Who was America’s first serial killer? Part II

Last week I started to introduce you to H. H. Holmes, aka Herman Webster Mudgett, aka any number of other pseudonyms. We ended with Holmes in prison in Philadelphia, awaiting trial for the murder of his friend, Benjamin Pitezel. At that point three of Pitezel’s children had been discovered dead, too, and Holmes had to do some quick thinking.

He’d already given two different spoken confessions. Let’s sum them up:

newspaperFirst confession in Boston, right after being taken into custody: at this point nobody was all that concerned about the children, so Holmes said that they were with their father, Benjamin. Who was totally alive. In South America somewhere, but totally alive. He had first stolen and then mutilated a corpse to be buried in Pitezel’s place.

Second confession, once the newspapers warned him that people were looking at disinterring Benjamin Pitezel, aka B. F. Perry, for a second time: the danger here was that Holmes was being held for insurance fraud. If he confessed that the man was indeed Benjamin Pitezel, then there was no insurance fraud. Aha! thinks Holmes. He confesses that he discovered his friend dead of suicide and merely staged the body to look like an accident, thereby ensuring that his widow and children would have the money. And, uh, those children? The missing ones? They’re with Holmes’ old friend, Minnie Williams, who also happens to be a school teacher, so you know they’re being taken care of. At this point Holmes even managed to get a “secret message” into some foreign newspapers, calling Miss Williams to come out of hiding and bring the children, alive and well.

This is where Holmes’ story sat last week when the newest headlines declared that Alice, Nellie, and Howard’s bodies had been found.

own storyThis is also where Holmes switched from spoken explanation to written. Holmes’ Own Story, published before his autumn trial for Benjamin Pitezel’s murder, is a multi-part book that starts with Holmes’s autobiography. It continues into the second part which is meant to be his prison diary. Then, once the diary structure falls apart, he finally gets around to his explanation of how Alice, Nellie, and Howard could be dead … but it wasn’t his fault.

It turns out, according to Holmes’ Own Story, that the strange journey around the Midwest and into Canada involved two other people Holmes hadn’t previously mentioned. One was Miss Minnie Williams, who had some history with Holmes, and the other was Mr. Edward Hatch, Miss William’s new love interest. Hatch looked very much like Holmes and had even styled his hair to look the same, Holmes stressed, and the last time he saw any of the children, they were going into the care of Miss Williams.

Hatch is, of course, the man various witnesses claimed to have seen with the Pitezel children near the time of their deaths. Holmes himself was nothing but loving and caring toward them, and he didn’t harm them a bit. He simply made the poor choice of selecting Miss Williams as their caretaker and entrusting them to a near-stranger simply because Miss Williams had chosen him.

So here we have a completely innocent Holmes. He is guilty of insurance fraud, yes, fine, because he came upon his friend after Pitezel had committed suicide and proceeded to stage the scene, but he can’t be hanged for that. And even Mrs. Pitezel will tell the court how much Holmes has done for her family since. It pains him, truly, that the children are dead, but none of it was his fault. Holmes could go to trial confident that he would not be convicted of murder.

In October 1895, Holmes was found guilty of the murder of Benjamin Pitezel and sentenced to hang.

And yet … we’re still not done with him.

Who was America’s first serial killer? Part I

Jack the Ripper gets advertised as the world’s first serial killer. Any book about the phenomenon of serial killing has to include a mention. Granted, most of them argue that he’s not really the first – just the first to get such widespread media coverage – but he’s known by the title, anyway. So who’s America’s first (media-reported) serial killer?

holmesPlease meet H. H. Holmes. If you did actually meet him, though, sometime between his birth in 1861 and his execution in 1896, he might not have given you that name. He was born Herman Webster Mudgett and didn’t adopt the Holmes name until he’d completed medical school at the University of Michigan and then moved away from home (and his first wife).

His habit of changing pseudonyms actually makes it all the easier to distinguish his wives. Holmes married new ones without divorcing the old ones, so at one point there were women thinking they were Mrs. Mudgett, Mrs. Holmes, and Mrs. Howard. Mrs. Howard testified at his murder trial, although she’d found out about the other two by then and reverted back to being Miss Yoke.

Holmes was hanged for a single murder: that of his friend Benjamin F. Pitezel. Pitezel thought he was in for an insurance scam. He moved to Philadelphia and opened up a patent shop using a pseudonym. The plan, as far as Pitezel understood it, was that Holmes would procure a cadaver – a relatively easy endeavor for someone who had been to med school and might have done a few shady dealings to get medical samples – and use it to fake Pitezel’s death. The two men would collect the $10,000 life insurance on the pseudonym and happily split it.

Unfortunately for Pitezel, Holmes wasn’t going to stick to the plan. A body was discovered in the patent shop and initially identified as the pseudonym, but Holmes and one of Pitezel’s children, fourteen-year-old Alice, attended a disinterment and identified the man as Pitezel. (Mrs. Carrie Pitezel was ill and could not go herself, and she needed her eldest daughter, Dessie, to help her with the baby.) Then, after Alice had made the statement that her mother was indeed a widow, Mrs. Pitezel sent her next two children, Nellie and Howard, to meet up with Holmes and Alice while she went to visit her parents. Throughout the next complicated steps, Alice, Nellie, and Howard traveled together, and Carrie, Dessie, and the baby were in a separate group.

children

Holmes began moving these two groups, along with his third wife – Mrs. Georgiana Howard – all throughout the midwestern United States and even into Canada. He had to control all of them and make sure they didn’t run into each other. Georgiana had no idea that the other two groups even existed. Carrie believed that she would be reunited with her husband at the next city, and Holmes kept telling her that the police had spotted them and that’s why they had to keep moving. It’s unknown what he told the three children, but by the time the police did catch up with them in Boston on November 17, 1894, Alice, Nellie, and Howard were nowhere to be found. Holmes was arrested, and so was Carrie Pitezel, on suspicion of insurance fraud. She was utterly confused and kept demanding to know where her children were.

The answer to that question wasn’t uncovered until the following summer when Detective Frank Geyer finally managed to trace Holmes’ convoluted backtrail, including his many pseudonyms, to two rented houses. The girls had been killed and buried in a house in Toronto; Howard had been killed and stuffed up a chimney in a house outside of Indianapolis.

geyerDetective Geyer made use of the newspapers in his search of the various cities so that he didn’t have to keep explaining himself to various realtors. In Toronto, he gave an interview to numerous reporters so that the story of Holmes and the three children became front-page news. After this, he only had to walk in for the realtor to tell him no, he had never rented to anyone matching Holmes’ description – or that yes, he did indeed remember a man using Holmes’ favorite cover story. Geyer was able to speed through his list of realtors and find the house where Alice and Nellie had been killed.

But the newspapers play another major role in this story because Holmes, sitting in prison, had access to them, too. He heard the commotion outside of the prison after the girls’ bodies were discovered and immediately called for the papers. By the time someone came to grill him about the discovery, Holmes already knew about it … and had used his time to prepare a story.

To be continued …

Why do we say “the Canonical Five”?

Honestly it seems like just another phrase that’s supposed to separate “those who know” from “those who don’t.” What’s the point in saying “the Canonical Five” when we’re talking about the Ripper’s victims? Can’t we just say “Jack the Ripper’s victims” and be done with it?

Well … no. We don’t know who the Ripper really was, so we also don’t know how many people he actually killed. Depending on which book you pick up, he’s credited with anywhere from two to nine – and, at times, possibly more. The real truth is, there isn’t much we actually know about the case.

So let’s change the question slightly: who do we mean when we say “the Canonical Five”?

Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, murdered on Friday, August 31, 1888.

Annie Chapman, murdered on Saturday September 8, 1888.

Elizabeth Stride and Catherine “Kate” Eddowes, both murdered on Sunday September 30, 1888.

Mary Jane Kelly, murdered on Friday November 9, 1888.

Were there women murdered in Whitechapel before Polly? Yes. One of them – Martha Tabram, murdered on August 7, 1888 – is frequently put forward as another of the Ripper’s victims. Another woman reported to have been murdered earlier in 1888 was later discovered to have been a newspaper invention. And there were murders after Mary Jane Kelly, some of them brutal enough to be grouped in with the Ripper murders, but for multiple reasons the case has largely been distilled to these five.

Part of it is the timing. The five women were murdered in such a short time span – a matter of weeks. The murder locations were also close together. After Mary Jane Kelly’s murder, the story was quickly taken out of the headlines – and, since she was the most gruesomely mutilated, it made sense to conclude that the Ripper had escalated and then finished. The fear and terror that had overtaken not just the East End but all of London was quickly brought to a close.

So they’re the Canonical Five not because we know for sure that they’re the only ones murdered by the Ripper, or even that he murdered all of them, but because it was concluded early on that these five deaths were related. Here’s just one of my bookshelves with Ripper books – I’ve got too many to all fit on here – and you can bet that each of them mentions Polly, Annie, Liz, Kate, and Mary Jane. Even the earliest English language Ripper book, published in 1929, agrees that all five names need to be mentioned. 

The biggest thing to remember about the Ripper case is that there is so much we simply don’t know. Because he was never caught, we have no confession, and therefore no idea how many people he actually killed. The term “Canonical Five” is handy because it indicates that yes, these five women have historically been grouped together, but we also acknowledge that maybe five isn’t actually the right number.