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

Did H.H. Holmes Fake His Death (new info and podcast!)

A former employee of serial killer H.H. Holmes swore that he was never really hanged… we examine his claims!

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HH Holmes hanged, New York World, May 8, 1896. Gallows sketch.

HH Holmes hanged, New York World, May 8, 1896. Gallows sketch from after the hood was put on, just before the trap door fell.

Rumors continue to swirl that H.H. Holmes, subject of Devil in the White City and our most fascinating antique multi-murderer, is going to be exhumed from his grave to address rumors that it wasn’t really HIM who was hanged in May, 1896. Holmes’ descendant Jeff Mudgett’s novel, Bloodstains, suggests as much (Jeff freely admits that the account in the book is a work of fiction that merely presents a plausible scenario).

This is not a brand-new theory that Jeff invented, though. As early as fall, 1896, there was a lawsuit with Holmes still going on in court, and the plaintiff expressed doubts that Holmes was truly dead (though the judge threw out the suit). And I recently found a couple of January, 1898 articles from the Chicago Daily Inter-Ocean in which a man named Robert Lattimer claimed to have seen letters proving that it wasn’t really Holmes who was hanged in Philadelphia. Lattimer (sometimes spelled Latimer) has a very interesting pedigree as a witness: he not only knew and worked for Holmes, but in April, 1896, Holmes confessed to having murdered him. Holmes’ famous confession including admissions to the murder of a few people who weren’t actually dead yet, and Latimer, a former janitor at the famous “murder castle,” was one of them!

According to Lattimer, Holmes had convinced his lawyer, priests, and the jail officials that he was really innocent, and used their belief (and the money he got from writing the phony confession) to get them to go along with a daring scheme. In the scheme, they found a recently-deceased body who looked like him. The substitute body was stashed beneath a hidden partition under the trap door on the gallows, along with two prison employees. When Holmes was brought out to the scaffold, the priests and officials stood in front of him, pretending to tie his arms while they were actually having the other body raised up from beneath the trap door. Then Holmes slipped away, the prison guys propped up the already-dead body (like Weekend at Bernies), and quickly hanged the corpse. Holmes himself slipped into the coffin and escaped from the vault at the cemetery later. By the time the coffin was buried, he was in a New York hotel, and a month later he was living in South America, growing coffee in a small town called San Parinarimbo.

Detail from an 1891 summons from a lawsuit between Charles S. Brown and HH Holmes. Brown never believed Holmes was really hanged.

Clip from the summons for an 1891 lawsuit between C.S. Brown and Holmes. Brown never believed that Holmes had been hanged.

Now, this IS the kind of switcheroo that a decent magician could probably manage. And several people who knew Holmes in Englewood thought the story held up. Charles S. Brown (who once sued Holmes for nonpayment of a loan), told the Inter Ocean that he never believed Holmes was really capable of cold-blooded murder, and also never believed for a second that he’d really been hanged. Others in the neighborhood also expressed a belief that Lattimer wasn’t capable of coming up with such a detailed story all by himself, and that Holmes was such an audacious swindler that they wouldn’t put it past him.

But others in the area weren’t buying it. C.E. Davis worked in the jewelry department of the drug store Holmes ran in the “Murder Castle” building. The building was still there in 1898 (the 1895 fire damaged it but didn’t destroy it, as is commonly written), and Davis was still working there; the Inter Ocean article makes it look as though it was now being called the “Castle Drug Store,” and that he was now managing the place, not just running the jewelry department. He had always provided good copy to the papers, and was the first to suggest turning the place into a tourist attraction. But he didn’t buy the phony hanging. “Holmes is good and dead,” he said. ” Latimer is ‘windy,’ and is always ready to tell wonderful stories if he can find a good listener.”

W.M. McKenzie, who was running the restaurant in the castle building, also didn’t buy it. “I was an officer for seventeen years,” he said. “And I don’t believe that prison officials could be found who would dare to take such risks.”

The letters Lattimer claimed to have seen never seem to have materialized, and a look at first-hand accounts of the hanging discredit the tale they told quickly. The main problem with the story is Latimer’s claim that there was a partition blocking anyone from seeing what happened below the trap door on the scaffold, so that no one could see (or smell) two men who were waiting with a dead body to make the swap. Reporters had a very clear view of what happened beneath the scaffold. Several reporters talked about the body dropped and jerking around, and from the two drawings that were made it’s pretty apparent that the body would have been in full view at all times. There was no hiding place beneath it.

Furthermore, Lattimer said Holmes was living in San Parinarimbo, Paraguay, on a coffee farm, with two women he was supposed to have killed (presumably the Williams sisters). As near as I can tell, that is not a real place.

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

Holmes on the scaffold – clip from the Philadelphia Times tipped into the Library of Congress’s copy of Holmes’ autobiography (thanks to Kate Ramirez!). This would be Holmes when he made a speech saying he never killed Benjamin Pitzel or his children, only two women who died after “illegal operations” he performed on them.

I am a regular sucker for a faked death theory, so it’s worth noting that a few reporters in attendance DID say that Holmes didn’t look like you might expect him to. It’s also worth mentioning that no autopsy was performed – I’m not even sure that they ever even removed the hood that was placed over his face (as was standard protocol at hangings). And that having the body encased in cement, as Holmes’s was, IS unusual, to say the least. Holmes motives for wanting to be buried in cement aren’t terribly clear, and the story that he just didn’t want to be dissected isn’t very convincing to me. As a medical student we know from his colleagues that dissecting OTHER people sure didn’t bother him. So, if someone got an exhumation going, I for one would not object. I assume it’s really him in the grave, but I’m very curious as to what sort of shape it would be in. A lot depends on what kind of filler material is in the cement.

For a lot more data on this story, including more interviews with Holmes’ friends and neighbors from 1898, listen in to the podcast above, subscribe on itunes, and of course, let me go ahead and plug our HH Holmes bus tours, one of which is coming up on Saturday afternoon, Dec 12, to be followed immediately by our Unsolved Mysteries tour!

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Major sources:

Chicago Daily Inter-Ocean, Jan 20 and 21, 1898

May 8, 1896 accounts of Holmes’ hanging in the Philadelphia Times, Philadelphia Inquirer and New York World.

Assorted Nov, 1894 and July, 1895 articles mentioning Robert Latimer

Brown V Holmes, 1891 case 90746

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