Thomas Bryan: Graceland Cemetery, the World’s Fair, and HH Holmes

Connections between HH Holmes and the World’s Fair and Columbian Exposition of 1893 are mostly fictional – though he did claim he was adding a third floor to his building to serve as a hotel during the fair, the “hotel” was never open for business, and the notion that he was preying on fair patrons was just something a New York newspaper casually suggested, and which gradually got folded into the legend. The number of people who came to the fair, went missing, and can honestly be connected to him is exactly one – Nannie Williams, who came to join Holmes and her sister Minnie in Chicago that year.

But, while Holmes didn’t see the fair as a great opportunity to murder people, he DID see it as a great way to make money. Nearly everyone in town did. By claiming to start a hotel, he was able to swindle investors, supplies and insurers galore.

By 1893, though, he’d already completed his biggest connection to the fair: swindling Thomas B. Bryan, the vice president and “commissioner at large” of the exposition.

Bryan had come to Chicago in 1853, when it was still a young town of just 30,000 people – early enough that later articles called him a pioneer. Though he set up as a lawyer at first, he got involved in real estate investments that proved lucrative, and by the time he met Holmes, he had been a pillar of the Chicago community for decades. He was the founder of Bryan Hall (a popular meeting place and lecture hall in Civil War era Chicago) and the founder and first president of Graceland Cemetery (a newspaper note from 1861 notes that he was arranging for an omnibus connected to the North Chicago Horse Railway to make daily trips to the cemetery; the fare would be eight cents). An now-amusing note from the Cemetery that year bragged that it was “sufficiently remote from the city never to be encroached upon, no matter what may be the prosperity of Chicago.”  This was fairly silly to say even then; at the opening ceremonies a year or so before the Tribune noted that it would be part of suburbia “at no distant day.”

. In 1865, he introduced people like General Grant and General Sherman at the Great Northwestern Sanitary Fair. He later served as commissioner of the District of Columbus under President Hayes.

By 1891, he was working from an office in The Home Insurance Building (whose steel frame construction made it a landmark itself; the first modern skyscraper) and acting as Vice President and Commissioner at Large of the upcoming World’s Fair. In this capacity, he traveled the world, meeting with people like the pope to promote the interests of the fair.

Somewhere along the line, a fellow named Frederick Nind persuaded him (by sheer persistence and making a pest of himself) to become half owner in The ABC Copier Company, a company designed to sell a copy machine for which Nind had bought the patent in England. But Bryan seems to have almost immediately wanted out, as he had no real time to manage a copier machine business himself, and Nind began to look for a buyer. In late 1890 or early 1891, he met HH Holmes and told him all about the opportunity.

The connection to Bryan is what seems to have interested Holmes the most; H.W. Darrow, who ran a cigar shop in Holmes “Castle” building, later said that Holmes told him that this Bryan fellow seemed “like good fruit for a sucker.” Holmes offered to buy his half share of the business for around $7000. Bryan agreed, on the condition that his name not be used to establish credit or connections.  Holmes paid him with a promissory note, the proceeded, naturally, to use Bryan’s name to establish credit and connections all over town, eventually borrowing thousands of dollars that he had no intention of repaying.

Here’s an excerpt from a deposition Bryan gave as part of the endless lawsuits that came from these borrowings:

Q: Had the business which this company was organized to carry on been previously carried on by some other company, firm or person?

A (Bryan): No, but it has since February 1891 been improperly attempted to be carried on by a man by the name of Holmes.

Q: The same one who is now president of the company?

A: He has no office. He assumed some office, but he was never appointed.

Q: He assumed the office of manager?

A: I don’t know what he assumed, but he assumed something. He never was actually appointed. He was an assumed officer. 

The sheer amount of the promissory note, which Holmes (of course) never paid off, may qualify Bryan as Holmes’ single biggest swindling victim. His frequently given motto, “Take care of details, beware of cocktails,” indicates that he was what we’d now call a “detail oriented” man; in his notes to investors and his deposition, you can see how frustrating his light dealings with Holmes made him – it almost seems that it’s less about the money and more about Holmes’s exasperating tendency to obfuscate details!

Bryan died of heart trouble in Washington D.C. in 1906; he is buried there, far away from the cemetery he founded.


The Skull and Bones of HH Holmes

In 1898, rumors swirled around Englewood that HH Holmes had survived his execution and was now off growing coffee in San Paranarimbo, South America. No such place showed up in maps, but, hey, maybe it was one of those “It’s not on any chart; true placed never are” situations.

Over the summer, I appeared on four episodes of American Ripper, the History Channel’s HH Holmes series, and served as consulting producer (which mostly means I sent them a lot of data, a lot of the historical graphics they used, etc). Early on in the filming, they told me they were working on something Jeff Mudgett, Holmes’ great great grandson, had been trying to do for years: Exhume the remains of H.H. Holmes to see if it was really him in that concrete grave.  I kept suggesting they shave it down and try to make him look like Han Solo in carbonite.

Now, it should be pointed out that there was never much mystery about who was in that cement-filled Philadelphia grave; Holmes’ execution was witnessed by dozens of high-ranking witnesses, including several people who knew Holmes pretty well and hated his guts (as we covered in more detail than any normal person would want to hear in our post, The Hanging and Burial of HH Holmes). The idea that he faked it was a two day story in 1898, buried in the back of a now-defunct Chicago paper. It was easily debunked at the time; the alternate story of what happened didn’t come close to lining up with known facts, and had Holmes off in hiding in a place that didn’t even exist.

It also wasn’t a widespread or common belief; the story was syndicated in a few dozen papers, though none seemed to take it seriously (one Akron paper’s headline simply read “Pretty Thin”). Most of the articles from papers around the country are just reprints of the Chicago story, though some added a line or two at the end debunking it, noting that the way Holmes was hanged in the story wasn’t anything like the way criminals were hanged in Philadelphia.  The Philadelphia Inquirer, whose reporters were in attendance at the execution, said that there was not the least doubt Holmes was dead, and noted that “authorities here laugh at the absurd story.” A Reading, PA paper, in an article entitled “A Foolish, Fake Story,” noted that ex-Sheriff Clement, who officiated at the hanging, thought it was hilarious.

The 1898 story seemed to have been based on a pamphlet, Hanged By Proxy, published by L.W. Warner, a novelty dealer who bore the distinct pedigree of having been one of the twenty-seven victims Holmes confessed to murderering (though he was alive and well and living in Newton, Iowa). But the pamphlet itself attracted very little notice; it’s only known of now from a copyright listing and a small town Missouri paper than ran an excerpt of an article on it from an even smaller paper that seems not to even to exist on microfilm anymore.

The story was completely forgotten within a week, and no later retelling of the Holmes story suggested that the hanging may have been a hoax – I can’t think of a single time any article or book on Holmes between 1898 and about 2010 even alluding to the idea. Now and then someone would suggest that there was something odd about the fact that Holmes’ heart was still beating after fifteen minutes, but if you read a lot of accounts of 19th century hangings (and boy, do I ever), you’ll find that that was totally standard.

It wasn’t until Jeff’s novel, Bloodstains, suggested in 2011 that someone else had been hanged in Holmes’ place that anyone started to suggest it was a mystery again. And when theory began to spread through the internet, the 1898 stories weren’t a part of it; I don’t think anyone knew about them at all until our blogpost and podcast about them in 2015.  By now, though, the story actually seemed more plausible to people than it did in 1898, as the legend of Holmes has grown a lot in the last decade. Even in academic articles, people have accepted the 1940s pulp version of Holmes as fact- every book on him in recent decades has taken a lot of stuff that Herbert Asbury invented outright as gospel. Holmes was a very audacious swindler and trickster, but he wasn’t really all that GOOD of one in reality. He managed to stay out of trouble by dragging cases out, but he tended to be very sloppy in his schemes. He was sued constantly; merchants and insurers that he swindled almost always figured out that they’d been had, often very quickly. I wouldn’t put it past him to have TRIED to fake his death, but there’s no way he could have pulled it off.

Those articles were a large part, as I understand it, of how the crew convinced the judge to let the exhumation go through. When the news about it broke in late Spring, I was suddenly being quoted in The Washington PostRolling StoneThe Philadelphia Inquirer, and a slew of other major papers. I had to turn down a lot of requests for interviews at the time, since I was affiliated with the show to some degree, though I wasn’t (to my chagrin) sent out to Philadelphia to see what happened.

Even though I thought there was no reason in the world to doubt it was Holmes down there, I was fine with them doing the exhumation. Hey, I’m the guy who runs Grave Robbing 101 tours in Chicago, and wrote The Smart Aleck’s Guide to Grave Robbing ebook. I thought it’d be fascinating to see what they found in the grave, to actually see the chunk of cement, and see what kind of shape the body would be in (it was hard to predict; a great deal depended on what kind of filler material was in the cement). And Holmes, for his part, was too dead to care. I’m relatively flippant about the rights of dead bodies, really. They’re just dust and bones.

The producers of the show wound up keeping me out of the loop on what was happening with the exhumation, so I didn’t have any new info for people over the summer, while the show was airing, except that I could already say it looked like Holmes’ skull to me in the previews of the season to come that they showed after the first episode. I’m not such a forensic expert that I could just look at a skull and say “That looks like him” or anything, but it didn’t seem to have any teeth that should have been missing. There are photos of dental casts in circulation, and from a quick glance it looked like a match to me.

I’ll summarize the excavation and findings here, since I try to make this site a go-to destination for all things Holmes, though of course you’ll want to see the excavation footage for yourself – you can watch American Ripper on Amazon Video.

Matching the skull to the teeth was a relatively easy matter. While Holmes was in prison, he was examined by Dr. Eugene Talbot, who conducted a physical examination and interviewed him, then published a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association.  This being 1896, he spent most of his time talking about the bumps and ridges on Holmes’ skull, and the physical signs that he was a “degenerate.” But the article included two particularly useful tidbits: one is a stray line that Holmes “Sexual organs” were “unusually small,” and the other was a mold of his teeth:

Here are pictures of the molds next to modern shots of the skull:



So, I only know about what happened on the dig based on some second hand accounts from reporters who were spying on things (the rumor at the time was that they dug in the wrong place and didn’t find anything), but based on the show, the findings weren’t much different than what one would expect based on the stories of the hanging and burial that appeared in Philadelphia papers. Papers differed slightly on details, as we noted in our exhaustive post, but what they found just about lined up with what I’d expect.

About six feet down, they started to find a bunch of cement (note: the claims on the show that Holmes own a cement factory are a bit disingenuous; he borrowed a few thousand dollars from a guy who did, and the two went back and forth suing each other throughout 1891, and there’s been some vague speculation that maybe the other guy wasn’t real, but it’s wild speculation, at best). This cement turned out to be a solid block of it encased in wood;  they refer to this wood as an empty “decoy coffin,” though I’m not sure that’s what it was. My guess would be that it was just a wood liner they put into the grave as they poured more cement down, helping to keep the cement in place as it hardened.

Beneath that was a coffin lid, which was a minor surprise – a number of news reports mention that the lid was removed before the coffin was lowered into the ground. No mention was made of what became of it, though, so the idea that they’d toss it into the grave before adding the second layer of cement makes sense. After all, what else were they gonna do with it?

Below the lid was the coffin, filled with cement, just about as described. There was a cavity inside, filled with water. But the water was pumped out, the cement was drilled into (not shaved down to make him look like Han in carbonite – nuts) and there, inside the cement, was the skeleton. Not as well preserved as some had suggested it would be, but still in fairly good shape, really. It could have rotted to dust in other conditions. And, hey, it DOES sort of remind me of that scene in Return of the Jedi when Leia, disguised as Boushh, activates the mechanism to melt the carbonite.


The bones were eventually extracted, cleaned, and laid out in a lab:

So there we have it: the skeleton of H.H. Holmes (though a couple of front teeth seen during the exhumation are missing from the layout). DNA samples were taken, which a title card at the end of the last episode revealed came back to confirm a match to Jeff Mudgett – the dental casts and hanging reports had already made it fairly clear to me, but now it was official. And I was glad the show said as much; I was afraid they’d try to say it was “inconclusive” or something.

Of course, I’m still seeing people suggesting that it somehow may not have been Holmes down there. Perhaps they think it was one of his children? (I keep looking for a gif of Gob Bluth saying “I will be buried in my father’s place…because he loved magic so very much…”).

One mystery does remain to me – a number of newspapers indicate that a silver cross with Holmes’ name, provided by one of the priests who served as his spiritual advisors, was placed on top of the body before one of the layers of cement went on. The clothing and sheet certainly disintegrated, as would probably be expected, but was the cross in there?  (edit, Nov 2017: They did find it. NBC Philadelphia showed a picture here)

In any case, I think it’s neat that it all happened, and we get some new data on Holmes in the bargain. As they say in Stranger Things, you should open every “curiosity door” you come to!

We have a couple of Holmes tours coming up this fall (2017); see the homepage or the sidebar. Saturday, 9/9, I’ll be at The Reservoir on West Montrose at 11am, talking Holmes with Ray Johnson, who also appeared on the show.

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


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


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 .

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!

Victorian Criminologist’s HH Holmes Data Discovered

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.

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!


HH Holmes “Murder Castle” Architect’s Diagram Discovered

I’ve been sitting on the above photo for quite a while, but now that advance copies of my book, HH Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil, are going around and they include it, I figure it’s time to release this one to the wilds of the internet.

The initial construction of the building now known as the HH Holmes “Murder Castle” took place in 1887 – at the time, it was just a two story building, with retail on one floor and apartments on the next. The third floor, which was ostensibly to be used as hotel rooms, was added in 1892.

The details for both phases of construction are well documented for one simple reason: Holmes didn’t pay his bills. In 1888, he was sued by Aetna Iron and Steel, who provided materials and labor. The architects sued him as part of the same lawsuit. Later suits with suppliers, investors, and insurance companies give excellent insight into more details.

Though I’ve found about 60 Holmes-related lawsuits in the legal archives, Aetna Iron and Steel vs Lucy T. Belknap (Holmes’ mother-in-law), is probably the one with the best info. Dragging on for over a year, Holmes filed affidavits telling the story of building the place, personally cross-examined a couple of workers, and more. There’s a ton of exciting data folded into the suit.

But nothing is quite as cool as the castle diagram, drawn by architect Edward Gallauner on a large sheet of very thin paper:

The Murder Castle architect's diagram, unfolded in the legal archives in Chicago, where it was folded into old lawsuit paperwork.

The Murder Castle architect’s diagram, unfolded in the legal archives in Chicago, where it was folded into old lawsuit paperwork.



It shows only the front portion that will face 63rd Street, and doesn’t have anything as lurid as, say, “torture equipment here,” (the bits about torture gear in the castle wouldn’t become part of the story until the 1940s), but it does give the exact dimensions of the front of the place. Other descriptions of it vary a little bit as to exactly how wide the place was.

Just for some perspective to help you see what we’re looking at here, here’s the diagram with the famous New York World diagram of the second floor overlaid:

The NY World diagram of the castle overlaid on the original architect's diagram

The NY World diagram of the castle overlaid on the original architect’s diagram

I’ll be covering more of the suit in a couple of upcoming blog posts, and transcribing some of the most important bits in Very Truly Yours, HH Holmes, a supplement to HH Holmes: The True Story of the White City Devil, which will include over 120k words of Holmes’ letters, statements, articles, confessions, affidavits, and more, many of which have never been published, and many more of which haven’t seen print since the 1890s.

In the mean time, here’s another plug for HH Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil,

New Master List of HH Holmes Victims

I spent much of the last year digging through thousands of sources working on my new book, H.H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devildue in April 2017 from SkyHorse. Over the next few months, I’ll be putting up a few major Holmes posts that I’ve been sitting on, including the newly-discovered architect’s diagram of the first floor of the “castle,” a lengthy post establishing whether he could have possibly been Jack the Ripper, and more.  To start with, here’s my master list of Holmes victims.

The commonly-repeated figure that Holmes killed as many as 200 people was first suggested in 1940. Before that, the high estimate had been 27, the number he confessed to. But a great many of those people were still alive, apparently fictional, or known to have died of natural characters. The actual agreed-upon figure stands at nine, and even five of those are murders for which he probably couldn’t have been convicted.  Beyond that, newspapers, letters, and legal documents introduce a host of other names, some of which were quickly debunked, and some of which were never fully investigated.

Here, then, is my list:


Ben Pitezel, 1894

Howard Pitezel, 1894

Alice Pitezel, 1894

Nellie Pitezel, 1894

These four, a father and his three children, were killed throughout North America in autumn, 1894. In all cases, the bodies were recovered and identified (Howard’s body was too badly destroyed to be identified, but there was no doubt that the charred remains were his). He was convicted only of Benjamin’s murder, but sure would have been convicted of the others if he’d stood trial for them.








Though bones found in the “castle” basement were likely Pearl’s, forensics were not good enough at the time to be sure. Though Julia, Emeline and the Williams sisters disappeared, their bodies were never recovered, and rumors that Holmes sold their skeletons to medical reehools didn’t hold up to any fact-checking in 1895. Holmes was relatively consistent in saying that Julia and Emeline died during illegal abortions, and told one of his attorneys that he’d killed Julia. However, no bodies were ever positively identified, and it’s unlikely that Holmes would have been convicted in court of these ones. That said, there’s no real reason to doubt that he killed them.


These are victims who were mentioned in the press, or by Holmes himself in his various writings, between 1894-1896. In most cases, the stories were not investigated in enough depth to be confirmed or denied, but in most cases they were probably just talk. Many were probably still alive, others likely never existed at all.   (The story that over fifty missing World’s Fair patrons could be traced to the “castle” was invented by Herbert Asbury, the same writer who first suggested that the total number of victims could be in the hundreds).

Emily Van Tassel (alias Edna Darby, also referred to as Rossine van Jassand, Anna van Tassaud, and Roma Van Tassaud) – suggested by her mother as a possible victim; police seemed to take stories about her more seriously than other rumors. As late as 1897, her name was cited in a list of suspected victims that Chief Badenoch used to justify having kept the Quinlans in the “sweat box” when they tried to sue him.[i] Inspector Gary said she was still alive in 1896, though he gave no further information, and her mother still believed she was missing, at the very least.

KITTY KELLY – a few late July papers stated that Quinlan had told the police about a drug store clerk or stenographer by this name who’d been missing since 1892; likely a miscommunication about Mary Kelly, who was alive. Never really investigated.

HARRY WALKER – rumored insurance victim said to have met with Holmes (under the name Waldo Bankhorn or Manford Petzle) in Indianapolis, taken a job working for him, and then vanished. He may have been one of the unnamed victims in the 1896 confession; attorney Duncombe remembered Holmes being involved with an Indiana man in some capacity. It may be worth noting that there was a Harry Walker among Holmes’ classmates at the University of Michigan.

GEORGE H. THOMAS (or THOMAS GREGSAN) – rumored victim of Holmes and/or Pitezel in Mississippi, late June 1894. The affidavit Myrta allegedly filed about this case may still exist someplace, but the story was never fully investigated, as the judge who claimed to have the affidavit in late 1895 is not known to have made the contents public. Newspapers used enough actual names and dates to make the story seem rather credible, though.

JOHN DuBREUIL – a wealthy early investor in the “castle” property, along with his lawyer, F.A. Woodbury, who later represented Holmes for a while. DuBreuil collapsed in the castle drug store in April, 1891, and died shortly after Holmes poured a black liquid down his throat, according to a witness. Foul play was not suspected, but when a creditor of Holmes dies in this manner, it’s worth noting. It was also said in 1895 that DuBrueil’s life had been insured, though there’s no indication that Holmes profited from it.

ELIZABETH DuBREUIL – John’s wife, who died in 1892, and who had inherited her husband’s position as Holmes’ creditor. Her life was said to be insured as well, but, again, foul play was not suspected, and Holmes does not seem to have gotten out of the debt; her children’s names start appearing on “castle” property records after her death.

“MRS. GILBERT” – in some northeastern towns it was often said that a young man named Charles Brace, a photographer and former associate of Holmes, was the real “Hatch,” the man Holmes said was the real killer of the Pitezel children. He deserted his wife at one point and moved to Chicago, where he operated as Charles Gilbert, and married a 19-year-old woman who worked for Standard Oil. The first Mrs. Brace suggested that the young woman could have become a Holmes victim, as she didn’t know what had become of her. Little is known of Brace, and the story has not been investigated, though more than one 1895 newspaper spoke of local rumors that Charles Brace was Mr. Hatch. [ii]

HARRY GRAHAM – supposedly Myrta Belknap’s first fiancé, whom she was said to believe had been killed for his insurance money. Reported in a few papers in 1894, and confirmed as a real person by Minnesota sources, but never fully investigated.

MR BECK – a relative of Holmes who committed suicide in the 1870s; rumors that Holmes was once suspected of murdering him were denied by his father, but the idea can’t necessarily be disproven.

MABEL BARRETT – An 18-year-old Boston woman whose parents left her a large estate, Mabel was said to have been lured to New York by Holmes and Minnie Williams in July, 1893, based on pictures identified by her friends, and vanished.  The story was never pursued at length, and Holmes was likely too preoccupied in Chicago in July of 1893 to make a Boston trip of sufficient length to lure a woman away and kill her.

KATE GORKY – a widow, roughly 30 years old, reported in July, 1895, to have been a swindling victim of Holmes while running the castle restaurant from Summer, 1892 to Spring, 1893. When she got sick, Holmes gave her medicine. Castle resident Maurice Lawrence spoke about her; he had heard that she had left to keep house on Halsted Street, but hadn’t kept enough track of her to be sure.

KATE GORKY’S DAUGHTER – Same story as above. Ms. Gorky and her daughter were not found alive and interviewed by newspapers, so far as is known, but also were never confirmed to be dead. Holmes mentioned them in his confession.

“MR. CLARK” (or Chasey), patient of Holmes in Mooers Forks during his stint there in the mid 1880s, alleged father of one of his sweethearts there, whose death was later said to have been “strange.”1


MARY BRUNSWIGGER  – the above two were mentioned by Holmes in a letter to Robert Corbitt, the amateur detective, asking him to find evidence that they were alive or had died of natural causes, as he’d apparently heard rumors that he was accused of their murders. 2 No record of either person ever existing has been found.

MARY STEVENSON – a domestic mentioned as a possible victim in the letter to Corbitt.

ROBERT PHELPS – said to be Emeline Cigrand’s fiancé; occasionally listed as a victim, or an alias of Ben Pitezel, but almost certainly a fictional character.

R.B. PHILLIPS – One July 29th, 1895 paper in Philadelphia said that George Chamberlain had told Inspector Fitzpatrick that a man by this name was killed by Holmes and Pitezel around 1891 in the castle. The only article yet found on it is confused a bit as to certain known facts, and probably isn’t particularly reliable, though it’s probably just a reference to the likely-mythical Robert Phelps. [iii]

PETER VERRETT – a supposed customer of Holmes alcoholism cure suggested to have been the man Emeline Cigrand married before her disappearance. A neighbor stated that he was a real person and lived in the castle in 1893 (too late to be Emeline’s husband), but the story was never followed up.

“MRS. LEE – a wealthy widow whom Albert Phillips, father of Clarence, said came to the castle for a while, then disappeared. He called her “A handsome brunette, tall and stately, and well dressed.”3 This would have been in late 1892 or early 1893. No one else reported a “Mrs. Lee” to be missing, and her name is common enough that the story is impossible to investigate.

MARY HARACAMP (or Horacamp or Havercamp) – mentioned in the confession, thought to be a fictional character.

CARRIE SANFORD – mentioned in a letter to Robert Corbitt and listed by Corbitt as a possible victim. Sanford wrote Holmes a letter in Jan, 1893, suggesting that he’d promised to find her a job. It’s a common enough name that she’s hard to trace, but there doesn’t seem to have been any reason to suspect Holmes killed her, or even that she disappeared, beyond the fact that Holmes apparently knew her in 1892 and she didn’t comment on the case publicly in 1895.

ROBERT LEACOCK – a colleague of Holmes in Ann Arbor whom Holmes claimed to have murdered in his confession. Leacock died in Canada in 1891, but there seems to be no indication that foul play was ever suspected.

“ROGERS” – Holmes confessed to killing two men name named Rogers in his confession. One was likely a lie (see “debunked victims”), the other is unclear.

ANNA BETTS – On more than one occasion Holmes spoke of killing Anna Betts, and said that the press had frequently charged him with it. However, as far as can be found, they hadn’t. The fact that he thought he’d been accused of killing her seems suspicious. In early accounts he said she was rumored to have died during an abortion; in the confession he says he gave her poison medicine. A death certificate for a young woman named Virginia Anna Betts states that she died of apoplexy, and Chicago papers in 1886 spoke of an “Anna Betz” who was found to have died after an abortion. Which of these he meant isn’t entirely clear.

LATTERMAN – The St. Louis Chronicle stated on July 27, 1895 stated that a castle employee, formerly in charge of tending a basement engine, had long since vanished. The Chronicle was not a particularly reliable source; it was roughly the St. Louis equivalent of the Chicago Mail. This was probably a misnomer for Robert Lattimer (see below).[iv]

UNDERWOOD – The same St. Louis Chronicle article stated that Mr. Underwood, Latterman’s successor, had disappeared following a row with Holmes. [v]

Unknown Boy – an article or two[vi] stated that when Holmes left Mooers’ Fork, NY around 1885, he was accompanied by a small boy later believed to have been his first victim. Sources were sketchy at best, and it may well have been his son, Robert, who was certainly not killed.



These names were spoken of as victims by Holmes or others, but were eventually disproven entirely (in many cases, they’d been disproved long before Holmes confessed to them). Many, however, are still often listed as victims in books!

It’s worth noting, though, that I have my doubts about one or two. Gertrude Conner’s family, for instance, was quite insistent that she’d died of heart failure, but it may have been because they didn’t like people thinking Holmes had “ruined” her.

KATE DURKEE – Myrta’s friend was often spoken of as a victim in the press, and Holmes confessed to killing her. But she was alive in Omaha, and sort of a badass.

HENRY ROGERS – a veteran of several lawsuits against Holmes; probably the banker named Rogers Holmes confessed to killing. Rogers was still alive at the time, though he died shortly thereafter.

JOE OWENS – briefly suggested as a victim in the press, but soon found alive.

CHARLES COLE – may have been the “Cole” Holmes confessed to killing in the incinerator, though he may have meant Wilford Cole. Charles Cole was alive in 1895.

WILFORD COLE – another possible identity of the “Cole” Holmes confessed to killing. The source suggesting him as a victim, J.C. Allen, was not reliable enough to take seriously, and Allen himself denied knowing a Wilford Cole at one point.

ROBERT LATIMER – Former janitor of the castle whom Holmes confessed to killing. Was still alive and working right near the castle. Some said it wasn’t the same Latimer, but his comments on Holmes a year later indicate that it was.

DR. HOLTON – Usually said to be an old man killed by Holmes in later retellings of his story, but Dr. Holton was actually a young woman, Dr. Elizabeth Holton. Not really suggested as a victim until long after the investigation was over, when writers pieced together threads of data and filled in the blanks with a story plausible enough that it was afterwards repeated as fact (again, the chief culprit here is Herbert Asbury). Dr. Holton died in 1933, having outlived Holmes by nearly four decades.

Mr. HOLTON – Since Dr. Holton’s spouse is often said to be a victim as well, it should be noted that Mr. Holton died in 1910. He and his wife are buried at Oak Woods cemetery, not far from the castle site.

BALDWIN H. WILLIAMS – often spoken of as a victim, including in Holmes’ 1896 confession. Baldwin was Minnie and Anna’s older brother; his official cause of death was injuries sustained from an accident in the Arkansas Valley Smelter, and stories that  the death was not an accident can’t be totally ruled out, though there’s little reason to believe them. Even those who suggested murder tended to suggest Benjamin Pitezel was the killer, and court records show that Holmes was certainly in Chicago around the time of the accident.

L.W. WARNER – A traveling salesman and namesake of the Warner Glass Bending Factory; Holmes confessed to murdering him, but he was still alive and quickly confirmed as such. In 1897, while living in Newton, Iowa, he told a reporter he believed Holmes was still alive, too. Little more is known of him.[i]

MARY CRON (or Kron) – a 55-year-old woman who lived near Holmes’ Wilmette house and was brutally murdered on Nov 4, 1893, when two or three robbers broke in, beat her to death, and burned the house down. One of the robbers, “Lion Jack,” (also known as “Young Divine” and “Jack the Liar”), was shot and killed as he ran away.[ii]  Police managed to “sweat” a confession out of one Charles F. Goodrich, but, in a rare move, the confession extracted under torture was thrown out, and he was convicted only of manslaughter. In July of 1895, papers and neighbors began to implicate Holmes in the killing for no particularly good reason.

JENNIE THOMPSON – Castle employee that the press reported police were looking for. Found alive and living on May Street, a few blocks from the castle.

EVELYN STEWART: an alias of Jennie Thompson (see above). Why she was known by two such different names was never clarified.

LODOSKY POWER – Logansport, Indiana girl reported missing after being traced to a house near the castle, found alive in November, 1895.5

CHARLES WHITNEY – A Chicago man who worked as a traveling salesman and died in Saratoga, NY in November, 1894. People at the newspaper office there said that it was Holmes and Pitezel who placed the obituary, but no record of his death was found by reporters. His wife confirmed that he was dead, but said it was a “private matter” and denied that Holmes had placed the notice. Pitezel had been dead for two months by then, so it’s to be assumed that the people at the office were mistaken.6

MARY KELLY – sometimes suggested as a victim by people who hadn’t seen her lately, but she was alive and talking to reporters in 1894-1895.

HORACE A. WILLIAMS – name used on promissory notes, and suggested as a victim by Minnie’s attorney, but he was probably confusing Horace A. with Baldwin H. Horace A. Williams was probably just a Holmes alias the was used in real estate transactions involving Minnie.

ELLA QUINLAN – wife of Patrick suspected to have been a victim briefly. Turned up alive.

CORA QUINLAN – daughter of Patrick rumored to be a victim; a particularly wild Times-Herald story suggested that she’d been killed for insurance money and the girl formerly known as Pearl Conner had taken on her identity. She was found alive in Michigan.

GERTRUDE CONNER – Julia’s sister-in-law; died several weeks after returning from Chicago. She may have been the first woman Holmes was accused of killing (a business partner said “Holmes, you have killed her!” when word of her death spread), and he confessed to her murder in 1896. But all accounts indicate that she died of heart disease, and details Holmes gave were demonstrably false.

LIZ DALY – Kate Gorky’s sister, who was said to have had a child by Patrick Quinlan before disappearing from sight. A story about her and Patrick was quite possibly invented by police in hopes that it would make Ella Quinlan angry enough to confess that her husband had been an accomplice of Holmes. Dr. Lawrence said that Quinlan was friendly with her, though. She was also called Liz Stamwell and Liz Bowen. The police presented a recent letter from her in court when the Quinlans sued Chief Badenoch, so we can safely assume that if she was real at all, she was still alive.

LIZ’S CHILD – In a letter produced during the Quinlan v Badenoch trial, Liz said that she had a child by Quinlan, but Holmes put it in charge of a rich family and never told her who it was. Now married to a husband from whom this was a secret, she kept quiet. The letter is not included in the surviving trial paperwork, and may have not been real.

[i]  original in Paris Mercury (Paris, MO), reprinted here from Palmyra Spectator (Palmyra, MO) Nov 25, 1897

[ii] “Fiends’ Fell Work” Chicago Daily Inter-Ocean Nov 5, 1893

[i] Quinlan v Badenoch

[ii] “Thief and a Bigamist” Philadelphia Inquirer Aug 20, 1895

[iii] “Another Crime” Philadelphia Bulletin July 29, 1895

[iv] “New Victims” St. Louis Chronicle, July 27, 1895

[v] “New Victims” St. Louis Chronicle, July 27, 1895

[vi] “Operated in New York” Oswego Daily Times July 31, 1895


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HH Holmes’ OTHER Murder Castle in Fort Worth: Diagrams and More

Been a while since I had a new Holmes post up! But I spent the last year researching him in depth for my massive new book on him, and with a couple of Holmes bus tours coming, I thought today would be a good day to share a bit about the lesser-known OTHER Holmes Castle in Fort Worth, Texas – just a bit of the previously unexamined data about him I’ve been poring over for the last several months.

It’s mentioned in a couple of books about H.H. Holmes that after leaving Chicago in late 1893, he attempted to build another “castle” in Fort Worth, but found that the authorities there were a bit nosier than the ones in Chicago had been, and never finished it.

Like nearly everything about Holmes, this isn’t exactly right. For one thing, the authorities in Chicago knew quite a bit about the “Castle” there – it had been the subject of countless lawsuits that generated boxes and boxes of paperwork, as various investors and suppliers sued Holmes and the co-owners. In August, 1893, Holmes had the flimsy third floor torched and tried to cash in on the four insurance policies he’d taken out on it. The companies smelled a rat at once and began investigating the place from top to bottom (generating a lot more paperwork in the process). Sure that he’d be arrested arson and fraud if he stuck around, Holmes left Chicago in December 1893 or January 1894, married his latest girlfriend in Denver, then met with Ben Pitezel in Fort Worth, where he had deeds to some property at Second and Rusk that he claimed to have bought from Minnie Williams. In reality, he’d probably murdered her. He’d murder Pitezel later that year.

Throughout winter and spring, 1894, Holmes and Pitezel (under names Pratt and Lyman) supervised construction new building in Fort Worth, which was, in fact, actually completed, though never occupied or used. Though about twice the square footage, being on a wider lot, it was almost exactly the same design as the Chicago castle on the outside.

When Holmes became national news the next year, more than one Texas paper sent reporters out to investigate this second “castle,” and I ran across their accounts while researching my new HH Holmes book (which will be out through Skyhorse in April, 2017). One even including a drawing, which not only shows us a very good view of the place, but might actually be a good representation of what the Chicago castle really looked like – we don’t honestly know quite how it appeared in Holmes’ day. It was originally built as a two story structure in 1887, with the very flimsy third floor (the “hotel” portion) added in 1892-3. Though there’s one photo of the place from 1895, it was only after the fire had wrecked the third floor and been replaced by what one paper called an “unsightly temporary roof.”  The view of the Ft. Worth building above, with the pointed turret, might be closer to what the original castle looked like during Holmes’ time there.

The only photo of the castle from Holmes' lifetime shows only the "temporary" rebuilt portion of the third floor that was wrecked in the Aug, 1893 fire. This is from two years later; no photos or drawings from Holmes' time in Chicago survive.

The only photo of the Chicago castle from Holmes’ lifetime shows only the “temporary” rebuilt portion of the third floor that was wrecked in the Aug, 1893 fire. This is from two years later; no photos or drawings from Holmes’ time in Chicago survive, other than one architect’s diagram of the front portion of the first floor that I haven’t spread around yet.

Stories did swirl about the place, and it does seem as though Holmes planned the place to have even more secret rooms than the original cast.  In 1895, after sitting empty a year, the place did give people the creeps, even for practical reasons: papers took to calling it “The Rusk Street Fire Trap.”

Galveston Daily News reporter sent to investigate said “The grim, half-completed building nearby, (and) the dark alley give the place an uninviting appearance. The weeds grow above the spot and the smell of the surroundings is suggestive enough.” He further noted that in the middle ages, the place would have been called “The Castle of Many Doors.” Rumor had it that there was a chute leading right to a sewer, which would have been a great way to dispose of a body (though a careful investigation pretty much debunked the story).

The description of the castle written for the upcoming book, based on the news reports:

The second floor was sort of a nest of rooms – an outer tier sat just inside the windows with doors that made it so one could go almost all the way around the perimeter without ever stepping into the hall. An inner tier contained rooms that didn’t connect to each other at all, and were lit only by a “queerly designed skylight,” which was in V shape from the roof down the side of the walls. The walls of the closets were uneven, and the walls were filled with all sorts of gas pipes. It was an easy building in which to get lost. A “closet within a closet” on the third floor suggests that room had been set aside for a new walk-in vault. An artesian well sat in the back.

A diagram from the Galveston Daily News of the Fort Worth Castle HH Holmes build in 1894

A diagram from the Galveston Daily News of the Fort Worth Castle HH Holmes built in 1894


From accounts of his doings in Texas, it seems that the Ft. Worth castle was built with much the same goal as the original: as a vehicle for swindling. Holmes used the construction to buy materials on credit that he never intended to pay back, and got involved in some horse swindling while he was at it – creditors started breathing down his neck quickly, and Holmes got out of town before doing anything with the building. No one is known to have been murdered there, and it probably wasn’t planned as a place to kill people any more than the Chicago one was (it was a vehicle for swindling first and foremost; the torture chamber stories were mostly, in the words of Holmes’ lawyer, “*#*%*ing rot.”  But while Holmes’ Chicago building was a long-term project, in Texas the idea was just to improve the land with the building, sell it for a profit, run as many swindles in the process as he could, and then move on. But it’s easy to imagine that the strange “nesting” construction of the place indicates that Holmes may have had something more sinister in mind.  The “artesian well” suggests that Holmes may have been plotting to relaunch his old scheme of selling “mineral water” from a few years before.

Though gone today, the Ft. Worth Castle survived about as long as the original – up to the 1930s or so (I couldn’t find exact data on when it was torn down). After filtering through several legal disputes, the place became a hotel and apartment building for a while, caught fire pretty regularly, and was the site of at least one grisly death, when a man died of a morphine overdose in one of the rooms in 1898. Papers in Ft. Worth continued to refer to it as the “Holmes Castle” for decades, and by the 1920s reporters and locals seem to have forgotten that it wasn’t the same “Holmes Castle” that had attracted so much attention back in 1895! Recaps of it then spoke of skeletons being found in the basement.

Much, much more on the construction of the castles will be detailed in my H.H. Holmes book (of which the subtitle is still TBA) coming in April, 2017!   In the meantime, if you want to hear a LOT more about Holmes, I’ll be running two bus tours about him on the afternoons of Oct 29 and Oct 30, 2016, through Atlas Obscura, and Holmes comes up a bit on the Rosehill Cemetery tours I’ll be running throughout October!

Some major sources for this article include:

“Fort Worth Girls Murdered” Fort Worth Daily Gazette Nov 21 1894

“Holmes Fort Worth Castle” Galveston Daily News, Aug 5 1895

“Holmes’ Texas Castle” Galveston Daily News, Aug 16, 1895