These days, running tours that leave from the south branch of the river, I hear a lot of tour guides talking about the Great Chicago Fire; as it started closer to there than anywhere else on a river tour route, it’s a natural place to cover it. And I while I hear plenty of false info (one company has their guides say we now know for sure that a lightning strike started the fire, which would require us to have a time machine), perhaps the most persistent lately is that Chicago is known as “The Second City” because the city that stands today was the second city built on the grounds after the fire destroyed the first one.
It’s a charming little fact, and a nice thing to tell ourselves as we nurse the eternal chip we get on our shoulder from living in New York’s shadow, but a look at the data doesn’t back it up one bit.
The term “second city” was common in the 19th century, always referring to the second-most populated city in a given region. For instance, you’d hear people talk about Lawrence as “the second city of Kansas.” By the time of the fire, people were starting to claim that Chicago would eventually surpass Philadelphia to become “the second city” of the United States.
Then, in 1889, the city of Chicago absorbed a few suburbs – places like Lake View and Englewood became neighborhoods instead of autonomous towns. This meant an instant growth in Chicago’s population, and (though Philadelphia and Brooklyn were working on absorbing suburbs and fighting for the honor) formally made Chicago the second city of the nation after New York. Annexation was necessary – the recent sensational Cronin murder, which left the various police departments mixed up and unable to work together properly made it clear that a unified city government was the way to go; within a decade New York would consolidate four neighboring cities into boroughs. But more than one person in 1889 accused Chicagoans of supporting annexation mainly because it would give them the “second city” title. So did a few people in Chicago suburbs who opposed annexation, though it was reported that nearly 15,000 people voted in favor of annexation, and only about 600 voted against.
The June 30, 1889 Tribune claims the title
For several decades, papers used the term almost exclusively to refer to the city’s status as the second most populated in the country – try as I might, I couldn’t find one single use where they meant that it was the second city built on the grounds. There must have been a few out there that I just didn’t run across (sure the fact that the “second city” was the second city built on the grounds must have occurred to somebody), but the data is clear: when people said “second city,” they definitely meant second-largest.
But that’s not exactly how the nickname came to stick, either – the title of the second city bounced around a bit, going to Philadelphia for a while, and then to Los Angeles. In the mid 20th century, New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling began to write a series of articles about Chicago, which he absolutely detested, having lived here for awhile 1949 and finding it inferior to New York. The articles eventually became a book, Chicago: The Second City in 1952. It’s actually a pretty entertaining, fairly tongue-in-cheek affair poking fun at the city, which he saw as a town in decline, living in its past glories of the 1890s and the gangster era of the 1920s. It may not have been entirely unfair – in 1952 we hadn’t had a great new skyscraper in twenty years, the population was moving to the suburbs, Los Angeles was creeping up closer in the population race, and we hadn’t had an event like the World’s Fair in some time. The great skyscrapers of the Daniel Burnham era seemed hopelessly old-fashioned – all things Victorian were hopelessly out of style, and wouldn’t start to seem cool again for another decade or two.
Liebling’s book is apparently what turned the phrase “second city” from a title to a nickname; seven years later The Second Theatre theatre took its name from Liebling’s essays in an inspired bit of self-deprecation, and since then the term has stuck.
Here’s a 1959 Trib blurb mentioning Liebling after noting the opening of the Second City:
Depending on how you look at things, Cousin Jim might be the first “indie” movie ever filmed in Chicago. There were plenty of Chicago filmmakers doing experiments in the early days, but by 1916, films were big business, and nearly all were made by studios. Cousin Jim stands out in film history because it was not by pros buy by bunch of members of the Casino Club – a very early example of friends getting together and making a movie. Because these friends were high society types, their venture made a lot of news, and the premiere at The Strand Theatre, at 7th and Wabash, was a big event. The film even played out of town for a while – it was a Chaplinesque comedy, but ads for the movie in other cities show that exhibitors thought it would mainly be interesting to the audience because it showed how Chicago society people lived.
Though the two-reel movie itself is almost certainly lost, The Newberry Library has two copies of the script – one typed, and one handwritten by Kenneth Sawyer Goodman, namesake of the Goodman theatre. Goodman was attracting fame for himself as a playwright at the time, a leading light of the “Chicago Renaissance,” but Cousin Jim was not one of his major works. From the script, we can see that if it survived, the film would be a fascinating document of Chicago history and the history of cinema – but “fascinating” and “good” aren’t necessarily the same thing.
The first page of Goodman’s handwritten script
The son of a lumber baron, Goodman’s diary mostly shows him as a society type, dutifully recording which club he went to, who he dined with, and what yacht he was on on a given day. From what I read of it, you’d never guess he was considered a major, even edgy, writer at the time – in a way, it’s like reading Bruce Wayne’s diary and seeing nothing about fighting crime other than a meeting or two with Commissioner Gordon. Notably, it doesn’t say much about going to movies, and it’s likely that Goodman wasn’t really up to date on how the medium was evolving. The script (apparently from a scenario by John McCutcheon, an Essanay studios vet) doesn’t show a lot of creativity in terms of how the story will be presented; as a playwright, Goodman seems particularly at a loss in how to work with far less dialogue. Hence, this is the way the film opens: simply showing close-ups of the characters and their names:
Cousin Jim, reel 1
The “Count” is a waiter who knows that one of the society-men was caught cheating at cards in 1910, and blackmails him to be introduced around the clubs as a foreign big-shot, all part of his plans to marry one of the heiresses. But he’s thrown for a loop when Cousin Jim, alias Unlucky Jim, shows up in town.
William Fuller, left as Cousin Jim
Cousin Jim is a shameless Chaplin clone, alternately a victim of endless bad luck and daring adventurer (the script can’t seem to decide whether he’s a great hero or a comical loser). The Count proceeds to try to keep Jim away from society functions, eventually robbing a matron and planting Jim’s stolen fraternity pin at the scene, framing him for the crime.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the movie is that it was proudly a Chicago film. I’ve seen most of the Chicago silent films that survive, and can’t think of any that make a real show of being in Chicago – most movies at the time tried to seem as they could be taking place in any old city. Cousin Jim wears the fact that it’s depicting Chicago and its socialites on its sleeve – indeed, though they generally lacked originality, the crew could have been among the first to say things like “the city itself is character in the film.”
It’s curious to note, then, that right from the start, Chicago movies seemed to have a strange sense of geography. In the 1980s, The Blues Brothers could get to Calumet City in 15 minutes, and Ferris Bueller’s dad somehow made his commute home to Highland Park by 5:30, a feat so impressive that I’d often joked about writing a movie called Ferris Bueller’s Dad’s Commute. Whatever wormhole they were using in the 80s obviously existed in 1916, a well – Cousin Jim leaves the Blackstone Hotel at 4:30, messes around outside the Art Institute (offering the lion statue a cigar), then has an adventure around the zoo and lagoon in Lincoln Park before making it back to the Casino Club, which was near the Magnificent Mile, at 5.
This adventure contained the films most famous scene: a sequence in which Jim throws two police officers off of the high bridge in Lincoln Park that was known as “suicide bridge.” News articles at the time noted that the stunt man brought in for the scene said the leap couldn’t be done, so the two actors simply did it themselves, somehow surviving a jump that most people didn’t (they called it “suicide bridge” for a reason). It’s curious to note that Goodman’s script called for special effects here, not a stunt:
Cousin Jim attempts to evade officers Bolivar and Tolivar before throwing them off the bridge, a shot captured by a Tribune photographer
A Tribune article notes that the movie was submitted to Major MLC Funkhouser, the city’s film censor – in those days, every movie had to be submitted to him, and the papers would detail which scenes he removed from any given movie (he was eventually caught charging admission to private showings of the cut bits). Though no cuts were noted from Cousin Jim, at least one scene in the script probably never would have made it past him: while Jim is in the shower, the Count steals his clothes. Jim (presumably in a towel, though the script doesn’t say) has to run to the next house and knock on the door. A maid holding a banana answers, and eats the banana as she tells him that no trousers are available. She eventually gets him a dress to wear, leading him to spend the night disguised at the society ball as “Mrs. Pick” while the Count ransacks a wealthy woman’s house, even putting the goldfish in a top hat (a title card jokes that he can’t resist anything gold). Scenes of robbery tended to be cut, and scenes of cross-dressing certainly did. If this scene got past Funkhouser, either he was feeling generous because the film was supposed to be for charity, or they bribed him.
It’s also in this scene that we get perhaps the biggest surprise: though it might not have been AS apparent to 1916 viewers, modern viewers would surely assume that someone was going to slip on the banana peel. Even 1916 viewers would have had to guess that “unlucky Jim” was about to take a fall on it – but it was the maid who took a spill.
a scene from the Onwentsia club
From here the film descends into the inevitable chase scene, after which the Count is brought to justice and Jim is revealed to have been a member of the secret service all along (a twist that makes no particular sense), and everyone pairs off to get married (Goodman’s script calls for “rice and old shows”).
Though Goodman’s diary doesn’t mention the film too much – he wasn’t involved in the filming and missed the premiere – we can see from it that it was written very quickly; after several days yachting around Florida, he first heard of the project in March. Filming began only weeks later, and the movie premiered on June 2. He mentions going over the scenes with McCutcheon once, but that’s about it. He does note, though, that after he finally saw it, a few days after the premiere, he asked for a couple of revisions and alterations to be made before the show went on the road.
The final film may differs quite a bit from the script – during the filming the Saddle and Cycle Club (at which Goodman was also a regular) objected to the Casino Club’s hunger for publicity and refused to let them film scenes there. The newspapers also describe a scene in which Jim goes fishing in the Fountain of the Great Lakes at the Art Institute, which may have just been improvised while they were filming the “giving the lion a cigar” scene (and making it even less likely that he could go up to Lincoln Park, have an adventure, and be back to the club at 5). And, again, it’s hard to imagine how they would have gotten the “eating a banana while she tells a near-nude Jim that there are no pants available” and cross-dressing scenes past Major Funkhouser.
The Newberry Library’s summary of the Goodman papers makes particular note of the Cousin Jim script, which I’m guessing would have shocked Goodman himself. A serious playwright, the papers feature manuscripts to a number of plays, including several collaborations with Ben Hecht. Though he collected a handful of clippings about the movie, the folder of clippings don’t include any of the large features about it that appeared in the Tribune during the filming, and it’s likely that he didn’t consider it to be a work of any major importance, particularly when his plays were being produced all over the country. Perhaps he still thought that movies would be a passing fad. In any case, he lived only two more years after Cousin Jim before succumbing to the Spanish Flu in November, 1918.
The proper name of Rosehill Cemetery is up to some debate. Though most official paperwork gives it as a single word, Rosehill, it’s not uncommon to see it written as Rose Hill. And several popular stories claim that the name was supposed to be Roe’s Hill, and only a clerical error resulted in the name we know today. People ask me about it on tours all the time.
The oft-given story is that the land, seven miles north of downtown Chicago, was once a farm (or tavern) owned by a stubborn old pioneer named Hiram Roe. When someone wanted to buy the land from the old man for a cemetery in 1859, stubborn old Mr. Roe only agreed when the buyer promised to name the cemetery after him – but a clerical error resulted in it being named Rosehill instead. I love to imagine Old Man Roe sitting there on opening day, gnashing his teeth and sipping his homemade whiskey from a brown bag while wealthy Chicagoans sat through the speeches and picked out their plots.
But, while there’s reason to believe Roe was a real person, the story of him wanting to have the cemetery named after him is certainly fiction. The land wasn’t bought from him, and wasn’t intended to be a cemetery when it was first purchased.
Lawsuit records recorded in The Northeastern Reporter in 1895, when a suit over payments was going on, elucidates the whole story of how the land changed hands: In 1857, Francis H. Benson bought the land where the cemetery now sits, then in the surburban town of Chittenden, for about $25,000 from the Illinois and Wisconsin Land Company. He intended to parcel it out into lots for houses, but the Panic of 1857 hit the economy hard, causing the land to lose about half its value and decimating the market for suburban real estate. The only money Benson made from the land in the first year came from selling off a bit of gravel he found on it.
But the dryness of the soil (it was a high elevation) made Benson think some of the land would make a good cemetery, so he partnered with James V.Z. Blaney, first president of Rosehill, to form the Rosehill Cemetery corporation. The company was incorporated in February, 1859, and the cemetery opened for business that summer. Benson and Blaney’s names are both carved onto the gate. When the cemetery published a promotional book in 1913, they said that the name came from wild white roses that grew on the hill.
But the story that the name of the cemetery may have grown from a hill named for Mr. Roe may not be entirely fanciful; while the “stubborn farmer who owned the land” tales are of decidedly modern vintage (probably just the last couple of decades), stories that the land was once called Roe’s Hill appear in several 19th century sources.
The first mention that I can find comes from just over 20 years after the cemetery was chartered, when the Chicago Tribune ran an article about onion farming on September 6, 1880. In the article, it said that in the early days of Chicago history, teamsters traveling in the woods seven miles north of town would often stop at the “Jug Tavern” owned by “old Man Roe,” who made a sort of whiskey that was popular enough for its fame to make them start referring to the area as Roe’s Hill.
A few years later, A.T. Andreas’ authoritative History of Cook County mentioned this as well, stating that the area of Bowmanville was once known as Roe’s Hill for Hiram Roe, whose cabin and tavern were near the current residence of one J.A. Budlong.
The Tribune mentioned Roe again in 1900, when an article on the origins of the names of various suburbs said that Bowmanville was originaly known as Roe’s Hill after Hiram Roe, “the pioneer settler (who) sold whiskey there of no uncertain proof.”
However, census records say nothing about a Hiram Roe in the area. There was a farmer named Hiram Rowe up near McHenry in those days, but I couldn’t find any evidence that he ever lived closer to the city. Furthermore, these mentions that the area was called “Roe’s Hill” in the old days (1830s-1850s) are all from a few decades later; no instance of anyone calling it Roe’s Hill in the actual “old days” has yet been found (though I’ve heard rumors about it being in some early Rosehill documents). Andreas and the Tribune may have just been repeating neighborhood gossip and urban legends.
Perhaps the tale that Rosehill was Roe’s Hill may have all been a misunderstanding; In 1856, Robert Ferguson wrote a book on Danish and Norse names in Scotland, and said that a Rose Hill in the U.K. was, he believed properly Roe’s Hill, from the Old Norse word for “King.” Perhaps someone heard that bit and thought it applied to the Rosehill in Chicago.
Still, the fact that sources knew the full name and even the location of the tavern make it look as though there was a kernel of truth in the story someplace. So, Old Man Hiram Roe remains a bit of a mystery; I spoke to Larry, a fellow tour guide who works at Rose Hill, and he said he’d pored through all of the oldest books looking for any mention of Hiram Roe without finding a thing. “He’s certainly not here now,” he told me.
When I run Rosehill tours, I mostly stick with the eastern sections. But at least one detour is always in order: you can’t leave out Lulu Fellows, the glass-encased statue of a young girl who died in 1883 at the age of 16. Her epitaph, “Many Hopes Lie Buried Here,” is not unique; it shows up on other 1880s graves in the cemetery as well, and, really, could be added to almost any tombstone. But next to the statue (carved by AE Gage, who also created the “Inez” statue at Graceland), it really brings home the fact that we’re looking at a young woman whose life was cut tragically short.
For the longest time, little was known about Lulu beyond what one could piece together from census forms and her death certificate, but the digitization of newspapers and books has made a few more tidbits available, shedding some light on the sort of “hopes and dreams” that died with Lulu.
Lulu was a rising elocutionist – a theatrical profession that doesn’t really exist anymore, and is largely erased from cultural memory. Though people still give dramatic readings of great literature, famous speeches, and comic bits at things like public speaking competitions, the practice of going to a theater and buying a ticket to see a famous elocutionist was regarded as old fashioned even a century ago. It was common in the 19th century, though, Lulu was noted for her talents. Notes from a magazine published by her professor indicate that she performed for Robert Todd Lincoln, and the magazine further published a January, 1882 letter by Mayor Carter H. Harrison, stating that he’d had the pleasure of hearing her “read” in 1880. “She will,” he wrote, “from all I caln learn, teake a high position as a reader in public. I take great pleasure in commending her to all who admire and enjoy elocution.”
A student at the Park Institute, at Ashland and Ogden at Union Park, Lulu studied under Professor Dickson, himself a noted elocutionist, and was a member of the C.E.G. society – which presumably was somehting to do with elocution, though I can’t for the life of me find out what it stood for! Sometimes listed as the “C.E.C. Society,” it seems to have existed at no other school. But the society gave performances at churches and homes around the city (particularly those near the school), and the press often mentioned the performances.
Lulu’s monument by AE Gage
Most of the time, the reviews only noted that Lulu performed a “recitation,” though a January, 1882 write-up of a performance at Third Presbyterian Church specifically mentions that she performed “The Brakeman at Church,” a comic piece in which a railroad man compares various religions to railroad lines. Like most Victorian comic pieces, it doesn’t seem very funny by modern standards (you can read it here), but the Tribune noted that she performed it “very acceptably and responded to a hearty encore.” The perfomance closed with the society (presumably including Lulu), giving a “tableux of statuary,” enacting poses of such scenes as “Columbia Mourning Over Garfield” (another style of performance that died out in the 20th century, remembered now almost entirely because of a satire in The Music Man).
Reading “The Brakeman at Church” today may not be thrilling, but to look on the statue of Lulu over her grave and imagine her reading it can be a moving experience, add a bit of life to the stone. Some reviews of the CEG Society performances note that crowds tossed things like bouqets at the stage; who knew that the people slipping money into the glass case around her statue were just carrying on the tradition?
Professor Dickson published a magazine, published in book form, called The Elocutionist, which gives an excellent idea of the course of study Lulu would have followed, what other pieces she might have performed in class or in recitals. It can now be read on Google Books.
As a cemetery tour guide, on my favorite things is finding great stories that have escaped the history books – it’s often just a matter of finding an interesting headstone and looking up the name. But which stones to choose? The most obvious are the big and impressive ones, but sometimes it can also simply be a person with a strange name, or an interesting symbol.
One of these was Elizabeth Ely Gridley Butler, whose stone includes a “Real Daughter” plaque, signifying that her father was a Revolutionary War soldier. These are very rare in Chicago, where no verifiable Revolutionary War veterans are buried (we’ve covered the two supposed ones, William DuVol and David Kennison, a time or two before). But what struck me about Elizabeth was her birth date – 1826. I figured there had to be a story there, as the youngest Revolutionary Veterans in 1826 would have been comfortably past middle age.
As it turns out, her father, Theodore Gridley, of Clinton, NJ, served for seven months in the New York state militia during the war; family legend a century later said that he fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill (the war service is backed by records, though they indicate that the Bunker Hill part was probably not true). It wasn’t until around 1816 that he married Amy Ely, who was already 40 years of age – very old to be getting married in those days. In 1825, according to an 1875 Tribune article, the two of them rode in a carriage to Boston to see the cornerstone laid for the Battle of Bunker Hill memoriale, and heard Daniel Webster speak.
Amy was nearly 50 years old when Elizabeth, her only child was born; Thomas died the next year, and Amy moved to Chicago in 1854, when her daughter married G.S. Butler there, and lived there for a rest of her life. The family hid in a cabbage patch outside of the city limits during the Great Chicago Fire, by which time Amy was close to 95 years old.
She survived the fire, though was a bit worse for wear. Her hearing began to suffer, and she stopped taking daily walks. By 1875, the Tribune said that her chief form of amusing was “rumpling handkerchiefs, from which she seems to derive considerable amusement.” It also noted that “unlike the conventional old lady, she does not smoke a pipe or require much attention.”
Amy Ely-Gridley died in her daughter’s home in 1876, and, at 99, was thought to be the oldest woman in Chicago. According to Graceland Cemetery records, she is buried in the unmarked spot directly next to her daughter’s. I’ve exchanged a few emails with the D.A.R. in hopes of getting a marker placed there, but nothing has come of it yet (possibly because Amy was Theodore’s third wife). Here’s hoping! Amy is a part of history who deserves a memorial of her own.
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.
In November of 1894, when Holmes was first arrested as a swindler and became a media sensation, several Boston newspapers sent reporters to interview the Mudgetts, his family in New Hampshire. Holmes had just made a surprise visit there himself a couple of weeks before, so his long absence was fresh on their minds. Both Clara Mudgett, his first wife, and Levi Mudgett, his father, said that prior to his arrival there in early November, following a letter to his brother some weeks before, he’d last visited them in October, 1888. The Boston Herald, speaking with Clara, said “In October, six years ago, he came to see her for the last time.” (Boston Globe Nov 21 1894). Days after he left in 1888, according to his father, he wrote his brother from a New York hotel. A New England trip in late October would explain why he didn’t end up voting in Chicago in November.
Holmes was dealing with at least three lawsuits in Chicago during the summer/fall of 1888; he was being sued by Simon Waixel (a drug store supplier), George Kimball (a glass dealer) and Aetna Iron and Steel, who had provided construction and materials for the “castle” the year before. And one meeting with his attorney clearly took place in late September or early October.
The Waixel and Kimball suits, looked at from a certain angle, could actually strengthen the idea that Holmes was in England from August to November. He was a no-show in court in late October when the Waixel case was called (after having shown up for it in late July), and the September paperwork in the Kimball suit saying no property could be found and Holmes hadn’t paid up as ordered may just mean that Holmes wasn’t around; there’s no mention of the deputy actually searching the place.
However, that could also back up the stories of him going to New Hampshire in late October, a timeline of the suit with Aetna Iron and Steel places Holmes far more clearly in Chicago right in the middle of the London murders.
The facts of the Aetna lawsuit are these: In Spring of 1887, Holmes entereded into contracts with Aetna Iron and Steel, as well as will Berger and Gallouner, architects, to design, supply materials, and build his new building at Sixty-Third and Wallace, the one we came to know as the castle. Construction began that August of 1887 – details of it are pretty well enumerated in the lawsuit that Aetna and the architects launched the next summer when they hadn’t been paid (many relevant portions of the suit are in the ebook companion to my Holmes book, Very Truly Yours HH Holmes, which includes over 100k words of letters, articles, depositions, etc by Holmes and his various associates, many of which have never been published).
It’s harder to place him in a courtroom during the first few months of the Aetna suit, but a few things in the pile of paperwork that survives make it seem clear that Holmes was around Chicago that Fall. On the surface, the most damning is this filing, stamped Sept 18, 1888, stating “Now comes Lucy T. Belknap, Harry H Holmes…” etc:
However, this piece alone isn’t quite the smoking gun it looks like – Holmes didn’t necessarily have to be present for his attorney to enter his appearance.
Far more damning, though, is the fact a few days later (probably Sept 24th), Aetna Iron and Steel put in a lengthy affadavit telling the story of their dealings with Holmes; so did Berger and Gallouner, who were made parties to the suit only on September 21. On September 26, 1888, Berger’s lawyer filed a notice to Maher that he’d obtained a ruling for Holmes to answer their charges within twenty days.
Wrapper from the lawsuit paperwork of the answer to a creditor’s claims Holmes gave in late sept/early Oct, 1888.
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.
In the middle of researching HH Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil, a podcaster asked me if I’d found everything, or if research was just for completism. If I remember right, I said I was mostly looking for minor details at this point, but you never know what you might find.
Only days later, I made a find that went almost beyond my wildest dreams.
In picking out local Philadelphia coverage of Holmes’ imprisonment as he awaited execution, I ran into several articles about a noted criminologist named Arthur MacDonald (or, in some articles, Alexander MacDonald). He made the news by applying for permission to have Holmes be strapped to a kymographion – a device that measure’s one breathing rate – while he was being hanged.
The application was denied, but MacDonald was allowed to visit Holmes in prison, where he subjected him to all of these wonderful toys:
Dr. MacDonald’s wonderful toys – he was well respected in his time, but it mostly looks like Victorian junk science today.
Most of the data he gathered by subjecting Holmes to these was utterly useless today – they’re barely a step above throwing Holmes in the water and saying he was a witch if he floated. However, in a couple of the articles about him, MacDonald claimed that he he had been in touch with more than 200 of Holmes’ old associates asking for anecdotes about his character. Now, those, if they were still extant, would be something to see!
Digging deeper on MacDonald, I found that he had published all or part of about 30 of the letters in a book entitled Man or Abnormal Man, in a chapter called “The Case of H.” He didn’t mention Holmes by name (though it’s absolutely obvious that it’s him), which is probably why nothing written about Holmes before seems to use them as a source. Turning the pages and seeing just how many letters there were, my eyes got wider and wider, and I got so excited that I could barely contain myself. This was the kind of find you dream of making!
And, as a source, they’re an absolute treasure trove. The bulk of the letters came from old colleagues and professors from medical school, and give us a much clearer picture than we had before of his college days, his aptitude as a student, his living situation, and his relationship at the time with his firs wife, Clara, and their son, Robert, who lived with him in Ann Arbor for a while. We learn that his college nickname was “Smegma,” details about a breach of promise suit, what his professors thought of him, a lot about his domestic life, and some gruesome anecdotes about his prowess in the dissecting room.
There was also, perhaps most importantly, a letter from Clara Lovering-Mudgett herself, the clearest comment I’ve ever seen from (there were only a few quotes from her in newspapers, and many of them I don’t really buy as reliable). Elsewhere were letters from Marion Hedgepeth, his old cellmate, a childhood neighbor, Carrie Pitezel’s father, a castle resident, and more.
Of course, 30 letters is not 200. Perhaps MacDonald was exaggerating, but perhaps there are another 170 out there yet. I’ve checked with a university library that has his archives, but the search came up empty.
I wound up quoting them at length and referring to them frequently in HH Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil, but it was too big a find to simply sit on and refer to. Hence, I’ve included all of them (with notes on who the anonymous writer was, when I could identify them) as an appendix in Very Truly Yours, HH Holmes, a new ebook collection of Holmes letters, writings, confessions, affidavits and more. It’s sort of a supplement to the official book, containing 150k words (about 700 pages!) of data, all either primary source material on Holmes or an important contemporary document that helped the legend grow (such as the New York World’s phony version of his forthcoming confession). Most of them have not been republished in over a century, and many of the cross-examinations, legal statements, and affidavits have never been publicly available at all. Check it out!
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!