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!

More Pioneer Ghostlore (Podcast)


Listen in above, or on archive.org or Subscribe on iTunes!

There’s wasn’t time in last week’s podcast, The Bloody Hand of West Randolph, to cover all the great stuff in the 1888 Chicago book about early ghost stories. So now we’re back, covering a few more, including:

  •  – The Prairie Wraith, a woman in a pale yellow dress who was often seen floating around the prairie grass on the northwest side back in the 1840s, arms outstretched as though she was looking for something. There was no hint as to who she was the ghost of, so we speculate that it may be have been Lucretia Thompson, whose nw side murder in 1840 led to Chicago’s first hanging.
  • The Court House Ghost, whose disembodied shrieks around the old courthouse made national news in 1867. Here, it’s suggested that it’s the ghost of one of new men who’d been hanged in a double murder around that time – presumably Fleming and Corbett, who were hanged together in 1865. The drawing above is them as pictured in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper
  • And a phosphorescent…. mule. Yep. A glowing mule was said to haunt the area below the loop between 22nd and 31st, about where Chinatown is now.

Listen in above, or on archive.org or Subscribe on iTunes!

Podcast: The Bloody Handprint of West Randolph

(new podcast! Click above, or see archive.org or iTunes
In 1888, a book of anecdotes about early Chicago retold a heck of a ghost story: one night on West Randolph, a woman heard ghostly footsteps up and down the stairs, then saw a disembodied hand shoving her apartment door shut. She ran away, then came back to find her baby in the oven (but alive), her dog dangling from a ribbon, and a bloody handprint on the door.

This story is a blast, because it seems like an embyronic version of a LOT of 20th century urban legends, like the old yarn about the babysitter putting the baby in the oven, and  the classic ghost story about “your dog isn’t the only one who can lick your hand,” not to mention the folklore motif of “the handprint that never faded away.”

We’ve had more than one “ghostly handprint” stories in Chicago over the years – in the podcast above we mention Frank Leavy’s hand, of which a photograph surfaced fairly recently .

0-handprint (1)

A 1939 Chicago Times photo of the Leavy handprint – probably retouched a bit for publication, but appears to be marked off with some sort of official seal. I’ll see if I can find this article for Halloween…

With few details in the 1888 book, it took some elbow grease to find the original source of the story! A regional reprint of an 1866 issue of the Chicago Post was eventually located, and gave the original ghost story in far greater detail – the story originally had a few more characters, took place over the course of two nights, and had a lot more objects flying around the room. By 1888, the story had been conflated and pared down to its basic urban legend components.

The house, said to have been the sight of “many dark deeds,” was given in the 1866 article as 128 West Randolph, which would be 645 West Randolph in modern numbering (where the Fiat dearly is now, across the corner from the Haymarket monument – so close that it may be one of the four story buildings in the photograph of the intersection of Randolph and Des Plaines above). As far as dark deeds, all I could find was a story of adultery and threatened murder going on there a few months before the hauntings began.

All of the details are in the podcast!