Friday, May 7, 2010

Execution Day: H.H. Holmes 1861-1896 Serial Killer

Herman Webster Mudgett (May 16, 1861[1] – May 7, 1896[2]), better known under the alias of Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, was an American serial killer. Holmes opened a hotel in Chicago for the 1893 World's Fair, which he built himself and was the location of many of his murders. While he confessed to 27 murders, of which nine were confirmed, his actual body count could be higher.

The case was notorious in its time and received wide publicity via a series of articles in William Randolph Hearst's newspapers. Interest in Holmes' crimes was revived in 2003 by Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, a best-selling non-fiction book that juxtaposed an account of the planning and staging of the World's Fair with Holmes' story.

Early life

Mudgett was born in Gilmanton, New Hampshire.[3] He was the son of Levi Horton Mudgett and Theodate Page Price. The family was descended from among the first settlers to the area. His father was a strict disciplinarian, and Mudgett was often bullied as a child. He claimed that, as a child, schoolmates forced him to view and touch a human skeleton after discovering his fear of the local doctor's office. The bullies initially brought him there to scare him, but instead he was utterly fascinated.

Herman Mudgett graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School in 1884. While enrolled, he stole bodies from the school laboratory. Disfiguring the corpses and claiming that the people were killed accidentally, Mudgett collected insurance money from policies he had taken out on each one. After graduating, he moved to Chicago to practice pharmacy. He also began engaging in many shady businesses, real estate, and promotional deals under the name "H. H. Holmes."

On July 8, 1878, Holmes married Clara A. Lovering of Alton, New Hampshire. On January 28, 1887, he married Myrta Z. Belknap in Minneapolis, Minnesota; he was still married to Lovering at the time, making him a bigamist. He and Belknap had a daughter named Lucy Theodate Holmes, born July 4, 1889 in Englewood, Illinois[4]. The family of three resided in the upscale Chicago suburb of Wilmette—although Holmes spent most of his time in the city tending to business. He filed a petition for divorce from his first wife after marrying his second, but the divorce was never finalized. He married his third wife, Georgiana Yoke, on January 9, 1894. He also had a relationship with Julia Smythe, the wife of Ned Connor, his one-time employee who later fled Chicago. Julia became one of Holmes' victims.

Chicago and the "Murder Castle"

While in Chicago during the summer of 1886, Holmes came across Dr. E.S. Holton's drugstore.[5] at the corner of Wallace and 63rd Streets, in the neighborhood of Englewood. Holton was suffering from cancer while his wife minded the store.[5] Through his charm, Holmes got a job there and then manipulated her into letting him purchase the store. They agreed she could still live in the upstairs apartment even after Holton died. Once Holton died, Holmes murdered Mrs. Holton and told people she was visiting relatives in California. As people started asking questions about her return, he elaborated the lie and told them she enjoyed California so much that she decided to live there.[5]

Holmes purchased a lot across from the drugstore, where he built his three-story, block-long "Castle"—as it was dubbed by those in the neighborhood. It was opened as a hotel for the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, with part of the structure used as commercial space. The ground floor of the Castle contained Holmes' own relocated drugstore and various shops, while the upper two floors contained his personal office and a maze of over one hundred windowless rooms with doorways opening to brick walls, oddly angled hallways, stairways to nowhere, doors openable only from the outside, and a host of other strange and labyrinthine constructions. Holmes repeatedly changed builders during the construction of the Castle so only he fully understood the design of the house he had created, thus decreasing the chance of being reported to the police.

After the completion of the hotel, Holmes selected most female victims from among his employees (many of whom were required as a condition of employment to take out life insurance policies for which Holmes would pay the premiums but also be the beneficiary), lovers and hotel guests, and tortured and killed them.[5] Some were locked in soundproof bedrooms fitted with gas lines that let him asphyxiate them at any time. Some victims were locked in a huge soundproof bank vault near his office where they were left to suffocate [6]. The victims' bodies went by secret chute to the basement, where some were meticulously dissected, stripped of flesh, crafted into skeleton models, and then sold to medical schools. Holmes also cremated some of the bodies or placed them in lime pits for destruction. Holmes had two giant furnaces as well as pits of acid, bottles of various poisons, and even a stretching rack. Through the connections he had gained in medical school, he sold skeletons and organs with little difficulty. Holmes picked one of the most remote rooms in the Castle to perform hundreds of illegal abortions. Some of his patients died as a result of his abortion procedure,[7] and their corpses were also processed and the skeletons sold.[5]

Capture and arrest

Following the World's Fair, with creditors closing in and the economy in a general slump, Holmes left Chicago. He reappeared in Fort Worth, Texas, where he had inherited property from two railroad heiress sisters, to one of whom he had promised marriage and both of whom he murdered. There he sought to construct another castle along the lines of his Chicago operation. However, he soon abandoned this project, finding the law enforcement climate in Texas inhospitable. He continued to move about the United States and Canada, and while it seems likely that he continued to kill, the only bodies discovered that date from this period are those of his close business associate and three of the associate's children.

In July 1894, Holmes was arrested and briefly incarcerated for the first time, for a horse swindle that ended in St. Louis. He was promptly bailed out, but while in jail, he struck up a conversation with a convicted train robber named Marion Hedgepeth, who was serving a 25-year sentence. Holmes had concocted a plan to bilk an insurance company out of $20,000 by taking out a policy on himself and then faking his death. Holmes promised Hedgepeth a $500 commission in exchange for the name of a lawyer who could be trusted. He was directed to Colonel Jeptha Howe, the brother of a public defender, who found Holmes’ plan to be brilliant. Holmes' plan to fake his own death failed when the insurance company became suspicious and refused to pay. Holmes did not press his claim; instead he concocted a similar plan with his associate, Benjamin Pitezel.

Pitezel had agreed to fake his own death so that his wife could collect on the $10,000 policy, which she was to split with Holmes and the shady attorney, Howe. The scheme, which was to take place in Philadelphia, was that Pitezel should set himself up as an inventor, under the name B. F. Perry, and then be killed and disfigured in a lab explosion. Holmes was to find an appropriate cadaver to play the role of Pitezel. Holmes then killed Pitezel, although it was possible that Pitezel, an alcoholic and chronic depressive, may have committed suicide. Forensic evidence presented at Holmes' later trial, however, showed that chloroform was administered after Pitezel's death, presumably to fake suicide. Holmes proceeded to collect on the policy on the basis of the genuine Pitezel corpse. He then went on to manipulate Pitezel's wife into allowing three of her five children (Alice, Nellie, and Howard) to stay in his custody. The eldest daughter and baby remained with Mrs. Pitezel. He traveled with the children through the northern United States and into Canada.

Simultaneously he escorted Mrs. Pitezel along a parallel route, all the while using various aliases and lying to Mrs. Pitezel concerning her husband's death (claiming that Pitezel was in hiding in South America) as well as lying to her about the true whereabouts of her other children—they were often only separated by a few blocks. A Philadelphia detective had tracked Holmes, finding the decomposed bodies of the two Pitezel girls in Toronto. He then followed Holmes to Indianapolis. There Holmes had rented a cottage. He was reported to have visited a local pharmacy to purchase the drugs which he used to kill Howard Pitezel, and a repair shop to sharpen the knives he used to chop up the body before he burned it. The boy's teeth and bits of bone were discovered in the home's chimney.[8]

In 1894 the police were tipped off by his former cell-mate, Marion Hedgepeth, whom Holmes had neglected to pay off as promised for his help in providing Howe. Holmes's escapade ended when he was finally arrested in Boston on November 17, 1894, after being tracked there from Philadelphia by the Pinkertons. He was held on an outstanding warrant for horse theft in Texas, as the authorities had little more than suspicions at this point and Holmes appeared poised to flee the country, in the company of his unsuspecting third wife.[9]

After the custodian for the Castle informed police that he was never allowed to clean the upper floors, police began a thorough investigation over the course of the next month, uncovering Holmes' efficient methods of committing murders and then disposing of the corpses. A fire of mysterious origin consumed the building on August 19, 1895, and the site is currently occupied by a U.S. Post Office building.

The number of his victims has typically been estimated between 20 and 100, and even as high as 230, based upon missing persons reports of the time as well as the testimony of Holmes' neighbors who reported seeing him accompany unidentified young women into his hotel—young women whom they never saw exit. The discrepancy in numbers can perhaps best be attributed to the fact that a great many people came to Chicago to see the World's Fair but, for one reason or another, never returned home. The only verified number is 27,[10] although police had commented that some of the bodies in the basement were so badly dismembered and decomposed that it was difficult to tell how many bodies there actually were. Holmes' victims were primarily women (and primarily blonde) but included some men and children.

Trial and execution

While Holmes sat in prison in Philadelphia, not only did the Chicago police investigate his operations in that city, but the Philadelphia police began to try to unravel the Pitezel situation—in particular, the fate of the three missing children. Philadelphia detective Frank Geyer was given the task of finding out. His quest for the children, like the search of Holmes' Castle, received wide publicity. His eventual discovery of their remains essentially sealed Holmes' fate, at least in the public mind.

Holmes was put on trial for the murder of Pitezel and confessed, following his conviction, to 27 murders in Chicago, Indianapolis and Toronto, and six attempted murders. Holmes was paid $7,500 by the Hearst Papers in exchange for this confession. He gave various contradictory accounts of his life, claiming initially innocence and later that he was possessed by Satan. His facility for lying has made it difficult for researchers to ascertain any truth on the basis of his statements.

On May 7, 1896, Holmes was hanged at Moyamensing Prison, also known as the Philadelphia County Prison.[11] Until the moment of his death, Holmes remained calm and amiable, showing very few signs of fear, anxiety or depression.[12] Holmes' neck did not snap immediately; he instead died slowly, twitching over 15 minutes before being pronounced dead 20 minutes after the trap was sprung.[11][13] He requested that he be buried in concrete so that no one could ever dig him up and dissect his body, as he had dissected so many others. This request was granted.[11]

On New Year's Eve, 1910, Marion Hedgepeth, who had been pardoned for informing on Holmes, was shot and killed by a police officer during a holdup at a Chicago saloon. Then, on March 7, 1914, a story in the Chicago Tribune reported the death of the former caretaker of the Murder Castle, Pat Quinlan. Quinlan had committed suicide by taking strychnine[14], and the paper reported that his death meant "the mysteries of Holmes' Castle" would remain unexplained. Quinlan's surviving relatives claimed Quinlan had been "haunted" for several months before his death and could not sleep.[15]

In popular culture

"Murder Castle," the August 3, 1943 episode of the American radio horror show Lights Out, written by Arch Oboler, is directly inspired by the Holmes case.

The Robert Bloch novel American Gothic (1974) is a fictionalized account of the crimes perpetrated in Holmes' "Castle," but is grounded in the real facts of the case.

"The Scarlet Mansion," a 1985 novel by Allan W. Eckert, is based on the life of Mudgett.

The Beast of Chicago, a chapter in the 1987 graphic novel series A Treasury of Victorian Murder by Rick Geary, tells the Holmes story.

Caleb Carr's 1994 novel The Alienist has a protagonist whose grandmother has fixated on H.H. Holmes. She does not have a good night's sleep until he is hanged.

The Devil in the White City is a 2003 non-fiction book by Erik Larson that details the life of Holmes.

The White City (2004), a work of historical fiction by Alec Michod, depicts a serial killer fashioned after Holmes who preys upon children attending the 1893 World's Fair.

The second season episode "No Exit" (November 2, 2006) of the television series Supernatural features Holmes who, as a ghost haunting an apartment building on the lot where he was hanged, is responsible for the murders of several women who lived there. However, one of the photos of Holmes' victims featured in the episode is actually a photo of Elizabeth Stride, a victim of Jack the Ripper. [16]

Notes and references

1.^ New Hampshire. Registrar of Vital Statistics. "Index to births, early to 1900", Registrar of Vital Statistics, Concord, New Hampshire. FHL Microfilms: film number 1001018
2.^ Philadelphia (Pennsylvania). Board of Health. "Death registers, 1860–1903". Salt Lake City: Filmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah, 1962.
3.^ New Hampshire. Registrar of Vital Statistics. "Index to births, early to 1900", Registrar of Vital Statistics, Concord, New Hampshire. FHL Microfilms: film number 1001018
4.^ Lucy Theodate Holmes, passport application, U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: The Generations Network, Inc., 2007. Original data: Passport Applications, January 2, 1906-March 31, 1925; (National Archives Microfilm Publication M1490, 2740 rolls); General Records of the Department of State, Record Group 59; National Archives, Washington, D.C.
5.^ "The Strange Life of H.H. Holmes". by Debra Pawlak. The Mediadrome. 2002.
6.^ The Devil in the White City
7.^ Holmes admitted having only 2 women die during a criminal operation.
8.^ Lloyd, Christopher (October 24, 2008), "Grisly Indy", The Indianapolis Star (Gannett Company, Inc.)
9.^ Holmes was thus simultaneously moving three groups of people across the country—each ignorant of the other two.
10.^ This number reached by Holmes' confession, for which the Philadelphia Enquirer paid him. Some of the names on the list turned out to be those of people still alive,
11.^ Ramsland, Katherine. "H. H. Holmes: Master of Illusion". Crime Library. Retrieved 2009-01-02. "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 15 minutes to strangle to death on the gallows."
12.^ Franke, D. (1975). The Torture Doctor. New York: Avon.
13.^ "Holmes Cool to the End.". New York Times. 1896-05-08. "Under the Noose He Says He Only Killed Two Women. He denies the Murder of Pitezel. Slept Soundly Through His Last Night on Earth and Was Calm on the Scaffold. Priests with him on the Gallows. Prayed with Him Before the Trap Was Sprung. Dead in Fifteen Minutes, but Neck Was Not Broken. Murderer Herman Mudgett, alias H.H. Holmes, was hanged this morning in the County Prison for the killing of Benjamin F. Pitezel. The drop fell at 10:12 o'clock, and twenty minutes later he was pronounced dead."
14.^ Patrick B. Quinlan, death certificate, 4 Mar 1914, Portland, Ionia, Michigan. Digital image of death certificate
15.^ Schechter, H. (1994). Depraved: The Shocking True Story of America's First Serial Killer, New York: Pocket Books
16.^ "Supernatural" No Exit (2006). Internet Movie Database. Retrieved September 12, 2009.

Further reading

Borowski, John (November 2005). Estrada, Dimas. ed. The Strange Case of Dr. H. H. Holmes: World's First Serial Killer. West Hollywood, CA: Waterfront Productions. ISBN 0-9759-1851-6.
Franke, David (1976). The Torture Doctor. New York: Avon. ISBN 0-3800-0730-4.
Geary, Rick (2003). The Beast of Chicago: An Account of the Life and Crimes of Herman W. Mudgett, Known to the World as H. H. Holmes. New York: NBM Publishing. ISBN 1-56163-365-8.
Larson, Erik (February 2004). The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. New York: Vintage Books. ISBN 0-3757-2560-1.
Schecter, Harold (August 2008). Depraved: The Definitive True Story of H. H. Holmes, Whose Grotesque Crimes Shattered Turn-of-the-Century Chicago (2nd ed.). New York: Pocket Books. ISBN 0-6716-9030-2.

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