I like to have a story for every block on my tours – you never know when you might get stuck in traffic and need something to fill time. If there are people out walking around, I can always mess with passers-by (a large black bus that says “ghost tours” is perhaps the single greatest instrument yet created for the purpose of messing with people), but you can’t always count on that, either.
In 1945, a book entitled Chicago Murders was published, featuring several stories of Chicago killings submitted by various authors. One section, “The Case of HH Holmes” by John Bartlow Martin, was an early retelling that may have served as a model for Herbert Asbury and a Harper’s writer’s own retellings a couple of years later, which pretty well fixed the story of Holmes as we usually hear it now. It was the first account I’ve seen to mention the estimate of 200 murders (though Martin pooh-poohed it), and was the first lurid retelling of Holmes arriving in Chicago and taking over the pharmacy of Dr. Holton, presumably killing the elderly doctor and his wife (an oft-retold story that our research here proved was completely wrong).
The next story in the book is “The Almost Indesctrucible Husband” by Nellise Child, the pen name of Lillian Gerard, who, two decades before, had become the most famous flapper in Chicago under the name Lillian Collier (one of our favorite topics). Here, she told the story of Mildren Bolton, who came within half an hour of being the first woman ever to be executed in Chicago.
“Usually, when a man shoots a woman,” she wrote, “he attempts his own life. When a woman shoots a man, she seems to think that’s enough for one day.”
Mildred Bolton is almost completely forgotten today – I only saw one article about her online, and it was riddled with inaccuracies, right down to getting the name of her victim wrong. Hers is way too interesting a tale to have vanished so thoroughly from the record.
When police were called to apprehend Mildred during a fight with her estranged husband in 1936, there was nothing unusula about the call. THey’d been called about her several times. Even though she and Joseph Bolton were separated, and he was trying to obtain a divorce, she was known to become horribly jealous if she thought a woman had so much as looked at Joseph. Only days before, police had been called in when she shouted that a woman in a hotel was a whore, and her son a degenerate, because they had been up in the latest hotel where Joseph was hiding. He had been changing hotels regularly, trying to keep away from Mildred.
This time, though, Joseph was lying on the floor of his office, bleeding from multiple gunshot wounds. When an elevator operator stood between Mildred and Joseph, Mildred stepped to the side to get a better view of the writhing man, insisting that he was only faking it to get attention. Even when he died in the hospital, she remained calm and casual, stating “the just don’t convict women for killing in Cook County.”
She wasn’t entirely right. Though it was widely known that women who killed men usually got off the hook entirely in Chicago, especially if they were pretty, at least a few had been sentenced to life in prison. It was true, though, that Chicago had never executed a woman.
Mildred remained flippant as the case went to trial. She joked with the press, told people that her attorney’s name was “Horsefeathers,” offered to babysit the prosecuting attorney’s children, and, though she admitted she made a mistake by not destroying her receipt for the gun, she said “I’ll get around that.” She even expected to get around the fact that Joseph had clearly not shot himself, as she said he had, seeing as how two of the bullets had entered from the back, and none had been fired at a close enough range to leave powder burns.
Like many killers of both genders, Mildred received a lot of fan mail, much of it from women who said they’d have killed their own husbands years ago if they only had the nerve. Some fans came to visit her in prison, and Mildred cheerfully sent them on errands to buy her things.
These, though, were all people who didn’t know her. Among those who did, not a witness could be found who could testify in her defense. Instead, a parade of nearly four dozen witnesses came through to describe clashes they’d seen between Mildred and Joseph over the years, many of which ended with Joseph bleeding and fearing for his life. Her antics had cost him several jobs.
“Marble Mildred” claimed that all of the witnesses, down to the coroner, were simply lying, but when she finally came to the stand herself, she admitted everything. She said she had gone to Joseph’s office that day to embarrass him by killing herself, but had ended up shooting him instead.
She was found guilty and sentenced to be the first woman in Chicago to die in the electric chair, though the judge noted that he personally opposed the death penalty, stating that the idea that “a debt to society can be paid by a human body chilled by death is a philosophy encrusted with social futility.”
Mildred was half an hour from death – they had already shaved part of her head and dressed in a special “bloomer suit” to preserve her modesty – when the governor commuted her sentence to 199 years in prison. She served six of them before committing suicide in jail. You can read Lillian Collier / Nellise Child’s full account of her story in the book Chicago Murders
photographed by the Chicago Daily News
(expanded and updated from an older post after watching the first episode of Fargo. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say it reminded me a little of this guy’s story)
One day in 1920, Carl Wanderer came up to a drifter on Madison Street and told him he needed a favor. He was in the doghouse with his wife, who was about to have a baby and didn’t think he was enough of a man to be a father. Wanderer had hatched a plan.
“If you come up and pretend to mug us,” he said, “so I can punch you in the face and look like a hero in front of her, I’ll give you ten bucks.”
The drifter agreed, and Wanderer loaned him a pistol to make it all look more authentic. The next day, as he and his wife walked home from the movies, the drifter jumped from the bushes, held out the gun, and waited for Carl to punch him.
Instead, Carl Wanderer shot the drifter to death.
Then he turned and shot his wife to death, as well.
Exactly what was on Carl’s mind depended on who was telling the story later. Some said he wanted to get back into the army. Others say he was in love with an army buddy. Others still say he wanted to marry a 16 year old named Julia with whom he’d been having an affair. In any case, he’d made plans to kill his wife and blame it all on the drifter.
For a couple of days the papers thought he was a tragic hero who’d lost his wife while trying to save her life, but I don’t think the cops ever really believed him. They thought right away that it was odd that he and the drifter had the same kind of gun, and Wanderer’s response, “Oh, they were both my guns. But he took one from me. I don’t know what I was thinking when I said he had a gun!” didn’t make them put any more weight into his story. Why would the guy have taken two guns to the movies? How many people did he expect to have to shoot?
He was soon arrested, and the trial went on for a while. The defense tried to use plays he’d made in poker games to prove he was insane at one point. He was initially sentenced to life in prison for the murder of his wife, but outcry from the press calling to give him the gallows was so strong that he was rushed back into court to stand trial for the death of the drifter. The drifter was never positively identified (several identities for him have been put forth over the years), and the defense tried to claim that since the man hadn’t been identified, he didn’t legally exist and couldn’t possibly be murdered. But it didn’t hold. Carl was eventually sentenced to hang.
And so, in 1921, Carl Wanderer stood on the gallows near Dearborn and Illinois, ready to hang for the murder of his wife and a “ragged stranger.” As he stood there, reporters asked if he had any last words.
“Not really,” he said.
“Come on, Carl,” shouted one. “Sing us a song!”
And so he did – he sang “Old Pal,” a song popular enough in 1920 that TWO movies would be based on it that decade. It was a real crowd pleaser – one reporter noted that “he should’ve been a song plugger,” though another said that he should have been hanged just for his voice.
“Old Pal” is one depressing song – as parlor songs were wont to be. Some say it was a love song to his wife, but that was probably just reporters selling the drama. Here are the lyrics:
Old pal old gal,
You left me all alone;
Old pal old gal,
I’m just a rolling stone.
Shadows that come stealing,
Thru the weary night;
Always find me kneeling,
In the candle light.
Old pal, old gal,
The nights are long and drear;
Old pal old gal,
Each day seems like a year.
No one left to meet me,
After all I’ve toiled;
No one here to greet me,
It’s an empty world.
The long night through I pray to you,
Old pal why don’t you answer me?
My arms embrace an empty space,
The arms that held you tenderly.
If you can hear my pray’r away up there;
Old pal why don’t you answer me?
Some say that they’ve heard the ghost of Wanderer singing this song in the space where the gallows stood – I’m almost inclined to believe them just because I don’t know how else they’d know how the song goes!
Scaring up a good recording of it isn’t easy nowadays. Singing the song to tour passengers is a good way to torture them today, but as a song, it’s a heck of a lot better than the song another Chicagoan, Charles Guiteau, sang on the gallows. Guiteau, the forgotten assassin of a forgotten president, sang a song called “I’m a-Goin’ to the Lordy” that he had written all by himself. It was even worse than it sounds.
For more on the courthouse/gallows in Chicago, see the new e-edition of the gallows book:
|Jumpertz as he appeared in
Frank Leslie’s newspaper
In 1859, Henry Jumpertz was arrested for the murder of Sophie Werner. It seemed like an open-and-shut case. A barrel had arrived in New York that smelled so terrible that authorities had to open it up. Inside, the first thing they saw was a woman’s face. It was all green and blue and decomposed, but still recognizably a face, and piled on top of a whole bunch of other guts and body parts. The barrel was easily traced back to Henry Jumpertz, who ran a barber shop at Dearborn and Randolph.
Jumpertz’s story didn’t make him sound all that innocent – his story was that Sophie, his mistress, had hanged herself, and, fearing that he’d be arrested for murder (being an immigrant made him an easy target), he’d decided to chop the body into pieces, disposing of some of it in the snow before sealing the rest into a barrel, which he kept next his bed for the next two weeks. Naturally, he was arrested for murder. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper said that “what he has confessed of shows him capable of any enormity.” He was quickly convicted, despite a suicide note written by Sophie that was held up as evidence that it hadn’t been murder at all.
In an odd scene that would repeat itself with some other Chicago murder stories, crowds of women came to try to meet Jumpertz while he was on trial (which always gave reporters a chance to make a sly misogynistic comment). According to the Chicago Times, “among the crowd…were large numbers of women. Old women and young women, plain women and ugly women, well-dressed women and women in shabby habilments (sic), women of all shades, sizes, colors, habits and tongues – all manifesting an excited interest in the fate of a man who, by his own admission, is a person whom all right-thinking people must regard with loathing and abhorrence.” Of course, one should remember that this is the Chicago Times, a newspaper that wore its racism and sexism on its sleeve under the direction of Wilbur F. Storey, who would have done great as a cable news loudmouth. The Tribune was a bit more specific – they said it wasn’t women looking for an introduction so much as prostitutes. “Abandoned and notorious females are permitted singly and in companies to the cell of Henry Jumpertz, the murderer.”
Jumpertz, only 24, was at other times described as a model prisoner, even helping to design a new sort of gallows on which he could be hanged. But expert analysis got him off the hook – at the last minute, it was determined that the handwriting on the suicide note was really Sophie’s, which makes it a bit of a landmark case, since no one, so far as anyone could tell, had ever used that sort of forensic handwriting analysis in court before.
The case was a big enough deal to inspire the book at the left, which was mostly made up of copies of Jumpertz’s letters that had been rounded up. I’ve never seen a copy of it, though copies exist in a couple of university libraries. It may have been Chicago’s first true crime book.
Whether Jumpertz was guilty is still debated occasionally (his name comes up in discussions of how abortions were portrayed in the 19th century – he apparently told one woman he’d impregnated that he’d marry her if she had an abortion), as well as discussions of handwriting analysis. It’s often said that his various girlfriends were always regarded as having been led astray while Jumpertz was portrayed as a terrible libertine, but I see pretty much the same pattern one usually sees in mid 19th-century immigrants who are convicted with murder: they portrayed him as the biggest monster alive at first, but as his hanging date came closer and closer they started talking about his intelligence and how calmly he was awaiting death. After he escaped the gallows, the press pretty much forgot all about him, outside of a stray mention of him serving in the union army some years later.
After his release, he did join the Union Army; he was a sergeant in Vicksburg in 1862 during the Civil War. Some early reports claim he died in the war, but pension records have him alive (though an invadid) in 1875.
Here’s something you don’t hear about much: Victorian Chicago had a lot of murderers and murder victims named Thomas Walsh. Stranger still, more than one of these stories takes place right about on the sight of a modern Jewel Grocery store.
In 1882 a Thomas Walsh flogged his wife to death (he was sentenced to thirty-five years, with the judge making remarks about a long, lingering death instead of a quick one on the gallows). In 1883, a Thomas Walsh got into a political argument that turned violent on Kinzie between Des Plaines and Halsted (where the Jewel is now) and got his head bashed in on a telegraph pole. In 1914 a Thomas Walsh was murdered and robbed of his Civil War pension money in Wheaton. In the 1920s, a labor leader named Thomas Walsh was arrested for murder.
But the most gruesome of the Thomas Walsh murder stories is one from 1892. This one is so gruesome that I’ll immediately post something lighter after this, because I don’t want something this grim to be the first thing people see on my page, especially now that we’ve transitioned over from the old Chicago Unbelievable blog to Mysterious Chicago! I promise that in a few hours there’ll be a nice post with monkey and zoo animals in it.
In May, 1892, Thomas Walsh was brought to Maxwell Street Station, where he wrote a confession claiming that he murdered his aunt, Bridget Walsh, at her home on Washburne Avenue (after renumbering and name changes, this would probably be right about in the footprint of where the Jewel grocery store at Ashland and Roosevelt is now). Murders happened all the time, but this one was most of the most gruesome in Chicago history.
“The victim,” wrote the Tribune, “was chopped to pieces, and then the mangled remains were subjected to such shocking mutilation as would put an Apache Indian to the blush. No less than seventy woulds were found on the unfortunate woman’s body, and when it was carried into the county morgue, Superintendent Roene…dropped his lantern on the damp floor of the dead-house and stood aghast.”
The house in which she was killed was tidy, for the most part, with a kettle still boiling on the stove when police arrived, led by her distraught husband. But as Sgt. Kennedy made his initial investigation, he slipped in what turned out to be half an inch of blood on the flood, then opened the blinds to see that there was blood everywhere – bloody handprints were all over the walls. The ceilings were splattered with stains. Mrs. Walsh’s body was found beneath a pile of clothes, alongside a knife and a pair of scissors. The condition of the body was given in graphic detail in the papers, but repeating it would be too gruesome even for me; suffice it to say that a broom handle being driven through the body is about the least of it.
Enough witnesses had seen Tom Walsh in the area that he was very quickly arrested in his home, which was right near Holy Family cathedral. The nabbed him walking past Throop Street and dragged him to a nearby light. Tom was a known ruffian and knew both officers from several previous incidents.
“I didn’t do it, Jack!” he said at once.
“Do what, Tom?” asked the office.
“Oh, never mind,” said Tom with a laugh. “I thought you referred to something else.”
But his shirt was soaked with blood. His hands were “red with human gore.”
The Maxwell Street police station was well known for its aggressive interrogation techniques, but according to the papers, Walsh calmly admitted that he’d killed his uncle’s wife while he washed up in the matron’s room. Here is the confession he made, as reprinted in the Trib:
I went up to Mike (Walsh)’s house quite early in the afternoon and found Bridget in the house alone. We staid (sic) there a long time. I got drunk. Then I made some remark and Bridget got mad at it and started for the little bedroom next to the kitchen. I got up and followed her, and made some more remarks that seemed to anger her much more, and she suddenly struck me in the face with her fist. A minute later she hit me again harder than the first time, and then I got raving mad. I ran back to the kitchen table, grabbed a knife that was lying there, chased her back into the corner of the bedroom, and commenced to stab her. I stabbed her lots of times in the face, and neck, and arms, and stomach, but it didn’t take long, because in fifteen minutes after I commenced I was all through. She didn’t scream much, but I kept right on cutting with all the strength I had. I don’t know how many times I drove the knife into her, but I guess it must have been a good many times….I did it all myself and no one knew about it but me.”
An inquest later found 115 wounds in the body. Thomas Walsh was found insane and sent to the asylum.
|The most common
photo of Dr. Cream.
H.H. Holmes is often advertised as “America’s First Serial Killer.” Really, though, he wasn’t even the first one in Chicago – or the only Chicagoan whose name has been floated as a suspect for the true identity of London’s “Jack the Ripper.”
Long before anyone seriously* thought to connect Holmes with the crime, one name tossed about now and then was Dr. Thomas Neil Cream, who is reputed to have said “I am Jack the…” on the gallows, with the trap springing before he could finish the sentence. A known serial killer, Cream had operated for a time in Chicago a few years before HH Holmes came to town.
Born in Scotland in 1850, Cream studied medicine in London and Edinburgh before moving to Canada and then Chicago, where he opened a clinic on Madison Street, near Throop (the sight of a parking lot now). This was a terrible red light district at the time, and it’s generally believed that Cream’s stock in trade was providing illegal abortions to prostitutes. He had been caught trying to perform an abortion on a girlfriend back in the UK, and was quite literally forced to the church at gunpoint (though his wife died, allegedly of tuberculosis, shortly thereafter).
In Chicago, a witness who ran a boarding house at 1056 Madison (about Madison and Western today) said that Cream claimed in 1880 to have treated about 500 girls in Canada, and at least 15 in Chicago. When one of the patients, Mary Anne Faulkner, died in the boarding house in 1880, apparently of poisoning, he was brought to trial, where he insisted that it was all the nurse’s fault (the nurse, Hattie Mack, ran the boarding house). Mrs. Mack testified that Cream had offered her $30 to let him pour tar over the body and burn the house down, but she refused. He was eventually let go for lack of evidence.
| sample of Dr. Cream’s
The next year, an elderly man named Daniel Stott who suffered epilepsy and had just married a much younger woman. She came to Chicago from their home in Garden Prairie, and met with Dr. Cream about getting treatment for his epilepsy. Cream gave him such treatment, but, upon finding out that Stott’s wife stood to get a lot of inheritance and insurance when the old man died, he apparently began an affair with her (or made plans to, at least), then arranged for her to give the man medicine that included a small amount of strychnine (to which he then apparently added much more strychnine). It was a perfect crime – if an autopsy found strychnine, he could show the drug store records saying there was some of it in the medicine, though not enough to kill a person, and the case would be closed (or at least blamed on the pharmacist, not him). The widow would cash in, and he’d swoop in and sweep her off her feet. They could even make more money by suing the pharmacy.
|A far different, and much less common,
shot of Cream. It doesn’t seem to appear anywhere
elseon the web or in any other article
I can find on Cream, but turned up in
an 1899 magazine article.
But no one thought there was anything suspicious in the death at all, so there was no talk of suing the pharmacy and no reason to blackmail them. Cream sent a telegram to the coroner stating that he didn’t believe the cause of death was truly natural, and when that telegram was ignored, he sent so many more messages and letters demanding an autopsy, then finally went to the police. After running some tests on the medicine, they exhumed the body and found enough strychnine to kill six men, and 30x more than the prescription had called for. This was no pharmacists error – obviously, there was foul play involved. Cream had as good as turned himself in. Police (and Mrs. Stott) quickly deduced what had happened.
Mrs. Stott was arrested as well, and Dr. Cream fled. He was arrested in Canada, brought back to stand trial, and wound up spending nine years in prison from 1883-1891 (which, incidentally, pretty well clears him of suspicion of murdering anyone in London in 1888). Upon his release, he returned to London, where he seems to have embarked on a regular spree of giving poison drinks to prostitutes; he was eventually arrested for one of the murders and hanged in 1892. During his trial, he swore he was “Thomas Neil,” not the “Thomas Neil Cream” who had been convicted of poisoning before, which Ripper conspiracy theorists often site.
Just how many people he killed, and why, will never really be known; the above accounts were pieced together from contemporary Tribune articles, but I’m note sure anyone’s ever done a REALLY in-depth investigation on the guy; most books on him come from a handful of bad sources, and, like most serial killers, tabloid and pulp versions have strongly influenced what we THINK we know. His claim of being Jack the Ripper on the scaffold is generally ignored (contemporary witnesses didn’t mention it), but I did run across a news item published during his trial saying that it had been firmly established that Cream and the Ripper were one and the same. Some theories go about that Dr. Cream and Dr. Neil really weren’t the same person, just as was claimed on the stand. The photograph of Dr. Neill above DOES look markedly different from the more common photo. I feel like there’s a lot more to find out about this guy; most books and articles have the same bad info, the same wild guesswork, and the same one photo of him in a top hat.
Mrs. Stott, for her part, was probably not complicit in the murder, but always blamed for it. Just look at the photo of Mr. Stott’s grave, out in Garden Prairie, in the land beyond O’Hare, which states that he was “poisoned by his wife and Dr. Cream.”
|Uploaded anonymously to findagrave|
* – the connection between Holmes and Jack the Ripper was at least mentioned by Chicago police as early as 1895, though in a joking way. When Holmes was suggested as the killer in an unsolved murder from the suburbs, the chief laughed and said “you might as well connect him with the Jack the Ripper horrors.” See our murder castle ebook (expanded edition) for more.
In 1904, a man who called himself “Mr. Dove” went to the desk at the Auditorium Hotel (above the still-operating Auditorium Theatre) and told a concierge that he wanted to rent an automobile for a few hours to drive to Joliet. After some hemming and hawing, he agreed to rent one at a rate of five dollars and hour – quite a sum at the time, but cars were still a real novelty in 1904, but the rental fee included a chauffeur to do the driving.
That chaueffeur, John William “Billy” Bate, arrived with a car from Canary’s Garage, and the two began a long drive down Archer Avenue out towards suburbia. From here, the details get a bit fuzzy. Of course, Chicago ghostlore fans will note that this ride would have taken them right by Resurrection Cemetery, as well as several other local haunted hot-spots. We even get a vanishing woman in white into the bargain here, as some witnesses (cars were enough of a novelty that there were many witnesses to the car on its journey) said that a woman in white was with them for a time.
The details of the ride are fuzzy. What is known is that late that night, the car was found abandoned, with Billy Bate’s murdered body splayed out across it. Mr. Dove vanished and was never found.
Reporters immediately latched onto six widely different theories as to why Bate had been killed:
1. There was an argument over the bill for the rental of the car. Bate may have been lost, and a fight may have broken out over whether Dove should pay anyway or what.
2. Mr. Dove had gotten into an argument with the “woman in white,” killed her, disposed of her body, and then killed Bate.
3. Dove and the woman were planning a crime, spoke too freely of it, and killed Bate because he’d heard everything (this was the garage owner’s theory).
4. Some suggested that Mr. Dove wasn’t the killer at all, but that Bate had been killed by an irate farmer who hated automobilists. The trib noted that “automobilists, specially the riotous type of midnight tourists, are in none too good odor withe the countryside out Joliet way.” You darn noisy kids and your horseless carriages!
5. Dove was drinking, started shooting his gun off for the fun of it, and accidentally killed Bate, then fled.
6. The most common theory with the driver is that Bate’s murder had been arranged by one of Bate’s many girlfriends.
Of course, some Chicago ghost hunters may have another theory: that the woman in white was the ghost we’d one day call Resurrection Mary, finally graduating from appearing aside carriages (as a mysterious woman in white was said to have done in the 1800s) to riding in automobiles, and her disappearing freaked Dove out so badly that he went nuts and started getting a bit trigger happy with his fun.
Of these theories, the “jealous girlfriend” theory probably makes the most sense. By all accounts, Bate was very popular with the ladies, and the evidence in the case backs this up. He was carrying love letters from a couple of women, and pictures of another hidden in his watch.
One letter, dated two weeks before, had one of the worst poems I’ve ever read:
You are the sweetest boy in town,
You have the prettiest eyes of brown.
The rose is red, so they say
The rose is red and violets blue
But your lips outrival the rose’s hue
You have the prettiest dimpled chin,
dimples chasing out in in.
You are the sweetest boy in town.
Who could help loving you?
Now, keep in mind, these are just the letters Billy had on his person when he was at work. But by all accounts of the clerk at the Auditorium, Dove hadn’t been picky about who drove the car, as he would have been if he was specifically out to kill Bate on the orders of a scorned lover.
Evidence soon showed that Dove had run off to Romeo, IL, in the immediate aftermath before the story broke, taking rooms and buying benzine to clean stains from his coat, and traces of him were found here and there, and one person remembered him nervously pacing in a house on Joliet Street where he’d rented a room, talking about a girl back in Pittsburgh (which is where the woman pictured in Bates’ watch lived). After trying to pay his bill, he walked out the back door towards the Rock Island railroad tracks, and was never seen again.
Several people were arrested on suspicion of being Dove, including notorious con man Yellow Kid Weil, but all were eventually let go. The mystery remains unsolved.
In 1898, the Denver Post ran an article about one W.J. Bunyea, a traveling salesman who’d held court on the subject of H.H. Holmes, an old friend of his, in a local hotel the night before. According to his story, he had been working in Englewood in the general merchandise business. In the midst of recounting the whole of Holmes career as a swindler and murderer, he dropped a few interesting tidbits:
“We became fast friends and roomed together 28 months, until unsavory tales were circulated defamatory to his character and I left him. He came into possession of a magnificent residence…which was called Holmes Castle, which (was held in the name of ) T. Campbell…. I have often congratulated myself on the narrow escape I had from his deadly clutches. He always wanted me to get my life insured and I promised him I would do it, but kept procrastinating. Many a time he has sent me inside of his dark vault for cigars and had I been insured I would have met the same horrible fate that some of his victims suffered.
“After he was sentenced to be hanged who wrote me a letter saying the only person he ever murdered with violence was Miss Collins of Englewood. When I asked him what ever possessed him to lead such a wicked career, he replied: ‘When I was a little boy in petticoats, living with my wealthy and highly respected parents in Vermont….they were swindled out of a large fortune by dishonest city officials, and I made then and there a solemn declaration to cheat everybody I came across and averse the misery my parents subsequently suffered by persecuting innocent people for I no longer have faith in mankind and love has no meaning to me.’
“His last letter to me read: they have me at last, old chap. Will swing tomorrow. If I see you no more in this world I may run onto (sic) you in the next. Yours without a struggle, Herman.”
He then went on to speak of Holmes’s prediction on the scaffold that all those who had opposed him would die violent deaths.
Now, this last part, in particular, is a fascinating addition to Holmes lore and a clue as to what made the man tick – if it’s true. But the problem with Holmes stories is that it’s to tell what to believe. In this case, we have to figure out three things:
1. Was the Denver Post telling the truth? Was WJ Bunyea a real guy at all?
2. If Bunyea was real, was HE telling the truth?
3. If Bunyea WAS real AND telling the truth, was HOLMES telling the truth about his family being swindled?
This is part of what makes Holmes research so complicated – with nearly every bit of information about him, we have to figure out if the publication is reliable, if the witness is reliable, etc. Even if they are, you can’t really take anything Holmes said himself at face value.
In this case, the story falls apart at #2. The Denver Evening Post seems reliable enough, in that Bunyea seems to have been a real guy, but Bunyea’s own story is full of holes. He seems very knowledgeable about Holmes on the surface, but he makes an awful lot of mistakes, such as calling Julia Connor (who he claimed to know well) Julia Collins. He also puts her and her daughter’s disappearance at about a year before Holmes was captured; it was more like three years. He also has Minnie and Anna Williams dying at the same time, not several months apart (which may or may not be true, though he also calls Anna “Helen”). Nearly everything he says, in fact, is off in some detail or another, sometimes far off enough that you can’t just blame carelessness.
But it was stories like this – easily debunked stories made up by far-flung newspapers and tabloids, or by people who may have known Holmes slightly and wanted to cash in on their connection – that form much of the basis of the story of Holmes as it is generally retold today. As I often say, Holmes was not the Hannibal Lector sort of serial killer he’s often made out to be today – he was more the Walter White sort of criminal in reality, focused more on making money than anything else, but not shy about killing people when it helped him keep his swindles and schemes going.
It seems more likely that Bunyea pieced his story together from newspaper articles he’d read a few years before and didn’t remember quite correctly; the story that Holmes had always tried to get him to insure his life, and would have surely killed him if he had, is one that came up a lot when Holmes’ crimes first came to life. Holmes is generally claimed to have killed a lot of people after tricking them into buying life insurance policies, but as far as I can tell, it would be more accurate to say that he tried to do that a lot. Only Ben Pietzel ever fell for it, and even he thought he was going to be cut in on the swindle for faking his death, not killed.
Furthermore, investigations into Mr. Bunyea show him not to be the most reliable witness in the world, though he IS a fascinating guy to look into. There was a Walter J. Bunyea in Englewood in 1888, and it’s an uncommon enough name that it’s reasonably to guess that it’s the same guy. But we know he was there because he was captured there by a police officer who recognized him as a man who’d recently broken out of prison in Indiana. In 1900, two years after the article, he would be arrested again after shooting a barber five times after the barber allegedly insulted his wife. And Holmes wasn’t the benefactor; he got the money by swindling the widow.
There’s one more fascinating twist, though: according to the paper’s reporting on the subsequent trial (in which he was somehow acquitted), we do see that Bunyea lived in Chicago from about 1888 until 1895, when he and his wife moved to Denver. At one point in Chicago, the couple had apparently had some sort of rift owing to his wife’s involvement with a man named Campbell, which, of course, was one of Holmes’s own common aliases. But the trial’s timeline would put that affair in 1895, when Holmes was in prison in Philadelphia.
The best takeaway from the article, really, is the way that it shows how early stories about Holmes and his castle grew. Much of what you hear about him doing now are things that newspapers speculated that he could have done in the 1890s, when his crimes first came to light, and began to be repeated as fact, not speculation, in the 1940s. I think Erik Larson based his portrayal of Holmes as a modern-day sort of serial killer entirely on the famous “I was born with the devil in me” quote, which was didn’t actually appear in Holmes’ confession at all, but, rather, appeared in “excerpts” that were almost certainly invented wholesale by the Philadelphia North American, a rival to the Inquirer, which published Holmes’s actual “confession” (which, itself, is notoriously unreliable).
But many of the stories of him torturing people in the basement, killing people for the insurance money, making grim predictions on the scaffold or in court (which no witness described happening at the time), were already, from the evidence of this article, a part of Holmes lore in April, 1898, not quite two years after his execution.
For more on our analysis of Holmes’ various confessions, and on the Holmes “curse” stories that were already in circulation before his death, see our Holmes-lore ebooks!