what’s the hesitation?

Jack the Ripper killed women on the street by cutting their throats and then mutilating their bodies with a knife or knives. There is no known connection between these women, although various people have done their best to hook them together in a conspiracy.

George Chapman murdered his mistresses by poisoning them with tartar-emetic. He had a string of relationships with women who presented themselves as his wife, and while some of them left Chapman because he was violent, three of them died because of him. Chapman’s first known murder was of Mary Isabella Spink in 1897; his second, Bessie Taylor in 1901; and his third, Maud Marsh in 1902. Reports at his trial indicate that he was physically abusive to all three, as well as the other women – some mothers of his children – who left him, perhaps before he could murder them, as well.

Suspicions were high enough after Marsh’s death for the bodies of Spink and Taylor to be exhumed, as well, in order to prove poisoning. Chapman was charged with Marsh’s murder, brought to trial, convicted on March 19, 1903, and hanged on April 7 with his motives still unproven. Although he inherited a legacy from Spink, there was no monetary reason for him to have murdered Taylor and March.

No less than Fredrick Abberline himself considered George Chapman to have been Jack the Ripper. When he spoke to the policeman who arrested Chapman, he’s reported to have said “You’ve got Jack the Ripper at last!” During the initial investigation Abberline had interviewed Chapman’s “wife” at the time, who apparently reported that he was out and about at all hours. However, Chapman – who was then still going by Seweryn Kłosowski – was not named as a suspect in 1888. It was only his arrest for serial poisoning that put his name on the short list.

So: we know that Chapman in the East End at the proper time, and that he was violent toward the women in his life. He had medical training. And we also know he was a murderer, but the question remains: would the Ripper have switched from using a knife to using poison? From killing strangers who could not have been connected back to him to murdering his own “wives”?

What do you think? Did they really capture Jack the Ripper at last?

Ripper suspect: James Maybrick

Remember back when we were discussing Montague John Druitt and we learned it’s bad luck to have died shortly after the Ripper murders were “finished”? James Maybrick, a Liverpool cotton merchant, had some of that same luck, except “died” doesn’t quite fit here. His wife was convicted of his murder and sentenced to death.

Florence Chandler was 18 when she met 42-year-old Maybrick on a sea voyage to Liverpool. It lasted six days, which was long enough for the couple to go from strangers to being engaged. They married in 1881 and had two children by 1886. He had multiple mistresses; she had at least one affair. He sickened suddenly in late April 1889 and died 15 days later. The inquest declared it was arsenic poisoning. Florence became the key suspect.

The trial was sensational, especially since this was an American woman, and the judge’s conduct in particular likely led to her death sentence being commuted to life in prison. In 1904 the case was reexamined and Florence was released. She was the more interesting Maybrick until 1992, when “the Ripper diary” hit headlines.

The provenance of the book is confusing, especially since the story has changed a few times. The contents aren’t really any more enlightening, since the author of the diary never gives his own name. He claims responsibility for the murders of the Canonical Five, as well as two others. And apparently this anonymous author is supposed to be James Maybrick.

The “diary” surfaced in 1992 and has been subjected to multiple tests to determine whether the ink could have been used in 1888. The book itself is less controversial, since the binding and the pages are apparently of the correct vintage, but someone could have found the book and then written the story themselves much later. Some of the details “the Ripper” provides about the murders are inaccurate, but align with oft-repeated parts of the story that someone who was not the Ripper might have heard in the decades since. In fact, the owner of the diary made a statement in 1995 that his wife actually wrote the diary while he dictated. (His solicitor submitted a repudiation of this affidavit, and then he withdrew the repudiation. Just to make things even more confusing.)

The idea seems to be that James Maybrick embarked on the murders as a reaction to his wife’s infidelities, even though it seems that she only began her affair after he had continually cheated on her with multiple women. I suppose we can counter these double standards by arguing that she murdered him when she found out he was murdering other people, even though a twenty-first inquiry into the case revealed that Maybrick was taking multiple medications at the time of his death, most of which were poisonous. It’s highly unlikely Florence Maybrick killed her husband, and it’s also highly unlikely that James Maybrick was Jack the Ripper.

But the diary isn’t the only piece of evidence that surfaced naming the previously unsuspected Maybrick. In 1993, a year after the diary was presented to the world, a man named Albert Johnson bought an antique pocket watch with a strange etching inside. Someone had scratched in the initials of the Canonical Five women (not including the two unidentified women from the diary), James Maybrick’s signature, and the words “I am Jack.” Separate examinations determined that the scratches were not recent – say, if someone had come across the diary story in 1992 and decided to fake them on an true antique watch – but the timing is still puzzling. If Maybrick was a Ripper “nobody” until the diary surfaced in 1992 because it reached the hands of a new owner, how coincidental is it that the pocket watch also changed hands and came to light a year later?

The diary made a splash in the 1990s with books arguing both for and against its authenticity, but it – and James Maybrick – has been largely dismissed by those studying the case. If the Ripper had left a diary for us to find, that would have been big news indeed – even bigger if he’d gotten all the details right and actually signed his name. But the diary goes the way of the shawl and the letters: an interesting splash for experts to argue over, but ultimately not the key to unlock the mystery.

Have you heard about the Ripper diary and the pocket watch? What did you think when you first learned about them? (Does Jack the Ripper strike you as the type to keep a diary in the first place?)

Ripper suspects – Joseph Barnett or George Hutchinson

It’s been a while since I’ve shared some of my research instead of my writing musings, so let’s jump back in to Jack the Ripper and consider a pair of suspects: Joseph Barnett or George Hutchinson. These are an “or” pair instead of an “and” pair, because nobody’s (yet) suggested that they worked together, but the story behind them is very similar.

Both Barnett and Hutchinson are connected to Mary Jane Kelly, the last of the so-called Canonical Five victims of Jack the Ripper. Choosing either Barnett or Hutchinson as the Ripper clearly makes Mary Jane Kelly the last. It actually positions her at the center of all of the murders.

Joseph Barnett was Mary Jane Kelly’s boyfriend. The two of them met in April 1887 and decided to move in together on their second encounter. The vast majority of what we know – or think we know – about Mary Jane Kelly comes from Barnett’s testimony at the inquest after her murder. He lived with her until the end of October 1888, when they quarreled and separated.

Barnett had been living with Mary Jane Kelly at 13 Miller’s Court when they separated. It was a very small room, with only a single bed, and one of the reasons for the separation seems to be that Mary Jane was letting other women sleep there. Since this was the Autumn of Terror where women were being murdered in the streets, and since Mary Jane had a steady room that wasn’t in a lodging house, it seems like it was a kind thing for her to do.

Another instigating factor for their separation also seems to have been the fact that Barnett had lost his job as a fish porter, resulting in Mary Jane Kelly’s return to sex work. Barnett apparently disproved of this as much as he did of her offering their small, shared space to other women, and so he left her. Their separation was the reason why Barnett was not also sleeping at 13 Miller’s Court the night of November 8-9, and why Mary Jane Kelly was alone and murdered there.

Barnett was not a suspect at the time. In fact, Inspector Fredrick Abberline personally cleared him after a four-hour interrogation, which included an inspection of Barnett’s clothes. No blood was found, and Abberline, at least, was satisfied.

The same cannot be said for Bruce Paley who, in 1996, named Barnett as the Ripper. According to Paley, Barnett decided to become the Ripper in order to scare Mary Kelly off the streets and force her to stop making money through sex work out of fear of being murdered. On the one hand, Barnett’s plan seems to have worked if Mary Jane Kelly was worried enough to allow other women to sleep indoors with her. On the other, he apparently couldn’t scare her enough to stop. Thus, Paley argues, Barnett was driven to kill the woman he loved because he couldn’t save her otherwise.

George Hutchinson also became a Ripper suspect not in the 1880s but in the 1990s, this time in a 1998 book by Robert Hinton. Hutchinson was known to the police at the time because, after Mary Jane Kelly’s murder, he made a statement to the police about a man he had seen with Mary Jane Kelly shortly before her murder. Hutchinson, unemployed, apparently had plenty of time that night to hang around Miller’s Court and get a good look at anyone who passed by.

Abberline also interviewed Hutchinson, although he was considered only as a witness and not a suspect. Hutchinson had known Mary Jane Kelly for three years and his incredibly detailed description of the man entering the room with her was explained because Hutchinson thought the man looked “foreign,” which piqued his interest and concern. After all, women were being murdered, so of course he would memorize every detail about any man who seemed to be going into his friend’s room as a client.

Although numerous skeptics have doubted Hutchinson’s description of the Ripper, he wasn’t accused of being the murderer himself until Hinton. And here the story sounds very similar: angry that Mary Jane Kelly was supporting herself through sex work – and not relying on him as her sole sexual partner and source of money – Hutchinson orchestrated the Ripper murders, hoping to scare Mary Jane Kelly into stopping.

Hinton suggests that Hutchinson, after seeing Mary Jane Kelly take that client into her room and that client later depart, snapped. Hutchinson therefore went into 13 Miller’s Court himself, shook Mary Jane Kelly awake – or tried to, considering the reports that she was very drunk that night – and was confronted with the reality of the woman she was instead of the apparent perfection he had preciously imagined. With this ideal shattered, Hutchinson lashed out and killed her.

So: two men who knew Mary Jane Kelly, and were known to have been close to her at the time of her death. One of them was cleared as a suspect by Fredrick Abberline, and the other never even considered to be one. More than a century after the Ripper murders, each in turn became accused of being the Ripper to turn Mary Jane Kelly away from sex work … and into his arms.

What do you think? Was there something in the air in the 1990s? Would a man ever actually turn to serial murder as a way of pursuing the “perfect” woman? Or should we let Barnett and Hutchinson rest in peace?

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.