Collection of articles and videos on true crime and justice
Tuesday, July 24, 2012
H. H. Holmes: Master of Illusion
The discovery of a murder in Philadelphia�in
October 1894 opened the door to a case that few could believe. Marion
Hedgepeth, a one-time cellmate of a man who went by the name H.M.
Howard, informed police about a recent scam. It involved insuring a man
named Benjamin Pitezel for $10,000 with the Fidelity Mutual Life
Association in 1893 in Chicago,
and then faking his death in a laboratory explosion by substituting a
cadaver. All participants were then to split the insurance payment, but
Howard had reneged and run off with the money. Hedgepeth was informing
on him as payback, and his detailed letter about the scheme was passed
along to the company. In short order, they realized that H.M. Howard was
actually H. H. Holmes, clearly a swindler.A company
representative who had already expressed suspicions about the death
scene re-examined the circumstances surrounding the discovery of a body
at 1316 Callowhill Street�in Philadelphia.
It had been found in a state of rigor mortis and so badly burned in the
face from chemicals and sun exposure that identity of the person could
not be judged. Nevertheless, Holmes, accompanied by one of Benjamin
Pitezels children, had indeed identified this body from certain
characteristics as the remains of Pitezel. After hed collected the
money, hed disappeared with that child and two more of Pitezels
Given these details, company officers tried unsuccessfully to track him,
so they hired agents from the Pinkerton National Detective Agency to go
after the scoundrel. As these more experienced men followed his trail
around the country, they gathered information about his numerous frauds,
thefts, and schemes, including other insurance scams years earlier in
Chicago that had provided him with funds to build a three-story hotel.
He was among the top swindlers they had ever come across, possibly the
most accomplished. If he hadnt gotten greedy, hed still be in business.
But this time, they had him.
Pinkerton Detective Agency
Herman Mudgett, aka HH Holmes
They finally caught up to Holmes in November in one of his childhood haunts in Vermont,
put him under surveillance, and gave the information to police. On the
afternoon of November 16, 1894, H.H. Holmes was arrested in Boston�as
he was preparing to leave the country by steamship. He surrendered
easily, probably believing that he could resort to his highly successful
weapon, a glib tongue and a load of lies, to get himself out of a tight
spot. Its likely that he was further convinced of this when they told
him that he was being charged with the rather petty theft of a horse in Texas.
Secretly, he knew a lot more about what hed done, but so did police.
Even so, neither side realized at that moment what they were dealing
The Holmes Pitezel Case
The best sources for the Holmes story are the documents from the case
itself: Detective Frank P. Geyers book on his experiences (which
included evidence not used in court and which Geyer describes as one of
the most marvellous [sic] stories of modern times) and the
autobiographical pieces that Holmes penned. At first Holmes told one
story, which included mundane details about his life and a load of lies
posed to cover up his crimes, and then he offered a sensational
confession, which was printed at the time in the Philadelphia Inquirer�(and all three documents are now available on a CD-ROM from Waterfront Productions). As well, since the Holmes story was an immediate sensation, editions of the major Philadelphia newspapers carried the story from the moment he was arrested, and in 1975, David Franke published The Torture Doctor
(later found to have been read by healthcare serial killer Dr. Michael
Swango). In addition, authors Harold Schechter and Erik Larson both have
written exemplary renditions of the Holmes tale. Schechter tells the
tale imaginatively as narrative nonfiction, while Larson places Homes in
the context of the development of the Chicago Worlds Fair in 1893.
Larsons discussion about how he researched the book offers even more
The Torture Doctor
He admittedly encountered some difficulty with the character of H.H. Holmes, since the Philadelphia
trial transcripts were limited to a single crime (he had performed the
greater part of his monstrousness elsewhere). Larson found that many of
the sources about this scoundrel were inconsistent, as well as
interlaced with Holmes own fantastic embellishments. In many instances,
only Holmes ever knew what he actually had done. Larson describes how he
agonized over recreating incidents to which there were no witnesses,
and he admits that even with all of his research he still did not know
by the end what had motivated Holmes to kill (and had only a slight
understanding of psychopathy). Yet, he does point out one real advantage
to this work: One of the most striking, and rather charming, aspects of
criminal investigation in the 1890s is the extent to which the police
gave reporters direct access to crime scenes, even while the
investigations were in progress. Thus, they acquired fantastic details,
which they passed on to anyone who cared to take a look. As Geyer said,
the story is among the most marvelous.
Putting on the Con
Herman W, Mudgett, aka H.H. Holmes
As Holmes was being processed in Boston,
an agent from the insurance company arrived whom he recognized, so he
readily offered a confession of the fraud. In the glib manner of a
polished liar, he said that the damaged corpse that hed identified as
Pitezel really had been a cadaver that he had acquired and substituted
to collect the money. The agent was amazed by Holmes near-convincing
performance. When asked to account for the Pitezel children, who were
not now in his care, the suspect offered yet another convoluted tale:
The children had been left with their father, who had gone to either
South America or Florida.Carrie
Pitezel, Bens wife, could not corroborate any of Holmess story, except
that she was aware of the insurance scheme and that he had been moving
her around from one place to another, with promises of soon seeing her
family. She was utterly confused about the entire experience, and her
flustered manner convinced the interrogators that Pitezel was probably
dead. They charged her with conspiracy and put her under arrest,
although they also felt sorry for her. She seemed to have been caught in
something that she barely understood.
Depraved by Harold Schechter
Because the scheme had occurred in Philadelphia, Detective Thomas Crawford arrived in Boston�to escort Holmes back to the City of Brotherly Love. In Depraved, Schechter recounts how Holmes bragged to the detective along the way about his criminal career, admitting that he'd
done enough in his life to be hanged twelve times over. He provided
colorful tales about his various cons and claimed to have the ability to
hypnotize people to do whatever he wanted. He even offered the
detective $500 to let him perform this feat on him and escape. Crawford
was unimpressed, declining the deal with grim humor, but when reporters
later heard about it they attributed supernatural powers to the scam
artist. It was the age of Svengali, a character made popular in a
contemporary novel by George Du Maurier, Trilby, and Holmes was thought to have such abilities. (Holmes even enjoyed this novel later in his cell.)
Moyamensing Prison, PA
�Holmes was eventually incarcerated in Moyamensing Prison and
remained there for several months. Larson indicates that his humid,
white-washed cell was 9 feet by 14 feet, with a barred window and an
electric lamp for light. He was well-behaved and despite the daily
journalistic discoveries of yet more of his horrendous crimes, his
guards apparently liked him. Some of them did favors for him, delivering
the newspaper daily so he could keep up with the details of the
investigation. As he did so, he realized that hed have to come up with a
better confession. He was always scheming.
A Shift in the Tale
Holmes admitted to police in December 1894 that rather than
substitute a cadaver in a con with Pitezel as hed originally said, the
corpse had actually been Pitezel, but he had not been murdered.
According to the story Holmes now told, Pitezel and two other men, along
with Pitezels wife, were in on the scheme. Pitezel had rented the house
at 1316 Callowhill, equipping it with bottles of chemicals as part of
the appearance of a man having an accident. That was all well and good,
but Holmes noticed how much Pitezel was drinking and one day found him
lying dead on the floor. Pitezel had apparently grown depressed and used
chloroform on himself. Holmes arranged the body and proceeded with his
plan to make it difficult to identify, destroyed a letter Pitezel had
written (supposedly a suicide note), and staged the scene to look like
the result of an accidental explosion. He then went out of town to await
a newspaper item that indicated that the body had been found. He left
the account like that, and several more months passed without any word
of the children. Holmes had indicated to Carrie Pitezel that they were
with a guardian, Minnie Williams, in England.
On June 3, 1895,
Holmes was tried for conspiracy to defraud an insurance company, and
because the sentence would be light his attorneys advised him to plead
guilty, which he did. The sentencing was delayed for a later date, but
even the papers were now pressing for information about the Pitezel
children. They seemed to have disappeared and reporters wanted to know
where they were. So did Carrie Pitezel. Some one had to act.
Frank Geyer was assigned to the job and he went later that same month
on a highly publicized expedition to find the missing Pitezel children
or their remains, whichever turned out to be the case. He later penned a
book about his international trek. Even after his mission was
accomplished he did not yet know exactly what kind of monster he was
dealing with. He simply knew he had a job to do�-- a potentially
unpleasant one�-- and he did it.
Matters of Deep Concern
The Devil in the White City
Larson describes Geyer as a big man with a pleasant, earnest face,
sporting a walrus mustache. Geyers wife and daughter had died recently
in a fire, so his loss weighed heavily as he went in search of children
who possibly had been murdered. Holmes had offered no clues to assist,
except to say that the children had been left with a guardian, with one
female child posing as a boy. He even shed tears at the idea that
someone should accuse him of killing innocent children, and Geyer said
of him, Holmes is greatly given to lying with a sort of florid
ornamentation. The man, he believed, was an actor and accomplished con,
so nothing he said could be trusted. (Especially in light of the fact
that this so-called guardian of the children, Minnie Williams, was also
missing, along with her sister, Nettie, and both had once been closely
associated with the suspect.)Holmes had kept up with the news
each day as papers were delivered to him, and had shifted the details of
his story as the situation demanded. Geyer noticed this and noted how
it fit Holmes pattern of treatment of others: He played games and
adjusted his strategy to whatever seemed necessary to move them around
like pawns in some game he played to please himself. Such a manner of
man made the detective uneasy. No one could know from what he said what
was true...or�what he might be planning next.
Yet, Holmes did
admit to having had Alice Pitezel, 15, in his custody (after she had
helped him to identify her fathers corpse for the insurance payoff) and
to picking up Howard, 8, and Nellie, 11, and taking them with him. Alice
and Nellie had written letters to their mother documenting their daily
journey, which Holmes had collected but had never mailed (and which were
found in his possession upon his arrest). He told their mother that
they were in the care of Minnie Williams, a woman of means in England.
This woman had likely kept back their letters, Holmes had suggested, in
the interest of her own safety. Yet Geyer had found no trace of Minnie
Williams or the children where Holmes had said she would be. In fact,
the street name that Holmes offered for where to find her did not exist
in London. Instead of going to England, where Holmes clearly was trying to direct him, Geyer focused his efforts on North America.
On June 26, Detective Geyer set out by train into the Midwest, with Alices
and Nellies letters to orient him, along with photos of the children
and of Holmes, and an inventory of items and clothing associated with
them. No one in the D.A.s office expected to find any evidence at this
late date and believed that Holmes had killed them and would have been
careful to dispose of the bodies. Yet, the insurance company had readily
provided funds for the trip, because it would not have to pay out for
Pitezels suicide, so Geyer agreed to make the effort.
he showed photographs and asked around in various hotels for anyone who
might have seen Holmes or the children, and he finally found someone
who remembered the small group of travelers under the alias Alex E.
Cook. It was a name Holmes had used in business matters before. That
clerk pointed Geyer in another direction and through much questioning,
he came across a woman who had seen Holmes and a boy together in a house
to which a large stove had been delivered. But Holmes had then given
her the stove, apparently because hed noticed that she had been watching
him. Geyer now felt that he had firm hold of the end of a string which
was to lead me ultimately to the consummation of my difficult mission.
He went from there to Indianapolis, Holmes next destination, according to the letters.
this city, Geyer found a trail that gave him a good sense of where the
children had been. Larson points out that it was an exceedingly hot day,
which made the investigation more burdensome. Finally, however, Holmes
odd game became clear: He was moving his wife (one of three, all of whom
were unaware of the others) and the three children about in the same
city without any party being aware of the other. Geyer could not
understand why, if Holmes intended to kill the children, he would go to
such effort and expense to move them so often. The puzzle deepened, and
the fate of the children seemed darker still.
Geyer then went to Chicago and Detroit, the town from which Alice
had written the last of her letters to her mother in which she
expressed dismay that they were not together. He also learned to his
surprise that Holmes had added a third party to his game�- Mrs. Carrie
Pitezel and her other two children. He had placed her three blocks from
where he roomed the three children in his care, but had not allowed them
to realize it or see one another. But, Alice also wrote something from that location to her mother that made Geyers blood run cold. Howard is not with us now.
Going on to Toronto,
Geyer looked up real estate agents to find out if a man had rented a
house for only a few days. It took considerable time to impress each
agent with the importance of making a careful search for us. He found a
house that Holmes had rented, which was surrounded by a six-foot fence.
The family residing there knew about some loose dirt under the house.
They dug it up, firmly believing they would find one or more of the
children. To raise the suspense, they kept working as it grew dark, but
had to give up without finding anything. Geyer struck out there, as the
renter turned out to have been a different man. Still, the intrepid
detective felt certain the children had been killed somewhere in that
town, so he persisted and found another rental that seemed suspicious.
He went to check it out.
Geyer learned that a man with children at
this place had asked for the loan of a spade to plant potatoes in the
cellar and had brought only a bed, mattress and large trunk to the
house. A woman identified Holmes from a photograph as the man who had
rented the house. Geyer went there, discovered that the house had a dark
cellar accessible via a trap door, and found an area of soft dirt on
the floor. When he pushed a shovel into it, a stench arose and he knew
hed come to the right spot. His long, dark journey had produced what hed
both hoped for and had feared: human remains. After digging three feet,
he found a small arm bone, so he employed an undertaker to take charge.
In short order, they exhumed the corpses of two unclothed girls, which
they believed were Nellie and Alice Pitezel.
found lying on her side with her hand to the west, Geyer wrote. Nellie
was found lying on her face, with her head to the south, her plaited
hair hanging neatly down her back. A crew of men lifted them from the
grave and transferred them to coffins. Gruesomely, as Nellie was lifted,
her heavy braid pulled the scalp away from her skull. Geyer was widely
congratulated on his persistence and success. He sent a telegram to Philadelphia
about the days events and concluded in his book, Thus it was proved
that little children cannot be murdered in this day and generation,
beyond the possibility of discovery.Searchers found a toy in
the house that was listed in Carrie Pitezels inventory of things that
her children had owned, which assisted Geyer with a firm identification
of the remains, as did pieces of partially burnt clothing. Then, they
brought Mrs. Pitezel to Toronto�to
confirm. She was allowed to see the childrens hair and teeth, as the
remains were too putrefied for her to view. She recognized them
instantly and swooned in grief. She now knew that Holmes had lied to her
and had killed her children.
But Geyer still knew there was one
more child to find: little Howard. His trek was not yet done, although
it now appeared to be fully pessimistic. He used logic and items from
the letters to determine that Howard had been separated from the girls
before their arrival in Detroit, so it was time to return to Indianapolis.
He arrived there on July 24. As before, he proceeded to gain the
assistance of real estate agents from around the city to learn the
details of short-term rentals from the previous October. By this time,
Geyers trek had become of supreme interest to the nation and the
newspapers heralded his arrival. He was considered a real-life Sherlock
Holmes, and people wanted to follow his every step the way they read a
suspenseful piece of fiction. This was both a curse and a boon. He
received many leads, which he followed, but most of them just wasted his
time. Days came and passed, he wrote, but I continued to be as much in
the dark as ever. Geyer feared that the bold and clever criminal might
have bested him on this one. It seemed increasingly more likely that
little Howard might never be found.
Back in Philadelphia,
Holmes avidly kept track of Geyers journey. At first, he felt
empowered, believing that Geyer could never find the children. But with
the discovery of the girls remains, things looked grim. He had to think
up a tale to exonerate himself and place the blame on others. Even as he
did so, investigators were analyzing the childrens letters, and they
sent ideas to Geyer. Some things had been overlooked or misunderstood
and with renewed care, Geyer discovered that the children had been in Indianapolis�four
days longer than hed figured. He narrowed the frame of time that was
unaccounted for to only two days and then returned to Chicago
to check on a childs skeleton recently found. It was not Howard. Nor
would Holmes, when asked, yield a word of assistance. The king of
fabricators threw blame on another man as the likely perpetrator.
Geyer traveled to several more places but instinct told him to settle in Indianapolis
and keep searching there. Despite the lack of success, Geyer continued
to believe that he would make a breakthrough in this town. No less than
nine hundred supposed clues were run out, he later wrote. But he needed a
He then went to the smaller outlying towns, going through them as systematically as he had done in Indianapolis. Then, in Irvington,
he struck pay dirt. A man who had rented a house in October remembered
Holmes because his manner was so rude and abrupt. And he recalled that a
boy had been with this irascible short-term tenant. Relieved and
certain that he was at the end of the trail, Geyer proceeded to the
There was no disturbance in the floor of the
cellar that he could find, which discouraged him at first, but there was
a trunk in a small alcove, and near it some disturbed dirt. Geyer dug
into the area but found nothing. In a barn, he found a coal stove, and
remembering Holmes earlier purchase of a large stove which hed then
abandoned, Geyer suspected that this was a clue. On top were stains that
looked like dried blood. By telegram, Mrs. Pitezel identified the trunk
Geyer left the place but returned when he heard there
was news. A doctor who had poked around showed him pieces of a charred
bone�- part of a skull and a femur - that�he said had belonged to a male
child. They had found it in a pipe hole in the chimney. Geyer
dismantled the chimney and found more human remains�- a complete set of
teeth and a piece of jaw, identified by a dentist as being from a boy 7
to 10 years old. At the bottom of the chimney, Geyer recorded, was found
quite a large charred mass, which upon being cut, disclosed a portion
of the stomach, liver and spleen, baked quite hard. The pelvis of the
body was also found. Plenty of witnesses had seen Holmes back in October
when he was there and identified him from the photograph that Geyer
carried. One man even recalled helping him to install the stove.
Alice & Howard Pitezel
Convinced he had finally, albeit tragically, found Howard
Pitezel, and having it confirmed by other clues, Geyer enjoyed the best
nights sleep that hed had in two months. The search for truth had
finally reached satisfaction. It was now August 27, fully two months
after hed left on this journey, and five weeks since hed found Howards
On September 12, Holmes was indicted by a
grand jury for the murder of Benjamin Pitezel. He entered a plea of not
guilty and his trial date was scheduled for October 28. Even as he
adopted a pretense for the court, people were learning much more about
him in Chicago. Holmes, it seemed, had quite a list of murders to his name.
Land of Opportunity
Holmes, whose real name was Hermann Webster Mudgett, had arrived in Chicago�during
the 1880s, already married to two women. The city was preparing for the
Worlds Fair, or Great Exposition, which meant there was plenty of
opportunity for a clever man for fraud and theft. Erik Larson writes
eloquently about the White Citys
development, describing the many hurdles its designers and investors
encountered in the process, just barely preparing the massive grounds in
time for business. Some 27 million people went through the exposition
during its six-month venue, which overtaxed the citys resources and
inspired plenty of crime, most of which police could not investigate.
Holmes was among those who took advantage.
Ferris Wheel, introduced at World's Fair
He planned ahead for the many visitors who
would be searching for lodging as close as possible to the fair, knowing
that among them would be the most vulnerable prey: single, na�ve women
on their own who would easily succumb to a successful and charming
doctor. He presented himself as a graduate of a prestigious medical
school and a man of means.
His first Chicago�employment was as a prescription clerk at 63rd and South Wallace Streets, but he soon took over from Mrs. E.S. Holton, who then went to California
with her daughter. Indeed, no one ever heard from them again, but
Holmes took control of the shop. Across the road was a property on 63rd Street,
which he bought. Soon he was gathering funds through murder and
fraudulent schemes to build his three-story, 100-room Castle, as he
referred to it. When he eventually felt the need to leave, he tried to
burn it down to collect insurance.
In this building, investigators now found evidence of even greater crimes than swindling and bigamy.
H.H. Holmes' Castle
Holmes had offered rooms to young women arriving to attend the
fair, but many of those women associated with him had disappeared. In
addition, he had employed a number of young women, who also had
disappeared. From what could be reconstructed, it seemed that Holmes had
tortured and murdered these women, disposing of their corpses in his
furnace in the cellar or defleshing them and selling the skeletons to
Schechter describes what the place was like:
Holmes Castle included soundproof sleeping chambers with peepholes,
asbestos-padded walls, gas pipes, sliding walls, and vents that Holmes
controlled from another room. Many of the rooms had low ceilings and
trapdoors in the floors, with ladders leading to smaller rooms below.
The building had secret passages, false floors, rooms with torture
equipment, and a specially equipped surgery. There were also greased
chutes that emptied into a two-level cellar, in which Holmes had
installed a large furnace. There was even an asbestos-lined chamber with
gas pipes and evidence of something having been burned inside. It was
believed that Holmes placed his chosen victims into the special chambers
into which he then pumped lethal gas, controlled from his own bedroom,
and then watched them react. Apparently, he gained some fiendish
pleasure from this activity. Sometimes he'd
ignite the gas to incinerate them, or perhaps even place them on the
elasticity determinator, an elongated bed with straps, to see how far
the human body could be stretched. When finished,�he might have slid the
corpses down the chutes into his cellar, where vats of acid and other
chemicals awaited them. (Many more details about Holmes activities here
can be found in Schecters and Larsons books.)
Investigators discovered several complete skeletons and numerous incinerated bone fragments in the Chicago
castle, including the pelvis of a 14-year-old, according to Blundell.
There was also a blood-stained noose and a vault filled with quicklime.
Yet, Holmes insisted that he had nothing to do with any murders. Those
people had either taken their own lives, he claimed, or were killed by
someone else. Nevertheless, newspaper headlines decried the chamber of
horrors. The Chicago Tribune announced that The Castle is a Tomb! and The Philadelphia Inquirer
described bones removed from the charnel house. It wasnt long before
true crime pulp paperbacks were published to slake the publics thirst
and turn a profit. Authors searched far and wide for even more murders
that Holmes may have committed, as far back as 1879. Chicago police estimated his toll to be as high as 150. In Philadelphia, the Holmes Museum
opened to the curious. But Holmes was ready. Hed always gotten his way
with his gift of the gab and he figured he could do so again, despite
how the odds seemed stacked against him. He offered his memoir.
The Art of Persuasion
H.H. Holmes Own Story
To exonerate himself, Holmes, now 34, penned Holmes Own Story, in
which the Alleged Multimurderer and Arch Conspirator Tells of the
Twenty-two Tragic Deaths and Disappearances in which he is Said to be
Implicated. He included his supposed prison diary as an appendix
(which Larson believes he invented rather than kept as a daily log). The
diary is a boring rendition of his routine, probably intended to make
him appear to be an ordinary Joe with an interest in books, and
presented as a means for his betterment. He viewed the whole as a
literary work, as befitted his narcissistic temperament, and claimed
that he had written it with mature deliberation, and against the protest
of his attorney and acquaintances.He claimed that the murders
he had been accused of were a blatant attempt to ensure that his trial
would not be fair and impartial. He wanted to formally and publicly deny
them all. Thus, he set out to offer a narrative of his entire life,
including a full disclosure of his dealings with the Pitezel family. My
sole object in this publication is to vindicate my name from the
horrible aspersions cast upon it, he wrote, and to appeal to a
fair-minded American public for a suspension of judgment.
Gilmanton, NH logo
In this memoir, which he got a journalist to assist him to publish, Holmes describes Gilmanton Academy, N.H.,
the town in which he grew up as Herman Webster Mudgett. He was born
there in 1861 and claims to have experienced an ordinary life, with an
ordinary set of parents and a normal schoolboy routine. Larson disputes
this, having learned from experts that psychopathic children are
generally involved in conduct disorders and juvenile delinquency, but
this is not always the case. Generalizations offer poor ways to get at
the truth of individual cases, and since there is no evidence either
way, we cannot know what Holmes childhood was really like.He
describes a turning point in his life as the day some older boys forced
him into a village doctors office and face-to-face with a skeleton. It
was a wicked and dangerous thing to do to a child of tender years and
health, Holmes says, though he admits that the experience cured him of
his fears. He attributes his desire to go into medicine to this
He also discusses his childhood lies and
pranks and how his father punished him. It was in college, he says,
where he did his first truly dishonest act: He represented a fraudulent
book, earning money from it for his expenses. He received a medical
school diploma, he says, from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor,
and then opened a practice. He then attempted unsuccessfully to commit
his first insurance fraud, helping someone to fake his own death with a
purloined cadaver. From there, he served a stint as a doctor in an
insane asylum, which haunted him for years. He changed his name to H.H.
Holmes and posed as a pharmacist in Chicago. That was an ominous start to his career.
Holmes continues in his memoir with a poor me fashion, describing
the ills that befell him and the hardships he endured before meeting Ben
Pitezel in 1888. They fell into a partnership that involved various
pursuits that financially benefited them both. Holmes also speaks about
some of the missing women associated with him so that he can assure
readers that they did things such as announcing they were going to leave
and disappearing on their own. He also indicated that many young women
were alive and well, and better off for having known him.
As for Minnie Williams, who had disappeared without a trace, Holmes
offered a story of a woman who had fallen into difficult times, had an
illegitimate child, and was suicidal. She had an abortion, felt terribly
ashamed, and left everyone she knew. She served as his secretary for a
time, and often ate meals in his building�- which he claimed would
account for any bone remains that might be found in the furnace. Her
sister Nettie arrived (also referred to as Nannie) and, in short order,
died. It seemed that Minnie had decided that Nettie fancied Holmes, so
she struck her with a stool and killed her (having often suffered from
bouts of mania, she was quite without restraint in such matters). Holmes
helped Minnie to place the body in a trunk and dump it into Lake Michigan.But
from my sight it has never passed, writes Holmes about the incident.
Nor has there been a day, an hour, since that awful night that I would
not have given my life if by doing so that of Nettie Williams could have
been returned. Holmes then broke everything off with Minnie. She went
away and he burned the clothing she left behind, or gave it to Pitezel.
No one heard from Minnie again...except for Holmes, supposedly, who said
he helped her to handle her land investments in Texas.
also describes how he first met the Pitezel family and the business
ventures into which he entered with Benjamin Pitezel. In the end, he
insists that he had no motive to kill anyone, and says that he was
always quite generous, so that even avarice would not count, as it was
inconsistent with his character. He also did not have a bad temper and
had made no dishonest transactions. He also did not believe he was
insane, having no mental illness in his family and no finding of it from
doctors who had examined him thus far. Of the Pitezel situation, Holmes
said that Pitezel was worth more to him alive than dead, so why would
he have engaged in murder?
In conclusion, he writes, I wish to say
that I am but a very ordinary man�... and to have planned and executed
the stupendous amount of wrongdoing that has been attributed to me would
have been wholly beyond my power. He asked the general public to
withhold judgment of his guilt or innocence until he could disprove them
at his trial. He would also work to bring justice to those for whose
wrong doings I am today suffering.
However, this publication was
so transparently self-serving that readers preferred the more lurid
tales provided in newspapers. No one really believed Holmes own story,
although it is an interesting collectors item for criminologists.
In the Game
Holmes attorneys attempted to get his trial continued, but were unsuccessful. In addition, there was a struggle between Chicago and Philadelphia authorities, says Blundell, as to who would get to try him first, but he remained in Philadelphia. The trial commenced as scheduled on October 28. It lasted five days.
the first day, Holmes tried to defend himself but proved unable to
establish points in his favor. The best account of the trial comes from
the speech, reprinted in Geyers book, from the District Attorney, George
S. Graham, who recounts it in detail. Yet, he does not include some of
the more interesting events. For example, from a distance, a
phrenologist, John L. Capen, made an analysis of Holmes, which was
published during the trial in the New York World. He described
the repulsive face and pointed out that great murderers have blue eyes.
Holmess expression, Capen said, was cruel and inhuman, and his ears,
twisted out of shape, stamped him as a criminal. This was all evidence
of devilry and vice. In other words, Capen convicted a man not yet found
guilty based on appearances alone.
At the trial, also described in detail by Schechter, Holmes
requested to defend himself. Judge Arnold allowed it, stating, It is
your constitutional right to try your own case. Holmes questioned
prospective jury members, at which point his team of attorneys left the
courtroom. Holmes demonstrated the coolness with which he handled stress
and tried rejecting each person who said he had read the papers, but
the judge pointed out that this was not considered a cause for
challenge. In any event, this all occurred well before the Supreme Court
would rule about the unfairness of pretrial publicity. The jury was
seated and the trial proceeded.
His Own Defense
Holmes request to defend himself, Schechter says, was unprecedented. No accused murderer had done it before in the United States, so several lawyers and law students attended. A reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer
described Holmes performance in court as vigorous and remarkable. He
was deferential to the judge but nasty to the prosecutor. He asked for
an analysis of the liquid that he was accused of using as a poison for
the children (which the D.A. did not have in his possession), and he
wanted the most recent work done on toxicology, claiming that as a
doctor, he himself could analyze it (though his credentials were false).
This left the impression of a man who was prepared to use science to
Herman Mudgett, aka HH Holmes sketch
Yet, Holmes often deflected the questioning with forays into minutia,
and he frequently squabbled with the prosecutor, who was likely
disturbed at having to spar in court as an equal with the defendant.
Holmes made an error when, after Pitezels corpse was described in
gruesome detail, he requested a lunch break, as he was hungry. He
appeared to have no sense of sorrow over the supposed suicide of a
partner and friend. For the rest of that day, while he handled his
questioning in a professional manner, he failed to elicit any points to
support his innocence. The professional witnesses all concluded that
Pitezel could not, as Holmes claimed, have committed suicide.The
judge ordered an evening session over Holmess protest. Holmes claimed
that he was feeling ill, but it was clear that he was failing to
establish his case. The evening session opened with a surprise: Holmes
asked that the court allow his two defense attorneys to re-enter the
case, and with that he relinquished his role as a criminal lawyer. While
he now had competent counsel, he had probably hurt his case. Between
his antics and his obvious fatigue by the end of the first day, the jury
had a good look at the defendants loss of confidence and inability to
shake the strongest witnesses. He may not have admitted his guilt, but
his actions indicated that he had admitted defeat. He got up only once
to examine another witness - his latest paramour and third wife, who
testified against him. Using a heavy dose of emotion, as if stricken by
her betrayal, he nevertheless failed to move her to change her testimony
about his behavior on the day that Pitezel was allegedly murdered.
prosecution made its case quite elaborately, prepared to show his
activities with 35 witnesses from the various places Holmes had gone
after the Pitezel murder. But the judge had ruled that the trial must be
limited to the Pitezel murder, so Graham showed how they made Pitezels
identification, and adding in whatever they were allowed about Holmes
reprehensible behavior. They proved with doctors that the chloroform
that had supposedly killed Pitezel by self-administration actually had
been forced into him after he was already dead. So Pitezel was dead and
had not died from natural causes or his own hand. Given Holmes
admissions about being with him, there was really no other choice for
jurors. In addition, Carrie Pitezel had won the courtroom with her
mournful rendition of learning that her children were dead. In his
closing argument, which lasted more than two hours, Graham called Holmes
the most dangerous man in the world, and asked jurors not to be afraid
to do their duty and operate like honest men.
In the end, the jury convicted Holmes of Benjamin Pitezels murder and the judge sentenced him to death by hanging.
After his conviction, and as his attorneys prepared an appeal for a
new trial (which failed), Holmes took up the pen again to make a
confession, largely inspired by the promise of a $10,000 payment from
the Hearst newspaper syndicate. He published it in The Philadelphia Inquirer. It was his third full-blown tale to date about his activities with the Pitezel incident.
now to become the most notorious killer in the world, he claimed to
have killed more than 100 people. Apparently having second thoughts, he
reduced that number to 27, including Pitezel and his children. He
insisted that he could not help what he'd done.
was born with the Evil One as my sponsor beside the bed where I was
ushered into the world," he lamented. The reading of his death warrant
had been carried out and he faced execution by hanging on May 7. It now
seems a fitting time, if ever, he wrote, to make known the details of
the twenty-seven murders, of which it would be useless to longer say I
am not guilty. He admitted that there was overwhelming proof for his
complicity in these deaths, and said that he would address only those
cases that had been investigated and hoped that people would not
therefore suppose from his silence on others that he must be guilty. It
seemed to him sufficient that Detective Geyer had gone over his life
with a fine-tooth comb, so to speak, and there was really no place to
Holmes claimed that he wanted to make the confession at this point for several reasons, and he chose the Philadelphia Inquirer
as his medium for making his revelations public. He assured his readers
that he was not seeking attention and that the entire enterprise was
distasteful to him. As he admitted to the murders, he said he was thus
branding myself as the most detestable criminal of modern times. Indeed,
He sensed that his own countenance was changing as he sat in
prison, and that he looked more satanic than before. I have become
afflicted with that dread disease, rare but terrible...a malformation...
My head and face are gradually assuming an elongated shape. I believe
fully that I am growing to resemble the devil�- that the similitude is
almost completed. He self-diagnosed acquired homicidal mania and
degeneracy, which meant he was a moral idiot.
The criminological theories at the time were fueled by Cesare Lombroso, an Italian anthropologist and professor at the University of Turin. By 1876, Lombroso had published Luomo delinquente.
Believing that human behavior could be classified with objective tests,
Lombroso was convinced that certain people were born criminals,
identifiable by specific physical traits, such as bulging brows, long
arms, and apelike noses. They were throwbacks to more primitive times,
and he called them degenerates. Lombrosos ideas had spread quickly
across Europe and America,
supported by the new evolutionary thinking. Thus, Holmes fell into this
erroneous diagnostic mania. In another decade or so, Lombroso would be
discredited. Yet, in keeping with the theory, Holmes saw a prominence on
one side of his head and a corresponding diminution on the other side.
Also, a deficiency on his nose and ear, and the lengthening or
shortening of various limbs. One criminologist who saw him pronounced
him guilty just from his appearance.Holmes said he was
confessing in part to justify the scientific deductions. Little did he
know they werent scientific at all. But his motive was more likely to
bring attention to himself and to wallow in one last flight of
grandiosity. No doubt he enjoyed the idea of having an affect on an
His first murder, he admitted, was by overdose of
laudanum of a former schoolmate for insurance money. Holmes claimed
(probably falsely) that it had given him a terrible guilty conscience,
but hed then developed an appetite for blood. The second murder, he
said, was accidental, when he got into a physical altercation with a man
who owed him money. Then he killed a few people to sell to a corpse
dealer for payment of $25 to $45 apiece. Later he lost touch with this
dealer, so he sometimes buried victims in the dirt floor of his offices.
Some victims he poisoned, some he bludgeoned, and a few he closed into
his vaults for gassing and asphyxia�- a slow and lingering death. Most
of these cases involved money, threat of exposure, or some other form of
enrichment for Holmes. Sometimes he used confederates as accomplices.
one case, when he attempted to murder three young women at the same
time, with chloroform, they escaped and turned him in. Holmes was
arrested but inexplicably not prosecuted for attempted murder, or even
for assault. In some cases, Holmes either did not know or could not
recall the name of a victim or near-victim.
Readers were most
interested in what Holmes might say about the Williams sisters and the
Pitezel family, and for both he provided quite a few details (although
how much is true is anyones guess).
Holmes made a point to affirm the Christian character of Minnie
Williams and he retracted many of the statements he had made about her
regarding her state of mind and her alleged murder of her sister. She
was never in an asylum or secreted away to protect her reputation, he
now said. Hed first met her in 1888 in New York, and then encountered her five years later in Chicago. He persuaded her to give him several sizable sums of money and then maneuvered her to invite her sister to Chicago so he could get a bead on their property in Texas. Nannie/Nettie assigned her worldly goods to him (he said).
that, Holmes writes, she was immediately killed in order that no one in
or about the Castle should know of her having been there save the man
who burned her clothing. To his chagrin, she did leave something
behind�- her footprint on the door of the vault, which she produced
during an unsuccessful struggle to survive. (This was how Chicago authorities hoped to prove she was murdered.)
told Minnie that her sister had given up her journey north. He then
secured Minnies property in his own name and killed her, as well. He
poisoned her and buried her in the cellar of a house that he owned. He
tried to implicate her as the murderer of her sister and the Pitezel
children, which he was now repudiating: This is the saddest and most
heinous of any of my crimes, he commented.
Next, he turned his
attention to Pitezel. Holmes indicated that from the first hour they
met, he knew that he would kill the man. Everything he did for Pitezel
that seemed to be a kindness was merely a way to gain his confidence.
Pitezel met his death on September 2, 1894. Holmes wrote fake letters
from Mrs. Pitezel to show him, which precipitated a bout of drinking.
Holmes watched and waited until he was able to come upon Pitezel in a
drunken stupor in the middle of the day. He packed his bags in readiness
to leave and then went to where Pitezel lay in bed, bound him,
saturated his clothing and face with benzene, and lit a match. He
literally burned his former accomplice alive. Apparently Pitezel cried
out and prayed for mercy, begging Holmes to end his suffering with a
speedy death, all of which had on me no effect. When Pitezel finally
expired, Holmes extinguished the flames, removed the ropes, and poured
chloroform into his stomach, to make the death appear to be accidentally
brought about by an explosion. That way, the insurance company would
quickly pay the full amount of the claim. He left the body in a position
that exposed it to the sun for however long it would be before someone
had found him�- presumably to further deform it for difficulty in
identification. I left the house, he wrote, without the slightest
feeling of remorse for my terrible acts.
However, Holmes said, the chloroform apparently also had the
effect of depriving the tissues of alcohol, so that no one would know
that Pitezel had been in a drunken state. At any rate, Pitezel was still
More bizarre, Holmes says that three weeks later he
visited the grave where Pitezel was buried and pretended to be
acquiring samples for microscopic analysis. He said he found that
cutting into the corpse with a knife was inordinately satisfying.
for young Howard Pitezel, Holmes also had a story to tell. He had every
intention of murdering the three Pitezel children, so he hid them in a
hotel until he could find a way that would not draw suspicion. After a
week, he poisoned the boy and then cut him into pieces small enough to
go through the door of a stove he had purchased. He felt nothing about
these acts, only the pleasure he gained from killing another person. He
then took the girls to Chicago, Detroit, and Toronto.
There, Alice and Nellie Pitezel met their fate. They were the
twenty-sixth and twenty-seventh of his victims. He made them believe
they would soon be reunited with their mother (whom he had also brought
in some diabolical game), while he plotted how he would be rid of them.
He compelled them both to get inside a large trunk and closed them
inside, leaving an air hole. Then he returned and pumped gas into the
hole to kill the girls, even as their mother was traveling on to New York.
He dug shallow graves, removed their clothing, and dumped them without a
thought. He considered that for eight years before their deaths I had
been almost as much a father to them as though they had been my own
He had a plan to end Mrs. Pitezels life, along with
those of her two remaining children, with nitroglycerine, but he was
arrested in Boston
before he managed to achieve this. He closed his confession by saying
that his last public utterance would be of remorse for these vile acts.
He did not expect anyone to really believe him. And Geyer later says in
his book that Holmes account, published in many papers on April 12, 1896,
was so inconsistent with the facts that they had gathered about the
Pitezel childrens demise that it was at once discredited in police
Then, in one quick move, according to Geyer, Holmes
recanted the confession, and in fact it was learned that several of his
victims were not dead at all or had died in ways clearly unassociated
with him. When told by police that his tale was untrue, he supposedly
said, Of course it is not true, but the newspapers want a sensation and
they got it. Nevertheless, police did believe what he had said about the
murder of Benjamin Pitezel. Geyer found it vile that Holmes would not
tell the truth even as he stood on the brink of eternity.
On May 7, 1896, H.H. Holmes went to the hangman's
noose. His last meal was boiled eggs, dry toast, and coffee. Even at
the noose, he changed his story. He claimed to have killed only two
people, and tried to say more but at 10:13 the trapdoor opened and he was hanged. Blundell says that it took him fully 15 minutes to strangle to death on the gallows.
of body-snatchers who might capitalize on his corpse, Holmes had made a
request: He wanted no autopsy and he instructed his attorneys to see
that he was buried in a coffin filled with cement. This was taken to Holy Cross Cemetery south of Philadelphia
and two Pinkerton guards stood over the grave during the night before
the body was finally interred in a double grave also filled with cement.
No stone was erected to mark it, Larson states, although its presence
is recorded on a cemetery registry.
Holmes attorneys had turned down an offer of $5,000 for his body, and even refused his brain to Philadelphias
Wistar Institute, which hoped to have its experts analyze the organ for
better understanding of the criminal mind. Larson recounts a series of
strange events afterward that gave credence to the rumors that Holmes
was satanic, including several weird deaths and a fire at the D.A.s
office that destroyed everything there save a photograph of Holmes.
During this case, another American phenomenon arose from society's
fascination with sensational crime. Thousands of people lined up to see
the Chicago murder site, so a former police officer remodeled the
infamous building as "Holmes's
Horror Castle," an attraction that offered guided tours to the
suffocation chambers and torture rooms. But before it opened it
mysteriously burned to the ground.
So many people who'd
rented rooms from Holmes during the fair had actually gone missing that
sensational estimates of his victims reached around 200, and some
people perpetuated this unsubstantiated toll even today. Its likely that
Holmes own figure from his recanted confession is low, but there is no
way to know just how many he actually killed. A record of his many other
frauds can be found in the authors noted in the bibliography.
Holmes: The Movie
While most high-profile serial killers have some type of visual
medium devoted to them, whether a miniseries for Ted Bundy or a feature
film for Aileen Wuornos, its much more difficult to develop such
presentation for historical figures. Larsons bestselling book, The Devil in the White City,
brought considerable attention to H.H. Holmes, but until now there has
never been a comprehensive documentary on the man. Though film rights
for Larsons book have been optioned by Cruise/Wagner Productions, no
movie plans have been announced. But there is a way to acquire some
visuals of the Holmes case.
In 2003, Waterfront Productions offered an hour-long DVD about the life
and crimes of H. H. Holmes. While producer John Borowski mistakenly
bills Holmes as Americas
first serial killer, other facts of his fine production are accurate.
For those who know the case, this documentary offers a way to see some
of the historic newspaper photos and articles about Holmes castle, his
childhood home in New Hampshire, and his interviews with the press as he
awaited his trial in Philadelphia. Wisely, Borowski does not try to
over-embellish the legend. He even notes that there are various
estimates of Holmes final victim count, a number that no one really
knows. �Featured on the documentary (www.hhholmesthefilm.com) are crime historian Harold Schechter, noted for Depraved,
his painstakingly researched book on the case, and Thomas Cronin, who
bills himself as a criminal profiler. While Cronin overextends himself
to assume things about the killers ideas and behavior for which he has
no real basis, Schechter balances this with a scholars careful approach.
Cronin has been a police officer for over thirty years and has training
in criminal profiling from the FBIs BSU in Quantico, so some of his ideas are likely grounded in the statistical approach, generalized from other studies.
documentary was made over the course of three years, completely at
Borowskis expense, and sparked by an article about the infamous Holmes Castle in Chicago, once located on 63rd
and Wallace. It was burned down before it could be made into a public
amusement museum, but the horrors that occurred there nevertheless mark
the spot with unquiet ghosts. In interviews, Borowski describes how he
became fascinated with the man, a seemingly upstanding citizen and
family man who killed indiscriminately, with no obvious victim type, and
who dispatched victims not only for financial gain but also to
entertain himself with torture devices of his own invention.
While the documentary offers nineteenth-century photos and
maps, it also reconstructs some of the scenes, using genuine pieces from
the 1980s, such as scalpels and a lantern. Borowski even acquired a
copy of Holmes birth certificate.
He apparently acquired his interest in killers like Holmes after he
viewed photos that a friends father, a police detective, had of some of
Jeffrey Dahmers dismembered victims. The images of body parts, heads,
and a torso in a bathtub haunted him for years afterward. Eventually he
made a short film while in college about Dahmer, and then got intrigued
with other such crimes. Since no one else had produced anything about
Holmes, he decided to do it himself. In addition to offering a DVD,
Borowski has made a CD-Rom available that includes Holmes original
confession, published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the book by Detective Frank Geyer.In
short, Borowski has done a service for fans and scholars of true crime
alike. This is the first documentary of the case and it offers plenty of
historic material. His company will also publish the contents as a
book, which can otherwise only be accessed in their original form
through Philadelphia or Library of Congress archives.
addition to making the first DVD about H. H. Holmes available to
viewers, John Borowski has done a great service by also publishing the
four principle works by and about Holmes during the time of his arrest,
as he awaited trial.�Previously, one had to go to a place like the
newspaper archives in Philadelphia to get access to these papers.� Now
they're all in one bound volume, along with provocative illustrations of
the case and the infamous Chicago castle.� In addition to Holmes's
various "confessions," the volume includes the book penned by Detective
Frank Geyer, as well as Robert Corbitt's description of the castle
before it was destroyed and the analysis of evidence there - including
bones and fine hair found in the stove.� Holmes was so clever, it seems,
that he would�hire and discharge workmen each day so that no one could
see what he was up to.� It's fortunate the Borowski has been so
interested in the case as to produce�both a DVD and a bound collection
of 19th century publications.� Despite the availability of two
excellent�books devoted to Holmes in recent times, it's always valuable
to read the documents from the relevant era.