The first serial killer in the United States resided in Englewood, IL during the Columbian Exposition. Herman W. Mudgett, who went by the name of Henry Holmes after 1886, was a noted con-artist and swindler. Several of his crimes were committed prior to his 1886 arrival to Chicago.
In what he called his Castle, located at 63rd and Wallace streets, Mr. Mudgett built a dungeon consisting of 100 windowless rooms and a torture chamber with crematory in the basement. Although he has admitted to killing 27, it has been speculated the actual number to be between 30 and several hundred. It was only two years between the time he started building it till the time he was apprehended by the police.
He was hanged on 7 May 1896, and uttered his last words:
- Gentlemen: I have very few words to say. In fact I would make no remarks at this time but for my feeling that in not speaking, I would appear to acquiesce in my execution.
I wish to say only that the extent of my wrong-doing in taking human life is the killing of two women—they having died by my hand as the result of criminal operations.
I wish also to state here, so that there can be no chance of misunderstanding hereafter, that I am not guilty of taking the lives of any of the Pitezel family, the three children or their father, Benjamin F. Pitezel, of whose death I was convicted, and for which I am to hang today.
That is all I have to say.
Two minutes after he had concluded, at 10:12½ o’clock, he was neither Holmes nor Mudgett, but a pitiful mass of shrouded flesh at the end of a drawn rope.
Herman W. Mudgett aka Henry Holmes
Harper’s Magazine, December 1943
Viewed from the outside, the murder castle was simply a big ungainly building, one of the architectural monstrosities common in the nineties. But its interior, honeycombed with trap doors and secret passageways and walled-up rooms, was the fulfillment of every small boy’s dream of a haunted house.
If ever a house was haunted, that one on Chicago’s South Side should have been. To this day, fifty years later, nobody knows precisely how many persons were murdered in it. Estimates range from twenty to a couple of hundred. Most, if not all, were women. It is believed that they were chloroformed, gassed, strangled, or perhaps beaten to death. Their bodies were destroyed in cellar pits containing quicklime and acids. Some of their skeletons were sold by their efficient murderer, who was determined to realize every penny of profit from his crimes.
He deserves to rank with the great criminals of history. Crime writers reserve the word “monster” for top-notch murderers. A monster ranks above such lesser criminals as fiends, beasts, and phantoms. He must meet certain rigid requirements. His victims, killed over a period of years and not for money alone, must be numerous and preferably female, and he must do unusual things with their bodies; he must inhabit a gloomy, forbidding dwelling, and he should be of a scientific bent. The master of the murder castle possessed all these qualifications and more. Magnificent swindler, petty cheat, mass murderer, he was a man of nimble, tortuous mind. He pyramided fraud upon fraud. Young, good-looking, glib, he mesmerized business men and captivated and seduced pretty young women, at least two of whom he married bigamously. Physician, student of hypnotism, dabbler in the occult, gentleman of fashion, devious liar, skillful manipulator of amazingly complex enterprises, he died on the gallows when he was thirty-five, his crimes exposed accidentally by the vengeful suspicions of that most despised figure in crime, the police informer.
On September 4, 1894, a caller, thinking it strange that the door to the little office at 1316 Callowhill Street in Philadelphia should be locked, enlisted the aid of Policeman George Lewis of the Eighth District; he forced the door and found the body of a man who apparently had been the victim of an explosion. Burns disfigured the face and left arm. Near by lay a pipe, several matches, and a broken bottle which apparently had contained some inflammable fluid similar to benzine. A coroner’s physician thought the man had been dead three days.
Though decomposition and fire made positive identification difficult, the dead man apparently was B. F. Perry, the tenant of the office. In his pockets were letters, presumably from his wife, though the bottom portions, including the signatures, had been torn away; they indicated that Perry had come to Philadelphia recently from St. Louis and that his wife was still there but expected to join him shortly. Neighbors knew him only as that new inventor fellow; they thought he had been conducting experiments of some sort, but nobody had heard an explosion in his office during the past few days. A coroner’s jury decided that he had died of burns. His body lay unclaimed in the morgue for ten days, then was buried in potter’s field. And that was that.
A few days later the Fidelity Mutual Life Association of Philadelphia received a letter from St. Louis claiming that B. F. Perry was Benjamin F. Pitezel, whose life was insured by the company. To Philadelphia came a pair of professional men representing the widow: Dr. H. H. Holmes, her friend, and Jephtha Howe, her attorney. They brought with them the dead man’s daughter, Alice, about fourteen, and explained that Mrs. Pitezel had been too ill to come in person to establish identification. Holmes said that Pitezel’s distinguishing marks included a mole on the back of the neck, a broken nose, peculiarly spaced teeth, and a twisted fingernail which had been crushed by a child’s rocking chair. The body was exhumed. Holmes identified it calmly, Alice fearfully. It was removed to another cemetery. The $10,000 insurance money was paid to Holmes, acting in behalf of the widow and Pitezel’s five children. Presently Fidelity received a letter from Mrs. Pitezel expressing her gratitude that the claim had been paid so promptly; it was said that the company used the letter for promotion purposes.
And there the matter might have ended had it not been for one of those amazing indiscretions which even the most accomplished of criminals commit. Brooding in a St. Louis jail was a notorious train robber, Marion Hedgepath, alias Hedspeth. Nearly two months after the finding of the body in Callowhill Street, Hedgepath sent a note to Police Chief Larry Harrigan offering to disclose details of a plot to defraud a Philadelphia life insurance company. He hinted at murder. When questioned, Hedgepath said that, some months before, a fellow-prisoner named Howard had offered him $500 if he would suggest an attorney of repute who would assist in a foolproof scheme to make $10,000. Howard planned to insure the life of B. F. Pitezel, to fake a fatal accident, to send Pitezel into hiding, and to substitute a body which he would obtain at a morgue and which he would identify as Pitezel’s. Howard said he had perpetrated similar frauds at other times. Hedgepath recommended as an aide Jephtha Howe, the younger brother of one of Hedgepath’s own attorneys.
Presently Howard was released from the jail, where he had been held briefly as a swindler. The plot progressed beautifully until Howard refused to permit Mrs. Pitezel to go to Philadelphia to identify the body. Attorney Howe suspected, too late, that Howard had double-crossed Pitezel and had actually murdered him instead of substituting a body. After the insurance was paid, Hedgepath said, Howard left Mrs. Pitezel to settle with Howe; they quarreled over his fee and $2,500 was put in escrow. Hedgepath never got his $500 share; this, coupled with a suspicion that his own defenders, including Jephtha Howe’s brother, were deserting him in the case pending against him, probably led Hedgepath to denounce the plotters.
At any rate, Chief Harrigan communicated with the Fidelity company, which called in the police and the Pinkerton private detectives. Before the vengeful Hedgepath was transferred to the penitentiary to begin serving a twenty-five-year term the investigators were hot on the complicated trail of Howard, alias H. H. Holmes. They caught up with him in Boston November 17th. By that time warrants had been issued charging him with conspiracy to defraud, murder, and horse thievery. He promptly helped the officers locate the widow Pitezel and two of her five children, then started telling a long series of complex lies which soon thoroughly confused the detectives. On the train back to Philadelphia in custody, he confessed the insurance fraud, denied the murder, expressed willingness to go to Philadelphia but refused to go to Texas where he was wanted only for horse theft, said that Pitezel was in South America and that the three missing Pitezel children were in (a) South America, (b) Detroit, (c) England. He also offered his befuddled guard $500 if he would permit him to hypnotize him en route. The guard refused.
Attorney Howe was taken into custody in St. Louis and went voluntarily to Philadelphia. He was not prosecuted. Nor was Mrs. Pitezel, who, though nearly prostrated by fear that her husband was dead, was questioned vigorously. The body of the dead inventor–Pitezel’s, or that of a ringer?–was exhumed a second time and autopsy revealed he had died of poisoning by chloroform administered before the explosion and fire. Search was begun for various other persons who had been involved with Holmes, Apparently unruffled by the furor, he continued to talk glibly and nimbly. Detectives spent months untangling his lies and investigating certain mysterious activities of his which had intrigued them while they pursued him all over the country. His career proved to have been remarkable.
The Pitezel Family
Left to Right: Benjamin Pitezel, Alice Pitezel, Nellie Pitezel, and Howard Pitezel.
His true name, it appears, was Herman W. Mudgett. In his home town of Gilmanton, New Hampshire, he was considered a bright lad. Before he was twenty-one he married the daughter of a well-to-do New Hampshire family and she helped to educate him. He studied in Vermont and at the medical school of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Here began his lifelong preoccupation with cadavers.
He was a brilliant but erratic student. Perhaps this was due to his extra-curricular activities. On the night a body disappeared while being taken to the college dissecting room a resident of Ann Arbor “died” after a brief illness. Holmes collected insurance. Thus he established a pattern for himself. Not long after, he left school. His wife and child returned to New Hampshire; they did not see him again until more than ten years later, when he reappeared, a fugitive. Shortly after abandoning his wife he arranged for her to hear, in a highly roundabout manner, that his memory had been impaired in a train wreck. This was characteristic of the man: he could not simply desert his family; he must erect a complicated structure of improbable lies to explain matters.
After dabbling briefly in petty fraud and an unsuccessful attempt to swindle an insurance company of $20,000 with another planted body, the young criminal turned up in Chicago about 1885 as H. H. Holmes. He married bigamously the daughter of a well-to-do family of Wilmette, a wealthy suburb north of Chicago. Here he set another pattern for himself: the pyramiding of fraud upon credit. The details varied but the main outlines of the scheme remained the same wherever Holmes worked it subsequently. He would borrow, with worthless notes and smooth talk, enough money to buy a lot. To repay the original loan, he would borrow on the lot. He would build a house in highly frenetic fashion, discharging workmen wrathfully, threatening suit against subcontractors, cajoling those he could not frighten, stalling, always stalling the payroll. As soon as the roof was on he would order huge quantities of furniture and other merchandise–on credit of course. He would sell the furniture to pay off the clamoring workmen and the loan on the lot. By the time the furniture company got round to repossessing its property the furniture was gone and so was Holmes; or else he had devised some new swindle which raised enough cash to pay off the furniture company and was now embarked on a fresh scheme to get money to appease his latest victim. And so on.
Withal he found time to father three children and establish himself in the Wilmette house as a solid citizen. His wife of course knew nothing of his many activities, which were rapidly becoming more numerous and more mysterious. How he explained to her his long absences is not recorded, but the task, intimidating to lesser men, probably was relatively simple for a man of his agile imagination.
Before he had been long in Chicago he failed in probably the only honest business he ever attempted to conduct. He was president of the A.B.C. Copier Company, a concern producing an excellent device for copying documents. (Holmes appears in the role of “copier” every now and then.) He even went so far as to pay his typewriter–as stenographers then were called. (He seduced, mulcted, and murdered subsequent typewriters instead of paying them.) When the business failed Holmes gave up his office, leaving behind an assortment of creditors and taking with him fifty gallons of glycerine which did not belong to him. Later it was hinted that he intended to prepare nitroglycerine with the loot and perhaps did so.
From Rick Geary’s graphic novel, “The Beast of Chicago: The Murderous Career of H.H. Holmes” (2003)
Holmes now transferred his activities to the Englewood district of Chicago, centering on 63d Street; here he was to achieve lasting fame. He began humbly, working as a clerk in a drugstore at 63d and Wallace Streets. Before long he had bought out or driven out the proprietress, and in 1892 he built on the opposite corner the enormous, improbable structure later to be known as his murder castle. It was more than a hundred and fifty feet long and fifty feet wide, huge and ugly, with three storeys and a basement. The first floor was cut up into stores, including a drugstore on the corner which Holmes operated until crime became a full-time job for him. The third floor consisted of apartments. On the second floor and in the cellar were the horror chambers, as we shall see.
Holmes ostensibly built the place as a hotel to accommodate visitors to the great Fair of 1893. It was months a-building; sometimes the work progressed with frantic haste; sometimes it languished. Its progress was an index to the success of the swindler’s money-raising schemes.
And he was exceedingly active throughout Englewood, which was, and is today, a thriving, self-contained community on Chicago’s South Side. Here Holmes marketed a sure-fire cure for alcoholism, crusading with great zeal against the evil of drink. He opened a restaurant and sold it before the outfitting company could repossess the fixtures. When, after banking hours, a citizen came to the drugstore to get large bills for $178 in small change, Holmes gave him a worthless personal check and stalled him off successfully for two years. He sold his drugstore by misrepresenting the volume of business; to substantiate his claims he hired various persons to stream into the store and make expensive purchases. He bought a large safe, moved it into a small room of the castle, narrowed the size of the room’s door, refused to pay for the safe, and invited the owner to repossess it but warned him not to mar the house.
701-703 63rd Street
Sanborn Fire Map
Having “invented” a machine which made illuminating gas out of water, he demonstrated it successfully to an expert who could not discover in the Rube Goldberg maze of pipes, pulleys, wires, and other gadgets the one pipe which tapped the gas company’s mains; aided by the expert’s endorsement, Holmes sold his “invention,” which looked like a washing machine on stilts, to a Canadian for $2,000. When the invention was removed from the basement a hole remained; presently Holmes announced that he had discovered in it a miraculous mineral spring; he piped the healing potion upstairs to his drugstore and retailed it successfully at five cents per glass until the water company threatened to prosecute him for tampering with its mains. (It was not long before the hole in the cellar floor was enlarged to accommodate a quicklime pit.)
Perhaps his most spectacular swindle during this period involved the furnishings of the castle. He bought truckloads of furniture, crockery, mattresses, bedsprings, hardware, and gas fixtures (a sinister item, it turned out). All this was delivered to the castle on 63d Street. The Tobey Furniture Company, unpaid a week later, became anxious and dispatched an agent to watch the house, then demanded payment. Holmes’s usual tactics of cajolery failed, and the company sent vans and brawny moving men to repossess its property. They found the house empty. Yet the company’s own agent swore that no furniture had been taken out and, indisputably, it had been taken in. The castle had swallowed the furniture as, later, it would swallow human beings.
A janitor at the castle gave the game away for a $25 bribe. Holmes had moved all the furniture into one room, taken out the door frame, bricked up the door, and papered the wall. (The porter offered further disclosures for another $25 but was ignored; it was a narrow escape for Holmes.) In a space between the top floor and the roof the angry searchers found the missing crockery; one of them put his foot through the ceiling and Holmes sued his company for $75. The suit was thrown out of court. It never has been established whether Holmes, when he built blind rooms and secret passageways into his castle, contemplated murder or merely simple swindles such as this concealment of merchandise. He was not prosecuted by these creditors. But his unsuccessful attempt to cheat them contributed ultimately to his downfall.
Prominent Figures in the Holmes Trial
November 1, 1895
During all this time he still was maintaining a home with his wife in Wilmette. (Indeed, his mother-in-law was at one time listed as owner of the castle; its ownership changed constantly and included at least one mythical personage and a company incorporated by five men, of whom two were phantoms.) His Wilmette wife however probably never lived at the castle, and when neighbors spoke of his jealous wife who lived there with him they must have meant Mrs. Julia Conner, who is believed to have been the first woman Holmes murdered. Whoever this jealous one was, she sometimes slipped downstairs when she heard a female voice overlong in the drugstore; to thwart her, Holmes removed the third step on the stairs and installed an electric buzzer that warned him of her approach. The success of this device may have inspired him to develop the singular system of alarms which later betrayed the attempted flight from the castle of any of his prisoners. Mrs. Conner, her husband, and their eight-year-old child came to Chicago about 1890 and the couple found employment in the drugstore which Holmes was engaged in buying or stealing from its proprietor. Mrs. Conner, a good-looking woman, became Holmes’s mistress; when he built his castle she and her daughter moved into it with him, and her husband departed.
During this period Holmes went briefly to Texas where he allegedly stole a horse and indisputably met a young woman named Minnie Williams who later was to play an important part in his career. Also during this period he met in Chicago Benjamin F. Pitezel, an ineffectual man with larceny in his heart, for whose murder Holmes one day would hang. It is known that they lived together for a time, that in 1892 Holmes bailed Pitezel out of a Terre Haute jail where he was held on a bad-check charge, that some of their belongings were intermingled. Whether the two men actually worked together as partners in fraud prior to the insurance swindle which ended in Pitezel’s death is unknown, but probable.
However Holmes now engaged less frequently in petty frauds; he was branching out into mass murder for profit. Gone were the days when he must peddle worthless mineral water and liquor cures. Now he had reached the height of his powers, mentally and physically. He was in his early thirties, handsome, his sallow complexion enhanced by dark brooding eyes and a curled mustache. If he had been skinny as a boy he was supple as a man. His frequent amorous conquests had given him confidence, as had the success of his glib tongue among business men. Widely read, student of hypnotism and the occult, he had evolved certain esoteric theories concerning the origin and nature of human life. He prepared to test them, to conduct experiments on the human body. His old preoccupation with corpses returned. He was ready for important crime, and for the big money. Yet, though his career as a mass murderer was energetic, it was brief. His murder castle was built in 1892; two years later Holmes was in jail. In that space of time he is believed to have killed more than 20 women. Newspapers of the day hinted that the correct total would be nearer 200, pointing out that great numbers of persons who visited the Fair in 1893 disappeared. It is neither possible nor necessary to trace the fate of each of Holmes’s victims. The story of Minnie Williams will suffice.
She and her sister Anna were born in Mississippi; their parents died poor when the girls were very young. Anna remained in Mississippi with an aunt. Minnie went to Dallas, Texas, to visit an uncle, a Dr. Williams, who adopted her. In 1886 he sent her to Boston to attend the Conservatory of Elocution. About the time she was graduated her uncle died, leaving to her property in Fort Worth valued at about $20,000. After a brief visit with another uncle, the editor of the Methodist Christian Advocate, Minnie took her sister Anna to Dallas, where Anna entered school. Minnie, the elder sister, embarked on a teaching career. She taught elocution in Denver and at Midlothian, Texas. Presently she turned up in Mississippi and displayed a photograph of a certain young man named Harry Gordon in whom she was interested because he was “handsome, wealthy, and highly intelligent.” He was of course Dr. Holmes. In March of 1893 (she was in her early twenties) she went to Chicago and soon wrote to her aunt that she had married her friend and that she was very happy.
It is believed that Holmes committed his first murder for her. When she arrived at the castle he was living with Mrs. Conner. Minnie, an extremely attractive, fresh-faced young girl, was jealous. Holmes killed Mrs. Conner and her eight-year-old daughter, it is thought; later, investigators found numerous human bones in the castle and among them were bones believed to be from the body of a child. At any rate, Mrs. Conner and her child disappeared and Minnie Williams took her place as mistress of the castle.
And a strange place it was by that time. In all, it contained nearly a hundred rooms. There were “staircases that led nowhere in particular,” blind passageways, hinged walls, false partitions, rooms with no doors and rooms with many doors. All these centered on the second floor of the gloomy, forbidding structure. Holmes’s own apartments were at the front of this floor. A trap door was cut in his bathroom and from it a short hidden stairway led to a windowless cubicle between-floors in the heart of the house; from this a chute dropped straight to the cellar.
Behind Holmes’s apartments were various rooms labeled in contemporary newspaper sketches as “five-door room,” “secret room,” “mysterious closed room” (behind this last was a “dummy elevator for lowering bodies” to the basement), “the black closet,” “room of the three corpses,” “sealed room all bricked in,” “blind room,” “another secret chamber,” “the hanging secret chamber,” and so on–nearly forty rooms in all. Near the rear of the house was an “asphyxiation chamber–no light–with gas connections.” Here the large purchases of gas fixtures becomes meaningful; it apparently was Holmes’s practice to lock victims in this sealed, asbestos-lined room and to turn on the gas. Immediately behind the asphyxiation chamber was another chute down which the bodies could be dispatched to the basement. Some of the rooms on this second storey were lined with iron plates, some had false floors that concealed tiny airless chambers, nearly all had gas connections. The doors to all the rooms were wired to an elaborate alarm system which rang a buzzer in Holmes’s apartments.
The cellar was perhaps the most remarkable section of the building. It was fitted with operating tables, a crematory, pits containing quicklime and acids, surgical instruments, and various pieces of apparatus which, resembling mediaeval torture racks, never were satisfactorily explained. (Some thought Holmes used these appliances to wring from his victims the whereabouts of their wealth; others said he used them in experiments which he hoped would prove his pet theory that the human body could be stretched’ indefinitely, a treatment that, ultimately, would produce a race of giants.) Holmes sometimes destroyed the bodies of his victims completely; sometimes, aided by a needy skeleton articulator who answered his advertisement in the paper, he stripped the flesh from their bones and sold the skeletons to medical institutions.
To this house of horrors came young Minnie Williams. Her role is not entirely clear. She was almost certainly his victim. But some have hinted that she was also his accomplice; he used her Fort Worth real estate in some of his schemes, though probably without her knowledge. That she was his mistress there can be little doubt. Yet she played a strange role for a mistress on at least one occasion: she served as his witness when he married his third (and last) wife.
A few months after Minnie arrived at the castle she invited her younger sister Anna to join her. Anna left Texas at the end of June, 1893. On July 4th she wrote happily to her aunt that “sister, brother Harry, and myself” would leave the next day for Europe, where Anna might remain to study art. She added, “Brother Harry says you need never trouble any more about me, financially or otherwise; he and sister will see to me.” This proved prophetic: Anna Williams never was seen or heard from again.
Holmes himself later maintained that Minnie killed her younger sister Anna. The two girls had quarreled over Holmes’s affections a week after Anna arrived, he claimed, and Minnie had beaten Anna to death with a stool. Holmes added that he had obligingly put the body in a trunk, had weighted it with lead, and had dumped it into Lake Michigan three miles offshore. Although this seems unlikely, it never was proved or disproved; both girls vanished utterly. (Holmes said also, after his arrest for Pitezel’s murder, that Minnie had gone to England with Pitezel’s three missing children; this was one of his bland, amazing stories which threw investigators into complete confusion.)
That Minnie outlived Anna is certain. That Holmes got his hands on her money, then killed her, seems almost equally clear. He appeared in Fort Worth as O. C. Pratt, displayed title to Minnie’s property, borrowed on it, and prepared to build a house in behalf of his partner, a certain Lyman, who actuaIly was Ben Pitezel. To get a clear field in Chicago and a scapegoat in Fort Worth, Holmes lured his castle caretaker, Pat Quinlan, to Texas and then disappeared, leaving Quinlan to face Holmes’s irate creditors. In Chicago Anna vanished forever, and Minnie was not long for this earth.
During this spring and summer of 1893, while Minnie was Holmes’s mistress, at least two other young women are known positively to have vanished after coming to live at the castle, supposedly also as his mistresses, and the police believed that others fared similarly. All his girls were pretty and many were his stenographers. His favorites he had photographed “in the pose and dress affected by actresses.” He once displayed these photographs to an acquaintance in his apartments, perhaps while the girls’ bodies were decomposing in the cellar below. A contemporary paper noted that he “liked to get a nice, green, young girl fresh from a business college.” He hired more than a hundred and fifty women, it was estimated, and he had all of them appointed notaries public so that they could notarize his fraudulent documents (he told the unsuspecting girls that their appointment was a badge of merit). Frequently he included the “typewriters” as dummy directors in his many corporations.
To all his mistress-victims Holmes represented himself as wealthy, whereas in truth it usually was they who had the money, and that was why he seduced and murdered them. Almost without exception, they appear to have had two things in common: beauty and money. They lost both.
Map of part of the United States and southern Canada, showing the principal locations involved in the sensational Holmes murders, which were brought to light as the result of a bungling insurance plot in Philadelphia.
May 21, 1937
Toward the end of 1893 matters came to a head for the master and before the year was out he was to be driven from his castle, pursued hotly not by the police but by angry creditors and a fire insurance company he had attempted unsuccessfully to defraud. Old crimes were rising to plague him. In need of money, he set fire to his castle early in November of 1893 and tried to collect on a $60,000 insurance policy. The proof of loss looked fraudulent, so did the building’s ownership. Inspector F. G. Cowie, learning something of Holmes’s reputation, shadowed him. He discovered that Holmes had abandoned his family in Wilmette and his castle, and was living furtively in a small hotel on the South Side with Minnie Williams. They moved frequently, and sometimes Ben Pitezel lived with them. The detective described Minnie as “of medium height, with a well-developed figure, big brown eyes, light hair, and what I call a baby face. She didn’t seem to know a great deal.” Using a fictitious name, Holmes brazenly appeared at the insurance office to collect; while clerks kept him occupied, Inspector Cowie called on Minnie and told her the plot was exposed; she broke down and surrendered the policy. Cowie dropped the matter.
But Holmes’s old creditors began to make serious trouble. He owed them between $25,000 and $50,000, much of it for the castle’s furnishings. Up to then he had managed to keep his creditors segregated and at bay with smooth talk. Now, on November 22, 1893, they met in a body. Holmes appeared before them and represented himself as an honest man who had fallen on hard times. They were not impressed. Their attorneys prepared to swear out warrants for his arrest the next day. Holmes fled from Chicago. His next public appearance was in Denver where, on January 17, 1894, he married his third wife, Georgie Anna Yoke, with Minnie Williams as a witness. (It will be recalled that Minnie once had taught school in Denver.) Georgie Anna was a tall, slender beauty of about twenty-five with flaxen hair and blue eyes so large, one newspaper commented, as to be almost disfiguring. Here is another of the not quite solved mysteries of Holmes’s tangled affairs. It is probable that she was the only one of his women that he really loved. For an astonishing length of time she remained loyal to him. Yet in the end she testified against him at his trial for murder. She was the daughter of a respectable family in the small town of Franklin, Indiana. One newspaper described her as “adventurous.” She met Holmes when she went to Chicago during the Fair to work in an office with which he was connected. Holmes must have seen her often during that busy year of 1893, when Minnie was his mistress, and various women, including Emily Van Tassel and Emeline Cigrand, were his victims. Yet Georgie Anna he neither seduced, murdered, nor so much as threatened. He must have courted her in a more or less conventional way; her mother had the impression that he was wealthy and a gentleman.
Minnie Williams dropped out of sight early that spring of 1894. Georgie Anna had the field to herself. But the great days were done. The master was on the run. It is not known with certainty whether he ever again performed his murderous rites in his castle. By June he was in jail in St. Louis charged with a common swindle and Georgie Anna was hiring an attorney to defend him. Before he was released he had confided to Marion Hedgepath his plot to defraud the Philadelphia insurance company by falsely identifying a planted body as that of B. F. Pitezel. Things went according to plan (for everybody but Pitezel) until Hedgepath denounced the plotters. From then on Holmes was a fugitive.
Illustration from Police 13-13, May, 1929
Now he embarked on perhaps the most remarkable flight in criminal history. For, instead of going into hiding alone, he took with him not only his own bigamously wedded wife but also the wife and children of his victim. And before he was caught he visited, supposedly, the only woman he ever married legally, his long-forgotten first wife.
The truly fantastic part of this odyssey–and it is characteristic of the man’s agility–is that neither Georgie Anna nor Mrs. Pitezel knew that the other was anywhere in the vicinity. Holmes performed such miracles as keeping Mrs. Pitezel and Georgie Anna ignorant of each other’s presence on the same train; when they arrived in certain cities he established Mrs. Pitezel in one rooming house, her children in another, and Georgie Anna in a third. And all the while he was inventing lies and carrying on a complicated correspondence involving half a dozen forwarding addresses, all designed to allay Mrs. Pitezel’s suspicions that her husband was not in hiding but was dead. Moreover, at the same time Holmes managed to give “$2,000 and a number of presents” to Georgie Anna; this may have come out of Mrs. Pitezel’s insurance money or it may have been part of the proceeds of the sale of some property in Fort Worth which he probably stole from Minnie Williams, deeded to Pitezel, and stole again from Pitezel’s widow. (The man’s affairs were hopelessly involved; only he could have straightened them out in their proper order, and perhaps, in the end, even he would have been confused.) Mrs. Pitezel later testified that she had received only $500 of the insurance money.
Georgie Anna and Mrs. Pitezel and the children did not all constantly accompany Holmes on his ceaseless travels. After committing the murder he had returned to Indianapolis with Georgie Anna (she had been with him in Philadelphia). In the next few weeks he made two trips to St. Louis and one to Philadelphia; since these and other trips involved the divergent interests of Georgie Anna and Mrs. Pitezel, Holmes must of necessity have invented elaborate lies to explain his absences to them. Early in October he left Georgie Anna in Indianapolis and told her he was going to Cincinnati. She joined him in Detroit. He met Mrs. Pitezel there also; he had told her she would see her husband there, but now he stalled her and sent her to her parents at Galva, Illinois. Then they all went to Toronto. But by now three of Mrs. Pitezel’s children were missing, perhaps lost in the shuffle. So was her husband; his last letter, written four days before he died, had inquired, “Have you seen or heard from Alice, Nellie, or Howard since this man got possession of them? I have not…. ” Nearly beside herself, Mrs. Pitezel wanted to know where they were. Holmes said they were being kept by a widow in Indianapolis; he suggested blandly that another of the children, Jeanette, should join them. But he could not remember the widow’s name. Nevertheless, so persuasive was he that he convinced Mrs. Pitezel that her children were in good hands and that her husband was alive in Montreal. From Toronto she went to other towns in Canada, then to Ogdensburg, New York, and Burlington, Vermont.
Here she found Holmes digging a hole in the cellar. It was a habit he had. When discovered, he left, and Mrs. Pitezel did not see him again until they both were in police custody. He went to New Hampshire, where he visited his aged parents and, reportedly, his first wife, the girl who had helped put him through medical school. On this visit he settled some old accounts, bought a suit for his son, presented his wife with gifts, and cheated his brother out of $300, part of which he reputedly needed to redeem a trunk that contained a body. He then left for Boston, where he was arrested. He decoyed Mrs. Pitezel and her two remaining children into the police net and she was taken to Philadelphia with him.
Here Holmes told a baffling collection of lies concerning the whereabouts of Pitezel and the three Pitezel children. Pitezel, it was quickly established, was dead. (Therein lies the irony of the whole case: Holmes, long-time successful swindler, was ultimately caught in an investigation launched by an insurance company which believed itself defrauded but which actually had not been defrauded at all.) In searching for the missing children, Detective Frank P. Geyer and other officers uncovered Holmes’s entire lurid criminal background. They found the bodies of the two little girls, Nellie and Alice, side by side in a shallow grave in the cellar of a house Holmes had rented at Toronto, and they found the boy Howard’s charred bones in a stove in a house in Irvington, a suburb of Indianapolis. (Apparently the children had encumbered Holmes’s flight.) So well had he concealed his activities that it was not until nearly a year after Pitezel was murdered that the officers learned the truth about the children and the murder castle.
On October 28, 1895, the first day of his trial for Pitezel’s murder, Holmes dismissed his attorneys. (Subsequently he recalled them, but to the end it was really he who tried the case.) He displayed a “remarkable familiarity with the law,” the newspapers observed; during recesses he sat in the dock and read Stephen’s Digest of the Laws of Evidence.
The trial was a national sensation. Perhaps the high point came when Holmes cross-examined Georgie Anna Yoke. As he did so “she never raised her eyes, and gave her replies in a whisper. The crier repeated them aloud.” Holmes wept. (When he had requested a pre-testimony interview with her, “my wife,” the district attorney had snapped, “Which wife?”)
The murderer presented no witnesses in his own defense. In closing arguments his attorneys claimed that Pitezel had committed suicide. The jurors didn’t believe it: Though they reportedly reached a verdict immediately, they waited “for a seemly period” before reporting Holmes guilty. A journalist noted the spectators’ opinion that the evidence against Holmes really was not strong enough to convict but that the murderer had received what moralists of the day termed his just deserts. He was hanged at Moyamensing Prison.
H. H. HOLMES IS PRONOUNCED A DEGENERATE.
Dr. Horatio C. Wood’s Opinion from a Study of the New York Press Portrait-Dr. Charles K. Mills Thinks the Prisoner Does Not Show Abnormal Signs, but is a Wonderful Man.
November 1, 1895
The case is not wholly satisfactory. To begin with, since Holmes was tried in Philadelphia, no really thoroughgoing investigation ever was made of the crimes for which he is remembered: the slaughter in his murder castle. How many people did he kill? Holmes himself made various statements and “confessions,” in which he admitted a varying number of murders. Why did he kill? For money alone? But he was an accomplished swindler; he had easy access to money. Out of passion then? To silence successive mistresses who witnessed his crimes? Or in a perverted spirit of scientific inquiry? (Once he himself said he killed partly for the joy of killing.)
More troublesome still is the consideration of why, precisely, he murdered Pitezel. (One theory is that Pitezel was killed accidentally while he and Holmes were rehearsing the explosion.) Holmes had known Pitezel a long time and, presumably, could trust him. Did he kill Pitezel because he feared betrayal? But Pitezel was as deeply involved as Holmes. Did they quarrel? Perhaps; four days before his death Pitezel wrote of “this man” Holmes who had “got possession” of the Pitezel children. Or did he kill Pitezel because it was the only way in which he could recover the Fort Worth property which he had stolen from Minnie Williams, then deeded to Pitezel? The motive is not established.
But perhaps the most inexplicable circumstance of all is his taking Marion Hedgepath into his confidence and thus bringing about his own downfall. Holmes was an old hand at corpse manipulation and insurance fraud; he already had enlisted the aid of Pitezel, an associate of long standing. Why did he feel that he needed also an outsider, an attorney? And why, to find one, did he seek help from a common crook, whom he must have despised? And anyway, why detail the whole plot to Hedgepath? Does the answer lie in the traditional egotism of murderers that betrays them into braggadocio? But that is the mark of an amateur, not the mark of a veteran murderer and certainly, above all, not the mark of a professional swindler, one of the wiliest, most close-mouthed of all criminals.
No, there simply is no explanation. But for that one fatal indiscretion, Holmes might be alive yet. After all, he would have been only in his seventies when Chicago had another World’s Fair. And at that time, though it has since been wrecked, his murder castle still was standing.
By Detective Frank Geyer
Excepted from The Chicago Tribune, May 8, 1896
The crime (murder of Benjamin F. Pitezel), was followed up systematically by Detective Geyer and one hideous fact after another was unearthed. It seemed that after the murder of Pitezel Holmes’ one idea was to get rid of the entire Pitezel family and everybody who could betray him. The evidence was conclusive against Holmes in the case of Pitezel, and it was for this crime that he paid with his life on the gallows.
Of the alleged twenty-seven victims the detectives are willing to accord Holmes the gruesome celebrity of making away with twelve.
The following are the murders about which there seems to be no doubt as to Homes’ guilt:
Emiline C. Cigrand—This woman was Holmes’ stenographer and typewriter, taking the place of his sister-in-law, Nana Williams. She worked in the “castle.” Holmes killed her and then cut her up and cremated her.
Mrs. Julia L. Commer—This was the divorced wife of I. L. Conner and worked in the “castle” as Holmes’ bookkeeper. When tired of her Holmes insured her life and then killed her.
Pearl Conner—This was the 8-year old daughter of Julia. Holmes thought she knew too much, and, as it was a matter of policy for him to cover up his tracks, he killed her and destroyed the body.
Robert E. Phelps—This man married Miss Cigrand and incurred Holmes’ displeasure. He was killed, and the crime was so cleverly covered up that it was not until Holmes had been convicted of the killing of Pitezel that the murder was discovered.
Benjamin F. Pitezel—Holmes’ partner and the sharer in the spoils of his crimes. He was trapped by Holmes into insuring his life for the benefit of his wife, never suspecting the arch-plotter had designs on his life. The man was killed in the most cold-blooded manner, and the widow was then cheated out of $7,500 of the insurance money.
Alice and Nellie Pitezel—Children of Benjamin, who were killed in a house in Toronto and buried in a cellar. The only object in killing them seems to be to get them out of the way that they could not betray Holmes.
Howard Pitezel—Brother of the children just named. He was killed and the body made away with in Detroit or Indianapolis.
George H. Thomas—This man was killed on the banks of the Tombigbee River, just below Columbus, Miss., in order to get insurance.Proof was obtained and requisition papers secured, but Holmes escaped.
Emily Van Tassell—This was a respectable girl, who worked for Holmes in the “castle,” and who was ruined and slain by him.
Nana Williams—This was the sister of Holmes’ third bigamous wife. She lived with him and her sister in Chicago. Holmes said she was jealous of his wife and caused trouble, but it is supposed he killed her so as to get his hands on her property. She and his wife came from Fort Worth, Tex., where they had $60,000 worth of real estate.
Minnie Williams—She was the third wife. She disappeared one day and has never been seen since. It was reported that she was in hiding, but this was generally disbelieved, as the report was thought to be a mere ruse to throw the detectives off the scent.
In addition to these murders the crimes of Holmes are legion. He committed bigamy in marrying Myrtle C. Belknap and Minnie Williams and probably other women. He tried to kill Jonathan S. Belknap, the grand-uncle of his second wife, after forging his name to a note for $2,500 and insuring his life. He obtained $600 on a forged note on the death of his brother-in-law, D. H. Williams. He set fire to his house in Chicago after insuring it for $60,000 but failed to get the insurance. He sold Chicago water as medicine at the exposition, and made money in a thousand crooked ways.
New York Times May 8, 1896
PHILADELPHIA. May 7.—Murderer Herman Mudgett. alias. H. H. Holmes. was hanged this morning in the County Prison for the killing of Benjamin F, Pitetzel. The drop fell at 10:12 o’clock. and twenty minutes later he was pronounced dead.
Holmes was calm to the end, even to the extent of giving a word of advice to Assistant Superintendent Richardson as the latter was arranging the final detailS. He died as he had lived—unconcerned and thoughtless apparently of the future. Even with the recollection still vividly before him at the recent confession. In whicb he admitted the killing of a score of persons of both sexes, and in all parts of the country, he denied everything, and almost his last words were a polnt-blank denial of any crimes committed except the deaths of two women at his hands by malpractice. In the murder of the several members of the Pietzel family, he denied all complicity, particularly of the father, for whose death he stated he was suffering the penalty. Then. with the prayer of the spiritual attendants still sounding in his ears and a few low-spoken words to those about him, the trap was sprung, and beyond a few incidental post-mortem details the execution which terminated one of the worst crimInal stories known to criminology was ended.
While the exact time of the execution was, as usual, unannounced. it was generally supposed that the hour would be about 10 o’clock. Two hours before that time, however. those who were to attend began arriving, but admission to the prison was denied every one except those officials in direct touch with the institution until 10 o’clock. The gates were then opened. and the fourscore or more having tickets pressed into the inner court. Sheriff Clements had preceded the crowd. and was awaiting the arrival of those comprising his jury, that they might be sworn.
The jury comprised six: physicians and a like number from other walks In life, all prominent in their respective stations, They were ex-Sheriff William H. Wright, Dr. Benjamin Pennebacker, John J. Ridgway. Councilman R. R. Bringhurst, Samuel L. Wood. Dr. W. Joseph Hearn, Dr. W. J. Roe, A. B. Detwiler. Dr. M. B. Dwight, Dr, J. C. Guernsey. James Hand. and Dr. John L. Phillips. In response to the calling of their names they ranged about the desk behind which stood Sher!ff Clements, and then solemnly swore “to witness the execution of Herman W. Mudgett, aHas H. H. Holmes, and certify the time and manner of such execution according to iaw.”
Mr. Wood, one of the Sheriff’s jury, was also a member of the jury that convicted Holmes.
Many prominent men were in attendance, some being from other cities, notable among whom were Dr. Mac Donald of Washington. the famous criminologist; Sheriff S. R. Mason of Baltimore, Profs. W. Easterly Ashton and Ernest Laplace of the Medico-Chirurgical Collpge; Dr. John S. Miller of St. Josephs’s Hospital; Detective Frank Geyer. who conducted the case; President Fous and Solicitor Campbell of the Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance Company; Dr. J. Howard Taylor, representing the medical staff, Captain of Detectives Miller, and Lawyer Rotan. who conducted the defense of Holmes during the trial.
Mr. Rotan was early at the prison, but had been preceded by the Rev. Father Dailey and the Rev. Father MacPake. who administered the last rites of the church to the condemned man. They arrived shortly after 6 o’clock, and only a few minutes after Holmes had arisen. They remained with him last evening until 10:30 o’clock. The death watch was then being kept by Keeper George Weaver, who remained until relieved at 7 o’clock this morning by Keeper Henry. Weaver said this morning that Holmes had retired about midnight and slept sound during the entire time until cailed at 6 o’clock. So sound were his slumbers in fact that twice was he called before awakening when the arrival of the Rev. Fathers Dailey and MacPake was announced. He greeted them warmly, but with the same air of self-possession that has marked his conduct throughout the entire case. They were come to administer the sacrament of communion and every possible facility for privacy was extended by Superintendent Perkins of the prison. For nearly two hours they remained in the cell. and then were almost immediately succeeded by Lawyer Rotan. the legal adviser of Holmes.
While they were talking breakfast was served. and Holmes seemed to heartily enjoy the meal. It was substantial. but plain, conSisting of eggs. toast, and coffee which were taken with an evident relish. “He enjoyed it more than I could, even though only his attorney,” remarked Mr. Rotan after leaving the cell. “He is the most cool and possessed of all in any way connected with the case.”
The remark seemed in no wise exaggerated. Every story was to the same effect, and to the end he maintained the same stoicism. It was not the blustering braggadocio of the bully or desperado, but the calm demeanor and quiet bearing that are compelled by a will of iron.
When the morning meal was ended and shortly before 9 o’clock, Holmes prepared to dress himself. Contrary to the general custom, he refused to don a new suit. but arrayed himself in trousers, vest, and cutaway coat of some dark mixed goods, of a pepper-and-salt effect, that had been worn by him frequently before. Even in this he was careful, giving every attention to even the most minute details of his toilet. Collar and necktie were, of course, not worn. but their place was taken by a white handkerchief knotted carelessly about the neck.
Ten o’clock bad just sounded when a call came from the cell corridor for Sheriff Clements. He had been gone but a moment when the doors leading through tbe long corridors in which was placed the gallows were opened. and two by two, led by the Sheriff’s jury, the party passed down. The gallows was about half way down the corridor, and to either side was a high partition that, once through the doors, shut off any view of the approach of the condemned as he came to the scaffold. Affairs were quIckly approaching a crisis and the other incidents of the execution seemed to take sbape and pass away with llghtnlng-like rapidity. The last man of those attending had just passed through the doors and the latter closed, when from beyond was heard the slow and measured tread of the little coterie comprising the death party.
The greatest stillness prevailed among the group watching for the first glimpse of the condemned. Preceded by Sheriff Clements and Superintendent Parkins, Holmes soon stepped on to the trap. On the right was Father Dailey, to the left Father MacPake, and bringing up the rear were Lawyer Rotan and Assistant Superintendent Richardson. The little party stood for a moment looking down and then in response to a sign from one of those beside him Holmes stepped forward and spoke. Pallid, naturally, after his incarceration, there was no other evidence of any fear or disquiet. He spoke slowly and ‘ with measured attention to every word; a trifle low at first. but louder as he proceeded, until every word was distinctly audible. He said:
Gentlemen: I have very few words to say. In fact I would make no remarks at this time but for my feeling that in not speaking, I would appear to acquiesce in my execution.
I wish to say only that the extent of my wrong-doing in taking human life is the killing of two women—they having died by my hand as the result of criminal operations.
I wish also to state here, so that there can be no chance of misunderstanding hereafter, that I am not guilty of taking the lives of any of the Pitezel family, the three children or their father, Benjamin F. Pitezel, of whose death I was convicted, and for which I am to hang today.
That is all I have to say.
As he ceased speaking he stepped back, and, kneeling between Fathers Dailey and MacPake, joined with them in silent prayer for a minute or two. Again standing, he shook the hands of those about him, and then signified his readiness for the end.
Coolest of the entire party, he even went to the extreme of suggesting to the Assistant Superintendent Richardson. that the latter not hurry himself. “Take your time; don’t bung!e !t,” he remarked. as the
official exhibited some little haste. the evident outcome of nervousness. Those were almost his last words. The cap was adjusted, a low-toned query: “Are you ready? and an equally low-toned response.
“Yes, good-bye.” and the trap was sprung_
The neck was not broken, and there were a few convulsive twItches. of the limbs that continued for about ten minutes. “But he suffered none after the drop,” said Dr. Scott. the prison physician. The trap was sprung at precisely 10:12½. and fifteen minutes later Holmes was pronounced dead, though the body was not cut down until 10:45.
The body was placed in a vault in Holy Cross Cemetery. The last act in the vault was performed at Holmes’s express command. The lid of the coffin was taken off and the body was lifted out and laid on the ground. Then the bottom of the coffin was filled with cement; the body was then replaced in the coffin and completely covered. with the cement. It was Holmes’s idea that this cement would harden around his body and prevent any attempt at grave robbery. The coffin was left in the receiving vault under the guard of two watchmen, who will remain on duty all night. Tomorrow afternoon the body will be interred in a grave in the cemetery, and it is probable tbat at that time religious services will be conducted by Father Dailey.
Holmes made no will and left no confession. This ts according to Mr. Rotan. He says he knows Holmes made no will, and, while the murderer gave him this morning a big bundle of papers, the lawyer says he is confident that these papers relate only to private business matters. As yet Mr. Rotan has had no opportunity to examine them.
The two women referred to bv Holmes in his confession from the scaffold were Julia Connor of Chicago, who, with her daughter, was believed to have been murdered by him, and Emily Cigrand of Anderson, Ind.
Chicago Tribune, January 14, 1938
The three-story brick building at 601-03 West 63d street, which in 1895 earned the name of Holmes’ murder castle, will be razed to make way for a new building for the Englewood postoffice branch, now at 449 West 63d street.
The purchase of the parcel of land was approved yesterday by Assistant United States Attorney David H. Neuman. Miss Emma Morrison, 88 years old, of the Sovereign hotel, part owner, will receive $15,000 and $46,773 will be paid to the Chicago City bank as trustee for other owners.
Evidence indicating that bodies of sis persons had been destroyed in the basement was found in the “murder castle.” H. H. Holmes, who had a drug store and mysterious rooms and trap doors in the building, was hanged in 1896. He was suspected of having murdered twenty-seven persons.
“HOLMES MURDER CASTLE” BOUGHT AS SITE FOR POSTOFFICE—The building at 601-03 West 63d street which was sold yesterday and will be razed to make way for new Englewood postal station. H. H. Holmes, who had drug store in building, was hanged in 1896. Evidence indicated six bodies had been destroyed in the basement.
New York Times, March 25, 1999
A few years ago, in a suitcase containing 36 otherwise unremarkable, unlabeled cylinder records, Allen Koenigsberg, an expert on phonographs, found one with the unidentified voice of someone admitting multiple murders.
I cannot help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to a song. I was born with the evil one standing beside the bed when I was ushered into the world, and he has been with me ever since.
The only clue in the recording to identify the confessor was his regret about one of the 27 victims – his lover, Minnie Williams. Miss Williams was one of the victims of Mr. Mudgett.
Using that name as a clue, Koenigsberg dug through newspaper archives and concluded that he was in possession of a recording made of the most famous serial killer of the late 19th century — H. H. Holmes, a doctor whose real name was Herman Webster Mudgett.
Arch Oboler’s “Murder Castle”
Originally aired on February 16, 1938 in the NBC Studios in Chicago, this episode is based on the true story of serial killer H. H. Holmes and his “murder castle.” This episode was performed a second time on August 3, 1943 by CBS. All available recordings of this show are the same, and it’s likely that this recording is the 1943 one.
Arch Oboler’s “Murder Castle” 1943 Broadcast
Chicago Tribune’s Radio Schedule for February 16, 1938