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American Gothic:
The Strange Life of H.H. Holmes

  by Debra Pawlak
  H.H. HolmesIn the late nineteenth century Jack the Ripper roamed the foggy streets of London, spreading fear and creating a legend of horror. But at the same time, in another great city on the other side of the Atlantic, an equally cunning killer was claiming his victims. Sporting a stylish walrus mustache and a fashionable fedora, Dr. H. H. Holmes built a castle of horrors in upscale Englewood, Illinois, just south of Chicago. His charm was well-known, but his sterling local reputation soon succumbed to international infamy once his horrific deeds were uncovered.

Words describing Holmes had not yet been defined. It would be years before an appropriate term embedded itself into the English language-serial killer. And H. H. Holmes was clearly America's first.

Born in Gilmantown, New Hampshire on May 16, 1860, Herman Webster Mudgett had found surgery fascinating for as long as he could remember. Quite intelligent, Mudgett graduated from high school at sixteen and two years later married Clara Loveringat. While enrolled at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor, he stole bodies from the school laboratory. Disfiguring the corpses and claiming that the unlucky souls had been accidentally killed, Mudgett collected insurance money from policies that he, personally, took out on each and every one.

Eventually, he sent Clara back to New Hampshire and on a summer day in 1886, visited Dr. E.S. Holton's drugstore. Located at the corner of Wallace and Sixty-Third in Englewood, Illinois, Holton was dying of cancer while his worried wife minded the store. Mudgett introduced himself as Dr. Henry Howard Holmes and politely inquired if she needed an assistant. Without a second thought, the distraught woman hired him on the spot.

By the end of that summer, Dr. Holton passed away, but business prospered as the local ladies frequented the drugstore hoping to catch sight of the handsome new druggist. The grieving widow left Holmes with more and more responsibility, and when he offered to buy the drugstore, she accepted on one condition-that she could continue to live upstairs. Holmes agreed, but when he failed to pay her, Mrs. Holton sought legal action.

Then she disappeared.

When asked about the Widow Holton, Holmes nonchalantly explained that living alone above the store depressed her so she moved to California. No one thought it odd when Holmes quickly moved in.

Much to the disappointment of the local women, Holmes soon married Myrta Z. Belknap-a woman he met on a business trip to Minneapolis. Now a bigamist, he brought his bride back to Englewood where she worked in the store. Myrta had no idea that her marriage wasn't legal, but definitely didn't approve of her husband's roaming eye. Eventually, she left him, but not before she found herself pregnant. Myrta moved in with her parents, delivered a baby girl, and Holmes supported them from a distance.

Holmes' 'Castle of Horrors' in ChicagoWith Myrta out of the way, Holmes' attention turned elsewhere. He purchased a lot across the street from the drugstore. There he built his dream castle-or what would later be known as his castle of horrors. Designed entirely by Holmes, he carefully supervised the construction making sure no workman stayed on the job for more than a week. Claiming their work was second rate, he fired them, refusing to pay for their services and, at the same time, ensuring that no one knew the exact layout of the building. Completed in May 1890, the building stood three stories high. Exclusive shops occupied the first floor, but the upper floors and basement held secrets-deadly ones.

The floor plan of the second floor of the 'castle.' Note the crooked hallways.Mazes of mystery entwined the second and third floors of Holmes' castle. There were secret hallways and closets connecting the seventy-one bedrooms. Soundproof, and with doors that could only be locked from the outside, these 'guest quarters', were fitted with gas pipes attached to a control panel in Holmes' bedroom. He turned them on and off at will. Holmes' office, complete with an oversized stove, was also on the third floor adjacent to his walk-in vault. There were trap doors, sliding panels, stairs that led nowhere, and doors that opened to nothing but solid brick walls. Large greased chutes led straight to the basement where Holmes kept an acid tank, a dissecting tableā€¦and a crematorium.

Open for business, Holmes hired Ned Conner as manager of the jewelry store on the first floor of the castle. Conner brought with him his unusually tall wife, Julia, and their three-year-old daughter, Pearl. Unhappy with her husband, Julia soon found herself attracted to the dapper Dr. Holmes. Eventually, the Conners divorced and Ned moved away. When Julia turned up pregnant, Holmes convinced her to have an abortion offering to perform it himself once he put Pearl to bed.

Shortly after, Holmes paid one of his employees $36.00 to prepare a skeleton which, in turn, was sold to the Hahnemann Medical College for $200.00. A keen-eyed surgeon spotted the remarkable female specimen and bought it for display in his office. He often wondered what had happened to this fascinating woman who measured almost six feet.

Not long after the disappearance of Julia Connor and her daughter, Holmes took up with Emmaline Cigrand. Young and infatuated with the charismatic doctor, Emmaline fully expected to marry him. Instead she found herself locked in his vault where she met her untimely demise. A few weeks later, Holmes sold another female skeleton-this time to LaSalle Medical School.

In 1893, the Chicago's World Fair opened just a few blocks away from the castle. Holmes had seventy-one rooms to rent. No one knows exactly how many fairgoers became permanent guests at the castle. It was all too easy. Holmes simply turned on the gas while they slept, threw their bodies down the greased chutes into the basement and disposed of them in the acid vat or crematorium. Some estimates say that as many as fifty tourists never returned home from the Chicago World's Fair.

Benjamin PitezelThen there was the matter of Holmes' long-time assistant, Benjamin Pitezel. Holmes proposed that they take a $10,000.00 life insurance policy out on Pitezel, fake his death, and split the profits. Being a dutiful employee who had a wife and five children to support, Pitezel agreed. Before they could actually carry out their plan, however, Holmes ended up in a St. Louis jail on fraud charges. His brief incarceration proved fateful. While there, he met the notorious Marion Hedgepeth. Known as "The Handsome Bandit", Hedgepeth, whose sensational trial made national news, was a ruthless train robber and cold-blooded killer. The two men struck a deal. For a cut of the insurance money ($500.00 to be exact), Hedgepeth supplied Holmes with the name of a shady lawyer who would help with the scam.

Pitezel confided their plan to his wife, Carrie, assuring her that he would be fine regardless of what she may hear. The two men proceeded to take out an insurance policy naming Carrie as beneficiary. Holmes and Pitezel went on to Philadelphia where instead of faking his partner's death, Holmes murdered him. There was only one problem--before the insurance money could be collected, someone had to identify the body. Ill herself and with a sick infant to care for, Carrie sent her fifteen-year old daughter, Alice, to Philadelphia in the care of Dr. Holmes.

Once the gruesome identification was made, Holmes took Alice to a hotel in Indianapolis convincing her that her sister, Nellie, and brother, Howard, would soon be joining her. It would be a temporary arrangement at her mother's request until she could find them all a suitable home. Then Holmes went alone to see Carrie in St. Louis.

When Holmes arrived at Carrie's house, she was understandably alarmed that Alice wasn't with him. Still believing her husband was alive, she also demanded his whereabouts. Holmes assured her that both her husband and daughter were fine. He explained that they had to keep up the charade of Pitezel's death so as not to arouse the suspicions of the insurance company. Taken in by his lies, Carrie agreed to let Nellie and Howard go with Holmes while she and her other two children visited her parents. Holmes promised that in a few short weeks, he would meet her in Cincinnati bringing not only the children, but her husband as well.

Alice and Howard PitezelBack in Indianapolis, Alice was thrilled to see her brother and sister again, but her joy was short lived. Ten-year-old Howard missed his mother and tried Holmes' patience on more than one occasion. Fed up with the boy, Holmes told the girls that he was taking their brother to stay with his cousin. Reluctantly, Alice and Nellie packed up Howard's things and cried when Holmes took him away. Not long after Howard's disappearance, the two sisters vanished as well.

In the meantime, Marion Hedgepeth, still in prison, was not a happy camper. He never received his cut of the insurance money. The Handsome Bandit was not a man to cross. Fully aware of the scam and furious about being left out, Hedgepeth wrote a detailed letter describing the swindle and Holmes' involvement. The insurance company was notified and they soon called in The Pinkertons. An organized manhunt began in early October 1894. In less than six weeks, Holmes was arrested in Boston for insurance fraud and taken back to Philadelphia. At the time, even the experienced Pinkertons had no idea what their man, Holmes, had really done.

Marion Hedgepeth "The Handsome Bandit"Put on trial for defrauding the insurance company in the death of his partner, Benjamin Pitezal, Holmes knew he was cornered. On May 28, 1895, the second day of his trial, he entered a plea of guilty in return for a lighter sentence. Pleased with the reduced prison term, Holmes looked forward to once again being a free man in a few short months. But there was still the matter of the three missing children whom Holmes insisted had traveled to Liverpool in the care of a Miss Williams.

Enter Detective Frank Geyer, a twenty-year veteran, of the Philadelphia Police Department.

Geyer was a driven man who was looking for just such a case to focus his attention on-something to keep him from dwelling on his own personal tragedy, a recent house fire that claimed his wife and only daughter. Geyer's investigation took him to Cincinnati, Detroit, Chicago and finally Toronto-all places where Holmes had been seen with the children. It was in Toronto where he finally hit pay dirt when Thomas Ryves came forward claiming that Holmes, along with two young girls, had rented the house next door to him on St. Vincent Street. Ryves told a chilling tale. His new neighbor came by to borrow a shovel explaining that he needed to dig a spot in the cellar where his sister could keep potatoes.

Taking a Toronto Police Officer with him, Geyer went to the house in question knowing full well what awaited him. The two men headed straight for the cellar. Brandishing a shovel, Geyer dug only two feet when a human arm bone surfaced. The bodies of Nellie and Alice Petizel were unearthed and now H.H. Holmes was not just guilty of an insurance scam — he was a killer.

News of the grisly find spread throughout Canada and the United States. Suddenly, Holmes became an international figure of evil, but this was only the beginning.

Back in Englewood, detectives paid a visit to the castle. They were hardly prepared for what they found. Inside the large stove still in Holmes' office, they discovered a human rib and a hank of long hair-most likely a woman's. In the basement, they located a wooden tank hidden behind one wall. Lighting a match to help them see, they unwittingly ignited an explosion. The tank, as it turned out, was filled with chemicals. As soon as the air cleared, the detectives returned to the house where they found the skeletal remains of a young child-probably Pearl Conner. Now, they were convinced that the castle of horrors, and the man who built it, held unimaginable secrets.

Name after name of missing persons once associated with Holmes appeared. Kate Gorkey, a middle-aged widow who ran a restaurant inside the castle, her sister Liz, and daughter, Anna all vanished without a trace. Wilfred Cole of Baltimore met with Holmes and was never seen again. Harry Walker who worked as Holmes' secretary disappeared in 1893. The list went on and on and so did the evidence when a mound of human bones hidden among soup bones was found in the basement. The press went wild with the heinous stories sweeping a shocked public into an unprecedented frenzy of horror. .

A contemporary artist's impression of Howard Pitezel's murder.Meanwhile, Detective Frank Geyer was still looking for Howard Pitezel. His search led him to Irvington, Indiana, six miles outside of Indianapolis. There, he found a real estate agent who remembered dealing with Holmes in October 1894. He was looking for a house to rent for his widowed sister. The house was located on the east side of Irvington, and just as Geyer suspected, the charred body of a young child was found inside the chimney. All three Pitezel children were now accounted for.

On October 28, 1895, Holmes went on trial for the murder of Benjamin Pitezel. Labeled as 'the trial of the century', crowds clamored to the Philadelphia courthouse hoping to get a glimpse of the fiendish doctor. The daily newspapers painstakingly covered the entire trial delivering every sordid detail to a demanding public. In the end, Holmes was found guilty of first-degree murder. Eventually, he admitted killing twenty-seven men, women and children, including Benjamin Pitezel and his three children. His confession, however, proved dubious when some of his purported victims came forward still alive and breathing. Exactly how many people Holmes murdered remains a mystery, but some estimates number more than 200.

H.H. Holmes was hanged on the morning of May 7, 1896, but his strange story continued. According to his wishes, the bottom of his coffin was filled with ten inches of cement and then his body laid inside. The coffin was then filled with more cement before being nailed shut. He was buried in a double grave ten feet deep. Two more feet of sand and cement were poured into the open grave before it was covered with dirt.

While Jack the Ripper haunted England, H.H. Holmes prowled America luring unsuspecting guests to his castle. Unlike his English counterpart, however, Holmes' murderous rampage went on for years claiming a countless number of murdered men, women and children. Unable to accurately describe him at the time, newspapers labeled him an archfiend and a devil, but the deadly Dr. Holmes can only be depicted as a killer-a serial killer. America's first.


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