The Curse of H. H. Holmes

We’ve already spent a lot of time covering the real-life events of one H. H. Holmes, “America’s first serial killer.” If you missed them, check out Holmes story Part I, Part II, Part III, and the murder castle discussion. But maybe all of those are too depressing, considering the man didn’t actually murder 250 people in his custom-designed building. Maybe I’ve taken all the fun out of it.

So. Let’s talk about Holmes’ curse.

We already know that Holmes had his body placed in an extra-large coffin and encased in cement so that no one would be able to dig him up and use him for medical experimentation. He was eventually disinterred for an episode of American Ripper, to dispel the rumor that Holmes himself had snuck away and a lookalike was executed his place, but that just prevented people from reaching in. It did not, apparently, prevent Holmes from reaching out.

The death of anyone who had any connection whatsoever to the Holmes case was considered suspicious … and another victim to add to Holmes’ list. Holmes was said to have “the evil eye” – have you counted how many times Erik Larson mentions his eyes in Devil in the White City? – and, in the two decades or so following his execution, around 30 deaths were attributed to it.

The Superintendent of the Indianapolis Police Force, responsible for the invesigation into Howard Pitezel’s death, was thrown from his horse during a parade. He was, perhaps, lucky – he didn’t die, but he dealt with the effects of his injuries for the rest of his life.

One of the coroner’s physicians who had testified against Holmes at his trial suddenly dropped dead from blood poisining.

The trial judge and lead coroner both died suddenly from previously undiagnosed illness.

The prison superintendent at Moyamensing Prison, where Holmes was held and executed, committed suicide.

The father of one of Holmes’ victims was horrifically burned in a gas explosion.

Frank Geyer, the detective who had finally tracked down Alice, Nellie, and Howard Pitezel, was struck with a sudden illness. He did recover.

The office of the claims manager for the insurance company Holmes had cheated caught fire and burned. Apparently the only untouched items inside were a framed copy of Holmes’ arrest warrant and two portraits of Holmes.

The fiancee of one of Holmes’ defense lawyers died suddenly.

An occupant of Holmes’ Murder Castle committed suicide.

The jury foreman was electrocuted.

Marion Hedgepeth, who had informed on Holmes’ insurance scam, was shot and killed during a holdup.

The Murder Castle itself was mysteriously gutted by fire.

Holmes’ caretaker committed suicide and left a note that said “I couldn’t sleep.” His relatives said he had been suffering hallucinations and may even have been “haunted.”

The list goes on.

It reads rather like Holmes’ own confession to 27 murders, with a variety of people from different walks of life, with various connections to him, and different causes of death. They would never have been linked together at all if not for the name of H. H. Holmes … or for the rumor of the curse that Holmes himself began before his death.

What do you think? Is each and every death on this list completely explicable? Or was Holmes working to increase his body count from beyond the grave?

But what about H. H. Holmes’ murder castle?

I can hear you: “Rebecca, you’ve spent three weeks talking about H. H. Holmes, but you haven’t mentioned his murder castle.” It’s the coolest part, right? Man gets his medical degree, moves to Chicago, and starts to build this mysterious three-story building with a “glass-bending oven” in the basement that was totally used to cremate his victims and all sorts of mysterious rooms where he can lock people in vaults or let gas inside. Plus some sort of chute to get people from the second to the first without heavy lifting. During the World’s Fair he killed hundreds of people, so why hasn’t this been mentioned yet?

devilIf you knew about Holmes before – and especially if you’ve been eagerly anticipating the murder castle discussion – I’m guessing you learned about him from Erik Larson. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. Larson interweaves Holmes’ story with that of the Columbian Exposition, paralleling the construction of the Fair with the construction of Holmes’ murder castle. The story bounces back and forth until the Fair is over and Holmes can have the pages to himself on his final, strange, itinerant spree, but, during his time in Chicago, Larson depicts Holmes very much as the happy serial murderer, using his mysterious Castle as a human version of a roach motel.

In his notes, Larson explains that he did not use the internet during his research. Instead he used a lot of newspapers … and newspapers wanted to share the lurid, the outlandish, and the scandalous so they could sell. It makes a for a good story, sure, but the papers already did a ton of extrapolating and connecting the dots before Larson got to them and constructed his own narrative. It’s a good story, but if that’s your only source on Holmes, you’re missing a lot.

selzerThe counter to Larson is one I tell people not to read if they were so starry-eyed over Larson’s Holmes that they can’t picture him any other way. Adam Selzer’s H. H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil pulls back the curtain and explains that, well, the murder castle really wasn’t all you thought it was. He describes clerks from the shops on the first floor napping in those “secret” rooms and passageways, and argues that it really wasn’t used as a hotel, after all. When a fire broke out in the middle of the night during the World’s Fair, there weren’t nearly enough people on the street to argue that the third floor was actually being used that way. (Selzer also gives talks and tours, and you can catch him online, although I’d recommend acquainting yourself with the case first, either through his book or some of your own research – he can jump around a lot for people who come in with only the faintest idea of who Holmes is and what myths need to be debunked.)

So: what’s up with the so-called murder castle?

We know that Holmes had it built. We also know that, as a con man, he had a practice of hiring workers, refusing to pay them, and then hiring more. This wasn’t so that no single person would know the entire layout of the building, but so he simply didn’t have to pay them. We know there were shops on the first floor – and that one of his mistresses and likely victims was the wife of one of the men employed in said shops – and that much was made during the excavation of the basement. Newspapers reported in large headlines that bodies had been found … and then days later, in smaller print hidden somewhere other than the front page, that really it was maybe only a single body.

All of this suspicion and excavation happened while Holmes was in Philadelphia, making headlines because of the Pitezel case. Remember, at the beginning Holmes was wanted for a single murder: Benjamin Pitezel. But, the longer he sat in jail and the longer the police puzzled over his mysterious story, the mystery continued to grow. He was now suspected of murdering Alice, Nellie, and Howard Pitezel, too.

And so, Chicago asked itself, if the man had been living here before that … couldn’t we make something of it, too? Instead of writing postcards to the papers claiming to be the killer, Chicago reporters took what they had and let their imaginations run with it, increasing the myth of who Holmes was, what he had done, and how many he had killed.

Not, it seems, that Holmes minded, considering his confession of 27 murders and the fact that many of them were made up out of whole cloth. Holmes the con man would be thrilled to know that people think he killed 250 people or more – and got away with all of them until he slipped up with Benjamin Pitezel. As someone who participated in his own myth-making while he was alive, Holmes would be happy to know he’s still being discussed so long after his death.

Who was America’s first serial killer? Part III

H. H. Holmes has already taken us on quite the adventure. We know he got accused of committing insurance fraud with his mysteriously absent friend, Benjamin Pitezel; that three of the Pitezel children were also missing; and that he (eventually) accused his friend Miss Minnie Williams and her new beau, Mr. Hatch, of killing the children. His October 1895 trial resulted in a single guilty verdict for the death of Benjamin Pitezel, and Holmes hanged for it.

But he didn’t simply quietly wait out the rest of his life.

Let’s take a peek at the headline of the Philadelphia Inquirer on Sunday April 12, 1896.

headlineHe’s bumped up the number, certainly. At the trial Holmes was accused of a single murder – even the deaths of Alice, Nellie, and Howard Pitezel were not mentioned, since they did not happen in Pennsylvania. Now he’s progressed to “the greatest criminal in history” with 27 murders.

Granted, this is a newspaper headline. “The most awful story of modern times told by the fiend in human shape” is clearly meant to sell copies. They had advertised it in advance, too, to make sure they’d sell. Holmes had been paid for his story, and naturally the paper still wanted to make money on it. But we only know about Benjamin, Alice, Nellie, and Howard Pitezel. How did he get to 27?

victimsFirst, he lied. Some of the people Holmes named actually came forward before his execution two weeks later to inform the world that Holmes had not, in fact, murdered them.

Second, he made other people up completely, either borrowing parts of names from people he did know, or not naming them at all.

And third … remember Miss Minnie Williams, who was supposed to be with the Pitezel children? Previously Holmes had said she was on the run for the murder of her sister, Nannie, but this new confession has Holmes murdering both of them. (Since neither sister had been seen since going to Chicago, these two seem to be likely instances of the truth.)

Holmes also used the paper to confess to murdering some of his mistresses, as well as one mistress’ young daughter. He varies the method from death to death, including suffocating unsuspecting victims in a large, room-sized safe that he had in his Chicago “Murder Castle.” So … Holmes completely qualifies as a serial killer, right?

Well …

He wasn’t done yet. After two spoken confessions, a written autobiography, and a further confession in the newspaper, he spoke his final words on the subject while on the scaffold. In spite of the 27 murders outlined in the Inquirer, Holmes’ final confession was only to two deaths, one of them a woman who died during an abortion. He argued that the real killer of Benjmain Pitezel had not been brought to justice and still needed to be found.

Then, after he was hanged, Holmes was interred in an extra-large coffin that had been half-filled with cement before he was laid inside. He had a clear fear of grave robbers – one that has been continually linked to his own role as a medical student and the ways cadavers were likely procured for lessons – and refused many offers of money for his brain or his body after his death. Once he was laid inside the coffin, more cement was put over him before burial.

But of course, the story didn’t end there. The world was far from done with the story of H. H. Holmes.

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 …