Podcast: A Suicide Bridge Ghost Story

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This year, I had the distinct honor of running the “Haunted History” tours at the Lincoln Park Zoo, which gave me a good opportunity to research some interesting aspects of the Zoo that I didn’t know about, search as zoo director Marlin Perkins’ search for the Yeti. And, of course, the ghost stories.

In the 1890s, Lincoln Park was widely regarded as the most haunted spot in town. It had been a cemetery within living memory at the time, but that was seldom mentioned as the origin of the park’s ghosts. The Tribune wrote that “there have been violent deaths enough to furnish a ghost for every shadowy nook.”

In particular, many pointed to the High Bridge over the lagoon, which was widely known as “suicide bridge.” Exact figures for how many people jumped off of it are not known, but 100 over its roughly 30 year existence (from the early 1890s to 1919) seems about right. Its reputation as a place to do away with oneself was such that not everyone even chose to use it for jumping; some went there to shoot themselves or hang themselves.

One ghost story I heard from zoo employees was that a little girl was sometimes heard crying in the middle of the night near the north end of the zoo. Now, it’s worth noting that zoos are FULL of noises that could lead to mistaken identity, but the story goes that one employee was so disturbed by the sobs that she quit her job.  The location was near enough to suicide bridge that I felt that it was worth looking to see if a historical story might be connected to it.


I did have some vague recollection of an article in which a boy had been begging his sisters to “stay away from Suicide Bridge,” and pulled it up to find a real heartbreaker of a story (with a photo, above, that is probably the saddest, and, let’s be honest, spookiest, photo I could possibly find).

It was 1907. Two young girls, Emma and Clair Pontius, ages 12 and 10, fell from the bridge into the lagoon. At first, it wasn’t noticed for some time, as it was thought that there were no witnesses. After the bodies were found, their father and stepmother speculated that one of the girls had fallen, and the other had jumped in after her. Their grandmother, though, had a different theory: she said the girls had been suicidal over their mother’s death and their stepmother’s treatment of them, and had spent the day at their mother’s grave at Graceland before going to Lincoln Park, away from which their brother, superstitious about the bridge, had begged them to stay.

It was eventually ruled an accident, but a witness, a young boy, emerged with a detail that seems to me to establish that it was likely suicide: the girls hadn’t screamed. One had simply slipped in, followed by the other. He also added another detail: that a man had gone into the water to save them and never returned. It was several days before the third body, later identified as John Duetinger, was found.  Duetlinger had spent two years recovering from a nervous breakdown, and was in the habit of walking in the park every day. An expert swimmer, he had saved a child from drowning in Douglas Park the year before.

Now, whether this really led to the sound of a crying girl being heard near the bridge site is impossible, but I always like it when someone tells me a ghost story and I can connect it to something historical. Another example at the zoo is a ghostly woman who is said to haunt the women’s bathroom at the Lion House.  In 1912, when another bathroom in the park was renovated, it was announced that their would be an attendant hired in both the mens and womens’ room; the man would be paid $55 a month, and the woman would get $50. Now, statistically, that’s a bit ahead of the “pay gap,” but if I were that woman, I’d probably want to haunt the place myself!

I plan to be back to run the zoo tours again next year. See ya there!

Finding The Very Punny Civil War Dispatches of Irving W. Carson

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Which stories become a part of history can be a luck-of-the-draw affair. Newspaper archives are full of stories of heroes whose tales captivated the nation once, but if no one rewrote those stories into a book later on, they were generally forgotten as generations passed. The Civil War papers are particularly replete with tales of soldiers who were national icons when they died, the namesakes of streets and towns throughout the country, but whom even the biggest Civil War buff would struggle to name today. The deaths came fast and furious in those days, and thousands of stories simply got lost in the avalanche. I have to imagine that by Autumn of 1862, the Battle of Shiloh, back in April, must have seemed like a million years ago.

But there was one name from Shiloh still being bandied about in Chicago at the time: Captain Irving W. Carson, a Chicagoan who’d become the chief scout for General Grant. In addition to his duties in the field, he was moonlighting as a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. His exploits as a scout during his short career made him famous even during his lifetime, and his death made him the first American journalist to be killed in the war – or any war, as far as I can tell. And, though his friends tried to keep his story alive and lamented that he was being forgotten even in the 1870s, this blog posts is, I believe, the first time a photo of him has ever been published.

Carson was born in 1838 – most sources say in Connecticut, though a couple of sketches of his life written by friends said he was born in Scotland (based on his writings, my hunch is that he had an affinity for Scottish culture and told people he was born there because he thought it sounded more interesting than saying he was from Hartford). After coming to Chicago in 1853, he worked for a time on the railroad, first as a mechanic and then as a conductor, before becoming a law clerk. He’d just been admitted to the bar when the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter in April, 1861.

The Carte de Vista of Carson – about the size and feel of a baseball card – donated by a friend of his to the Chicago Historical Society decades after his death. As far as I know, it’s never been published.

The carte de viste of Carson, which resembles an early baseball card. It is the only known image of him. Donated by one of his friends to the Chicago Historical Society.

He joined the army at once, enlisting first in Barker’s Chicago Dragoons, where he served alongside William Medill, brother of Tribune publisher Jospeh Medill, for a three month hitch. Upon returning to Chicago in late July, at which point the Dragoons broke up, he appears to have taken a job with the Tribune covering military activity in Cairo, IL, a hotbed of secession activity near the Missouri and Kentucky borders. There, he was quickly taken into General Grant’s staff and put to work as a scout.  

From then on, he did double duty, taking orders from Grant but largely doing his own thing; journalist Franc Wilkie recalled that Carson “wrote or fought according to the requirements of the situation.” In September, 1861,  barely a month into his career, a Missouri Democrat writer referred to him as a famous scout whose adventures could fill a book, and in November, the New York Herald wrote “Carson, the tall scout, is along (with us), and commands his usual company, of which he is exclusively general, staff, colonel, and rank and file.”

Other soldiers in units that interacted with him, like the 7th Illinois, Chicago’s Board of Trade Battery A, and the 6th Ohio, may not have even realized that he was a journalist; one soldier, T.R. Dawley, wrote that “He appeared and disappeared like a flash…. We have known him to come into the room, hastily sieze his saddle, suprs, and pistol, mount his horse, dash off in a direction no one ever thought of taking, and only a few hours after would be strolling about the St. Charles (Hotel, where he was stationed) like some awkward rustic just in from the Egyptian swamps.”

The map Carson drew after talking his way into enemy fortifications disguised as a farmer.

Carson made frequent trips behind enemy lines, often in disguise, either to get a look at enemy positions or to carry messages. In perhaps his most famous adventure, he disguised himself as a Kentucky farmer early one morning, rowed across the Ohio River to Kentucky, and stole a wagon, two mules and some corn, which he then quite deliberately let rebel General Polk confiscate. Polk, believing that the awkward man he’d encountered was just a local farmer, generously let him keep one of the mules, and even let him check out the rebel fortifications. Carson was able to draw up a full map of the the water battery near Columbus, KY, marking off all the guns, including their calibre and range, before rowing a skiff back across the river to Cairo with a the map (and a bonus mule).

In another event related by Dawley, after the Battle of Donelson one of the captured rebel soldiers was carrying a letter from his sister asking him to send her a “yankee boy” to keep as a pet. When he got the chance, Carson went to the address, told the young woman that her brother had captured him, and he was there to be her pet – and demanded to be fed. He then informed her of the truth – it was her brother who had been captured, not him – and escaped before the neighbors could catch him. 


Carson seems to have been a bit bloodthirsty. In one letter to a friend in Chicago, he wrote “I have got a natural hatred for traitors and never intend to let any chance clip when I can dispose of them in a decent way.” Dawley wrote that he’d shout out curses at traitors in his sleep, and even sleepwalk brandishing his sabre. One Tribune dispatch (likely written by him) wrote of him chasing a rebel “desperado” for a mile before shooting him; a couple of months later, a New York Times reporter who’d traveled with Carson in the Bohemian Brigade (as writers called themselves) expanded on the story, stating that Carson had chased the desperado down, shot him, then ran a sword through him and left him for dead – only to find out the man was alive and well a month later. Carson told that reporter that if he had another chance, he’d cut the man’s head off and carry it fifteen or twenty rods from his body.


However, he clearly loved the dangerous life he’d carved out for himself. An unidentified friend wrote to the Chicago Journal that “the perilous business of scouting became a passion with him, and his adventures and hair-breadth escapes would fill a volume.” But for all of his recklessness, the New York Times called him “one of the most daring and serviceable men in the service,” and Grant clearly trusted him.

In the buildup to what became the battle of Shiloh, though, Carson told one friend to hang on to his “trinkets” in case he was killed, and wrote to a woman in Chicago that he may not survive the battle. At the same time, though, in an anecdote published less than two weeks later in the Chicago Journal, he was speaking the day before the battle about how much he loved his dangerous work, and marveled that “he had been fired at so often and grazed by so many bullets that he believed he had a charmed life,” and was heard to remark “The ball has not been cast, and never will be, that can kill me.”


Stories of soldiers saying things like this just before they die are common, and that was the case with Carson. Given his affinity for dangerous missions, it would be logical to guess that he died on some reckless, Poe Dameron-like crusade, but war doesn’t always play along with the rules of drama.


On the first day of the Battle of Shiloh, Grant was having trouble holding his position, and sent Carson to find out whether General Buell’s troops could arrive soon enough to save the day. Just as he delivered the important news that help was coming, and that Grant should keep fighting, a random cannonball took his head off, killing him instantly and splattering the general with his blood. Even in death, he inspired legends: there were conflicting stories told about the exact extent of his injuries – most reports said his head was taken clean off, a later account side it was only one side of the top of it, leaving his chin. One account in the Appleton Crescent, written only days later, said “The case of of the celebrated scout, Carson, was horrifying. His face and the entire lower portion of his head were entirely gone, his brains dabbling into the little pool of blood which had gathered in the cavity below.”  One suspects that he’d enjoy the fact that people swapped gruesome stories about him; one soldier remembered that his death was talked of for weeks by Shiloh veterans.

A gruesome drawing of Carson’s death in an 1865 Grant bio.

Gruesome sketch from an 1865 bio of Grant

For a time I was skeptical that he was really a journalist, as none of the Tribune accounts of his death and funeral mentioned it. Most of the information we have about him being a reporter came from Franc Wilkie’s 1888 book Pen and Powder, which briefly named him as a Tribune correspondent. But, at length, I found a few other reports from other journalists stationed around him in 1861 and 1862 that referred to him as being among the group of “Bohemians,” and, as later accounts from his friends state that Grant took him into his staff well after he came to Cairo, it’s a good explanation for what he was doing there in the first place.

So, while I’m satisfied that he did work as a newspaper man, there remains the question of which articles in the Tribune are his – individual bylines were rare in those days. Only one writer seems to have tried to figure it out – Myron Smith, who cited several Carson articles in his book Timberclads in the War. However, I think Smith just assumed all of the dispatches that came from the right location and weren’t signed B (Albert Bodman) or GPU (George P Upton) were Carson’s. One dispatch is signed with a C, but most of the dispatches are unsigned.  

It would be wonderful, though, to bring his work back to light, and there are two that seem most obviously to be his own – the one signed “C,” and one written aboard the USS Conestoga, published on a day (Feb 25, 1862) when the Tribune also published dispatches that were credited to Bodman and Upton.  And from the articles that I was able to identify as his (more or less), I’m pleased to say that he was really an excellent writer.  From the Conestoga dispatch, in particular, we can see that Carson really, really liked puns. This is a good clue to identify his others; many of the unsigned dispatches go to great pains to work in a pun.

Most of the dispatches are fairly mundane, just lists of what was going on in the area, what the soldiers were talking about, which brigades had arrived, what the weather was like, and other such mundanities, though sometimes he’d work in something fun – often there are references to Carson’s exploits in dispatches he probably wrote himself. One early report ends with the line “Dry time in Cairo – no whisky, no excitement.” 

Here, then, are some excerpts from Tribune dispatches that are at least strongly likely to be the work of Irving W. Carson. Eventually I’ll expand and move most of these over to a dedicated page on Cemetery Mixtape

From the Nov 11, 1861 account of the Battle of Belmont, signed “C:”

“Many shots fell near us, some short, and others beyond, and not a few fearfully near us. Shells were seen to burst at great heights; others, after drinking the water. Their large shot, eighteen inches long and terminating in cones, were projected from rifled cannon. These made horrible music as they passed near us…They fought desperately, but in an incredibly short time, the work was done. The enemy had surrendered, or abandoned their artillery, and were in full flight…Their flag pole was cut down, their colors taken possession of, and their encampment enveloped in flames.”

“Our columbiads were too much for them. Several times at the flash of one of them, I observed a dozen men and horses turn somersaults together…Never did fellows fight, or try to fight, more bravely. They seemed to actually court death at the very muzzles of our heavy guns, and vast numbers of them sought it not in vain.”

Feb 20, 1862, unsigned account marked “From our own Reporter.” Just after the union took Fort Donelson.

“There was one scene that will remain in my memory forever – that of Sunday morning when the Stars and Stripes were flung to the breeze above the ramparts of the fort. I was in a position where I could see the occupation of the surrendered fortress and the works beyond. Stand with me for fifteen minutes on the deck of the New Uncle Sam, the headquarters of General Grant. It is just nine o’clock. The day is mild and a gentle breeze is blowing from the south. The sun is shining through a cloudless sky. Far away, beyond the sound of the iron lipped cannon, one ship and shore, church bells are calling worshippers to the house of God; but here, fifty thousand men are standing in breathless expectation of an event which, in its results, is to have an abiding influence upon nations and peoples, for all coming time. They stand at one of the turning points of time…. It is a glorious moment – a Sabbath morning which will live in history. You may be sure that although I believe in keeping Sunday, I kept it on this occasion with a hurrah.”

“I was one of the first to jump on shore, and was not long in mingling with the crowd of rebels. I cannot give you a daguerrotype of the scene. Running up the bank, I came upon a squad of soldiers by a smoldering fire. They were dressed in grey pants, of negro cloth, with a strip of black cotton braid down the legs. It was not a prepossessing outfit. They showed that they had had a hard time. Some had white cotton blankets, with the smallest possible mixture of wool – white once, but painted a Spanish brown by frequent contact with the mud. There were old bed quilts, which their grandmothers had patched years ago – new bed quilts, which in mistaken patriotism had been given to the sinking cause…. I could but pity them.”

“The Tennesseans were more cheerful than the Mississippians. I conversed with them. One said he was glad it was over. He didn’t care what became of him, only he was glad he had not got to fight any more. A Mississippian wanted to know if Old Abe was an abolitionist.”

“Continuing my ramble, I came upon a rebel Kentucky regiment, which was burying its dead. There were six corpses lying in a pile, thrown together as you wold toss sticks of wood. How strange it is that man becomes indifferent to the death scenes of the battle field. The regiment paid no heed to the dead. The men who were digging the shallow graves were smoking pipes and laughing, to all appearances unconcerned as if digging post holes.”

“I counted ten dead bodies of those of our own troops which fell before the fire in front of the pit. Behind the pits were those Confederates, lying some face downwards, as if kissing their mother earth, to whose kindly embrace they had returned after life’s fitful fever* –  others with their faces towards heaven, as if looking up to the Great Father of us all. Some were lying upon their sides as if in slumber. There was one with a quiet smile upon his face – a middle aged man… There was the same unconcern among the living. Men were eating their dinners with as much unconcern as they would in their own homes, with nothing around to remind them of the solemn and untried realities beyond this life of ours. I felt the same influence, and stepped upon the pools of blood, and trod the crimson gore almost as unconcerned. Who can explain the anomaly which makes us kind, considerate and tender, moved at the sight of suffering, in times of peace, while in war we are devils.”

   * – this is a line from Macbeth, the exact passage Lincoln himself was reportedly moved by when reading outloud from the play only days before his assassination. 

Feb 25, 1862 – we can be fairly certain this is Carson, because the other two correspondents, Upton and Bodman, signed initials to dispatches published the same day. It finds him in a jovial, particularly pun-happy mood, with some indications that perhaps other writers teased him a bit about his long, literary column excerpted above, published the day this one was written. It also includes another reference to a play that takes place in Scotland, though he’s at pains to explain the quote here – perhaps the others ribbed him for not marking the Macbeth line with quotation marks!  Marked “from our own correspondent” and dated Feb 20th

“I am now lying at Clarksville. Honest confession for a newspaper correspondent. I will change it. The Conestoga is now lying here and I am writing on her gun deck by the lantern burning dimly.

First a morceau from Pillow, Gideon J Pillow, late (confederate) Generalissimo at Donelson, who took precious good pains not to be too late to get away. He is a little particular about the location of his ditches, an old trick of his, and he was careful to interpose the ditch called the Cumberland between himself and Gen Grant. Gideon, on assuming command at Fort Donelson, gave under his hand and seal the following, which I copy from the original document. The handwriting is bad. The lantern a little nearer, dear sergeant:

(Here he transcribe’s Pillow’s General Order No. 1, dated Feb 9, making himself commander of the fort and proclaiming the battle cry to be “Liberty or death.”)

Now this is well done of Gideon, who from this seems to be a very good Pillow for a military head. But the proof came later, and the valiant general in choosing between ‘liberty or death’ took excellent care that it should be the former, and of the largest pattern. 

We left Ft. Donelson on the morning of Wed the 19th, following some hours after the US gunboat Cairo. Our trip was marked with little to interest. The Conestoga is of the racer breed of boats and walked the water like a thing of life, an entirely original term I beg you to note. When Gen Foot has despatch in his eye he takes the Conestoga. I have observed it is customary to praise the boat you ride on, but this is not merited, not a puff, the Conestoga not being now in the carrying trade (though by the way I take that back, she did the other day help to carry Fort Henry).

Just above Donelson we passed the still smoking ruins of the Cumberland Iron Works which do not now cumber the land with appliances to aid the rebels… The blackness of ashes marks where they stood, as the wizard remarked to Mr. Lochiel*. Will the printer stand by, and hold hard with quotation marks? And so on to Clarksville, thirty miles from Fort Donelson.

* – (note: a reference to a short Scottish poem/play, The Wizard’s Warning, by Thomas Campbell)

At 3pm the Conestoga rounded a bend in the river called Linwood Landing, and before us loomed Fort Severe. It was severely situated for us… for the muzzles of its few cannon looked almost down our chimneys from a height two hundred feet above our heads. We counted two guns and a white flag, and that settled it. There was nothing to fear from Fort Severe.

Clarksville is now in the Union and her scared residents may come home again. They are fond of the white flag. It will be better that they float the red, white and blue. Our land forces are in possession and the way is open to Nashville. We shall hear from there soon that the Stars and Stripes are floating there, and there are many in Nashville who will welcome the day. God speed it. 

From March 3, 1862, unsigned letter dated 2/28 and marked “From our Own correspondent”

“I have it from good authority that numerous bottles with Northern newspapers enclosed have been thrown into the river for the edification of Reverend General Polk and his rebellious flock, who go bottle fishing with much regularity every morning. If the contents are half as effective as those other bottles, much in vogue Columbus-ward, the rebels will soon be in a tight place.”

From March 13, “From our own correspondent”

“All last night it rained heavy guns, accompanied by a violent gale of wind. The morning dawned dimly through thick murky clouds of vapor, as if there had been a terrible battle of the elements and the smoke of the conflict yet hanging over the turbid, swift-flowing rivers and the bottomless marshes and lowlands. By noon, however, the sun had shot its arrows through the mists and dispelled them, and, as I write, the sky is cerulean, the atmosphere crystelline, and the soft, balmy air proclaims that spring comes slowly up this way.”

Carson’s grave at Rosehill

 These are just a few excerpts from the many dispatches in the Tribune that might be Carson’s work – again, it’s hard to be sure. And is hard to believe that some of these could be the work of a rookie writer in his early 20s, but Franc Wilkie later remarked that, if he’d only lived, Carson would have gone on to become a major general, or the editor of a great metropolitan newspaper.

When later memoirs and reports, particularly about Shiloh, left Carson out, or barely mentioned him, his friends objected. Two wrote to the Tribune in the 1870s that Carson should be considered one of the heroes of Shiloh. Others were annoyed that people (mostly political rivals) were claiming that Grant wasn’t really under fire or in any personal danger at Shiloh, and pointed out Carson’s death, only a few feet away from the general, as evidence to the contrary.  In 1881, lamenting that history was already forgetting Captain Carson, Ebenezer Hannaford wrote “ Byron’s famous satire on military glory defined it as being killed in battle and having one’s name misspelled in the official gazette. But what shall we say of this case, where a brave man met the most tragic of deaths, and his name – nay, even his fate – was not so much as hinted? “


But in the months after his death, before it became just one of so many other lost stories, Carson briefly remained famous – his name WAS in the papers, and spelled correctly. His funeral and burial were covered by all of the major Chicago papers, and he was spoken of as one of Chicago’s two great heroes, along with Ellsworth (who is now equally unjustly obscure, though in the days after his death he was among the most famous in the country).

But that’s simply life in war – great lives are snuffed out in an instant, and the stories get lost just like so much mud and mire. 

Though it seems to have been common in 1861-2 to say that stories of Carson’s adventures would fill a whole book,  not enough of the stories were ever written down. This article is, I believe, the first time a photograph of him has been published. It was taken from a carte de viste that was donated by one of his friends to the Chicago Historical Society in the early 20th century. The image is tiny, but the only one known.  Perhaps more letters and diary excerpts dealing with his exploits will one day come to life; I’ve certainly found quite a few tidbits about him published by reporters during his lifetime. Being one of the “Band of Bohemians,” he of course had access to lots of ears to tell his stories to!


Carson appears to have lived in what is now the loop for the whole of his time in Chicago, including one apartment that was right where the Harold Washington library is now. He is buried at Rosehill Cemetery, where I’ve started featuring his grave on tours. He was only twenty-three years old. 

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

 

Listen to the audio above; or check out the podcast on archive.org 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:

Aetna_Iron_Works_v_Belknap__w_Castle_Diagram___pdf

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 mysteriouschicago.com .

Podcast: The Hanging and Burial of HH Holmes

Listen above or on iTunes!

HH Holmes hanged, New York World, May 8, 1896. Gallows sketch, after the hood was added.

HH Holmes hanged, New York World, May 8, 1896. Gallows sketch, after the hood was added.

Well, it’s been a busy week here! News has broken that HH Holmes is being exhumed from his grave in Philadelphia, where he was interred ten feet down in a giant block of cement. I covered the 1898 rumors that his May, 1896 hanging was a hoax in a blog post here back in 2015, and now that article is being quoted in Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune and more. Wow!

If you’ll recall, the story in those articles, as told by former Holmes employee Robert Latimer, was that they brought Holmes out to the scaffold, lowered the rope down behind a partion where no one could see, then hanged him by yanking him back upright – but what was REALLY on the rope was a guy who’d already been dead for a while, while the real Holmes slipped away. Hangings like that, raising people up instead of dropping them, weren’t unknown; we tried it in Chicago a few times. Being able to prop a dead guy up like that, or manipulate him around after rigor mortis set in, might be a whole ‘nother thing, but otherwise it does sound like the kind of switcheroo any decent stage magician could pull off.

Some paperwork with the History Channel prevents me from going into my thoughts on exhumation itself right now (though I’ll repeat my usual request that they at least shave the cement down til he looks like Han Solo in carbonite), but I thought I’d talk about the hanging in more detail, just to show how eyewitness accounts differed from the 1898 stories. I cover the execution, and the hoax rumors, at length in HH HOLMES: THE TRUE HISTORY OF THE WHITE CITY DEVIL (out now from Skyhorse Publishing), but here it is in even MORE detail.

Accompanying their drawing of the "Death March," the NY Journal had the best headline: "Lived a monster, died a mystery." Library of Congress

Accompanying their drawing of the “Death March,” the NY Journal had the best headline: “Lived a monster, died a mystery.” Purchased by Hearst six months before, the Journal became synonymous with “yellow journalism,” and had published Holmes’ “confession” a month before, but their take on the execution distinctly lacked sensationalism. Library of Congress

The hanging was covered in a number of Philadelphia papers, and a couple of New York ones sent reporters in as well. Of these, I’ve collected accounts from The Evening Item, Inquirer, Times, Press, Public Ledger, and Record from Philadelphia, and the Journal, Herald and World from New York. Some of these papers were better than others, but all were more or less in agreement about the hanging details. There’s more conflict, though, in how they report on order of events between taking the body down and the burial the next day.

Crowds began to gather outside the prison early on May 7, 1896 – papers estimated the crowd at four or five thousand strong. Sheriff Clement had received thousands of requests for passes to witness the hanging, but turned almost all of them down, issuing only about 50 (which presumably included the 12 man jury he was required to invite). An extra 20 or 30 were brought in by prison inspectors, to his chagrin, though he decided to just get on with things rather than fight for them to be removed. Including the various officials present (jailers, doctors, priests, etc), this puts the number of witnesses at 80-100. Fewer than Moyamensing usually had, according to one or two of the papers, though a quick check of other reports doesn’t back this up for me; an 1890 double hanging had only about 30 witnesses, according to the Inquirer. The previous hanging at Moyamensing, that of William Moore (alias Scott Jennings) in 1893, was apparently limited to the jury, physicians, and press.

The names of the jurymen for the Holmes hanging were given by a few papers: William H. Wright (a deputy sheriff), Dr. Benjamin Pennabaker, JJ Ridgeway, Councilman Robert R. Bringhurst, Samuel Wood (who was also on the trial jury), Dr. Joseph Hearn, Dr. WJ Roe, AB Detweiler, Dr. MB Dwight, Dr RC Guernsey, James Hand, Dr. John L. Phillips.

Philadelphia Times sketch of Holmes on the scaffold, tucked into the Library of Congress copy of his autobiography (thanks to Kate Ramirez)

Philadelphia Times sketch of Holmes on the scaffold, tucked into the Library of Congress copy of his autobiography (thanks to Kate Ramirez)

A few papers also published roughly the same list of other notables who’d received passes: L.G Fouse (president of Fidelity Mutual Insurance, who’d met with Holmes many times), Detective Frank Geyer (who also knew Holmes a lot better than he cared to), Solictor Campbell (Fidelity’s lawyer), Deputy Sheriff Bartol, Dr. Scott, ex-sheriff Connell, Coroner Ashbridge (who’d worked with Holmes identifying the putrid body of Ben Pitezel), Dr J.C. Guernsey, William Edwin Peterson, Medical Inspector Taylor, I. Hoxie Godwin of the board of health. City Property chief A.S. Eisenhower, William A. Cole, Dr. William Roe, Dr JC Da Costa, Dr. Frank Monahghan, Capt of Detectives Peter Miller, ASL Shields (Clement’s lawyer), Lt. Ben Tomlinson, Prof. W Easterly Ashton and Prof Ernest Laplace of Medico-Chirurgical Hosptial, Dr. JS Miller of St Joseph’s, Col J Lewis Good, Asst Dist Attorney Boyle, S.R. Mason (Baltimore Sheriff who told the Inquirer he had five men to hang), deputiy sheriff John B. Meyers, prison agent Camp, inspector Hill, and Major Ralph f. Culinan.

The Record described Holmes being awakened at 6am by Jailkeeper Weaver and saying “I’ve had a dream. I dreamed I was a boy again, up among the New Hampshire hills.” No other paper noted this, though, and it’s hard to imagine that the Record really saw it. At 7am the watch was changed, with Weaver relieved by Jailkeeper Henry. One of the keepers asked Holmes how he felt, and Holmes held up a hand to show he wasn’t shaking, and saying something like “Look at that. Pretty good, isn’t it?” The exact quote was different in the papers describing the scene – probably none could actually hear what he said, and they may not have seen it either (doors to cells were wooden, with a narrow window). Most likely, a jailer filled reporters in on it.

Breakfast, all papers agreed, was boiled eggs, toast, and coffee, all of which Holmes ate, and beefsteak, which he didn’t touch.

Samuel Rotan, Holmes’ attorney arrived, and the Philadelphia Times described Holmes doing the same thing of holding up his hand, saying “See if I tremble.” They also said Rotan and Holmes discussed the plan to bury him in cement, and Rotan noted that he’d turn down a $5000 offer for it, from a man who he thought wanted to exhibit the skeleton in carnivals. Holmes said “Thank you. I’ll see that no one gets my body, either by buying it or stealing it.”

Between 9 and 10 am, the men with permits gathered in the vaulted entrance to the prison, and were eventually ushered into an office while the gallery was prepared. The sheriff’s solicitors, Graw and Shields, were at his elbows making sure all legalities were followed There was a roll call of the jury, each of whom were sworn in by solicitor Graw the oath: “Gentlemen of the jury, you and each you do solemnly swear that you will witness the execution of Herman Webster Mudgett, alias H.H. Holmes, and that you will certify truthfully as to the time and manner of such execution according to the law, so help you God.”

The gallows sketched by the Philadelphia Press

The gallows sketched by the Philadelphia Press

Meanwhile, the men made casual small talk. The New York Journal noted that they kept their hats on and smoked, and that “what they said was not particularly characteristic of the commonly entertained idea of execution talk.” The Philadelphia Times described the talk a bit more: “Witnesses moved restlessly about from the stone roadway in the center of the main entranct to the reception room, aksing each other if they had ever seen a hanging beofre. Most of them had not. The gathering was a very curious mixture of youth and old age, the juvenile newspaper reporter on his first assignment of the sort rubbing elbows with a the gray-haired physician who had seen more executions than he had time to talk about just then.”

At various times, Inspector Cullinan, Superintendent Perkins, and a few others made visits to Holmes’ cell. Holmes had decided that he would like to make a speech, and reportedly threatened to “make a scene” if Samuel Rotan was not allowed onto the scaffold with him. Both requests were granted. Requests to make a speech almost always were.

A bit before 10, an officer called out “Hats off, no smoking,” and the crowd was marched, two by two, into the “gallery,” a long hallway with cells on either side (including Holmes’ own). In the center of the hall stood the gallows, painted so dark a green that most papers called it black. There was a screen or partition hanging below the back of the scaffold, and the men walked through a partition in it to get the the other side, where they’d turn to face it. The men, therefore, had to walk right past the scaffold, and each had a chance to check out the mechanism. Most scaffolds that I’ve read of from those days had a single trap door that fell back; at Moyamensing they used two trap doors that fell sideways.

As they stood facing the gallows, (which had no partition on the other side; the dropped body would be in full view), there was little attempt at conversation.

The "Death March" in the Philadelphia Press

The “Death March” in the Philadelphia Press

At 10:08, per the Record, there was a sound they said was “scarcely more pronounced that the droning of bees on the air of a midsummer’s afternoon.” Most of the reporters described this sound – as it got louder, they realized it was the priests singing “Miserere.” (Holmes had been meeting frequently with Fathers Dailey and McPake, though whether he’d officially become a Catholic was the subject of conflicting accounts in the papers) The “death march” had begun.

Though one paper noted that only a couple of reporters could see the march through the partition behind the scaffold, all of them described it, and a few drew it. Sheriff Clement and Superintedent Perkins came first. Holmes and the priests followed, with Rotan and the other officials behind.

Holmes was wearing a vest, a suit, and dark gray trousers with light shoes. The shirt he wore had no collar, as those got in the way of the noose. Instead, as most papers pointed out, he wore a silk handkerchief around his neck as a sort of substitute collar.

By most accouts, he was as calm as anyone present, but didn’t look good. The Journal called him pale beyond the ordinary jail pallor. He looked miserably small and slight… he loked like a consumptive in his weakness, but the weakness was only physical. there was no trembling of the lips or dropping of the eyes. Whatever else may be said about him, Holmes was not afraid to die.” The Times said “he looked dead already.”

The group walked the 13 steps up to the scaffold, and Holmes stepped to the rail on, spreading his arms out across, it, looked to the crowd, and made his final speech:

Holmes on the scaffold, sketched by the New York Tribune

Holmes on the scaffold, sketched by the New York Tribune. The partition behind it is clearly on view here.

“Gentlemen, I have very few words to say; in fact, I would make no statement at this time except that by not speaking I would appear to acquiesce in my execution. I only want to say that the extent of my wrongdoing in taking human life consisted in the death of two women, they having died at my hand as the result of criminal operations. I wish to also state, however, so that there will be no misunderstanding hereafter, I am not guilty of taking the lives of any of the Pitezel family, the three children or father, Benjamin F. Pitezel, of whose death I am now convicted, and for which I am to-day to be hanged. That is all.”

(The two women, based on letters Holmes wrote the night before, were Julia Conner and Emeline Cigrand. The letters don’t survive, but what’s known of their contents is in Very Truly Yours HH Holmes, an ebook supplement of Holmes’ letters and writings).

All reports agree that he stepped back and knelt with the priests to pray after the speech. According to the Record, while he was praying the sun passed a skylight on the roof and a beam of light hit the scaffold for a second. The Public Ledger had him saying “Good-bye, Sam, you have done all you could” to Rotan before he knelt, though others had him saying it (or something like it) after rising from the prayer.

Richardson, the jailor, nudged Holmes a few inches over so that his feet were on either side of a crack in the floor, then got to work with the basic tasks of preparing a man to be hanged. He let Holmes button his coat a bit, then bound his hands behind his back, removed the handkerchief, added the noose, and put the black hood over his face (which was absolutely standard at all judicial hangings). There’s a little variation on the order in which this was all done among the reports, but only very minor details (noose first or hood first, etc).

Holmes said something to Richardson, but no papers quoted it quite the same way. The Record recorded it as “What’s your hurry, there’s plenty of time.” The Public Ledger had “Don’t be in a hurry, Aleck. Take your time.” The Inquirer said it was “Take your time old man,” and the the Times said “Take your time, Richardson, you know I am in no hurry.” Many out of town papers quoted it as “Don’t bungle” or “Make it quick.” Most likely, since Holmes was above the heads of the reporters and speaking only to Richardson, through a hood, no one could hear exactly what he said clearly.

When everything was set, Richardson asked, “Are you ready?” Holmes said, “I am ready. Good-bye.” Some reporters had him adding “Good-bye, everybody.”

There are also very minor variations in reports of the exact time the trap doors fell – some papers said 10:13, others said 10:12 and thirty seconds. But now we’re really nitpicking.

But the two doors of the tap fell with a sound that the Record described as a crash “which within the stillness of the prison walls sounded like a blast of artillery, as the two sections of the platform fell to either side.” Some papers specified that he dropped five feet.

The rope stopped with a fierce jerk, and the body swayed and moved about for several minutes, the hands behind the back opening and closing convulsively and the back and chest heaving, as was standard at these things, the sort of twitching that happens. Most of the time hanged men also wet or messed themselves, and some reports would mention it, but in this case I don’t think anyone did, though I assume it probably happened. It usually did, either right at moment of death or shortly after, as the muscles relaxed. Papers a generation earlier had been more apt to mention it than the late Victorians were.

At 10:18 after three minutes, Dr. Benjamin Butcher, one of several doctors present, came and listened to the heart beat, timing the beats with his watch. He announced that it was still beating, but only due to reflex actions. Holmes was dead. Doctors. La Place, Ashton, Da Costa, and Miller examined the body as it hung there as well, and concurred. The heart was still beating, but slowing down, and Holmes was dead.

At 10:30, the Times said, Lt. Tomlinson brought in sergeants and patrolmen to look at the body as it hung there, and they were very jovial about the whole thing. The Times said “It made one shudder to hear the comments.”

Undertaker O'Rourke removing the body out the back (plenty of spectators were waiting there, too, by all accounts)

Undertaker O’Rourke removing the body out the back (plenty of spectators were waiting there, too, by all accounts)

Around that time, 10:30, the doctors all agreed that the heart had stopped. Some books have made a great deal of the fact that it took 15 minutes, but if you read a lot of 19th century hanging accounts, this was very common. It doesn’t indicate that Holmes was superhuman or anything.

At 10:45, by all accounts, the body was taken down and lowered onto a rolling cot. The jury made a quick examination, probably just looking at the hooded body lying there, then went off to the office to sign their statement that the hanging had been done according to the law.

It’s at THIS point that accounts of what happened start to differ a little more, likely because not all of the reporters stayed beyond this. Similar to the accounts of what had gone on in Holmes’ cell that morning, a lot of the reporters were now covering things they probably didn’t actually witness first hand.

By all accounts, officials had a lot of trouble getting the rope off of Holmes’ neck; it was on tight and had dug into the skin. The hood came partway off, at least, as they tried to wrestle it off. One man tried to cut it, but for some reason Superintendent Perkins told them not to, though in at least one account they had to cut part of it to loosen it before they finally managed to get it off. When they did remove it, the hood was removed as well, and the Record said “the dead man’s face was a thing too ghastly for description, and even the doctors turned from it.” The NY Herald, though, said “face was composed and peaceful.”

There was a very quick examination, with all the doctors agreeing that the neck had broken and Holmes had probably been dead instantly, without even a fleeting second of pain before he lost consciousness. But Rotan wouldn’t let them take the body away, or do a more thorough examination, even though the doctors really wanted to do an autopsy, just like a lot of other doctors around the country did. Coroner Ashbridge was noted particularly for being frustrated here by the Philadelphia Evening Item.

The Item, though, didn’t didn’t cover much of what became of the body afterwards – they were an evening paper, so they had to get going. While other reporters were still following the body to the cemetery, they were getting their stories ready, as they had to be on sale just a few hours later. Instead of following the body, they left the scene and got a few quick quotes from Frank Geyer, the sheriff, Rotan, etc, who all said about what you’d expect them to say – the hanging was done neatly, that Holmes died “game” (bravely), and that they were glad it was all over. Rotan said he still wasn’t convinced Holmes had killed Ben Pitezel, though from other comments he made I do think he believed Holmes had killed some of the other known victims.

Holmes’ body was on the rolling cot for at least an hour; sources are a bit unclear about what time PJ O’Rourke, the undertaker, showed up. Sources are also a little unclear as to whether there was already a few inches of cement in the coffin he brought with him. The Philadelphia Press described a rough pine box, with a mix of sand, water and cement poured in to a depth of 4-5 inches. Holmes was wrapped in a sheet, with a silver cross bearing his name and the date on his chest, still wearing his clothes, then taken out to he cemetery, with a stop on the way to pick up a permit, where more cement was added. Their report makes it look like much of this happened right in the prison.

The Times, though, said that the body was placed in an ordinary pine box, then taken out to O’Rourke’s backyard (right by the prison), where it was put in a larger box to which they added five barrels of cement and sand, ten inches deep. Holmes was laid in this, a handkerchief was put over his face, and then more mortar was added before they screwed on the lid and took it the cemetery.

From the next day's Evening Item

From the next day’s Evening Item

The Record concurred that some cement was already in the coffin, but it had the rest of the prepartion taking place at the cemetery, not the yard. Everyone agrees that they’d neglected to pick up the burial permit, and the officials at the cemetery wouldn’t put the body in the vault without it, so O’rourke had to send someone back to town to pick one up from the cathedral. According to the Record, it was while they waited that the rest of the cement was added, though their description of what was done with the body otherwise matches the one in the times and the Press.

The Record gave a lurid description of what the body looked like when they unscrewed the lid to pour the cement in:

“The body lay on the bed of cement covered by a white sheet, which was taken off for a moment. The face was discolored, of a saffron hue, and the eyes were half open, staring upward in a ghastly way. the mouth, too, was open, showing the yellow teeth, and the brown hair was slightly disarranged, as though the dead man had just run his hand through it. A wide red line was visible on the neck, where the rope had chafed it.”

The sheet was replaced, in their account, along with the silver cross that others mentioned, which was a gift from Father Dailey. Grave diggers mixed up the cement and sand, and o’rourke p packed the coffin with it. 12 men, mostly reporters, were enlisted to haul the thing into the receiving vault, where it would stay over night, guarded by two men named Charles Fulmer and David P Mason.

The guards at the vault at Holy Cross. I've been unable to figure out whether this is still there!

The guards Fulmer and Mason at the vault at Holy Cross, from the Philadelphia Record. I’ve been unable to figure out whether this vault is still there!

The Journal didn’t cover this part in detail; their reporters were probably rushing home to New York. But they did state that lime was in the mixture, and that “the body will be absorbed by the lime and sand in the cement.” This might have been a guess on their part.

The next day the body was brought out to be buried; it took even more people to get the coffin back OUT of the vault, as it weighed about a ton. Rotan, the priests, and a bunch of people who’d been hanging around, waiting, watched the body be lowered down – they removed the coffin lid, lowered it into the 10 foot grave (and one source specifies that Holy Cross usually used 8, which is interesting – the commonly-given figure is 6 feet, though 5 is actually a bit closer to industry standard these days). More cement was mixed up and poured in, then he was buried. The grave was unmarked, but several hundred people came to check out the site over the next few days.

It’s worth noting here that some papers gave a different section of the cemetery than others as the burial site; at least three Philly papers that I checked gave the section number where he was buried, and aren’t in total agreement. But a few published an account of the burial service, which was attended by several curios spectators, most notably including Rotan.

The Inquirer was on hand for the burial; getting the body back OUT took two dozen men.

The Inquirer was on hand for the burial; getting the body back OUT took two dozen men.

So, that’s the story of the execution and burial of HH Holmes. There are some descrepencies, probably based on the fact that not all of the reporters were actually witnessing everying they described; some were just swapping data second hand and may have been mistinterpreting. But as to the details of the execution, the part they witnessed for sure, they’re in as close an agreement as you get from half a dozen people witnessing the same thing. And it’s worth noting that many of the people present (Geyer, Fouse, Clement, the jailers, Ashbridge, etc) knew Holmes pretty well and hated his guts. And that many others were public officials or otherwise “pillars of the community.” If it was a hoax, they probably all would have had to be in on it, at huge personal risk. It’s unlikely that Holmes could have afforded the amount it would have taken to bribe all of them, even if any could be bought.

It’s also worth noting that this sounds nothing like the hanging in the 1898 stories that Robert Latimer was spreading around Englewood. But in research for my book, I found a reference in a copyright catalog to an 1897 book called Hanged By Proxy: How HH Holmes Escaped the Gallows. All that really survives of it is the title and publisher name in a copyright listing. BUT, I did find that there was an article in a Paris, MO newspaper where LW Warner talked about writing a pamphlet about Holmes faking his death. The original article may not survive at all, I don’t think anyone has the Paris Mercury even on microfilm, but it was excerpted  in another small town Missouri Paper. Warner was a traveling salesman who was living in Newton, Iowa at the time – and shared with Latimer a distinction that Holmes had confessed to murdering him. Though he, like Latimer, was still very much alive. My guess is that Latimer had seen the pamphlet, and that it would tell the same story, but we won’t know for sure unless we find a copy. And we still could! You never know what people have in their drawers and boxes.

So, that’s what I have on the execution and burial of HH Holmes, in more detail, perhaps, than any normal person would want.

Holmes is lowered into the ground, as sketched by the Philadelphia Record. Not QUITE like Han Solo in carbonite, but....

Holmes is lowered into the ground, as sketched by the Philadelphia Record. Not QUITE like Han Solo in carbonite, but….

At this time I have no data on how the exhumation went (or will go, if the digging is still going on). But I’ll repeat my request: please, shave the cement down and make him look like Han Solo in carbonite. I’ll keep saying it til they do it!

Links to the books HH HOLMES: THE TRUE HISTORY OF THE WHITE CITY DEVIL and VERY TRULY YOURS HH HOLMES are all over this page, and as of right now (May 2017) there are links in the top right to my first two attempts at doing HH Holmes walking tours in the loop. Come by!

Podcast: She Dreamed of a Skeleton

Listen above, at archive.org or check out the podcast on iTunes!  

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Chicago papers published a number of articles about how many ghost stories there were on Sheridan Road. One of them came up just a bit in my HH Holmes research – the legend of a woman who dreamed for several nights that a body was buried in the Evanston Woods, near murderer Holmes’ old house in Wilmette. Upon sending her husband to dig in the spot, a skeleton was found.

I’d never given the story too much though, but further research today finally dug up some news stories from when the skeleton was first found in September, 1896. And checking the microfilms for Chicago papers back then blew the whole story wide open. Give a listen to the podcast to see what happened!

Chicago’s Newest Ghost: Rose Hill Pedro!

(listen to the podcast above, or see us on iTunes!)

So, here’s a tale for you all:

In the winter, I drive for Lyft, one of those “taxi alternative” apps. And I love it – I always had this secret dream of being a cab driver, living like a character in an early Tom Waits song. Which is exactly what the job is like. I drive strippers to job interviews, get medical students liquored up before their first cadavers, and, fairly often, turn the ride into a historical tour. I end up one on my ghost tour route all the time, and frequently bring passengers to buildings that I talk about on my architecture tours. I have a “passenger notebook” where people add drawings and plug their bands – check out its Twitter page. 

On the evening of Sunday, Jan 14, 2017, I picked up a young woman in Rogers Park, on Ashland just above Pratt. A guy who looked like Pedro from Napoleon Dynamite got in with her, sitting behind me. As we drove along I made basic small talk (“So, you two live in Ravenswood? How do you like it?”), and noted that I seemed to be ended up around Rose Hill Cemetery a lot when we passed over the road that leads to the gate. She asked if I’d ever been there, and I talk about how I actually give walking tours there as the GPS took me along a road right beside the gate. It was a very pleasant ride all around.

When I pulled over at the Ravenswood address, she got out of the car – and no one else did.

“Wasn’t there someone else in the car with you?” I asked.

“No!” she said with a laugh. “I wondered why you kept saying ‘you two!'”

This is the sort of thing that can happen in the dark – I must have thought a guy on the sidewalk was getting in with her, but he didn’t. I was focused on looking ahead of me or at the map for the most part, not behind me. I’d brush it off as just pure silliness except that, well, we DID drive right by Rose Hill Cemetery!   I immediately pulled over and tweeted out the story – it appeared that we had a new hitchhiker in town to compete with Resurrection Mary: Rose Hill Pedro! If you believe in Rose Hill Pedro, all your wildest dreams will come true…

Now, I’m hesitant even to tell this story, because, having worked in the ghost tour biz for a decade and having written numerous books on ghostlore, I’m the LAST guy you should consider a reliable source – it’s in my direct financial interest to see a ghost. Also, I assume it wasn’t really a ghost – the woman in the car didn’t see anyone else there, after all, and I’m not the sort of person who thinks he can see things that other people can’t (unless I’m talking to people who didn’t like the movie Sing Street, in which case I obviously can). And I’m not holding this up as serious evidence of the paranormal – it’s far more likely this was just the result of my brain playing tricks on me in the dark – except that I’m pretty sure I DID look in the rear view mirror and see the guy once, shortly before we came to Rose Hill.

So, I’m 100% sure that I did not give a dead person a ride home.

Well, 95%.

And, honestly, having investigated ghost stories for years, I’d say that if I’d collected the same story from someone else, it would be in my top 5% of ghost sightings. It gives me some first-hand insight of where some of these stories come from. Even after figuring out what must have really happened, I’ll admit that I felt spooked for a bit when I got home! If I wasn’t as skeptical as I am, or not as familiar with this sort of thing, it could easily have grown into a much wilder tale, first in my mind and then in my eventual retellings.

So Rose Hill Pedro now joins the ranks of Resurrection Mary and The Vanishing Flapper among Chicago’s vanishing hitchhikers. Welcome to the club, Rose Hill Pedro!

MORE PODCASTS

Podcast: Searching for the Grave of Cap Streeter

Listen in above or on iTunes or archive.org!

I’ve been speaking about Captain George Wellington Streeter since my very first tours. Though I doubt very much that he really put a “curse” on the landfill he created – and declared to be his own country – his story is a uniquely Chicago sort of tale, a story that sounds like something from the 1600s happening in the 20th century!

It occurred to me that I’d never seen a photo of his gravestone before, if he even had one, but a newspaper write-up of his funeral indicated that he was interred at Graceland Cemetery. After my recent tour there, I went to track him down, joined by a tour guest who’s written a novel about ol “Cap” Streeter. Listen in!

Private Graceland Cemetery tours are available year round – great for school groups! Email for info.

Podcast: Thomas Neill Cream – Antique Serial Killer

Listen in above or on iTunes or archive.org!

o-DR-THOMAS-CREAM-570A few months ago I had to take a quick trip to Madison, WI and made a side trip along the way to Garden Prairie, IL, searching for the grave of Daniel Stott, which lies in a quiet little graveyard surrounded by farmland. Most of the gravestones there are faded out and hard to read, but you can’t miss Stott’s, pictured above, which even gives his cause of death: “Poisoned by his wife and Dr. Cream.”

Dr. Thomas Neill Cream may qualify for the mantle of “Chicago’s first serial killer,” though it depends a lot on what you count as a serial killer (there’s a lot of debate here, but he qualifies for it at least as well as H.H. Holmes, who arrived in Chicago five years after Cream was imprisoned).  We discussed him here before with Did Thomas Neill Cream kill Alice Montgomery, a look a murder in his neighborhood that sounded a LOT like his handiwork. She died from strychnine-laced painkillers after an attempted abortion, which was his usual m.o. An Madison Street doctor by trade, he performed abortions on the side, and had a habit of tampering with medicines to add more strychnine, then trying to blackmail the pharmacist.

To get more on Dr. Cream, this podcast includes a skype chat with Amanda Griffiths-Jones, the first to examine Cream’s prison record from Joliet, which she used for a novel entitled Prisoner 4374, all about Cream’s career based on her unique findings. She was a pleasure to chat with! Check out her book for a lot more info on Cream and what sort of killer he was – including her theory on where the idea that he was Jack the Ripper came from.

Yes, Cream is sometimes said to be a Jack the Ripper suspect – legend has it that on the scaffold, when he was eventually hanged in London, his last words were “I was Jack The…”  It’s generally not taken seriously, since Cream was in prison in Joliet while Jack the Ripper was active in London. Some research into the story told me that the story came from an article published in a number of newspapers after the hangman, Jack Billington died – apparently a UK paper had a huge article of the hangman’s stories, retold by one of his friends, and the friend said that Billington always believed that Cream was the ripper.  A number of 1902 papers worldwide carried the bit about Billington  being the Ripper, and one book later included an excerpt of another story (I tell it in the podcast), showing that it’s part of a larger article. But no accessible paper that I can find (so far) included the whole article, and the Bolton, England paper in which the article originated is only on microfilm – possibly only in Bolton! I’m not going that far for an article.

Listen in above or on iTunes or archive.org!