The “Widow in Green” Blackmail Mystery

“Does anybody know the woman in green?” asked the Tribune in  November of 1908. “Can anybody tell the name of the mysterious woman motorist who for the last month has been an unfailing topic of conversation for those who have time to observe humanity as seen in Chicago’s streets? Who is she?”

For a month, Chicagoans had been observing a woman, roughly 30 years old, driving around the loop in a rented green touring car, dressed from head to foot in green, including a green hat and veil (except for a couple of days when she tried red or white outfits, each time with a matching car). Each day, she’d drive a circuit through the loop, occasionally stopping for some sort of meeting in the Marquette building. Once in a while she’d have a chauffeur, and once she nearly drove off the road, having been agitated by the sight of a certain man with a black mustache, but she was otherwise said to be perfectly capable of handing the car herself – the paper noted that she “handles her machine in a manner which shows her mastery over the art of chauffeuring”

In the Tribune’s 1908 feature, one gets the impression that they could have solved the mystery easily enough – she went to the same garages and drove the same route daily – but preferred to revel in the wild, romantic backstories people were inventing for her. It might seem odd today, more than a century on, to imagine that someone driving around could create such excitement, but we have to remember that this was 1908. Cars weren’t quite the novelty they’d been a few years before, but they were still in their infancy. Female drivers might have been a bit of a shock to some, as well. The veil, the tendency to match her outfit to her car, and her taking the same route daily were about all it took to attract attention.

It may be, though, that the real story was wilder than the Tribune dared to hope.

In January, the Inter-Ocean began telling stories of a “Widow in Green” who’d been blackmailing wealthy hotel guests. The Inter-Ocean certainly thought it was the same woman; stating that there was a small gang of blackmailers operating “under the leadership of the ‘woman in green,’ who created a furore among residents of the Michigan Avenue hotels by appearing each day dressed entirely in green. A large green touring car was constantly at her beck and call.”

The “Widow in Green,” it was said, was “a beautiful brunette, very attractive and a good conversationalist (who) speaks with a slight French accent.” She would scan the registers of Michigan Avenue hotels, find wealthy men who were in from out of town, and then seduce them in the dining rooms with her brilliant powers of conversation (though the “seduction” may have amounted only to go to their hotel rooms to discuss an investment plan for the money she claimed to have inherited, with her simply signing into the hotel as the man’s wife). Later, the wealthy men would receive letters demanding money, always signed with the single name “Gladys.”

Stories of Gladys the Green’s life of crime spread quickly – there were tales of her having a fist fight with the woman who owned one of the hotels, of her forging a check at another hotel. Though saying she was part of a “gang” might have been overstating it, she did employ a couple of “attorneys” who dealt with unruly victims, and who helped her draw up bogus mortgages to sell. To one victim, she sent a valentine showing a man being beaten with a rolling pin; the back read “I hope the new year will bring you as much happiness as you have brought me unhappiness – Gladys.”

The man who received the card told the press (through his attorney) that he’d remained silent and paid a fortune up until now “because his wife and children had been heretofore unaware of his escapapde with the dashing ‘widow in green,'” whom he’d met at the Lexington Hotel.  But his attempts to find her seem to have been in vain.

The flair for the dramatic may have been her undoing – though most papers in town barely mentioned the story (to my surprise – it seemed like the kind of story the American would have been all over), the Inter-Ocean covered it in several articles over a week or so in January, 1909, and several out of town papers picked up their coverage as well. With her newfound fame, the Widow in Green’s cover was blown, and operating in town likely became too risky. She presumably took off for parts unknown, and her story disappeared from the papers. So far as I know, she was forgotten by the end of the winter.

The Pinkerton Detectives at Graceland Cemetery

Today, I’ve launched a new podcast, Cemetery Mixtape, which will feature cool stories about interesting graves, with original songs by musical guests. Check it out! It’s been a lot of fun doing research on stories that take me outside of Chicago a bit; upcoming episodes revolve around graves in places like Nashville, Washington DC, and New York.

But I just had to have an episode about Joseph Wicher, who is in the section of Graceland Cemetery put aside for employees of Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency. Wicher, in a story I can’t believe isn’t better known, was murdered by the Jesse James gang in 1874.  (Much of the info here is also on the episode’s page at

Allan Pinkerton was an abolitionist who started the first national detective agency – the first real private eyes. Nearby his own family plot, the Pinkerton Employee section essentially functioned as advertising for the detective agency (in addition to being a nice gesture for his employees). The trouble, from a tour guide’s perspective, is that the majority of the graves are too worn to be read:


Among the two more legible graves at the front is Kate Warn (alias Angie Warren, according to cemetery paperwork), who has become very popular lately. A few books have been written about her in just the last few years, though most are novels just imagining the kind of work she might do, as we don’t really know much of what she did. . Pinkerton used her as a character in a couple of novels he wrote that were said to be true stories, though enough names and dates are clearly changed that they can’t really be fact-checked; when I tried to verify stuff about a story Pinkerton wrote of her impersonating a fortune teller, nothing held up. They do give us some idea of what sort of work Kate probably did, though, and we do know for sure that she assumed the role of a sick man’s brother to help Lincoln sneak past assassins and into Washington D.C. in 1861.

Another female detective, Kate Bracket, is also in the plot in an unmarked grave, but I think even less is known for sure of her; most of what I’ve seen written about her and Kate Warn basically amounts to fanfic, as most of the records of their Chicago work was lost in the Great Fire.    (If you want to look up a better documented early Chicago woman detective, check out our posts on Mary E. Holland).

The only other really legible stone is for Timothy Webster, whose monument calls him “The Harvey Birch of the Rebellion” (a reference to James Fenimore Cooper’s The Spy). Webster also helped with sneaking Lincoln into DC, then was eventually hanged by confederate soldiers who caught him spying behind enemy lines. He’s not buried in the plot, though, and never was! He was initially buried in Virginia, then moved to his family plot in a small town. The marker is just a monument.

Among the largely illegible graves around them, only Wicher seems to be well-documented; in 1874 he was sent to Liberty, MO, to look into the activities of the James gang. The sheriff there might have tipped the gang off, and they might have simply been able to tell he wasn’t a farmhand looking for work, as he claimed when he went to the James family farm – there’s no way to tell for sure at this point. Not long after he left for the farm, his murdered body was found by a farm, shot three times, and, in some versions (though I’m not sure any are reliable), with a note attached to his clothes reading something like “Let all detectives beware of Jesse James.”

Of the others, I could only find a tiny bit about Botella Olson, whom a newspaper once described as a “Norwegian spy.” Many of the stones look as though they may have once contained epitaphs with more data, like the larger stones for Warn and Webster, but the combination of age, limestone, and acid rain has made them impossible to read.

However, I do have this map that I made for Cemetery Mixtape:















We’re still working on this, of course. In the meantime, hear more about Joseph on the new podcast, and come along on a Graceland tour some time!

The Strange Case of Baron von Biedenfeld

While doing research for the new Architecture of Mysterious Chicago tour, I ran into some fascinating data about Baron Cut von Biedenfeld, one of the late 19th century Chicago’s more colorful characters, who is all but forgotten today.  Look him up online, and you’ll mostly find references to his father writing letters back and forth with composer Richard Wagner.

Born in Germany in the early 1860s, Baron von Biedenfeld managed to blow through all his money as a young man, and moved to the States nearly penniless, earning his first money by shoveling snow in New York during the Great Blizzard of 1888. Thereafter, he moved to Chicago, where he married his way back into high society, and became known as a man about town, occasionally making the society columns in the papers and living in a mansion at 20th and Indiana, near the famous Prairie Avenue district. He occasionally made the police blotter as well; an 1892 account in the Inter-Ocean speaks of the Baron (then still known as Count von Biedenfeld) getting into a scuffle at a bar on 22nd and Michigan – when a man insisted that the Count pay for the drinks, things got rough, and ended with Von Biedenfeld hitting the man in the head with his cane six times.

the Baron shows off a horse and carriage

This was all a precursor to a day six years later, when the baron was drinking at Redpath’s Saloon on Jackson, and was heard to remark “All Turks are cowards.” Police Officer Charles McDonald, who knew the Baron pretty well and thought he was using “Turk” as a slang term for an Irishman, said “I’m a Turk, and I’m not a coward.”  Baron von Biedenfeld drew a piston and shot McDonald to death.

In court, a number of witnesses from red light districts affirmed that McDonald had a reputation as a rough character, and lawyers claimed that he’d been out to get the Baron for three years. The Baron himself insisted that the “unfortunate” shooting was self defense on his part, as McDonald was reaching for his own gun. The jury agreed, and he was acquitted. He gathered his things from the county jail (pausing to joke with prisoners who asked him to come back and visit), then moved right back to Germany.

A year later, he published a book about America. Only excerpts in English seem to be available, but some of them are rather interesting: “Immigrants who do not possess a certain sum of money, or who have no relatives in the States,” he wrote, “are promptly sent back…. Americans only have use for a man who has something of which they can rob him.” He went on to say “There is one weakness peculiar to the entire American people: the respect for success without regard for the means by which it was achieved.”

Redpath’s Saloon stood where the Steger Building is now, adjacent to the Pickwick Place, the courtyard where Architecture of Mysterious Chicago tours begin.


The Unmarked Grave of a Revolutionary War Widow

As a cemetery tour guide, on my favorite things is finding great stories that have escaped the history books – it’s often just a matter of finding an interesting headstone and looking up the name. But which stones to choose? The most obvious are the big and impressive ones, but sometimes it can also simply be a person with a strange name, or an interesting symbol.

One of these was Elizabeth Ely Gridley Butler, whose stone includes a “Real Daughter” plaque, signifying that her father was a Revolutionary War soldier. These are very rare in Chicago, where no verifiable Revolutionary War veterans are buried (we’ve covered the two supposed ones, William DuVol and David Kennison, a time or two before). But what struck me about Elizabeth was her birth date – 1826. I figured there had to be a story there, as the youngest Revolutionary Veterans in 1826 would have been comfortably past middle age.

As it turns out, her father, Theodore Gridley, of Clinton, NJ, served for seven months in the New York state militia during the war; family legend a century later said that he fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill (the war service is backed by records, though they indicate that the Bunker Hill part was probably not true). It wasn’t until around 1816 that he married Amy Ely, who was already 40 years of age – very old to be getting married in those days.  In 1825, according to an 1875 Tribune article, the two of them rode in a carriage to Boston to see the cornerstone laid for the Battle of Bunker Hill memoriale, and heard Daniel Webster speak.

Amy was nearly 50 years old when Elizabeth, her only child was born; Thomas died the next year, and Amy moved to Chicago in 1854, when her daughter married G.S. Butler there, and lived there for a rest of her life. The family hid in a cabbage patch outside of the city limits during the Great Chicago Fire, by which time Amy was close to 95 years old.

She survived the fire, though was a bit worse for wear. Her hearing began to suffer, and she stopped taking daily walks. By 1875, the Tribune said that her chief form of amusing was “rumpling handkerchiefs, from which she seems to derive considerable amusement.” It also noted that “unlike the conventional old lady, she does not smoke a pipe or require much attention.”

Amy Ely-Gridley died in her daughter’s home in 1876, and, at 99, was thought to be the oldest woman in Chicago. According to Graceland Cemetery records, she is buried in the unmarked spot directly next to her daughter’s. I’ve exchanged a few emails with the D.A.R. in hopes of getting a marker placed there, but nothing has come of it yet (possibly because Amy was Theodore’s third wife). Here’s hoping! Amy is a part of history who deserves a memorial of her own.

Kathryn Evans: Witness to History at Rosehill Cemetery

On a recent walk through Rosehill Cemetery, looking for new stories to tell on tours, I came upon the gravestone of Albert H. Dainty, whose epitaph read “Until the day breaks and the shadows flee.” This was a line from The Song of Solomon in the Bible. Translations vary, but the full line is something like “Until the day breaks and the shadows flee, turn to me, my beloved, and be like a wild elk among the rugged hills.” Go, Albert H. Dainty, go!

Some research showed that this epitaph would have certainly been chosen by his second wife; his first, Laura, left him to go on the stage, ignoring his pleas to come home for a decade before he finally obtained a divorce. She was a fairly well-known elocutionist in her day, and turned out to have connections to any number of other people in Rosehill (though she herself is in Forest Home). Later in life, she was very active in the Hull House theater, where she directed a performance of a play called Hazel Kirk in 1917 as benefit to raise money to get a retired actress named Kathryn Evans into the Episcopalian Home.

Kathryn M. Evans

I was delighted to find the connection to Evans, whose nondescript gravestone on the north side of the cemetery is one of Rosehill’s many little-known treasures.

Evans was an actress, and a fairly popular one in her day, though what earned her a place in history was her role as Mrs. Sharpe, a housekeeper, who had the first line in a comedy she later said “Wouldn’t be considered very funny today.” That comedy was Our American Cousin, and Ms. Evans appeared in it at Ford’s Theater the night Lincoln was assassinated there in 1865.

The details in the story she told of that night – over and over for the rest of her life – seem to change a bit in the telling, but she gave a particularly vivid description to a Chicago Daily Inter-Ocean reporter in 1914. “I was in the green room,’ she recalled, “chatting with Maggie Gourlay, the ‘Skillet’ of the play, and waiting for my cue, when I heard the shot ring out…. I knew when I heard the shot that it couldn’t be a part of the play…. A moment before young Booth had leaped to the stage. I heard someone shout ‘Stop that man!'”… I looked up and saw Lincoln unconscious, his head drooping on his breast, his eyes closed, but with a smile still on his face.

“After the tragedy I ran upstairs to the dressing-room. The stage was filled with secret service men, who seemed to have gone crazy. They had arrested ‘Peanut Johnnie’ (the peanut vendor who held Booth’s horse) as an accomplice – poor ‘Peanut,’ who did nothing more than hold Booth’s horse. They were looking for Ned Spangler, our stage carpenter, who had innocently held the door open for the assassin. My husband was also under suspicion, as he had had a drink with Booth in George Harry’s cafe next door before the play began.”

Evans went to a dressing room, where she wiped the makeup off her face, certain that any second a detective would knock on the door to arrest her, too. Eventually the property manager assured her that she was safe, and she walked into the empty theatre, which wouldn’t see another audience in her lifetime. Her husband was arrested, but released. The property manager was held in the federal jail in the capitol building for a time, and his frantic wife lived with Evans for a bit. In the heady hours after the assassination and Booth’s seemingly easy escape, everyone in the theater was under suspicion.

She had worked with Booth a little bit before, and thought him the perfect gentleman. She had even seen him that day, and said that he betrayed no nervousness regarding what he was about to do. “My last glimpse of him,” she said, “was as he stood with his arms outstretched at the entrance to the theater, facing the stage. We all liked him.”

“It was an unhappy season for us,” she recalled. “The theater was closed, and we, who had been favorites a week before, were out of work. We were all more or less under suspicion because Booth was an actor… my husband died shortly after. It was a sad year for me.”

Years later, visiting Washington for the first time since 1865, she visited the federal prison and was appalled to see a guard prodding an elderly prisoner with a bayonet. She loudly protested, until the guard said the prisoner, was “Still a rebel at heart; he told me he was glad the blankety-blank old rail splitter had been killed. “Give him an extra prod for me, then,” Evans said.

Evans remained an actress for years, eventually retiring in Chicago. In 1920, a play about Lincoln was performed at the Blackstone Theatre (now the Merle Norman), and Evans viewed the play from a box, where she sat alongside Sgt. A.W. Boggs, who’d been in the audience at Ford’s Theatre that night, and W.J. Ferguson, who’d been in the cast with her that night. They hadn’t seen each other since, though Ferguson was still a working actor; he was currently appearing in the The Little Whopper at the Studebaker, and had recently played Lincoln in a silent film.


I’m indebted to Dave Taylor and Kate Ramirez, Booth family scholars who told me about Evans; we located her grave at Rosehill over the summer when they came through town on their “Boothie Road Trip.” Check out his site!

The Skull and Bones of HH Holmes

In 1898, rumors swirled around Englewood that HH Holmes had survived his execution and was now off growing coffee in San Paranarimbo, South America. No such place showed up in maps, but, hey, maybe it was one of those “It’s not on any chart; true placed never are” situations.

Over the summer, I appeared on four episodes of American Ripper, the History Channel’s HH Holmes series, and served as consulting producer (which mostly means I sent them a lot of data, a lot of the historical graphics they used, etc). Early on in the filming, they told me they were working on something Jeff Mudgett, Holmes’ great great grandson, had been trying to do for years: Exhume the remains of H.H. Holmes to see if it was really him in that concrete grave.  I kept suggesting they shave it down and try to make him look like Han Solo in carbonite.

Now, it should be pointed out that there was never much mystery about who was in that cement-filled Philadelphia grave; Holmes’ execution was witnessed by dozens of high-ranking witnesses, including several people who knew Holmes pretty well and hated his guts (as we covered in more detail than any normal person would want to hear in our post, The Hanging and Burial of HH Holmes). The idea that he faked it was a two day story in 1898, buried in the back of a now-defunct Chicago paper. It was easily debunked at the time; the alternate story of what happened didn’t come close to lining up with known facts, and had Holmes off in hiding in a place that didn’t even exist.

It also wasn’t a widespread or common belief; the story was syndicated in a few dozen papers, though none seemed to take it seriously (one Akron paper’s headline simply read “Pretty Thin”). Most of the articles from papers around the country are just reprints of the Chicago story, though some added a line or two at the end debunking it, noting that the way Holmes was hanged in the story wasn’t anything like the way criminals were hanged in Philadelphia.  The Philadelphia Inquirer, whose reporters were in attendance at the execution, said that there was not the least doubt Holmes was dead, and noted that “authorities here laugh at the absurd story.” A Reading, PA paper, in an article entitled “A Foolish, Fake Story,” noted that ex-Sheriff Clement, who officiated at the hanging, thought it was hilarious.

The 1898 story seemed to have been based on a pamphlet, Hanged By Proxy, published by L.W. Warner, a novelty dealer who bore the distinct pedigree of having been one of the twenty-seven victims Holmes confessed to murderering (though he was alive and well and living in Newton, Iowa). But the pamphlet itself attracted very little notice; it’s only known of now from a copyright listing and a small town Missouri paper than ran an excerpt of an article on it from an even smaller paper that seems not to even to exist on microfilm anymore.

The story was completely forgotten within a week, and no later retelling of the Holmes story suggested that the hanging may have been a hoax – I can’t think of a single time any article or book on Holmes between 1898 and about 2010 even alluding to the idea. Now and then someone would suggest that there was something odd about the fact that Holmes’ heart was still beating after fifteen minutes, but if you read a lot of accounts of 19th century hangings (and boy, do I ever), you’ll find that that was totally standard.

It wasn’t until Jeff’s novel, Bloodstains, suggested in 2011 that someone else had been hanged in Holmes’ place that anyone started to suggest it was a mystery again. And when theory began to spread through the internet, the 1898 stories weren’t a part of it; I don’t think anyone knew about them at all until our blogpost and podcast about them in 2015.  By now, though, the story actually seemed more plausible to people than it did in 1898, as the legend of Holmes has grown a lot in the last decade. Even in academic articles, people have accepted the 1940s pulp version of Holmes as fact- every book on him in recent decades has taken a lot of stuff that Herbert Asbury invented outright as gospel. Holmes was a very audacious swindler and trickster, but he wasn’t really all that GOOD of one in reality. He managed to stay out of trouble by dragging cases out, but he tended to be very sloppy in his schemes. He was sued constantly; merchants and insurers that he swindled almost always figured out that they’d been had, often very quickly. I wouldn’t put it past him to have TRIED to fake his death, but there’s no way he could have pulled it off.

Those articles were a large part, as I understand it, of how the crew convinced the judge to let the exhumation go through. When the news about it broke in late Spring, I was suddenly being quoted in The Washington PostRolling StoneThe Philadelphia Inquirer, and a slew of other major papers. I had to turn down a lot of requests for interviews at the time, since I was affiliated with the show to some degree, though I wasn’t (to my chagrin) sent out to Philadelphia to see what happened.

Even though I thought there was no reason in the world to doubt it was Holmes down there, I was fine with them doing the exhumation. Hey, I’m the guy who runs Grave Robbing 101 tours in Chicago, and wrote The Smart Aleck’s Guide to Grave Robbing ebook. I thought it’d be fascinating to see what they found in the grave, to actually see the chunk of cement, and see what kind of shape the body would be in (it was hard to predict; a great deal depended on what kind of filler material was in the cement). And Holmes, for his part, was too dead to care. I’m relatively flippant about the rights of dead bodies, really. They’re just dust and bones.

The producers of the show wound up keeping me out of the loop on what was happening with the exhumation, so I didn’t have any new info for people over the summer, while the show was airing, except that I could already say it looked like Holmes’ skull to me in the previews of the season to come that they showed after the first episode. I’m not such a forensic expert that I could just look at a skull and say “That looks like him” or anything, but it didn’t seem to have any teeth that should have been missing. There are photos of dental casts in circulation, and from a quick glance it looked like a match to me.

I’ll summarize the excavation and findings here, since I try to make this site a go-to destination for all things Holmes, though of course you’ll want to see the excavation footage for yourself – you can watch American Ripper on Amazon Video.

Matching the skull to the teeth was a relatively easy matter. While Holmes was in prison, he was examined by Dr. Eugene Talbot, who conducted a physical examination and interviewed him, then published a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association.  This being 1896, he spent most of his time talking about the bumps and ridges on Holmes’ skull, and the physical signs that he was a “degenerate.” But the article included two particularly useful tidbits: one is a stray line that Holmes “Sexual organs” were “unusually small,” and the other was a mold of his teeth:

Here are pictures of the molds next to modern shots of the skull:



So, I only know about what happened on the dig based on some second hand accounts from reporters who were spying on things (the rumor at the time was that they dug in the wrong place and didn’t find anything), but based on the show, the findings weren’t much different than what one would expect based on the stories of the hanging and burial that appeared in Philadelphia papers. Papers differed slightly on details, as we noted in our exhaustive post, but what they found just about lined up with what I’d expect.

About six feet down, they started to find a bunch of cement (note: the claims on the show that Holmes own a cement factory are a bit disingenuous; he borrowed a few thousand dollars from a guy who did, and the two went back and forth suing each other throughout 1891, and there’s been some vague speculation that maybe the other guy wasn’t real, but it’s wild speculation, at best). This cement turned out to be a solid block of it encased in wood;  they refer to this wood as an empty “decoy coffin,” though I’m not sure that’s what it was. My guess would be that it was just a wood liner they put into the grave as they poured more cement down, helping to keep the cement in place as it hardened.

Beneath that was a coffin lid, which was a minor surprise – a number of news reports mention that the lid was removed before the coffin was lowered into the ground. No mention was made of what became of it, though, so the idea that they’d toss it into the grave before adding the second layer of cement makes sense. After all, what else were they gonna do with it?

Below the lid was the coffin, filled with cement, just about as described. There was a cavity inside, filled with water. But the water was pumped out, the cement was drilled into (not shaved down to make him look like Han in carbonite – nuts) and there, inside the cement, was the skeleton. Not as well preserved as some had suggested it would be, but still in fairly good shape, really. It could have rotted to dust in other conditions. And, hey, it DOES sort of remind me of that scene in Return of the Jedi when Leia, disguised as Boushh, activates the mechanism to melt the carbonite.


The bones were eventually extracted, cleaned, and laid out in a lab:

So there we have it: the skeleton of H.H. Holmes (though a couple of front teeth seen during the exhumation are missing from the layout). DNA samples were taken, which a title card at the end of the last episode revealed came back to confirm a match to Jeff Mudgett – the dental casts and hanging reports had already made it fairly clear to me, but now it was official. And I was glad the show said as much; I was afraid they’d try to say it was “inconclusive” or something.

Of course, I’m still seeing people suggesting that it somehow may not have been Holmes down there. Perhaps they think it was one of his children? (I keep looking for a gif of Gob Bluth saying “I will be buried in my father’s place…because he loved magic so very much…”).

One mystery does remain to me – a number of newspapers indicate that a silver cross with Holmes’ name, provided by one of the priests who served as his spiritual advisors, was placed on top of the body before one of the layers of cement went on. The clothing and sheet certainly disintegrated, as would probably be expected, but was the cross in there?  (edit, Nov 2017: They did find it. NBC Philadelphia showed a picture here)

In any case, I think it’s neat that it all happened, and we get some new data on Holmes in the bargain. As they say in Stranger Things, you should open every “curiosity door” you come to!

We have a couple of Holmes tours coming up this fall (2017); see the homepage or the sidebar. Saturday, 9/9, I’ll be at The Reservoir on West Montrose at 11am, talking Holmes with Ray Johnson, who also appeared on the show.

HH Holmes and Jack the Ripper: The Chicago Evidence (with podcast)


Listen to the audio above; or check out the podcast on or iTunes!  Or check out the video version on youtube.

 My massive new book, HH HOLMES: THE TRUE HISTORY OF THE WHITE CITY DEVIL is out now from Skyhorse Publishing, on the heels of starred reviews in Booklist and Library Journal! 

In 1895, as the Chicago police dug through the building now known as the “Murder Castle of H.H. Holmes,” Inspector Fitzpatrick was asked about new rumors linking Holmes to the murder of Mrs. Kron, a Wilmette neighbor of Holmes who’d been brutally murdered a few years before. Fitzpatrick brushed it off. “That theory is ridiculous,” he said. “The murder of Mrs. Cron was done in too crude a manner for Holmes to have had anything to do with it. He was a scientific criminal and would never think of engaging in a burglary or shooting a person in cold blood. You might as well connect him with the Cronin murder as that of Mrs. Cron, or even with the ‘Jack the Ripper’ horrors in London, England.” (“Tell Tale Letter,” Chicago Evening Journal, July 27 1895)

Little could he have guessed that a century or so later, people would be being talking about Holmes as a ripper suspect! This was the main premise of The History Channel’s American Ripper, on which I appeared in several episodes and served as “consulting producer,” which basically means that I provided them with a lot of data. Some of it was used in the show, some of it wasn’t.

Quite a few people have emailed me asking about the parts of the book that place Holmes in the United States during the Ripper murders, and now that the show is ended, I think I can put this post up laying out what evidence I’m using.

A bit of background: In Autumn of 1888, a number of prostitutes were brutally hacked to bits in Whitechapel, a rough neighborhood in London. Though the killer was never identified, he went down in history under the name “Jack the Ripper,” based partly on a letter received by the police (which was likely written by a reporter, not the killer). There are dozens of theories as to who the killer was and what motivated him, and no one is totally sure how many murders could really be attributed to him. The five “canonical” victims, the ones that are generally agreed on, were Mary Ann Nichols (Aug 31, 1888), Annie Chapman (September 8), Elizabeth Stride (September 30), Catherine Eddows (September 30), and Mary Jane Kelly (November 8).

Other possible “Ripper” victims are spread between about February, 1888 and well into 1889 and beyond. But going just by the canonical five, the most important question is: can we tell where Holmes was between late August and early November, 1888?  You often hear that Holmes disappears from the record during this period, which was true if you only go by the data that shows up in a google search or a couple of 20th century Holmes books, none of which really talk about where he was in that period. But those books, and particularly the hundreds of blog posts summarizing his career, are based on incomplete data. During most of that period, he would have been working in the drug store of the “castle’ building (which was built earlier than most sources say, from Aug-Oct 1887), and dealing with lawsuits over its construction.

Though I’ve never found a true smoking gun like, say, a signed promissory note taken out at the Bank of Englewood during those dates, there is abundant documentary evidence that Holmes was in the United States during that whole period. Indeed, though there are lots of stories and rumors about him going to England or South America, there’s little or nothing on record to suggest that he really ever left North America in his life. The only real thing suggesting he did is a letter he wrote to District Attorney George Graham in May, 1895, mentioning that the New York Herald was hard to find in London as of a year before. And we know that Holmes could not have been in London in Spring/Summer 1894, when he was busy in Fort Worth, Denver and St. Louis, so he was either going on something he’d been told by someone else, or just making things up.

So, as to the evidence we do have about Holmes in Fall, 1888:

  • Holmes’ daughter, Lucy, was born July 4, 1889, in Englewood – likely in the Castle building. This isn’t exactly hard data for this sort of thing, but, well, we know ONE thing he was doing in Autumn of 1888.
  • Holmes registered to vote in Englewood on October 9, 1888, giving “701 Sixty-Third St” (the castle, in pre-1909 renumbering) as his address. The registry notes that he didn’t vote in the election, but he did register. This would be THE smoking gun if it was in his handwriting, not a clerk’s; as it is, though, it’s just a hard one to explain away, as a clerk wrote all of the names in the registry.

Detail of voter roll dated Oct 9, 1888. It's a clerk's handwriting, but that's definitely the same Holmes. It's the pre-1909 address of the castle.

Detail of voter roll dated Oct 9, 1888. It’s a clerk’s handwriting, but that’s definitely the same Holmes. It’s the pre-1909 address of the castle.

  • In November of 1894, when Holmes was first arrested as a swindler and became a media sensation, several Boston newspapers sent reporters to interview the Mudgetts, his family in New Hampshire. Holmes had just made a surprise visit there himself a couple of weeks before, so his long absence was fresh on their minds. Both Clara Mudgett, his first wife, and Levi Mudgett, his father, said that prior to his arrival there in early November, following a letter to his brother some weeks before,  he’d last visited them in October, 1888. The Boston Herald, speaking with Clara, said “In October, six years ago, he came to see her for the last time.” (Boston Globe Nov 21 1894). Days after he left in 1888, according to his father, he wrote his brother from a New York hotel. A New England trip in late October would explain why he didn’t end up voting in Chicago in November.
  • Holmes was dealing with at least three lawsuits in Chicago during the summer/fall of 1888; he was being sued by Simon Waixel (a drug store supplier), George Kimball (a glass dealer) and Aetna Iron and Steel, who had provided construction and materials for the “castle” the year before. And one meeting with his attorney clearly took place in late September or early October.

The Waixel and Kimball suits, looked at from a certain angle, could actually strengthen the idea that Holmes was in England from August to November. He was a no-show in court in late October when the Waixel case was called (after having shown up for it in late July), and the September paperwork in the Kimball suit saying no property could be found and Holmes hadn’t paid up as ordered may just mean that Holmes wasn’t around; there’s no mention of the deputy actually searching the place.

However, that could also back up the stories of him going to New Hampshire in late October, a timeline of the suit with Aetna Iron and Steel places Holmes far more clearly in Chicago right in the middle of the London murders.

The facts of the Aetna lawsuit are these: In Spring of 1887, Holmes entereded into contracts with Aetna Iron and Steel, as well as will Berger and Gallouner, architects, to design, supply materials, and build his new building at Sixty-Third and Wallace, the one we came to know as the castle. Construction began that August of 1887 – details of it are pretty well enumerated in the lawsuit that Aetna and the architects launched the next summer when they hadn’t been paid (many relevant portions of the suit are in the ebook companion to my Holmes book, Very Truly Yours HH Holmes, which includes over 100k words of letters, articles, depositions, etc by Holmes and his various associates, many of which have never been published).

It’s harder to place him in a courtroom during the first few months of the Aetna suit, but a few things in the pile of paperwork that survives make it seem clear that Holmes was around Chicago that Fall. On the surface, the most damning is this filing, stamped Sept 18, 1888, stating “Now comes Lucy T. Belknap, Harry H Holmes…” etc:


However, this piece alone isn’t quite the smoking gun it looks like – Holmes didn’t necessarily have to be present for his attorney to enter his appearance.

Far more damning, though, is the fact a few days later (probably Sept 24th), Aetna Iron and Steel put in a lengthy affadavit telling the story of their dealings with Holmes; so did Berger and Gallouner, who were made parties to the suit only on September 21. On September 26, 1888, Berger’s lawyer filed a notice to Maher that he’d obtained a ruling for Holmes to answer their charges within twenty days.

Wrapper from the lawsuit paperwork of the answer to a creditor's claims Holmes gave in late sept/early Oct, 1888.

Wrapper from the lawsuit paperwork of the answer to a creditor’s claims Holmes gave in late sept/early Oct, 1888.

Maher seems to have tried to get out of it; he answered with a demurrer (a legalistic way of saying “so what?”), but on October 3 the court denied the demurrer. Hence, in accordance with the ruling, Holmes’ answers were filed with the courts on October 12, 1888. From the detailed answers in the paperwork, it’s fairly clear that Maher met with Holmes to speak to him, and this meeting probably would have had to have happened between Oct 3 and Oct 12, and couldn’t have been before the late September date on the affidavit he was answering.

So, to sum up, the data is pretty clear that Holmes was in Chicago, dealing with the lawsuit, in late September and Early October, 1888, which would make it impossible for him to have committed the Jack the Ripper murders.

But, again, these aren’t necessarily smoking guns if you’re really determined to believe Holmes was in London at the time. The October, 1888 date in the 1894 papers talking about his New Hampshire trip never comes from a direct quote, just a summary of what the relatives were saying. They could have been a bit off. And theoretically, Holmes could have sent a someone else to register him to vote, and brought Myrta with him to London (or some have suggested that perhaps he wasn’t really Lucy’s father). Maher could have written the answers all on his own (though how he knew the answers to some of what Aetna and the architects claimed is hard to explain). And if Holmes never spoke of the trip, well, one could say that a trip to kill prostitutes is the sort of thing you’d want to keep quiet about.

But these seem like stretches to me, to say the last. In particular, sending someone to register to vote for you would be a lot of effort, and a big risk – individual voter fraud has always been a high risk, low reward sort of swindle, which makes it a very rare crime.

And that’s just the documentary evidence placing Holmes in Chicago. Stronger still is the fact that Holmes doesn’t really make that good of a candidate for the Ripper to begin with, as he just wasn’t the sort of killer who went around hacking random prostitutes to bits. Though he is often portrayed that way these days, as a killer who used gas chambers, hanging, and stabbings stories of him being that sort of killer have more roots in tabloids and pulps than from more reliable sources. There are only a handful of known victims (plus some “maybes,” see my list), and none were random. None were stabbed to death – in all cases where there’s much to go on, he seems to have favored poison.

For a lot more on HH Holmes, of course, check out my book, HH Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil, the most comprehensive biography of the man yet, out now from Sky Horse, and the ebook companion collection of his writings, Very Truly Yours HH Holmes

Some previous Holmes posts on the blog that cover topics I discussed on the show:

HH Holmes and Chappel, the “Skeleton Articulator”

The Murder Castle Site

The Hanging and Burial of HH Holmes – in detail

Did HH Holmes Fake His Death?

HH Holmes: Master List of Known and Suspected Victims 

Holmes and Jack the Ripper: Chicago Evidence (Video on Youtube)

Now that the show has wrapped, I think i can discuss this all more freely; email press and media inquiries to  adam AT .

The Sad Saga of Jeanette Hoy

Newspaper writers of the early 20th century found lots of amusing euphemisms for LGBT couples – enough that one sees references to a young woman and her “aide” and it’s tempting, at least, to wonder if they were more than friends. Jeanette Hoy and Katherine Davis don’t seem to have been a couple, exactly (to Hoy’s chagrin), but papers referred to their “odd friendship” and used the word “chum” in scare quotes after Hoy shot Davis, then herself, in 1921.

Davis told reporters that she met then-20 year old Hoy in 1919, when she was living in an apartment of her own in the Eleanor Club (a chain of women-only rooming houses that survived until the 1990s) on Indiana Avenue. The two struck up a friendship, going to the theater together regularly (and, in some accounts, rooming together), before Davis decided she didn’t want to see Jeanette anymore, presumably after Jeanette declared that her love was not platonic. Jeanette didn’t take it well, continuing to show up at the Eleanor Club and sending gifts and money. And then she sent one with a bullet enclosed, threatening to kill Davis and herself. The letter reportedly read, in part, “You probably don’t understand how a girl can love another girl as I do you.”

Jeanette, in an undated photo.

Jeanette, in an undated photo.

A few days later, April 28, 1921,  Jeanette appeared at the Madison and Wabash L platform. When Davis got out of a train, Hoy shot her, then ran down the stairs and into the alley (I’m thinking the one behind the Chicago Athletic Association, though there are a couple of alleys around there – it may just be wishful thinking on my part because I love that place so much!), where she shot herself three times. Both young women were taken to St. Luke’s Hospital, where they recovered. The Tribune story was headlined “Girl Shoots Her Chum, Tries to End Own Life – Bullets Reveal Strange Friendship” and spoke of Hoy’s “unusual attachment.”  The case made national news, including a write up in the New York Times.

Hoy was naturally taken to court, but Davis eventually waived the more serious charges against her former friend, and Hoy was only fined $100 and costs (and eventually had to pay Davis $5000). However, two years later, Hoy was back in the news after threatening to kill an 18 year old woman named Anna Melbuhr, after circumstances that papers described as nearly identical to her case two years before. The last I’ve seen of her in the news is from the day after her threat to Anna, when she was reportedly taken to a “psycopathic hospital” for observation.  Though there are a few people named “Jeanette Hoy” who appear in papers decades later, I’m not sure yet whether any are the same person. I’ve only just started looking, but so far I’m not sure whatever happened to Jeanette after 1923. It’s a mystery in progress. There might be some records on her in the state archives, and surely more first-hand accounting in the Chicago papers that I haven’t checked yet. I ran into the story in the Evening American archives on microfilm while researching a whole other story; the other papers of the day (Daily News, Herald Examiner, Journal, etc) probably covered it as well.

What’s interesting now is simply to read the way papers described the relationship between the two. The Evening American spoke of Davis as a victim of a “Girl Love Shooting,” and the Tribune said that Hoy “fancied herself the victim of unrequited love.” Elsewhere there’s talk of “strange friendship,” and a “weird love affair.” Somewhat remarkably, though, I haven’t seen any that editorialize much. Other than words like “weird” or “unusual” showing up now and then, they pretty much treated Jeanette the way they’d treat any other jilted lover.

It’s easy now – and certainly tempting – to see Hoy as a victim of her times, when lesbianism was far less understood and sometimes treated as the sort of thing that, all by itself, could get you sent to a psychopathic hospital.  But it also important to remember she shot a person and threatened to do it again; she clearly needed some sort of help, at the very least. Given the times, though, it’s unlikely she would have gotten the sort she really needed. There’s a chance that after 1923 she simply got married and changed her name, but the fact that she seems to vanish from the record after being sent for observation is ominous, to say the least.