Kate Durkee: Victim of the HH Holmes Curse, or Total Badass?

One of the more interesting periphery characters in the H.H. Holmes saga is Kate Durkee, a childhood friend of Holmes’ second wife, Myrta Belknap-Holmes, who was used as a dupe in his swindling schemes. Holmes is usually advertised as “America’s First Serial Killer,” but he was a swindler first and foremost. The stories of him murdering people tend to be exaggerated (his actual number of victims was far lower than people like to say), but people tend to underplay just how accomplished he was a swindler. New Holmes murder stories are rarely dug up, but new swindling tales are uncovered all the time.

Durkee’s name is all over the property records of the “murder castle” property, and when the Holmes story first broke in 1894, some mentioned her as a possible victim, since no one in Chicago had seen her around for a while.

She was alive and well and living in Omaha, and told reporters that on one of her visits to see Myrta, her charming doctor husband had persuaded her to become the titular owner of the building, just as some sort of formality. She signed the paperwork, explaining to reporters that she didn’t have much of a head for business.  In 1892, a drug company suing Holmes to get a lien on the property determined that Durkee wasn’t a real person, and Holmes and his lawyer, D.T. Duncombe, went clear out to Omaha so that she could be interrogated.

In 1896, she came into the news again when Holmes confessed to having murdered Kate Durkee in his famous confession. She was still alive and well and living in Omaha, and issued a statement that “I have never been murdered – not by HH Holmes or by anyone else.”

Though I always loved that “I have never been murdered” quote, her willingness to sign that paperwork always made her seem a bit like a regular old dupe to me (not that there’s any real shame in it -plenty of very smart people were duped by HH Holmes).

But in one of my recent dives into the lawsuit archives, I cam across the Morrison Plummer Drug Co.’s lawsuit against Holmes, which included the full transcript – pages and pages – of her interrogation. And I LOVE it – she comes off as a regular Black Window.  It’s rare that you find full transcripts like this in lawsuit archives, rarer still that they’re typed and legible, and rarer still that they’re as entertaining as this one is.

Here’s a brief excerpt I typed up in order to do a dramatic reading; I “performed” it on the Pretty Late with Patti Vasquez show the other night with songwriter Aly Jados playing the role of Kate Durkee. You can listen to it here; I come it at about the 1:13:00 mark.  It’s edit a bit from the original for clarity.

LAYWER: How Long have you known Mr. HH Holmes?

KATE DURKEE: Four years

Are you now possessed of any property?

I object to answering that.

Have you any reason to decline to answer?

Yes, sir, a personal reason.

What is the reason?

I shall not answer that either.
Have you in the last two years possessed any real estate in Chicago?

Yes, sir, the Wallace Street Property.

Have you a deed for that proprety?

I HAVE had.
Who handed the deed to you?

I object to answering that.


I object to answering THAT, even.

To whom did you sell this property?

To Mr. HS Campbell

Did you ever see him at all?
No, sir not personally. The whole agreement was arranged by HH Holmes.
What did he pay you?

6700 something. 6725, I think.

Did HH Holmes give you the money?

I got my money

But did HH Holmes give you the money?

I object to answering that


Because I do.
Did you look up whether there were any encumbrances on the property?
I had my agent look it up.
Who was your agent? 
I cannot answer that question.
Because I do not wish to.
Do you know that we claim in this case that you never truly owned the Wallace street property?
I suppose I do?
Do you not see how important these questions are?

I am not obliged to answer them if I do not wish to.

Durkee never met HS Campbell personally – it was one of Holmes’s aliases under which he conducted a lot of “castle’ business.

She died almost exatly three years after Holmes was hanged of causes currently unknown; a woman dying in her 40s isn’t necessarily unusual for the era, but I suppose we can add her as a possible victim of the Holmes Curse that reporters talked about a lot in those days. All I know about her death comes from a brief “thanks for the sympathy” note published by her brother in an Omaha paper (right) and a gravestone in Omaha.  (2016 update: it was heart disease). For more on the curse, check out the ebook:

The Murder Castle Sign Shop Kidnapping (updated!)


new info at the bottom of the post!

A few weeks ago, the Chicago Tribune posted a few 1930s-era photos of the H.H. Holmes murder castle from their archives online. All of them have circulated before, but never in nearly such great quality, or, in some cases, uncropped. I’ve seen the photo of the stove and tile floor still in place as of the 1930s, but never the version with the man standing off to the side.

The exact date of the middle photos is hard to determine. The first was certainly taken in 1895 (it remains the only photo of the version of the castle Holmes knew; the top two floors were torn down and replaced late that year, after a fire damaged them), and the fourth is presumablyfrom January, 1938, when it ran with an item saying the castle was slated to be razed.

1920s or 30s

The middle two are trickier to date. The exterior shot ran in a March, 1937 retelling of the Holmes story, and the “stove” shot has circulated, but I’m not sure it ever ran in the paper.

When it was taken, exactly, is more of a mystery. In it, we can clearly see that the sign store on the site of Holmes’ old drug store was Spatz Sign Shop. The later shot has the name crossed out, and a sign saying they’d moved down the block to 520 W 63rd. However, according to the local Southtown Economist, they moved to that spot in 1930. Could the shots be from before that?

The exact time frame in which the sign shop operated in the castle has been a bit confusing, but in researching it, I came upon another mystery.

BH Spatz in his sign shop, in the site of the HH Holmes
drug store. A couple of papers briefly claimed that
Holmes was cremating bodies in the stove, and this
is STILL often said to be true, though cremating bodies in
such a stove would not have been possible.

The man in the shot is presumably B.H. Spatz, who ran the sign shop until his death in 1939 (at which point his wife, Bess, took over). Bennet Spatz (the middle name was likely Hugo, his mother’s maiden name) appears in plenty of census records, but appears in papers only a couple of times, always related to another mystery: in 1922, his daughter was kidnapped.

Though the story only appears in bits and pieces in scattered articles, it seems that in 1922, his 13-or-14-year-old daughter, Maxine, was kidnapped and held for eight days in the Plaza Hotel at 24 West Huron. After being rescued by the police, she was preparing to testify against a group of five people involved in August of 1922, when she and a couple of neighbors said they’d seen a couple of the group loitering around the neighborhood.


On August 20th, Maxine left her home near 61st and Halsted to run an errand, and never returned. Papers assumed she’d been kidnapped again by the people against whom she was planning to testify. The story was next mentioned in November, when it was said that her mother was doubling her efforts to find her, but that was the last Chicagoans at large ever heard about Maxine Spatz.

This could turn into a whole other rabbit hole of research. Connecting her to Holmes simply because her father worked in a shop in the castle (possibly long after she vanished) is shaky, but when I was working on the ebook about the “Holmes curse“, I found newspapers in the late 19th and early 20th century calling people victims of the curse for a whole lot less.

How and when Maxine was eventually found is not yet known; I’ve yet to see any paper announcing that she’d been found. But thanks to a comment from one of her nieces, I was at least able to confirm that she must have been found eventually! She married a man named Charles Keener and moved with him to Indiana, along with her mother, Bessie, and her son, Hugo (which I believe is what the H in B.H. Spatz stood for; it was his mother’s maiden name and comes up a lot in the family). According to records, she died in 1961. She was known to relatives as “Aunt Sissy.”

Cookie, Maxine’s niece (and B.H. Spatz’s great grandduaghter), just spoke to me on the phone a bit. She was born some years after the castle was torn down and replaced with the post office, but remembers being young and walking past the site and being told “If you’re bad, you’ll go down in there and Dr. Holmes will get you!”

She remembers her great grandmother, Bessie, would often point out many of the signs around the neighborhood that had been painted in Spatz’s Sign Shop (she survived him by several decades, dying in 1972; he was a veteran of the Spanish American war, and she was still collecting benefits at the time of her death). The fact that it had been Holmes’s old place was not unknown to the family.  However, the family never spoke of Maxine’s kidnapping, so the story there is still bit of a mystery.

New H.H. Holmes “Murder Castle” photo found

Now and then someone will show me a “new” picture of the H.H. Holmes “Murder Castle.” They’re almost never real – there are plenty of buildings that looks similar to it around today, and there were hundreds more a century ago. But now and then I do still run across a new shot of the actual building.

If you listened to our latest podcast, you’ll know that we’re planning to do an episode on Johann Hoch, another of our antique serial killers, soon. I’ve researched Hoch quite a bit over the years, but I haven’t really dug into him like I have some others, so hit the mircofilm archives at the library today to work on cataloging all the artciles about in defunct Chicago papers like the Inter Ocean, the Daily News and the ever-enteringing Evening American.

One interesting thing about the Hoch case is that for a few days there, Hoch was said to be an old pupil of H.H. Holmes. He certainly had a cottage near the “Castle” site, after all. His story hit the papers in 1905; in the decade that had passed since the big Holmes investigations, newspapers had begun to run photographs, not just drawings. At least a couple of papers took the Hoch/Holmes rumors as a chance to retell the Holmes story,  and a few threw in some pictures.

Anyway, while going through the January 29, 1905 issue of the Chicago Chronicle (defunct since 1908), there was a large spread of Hoch photos (left) that also included a fresh photo of the “Murder Castle.” It was probably taken specifically to go with this article, based on the snow on the ground (it was a rough winter). It’s not an Earth-shattering new shot, and not as nice as another shot from Holmes’ lifetime would be, but it’s a nice one (larger version below).

Hoch is the mustachioed fellow who looks like guy on the Pringles can at the left. Various police officers on the case and his supposed wives make up the other pictures, except for the shot of his cottage, which was at 6430 Union, so close to the “castle” that you could probably throw a rock and hit it, if you had a good enough arm. He married a lot of women (maybe dozens) and seems to have killed about a third of him, though, like with Holmes, it can be touch to separate fact from fiction on the guy. Like Holmes, he was hanged for just one murder, though he was known to have committed others.

Here’s a larger version of the photo, which shows he 63rd street-facing portion of the “post-Holmes” version of the castle; though the building didn’t actually burn down in 1895, as is often claimed, the top two floors did have to be redone after the fire there that year. At this point the building was mostly apartments, plus some retail space, including a barber shop:

This one, I’m quite sure, is genuine; it matches up to the other known photos and is identified as the castle by the paper in the caption. It was probably taken specifically for this paper.

Just about every other known photo, or portrait drawn from life, is in the big, expanded Murder Castle ebook:

I’ll be giving a talk on Holmes at the Wilmette Public Library on Saturday, July 19th, at 2pm. It’s free, so come on out!

The Words on the Holmes Murder Castle

(UPDATED March, 2015, with new photo/data on the bottom)

Some debate has come up lately about the cryptic words that appear in some later photos of the HH Holmes “Murder Castle.” No photo has emerged that’s really clear enough to read it, but there were some words carved into the turret at one point. They would not have been present in any version of the castle Holmes ever saw; they were added when the top two floors were rebuilt after the 1895 fire.
Here’s a shot of the castle from the late 1930s, shortly before its destruction, with a zoom-in on the turret:

It’s hard to read, and had possibly been damaged by the late 1930s, but earlier shots make it clear that the word was “block,” and that another word had been on the left at one point.
Here’s the clearest shot I have, taken from a 1914 article on the death of Patrick Quinlan (the guy I always describe as “the Igor of the Murder Castle”). The picture was probably old; a murkier, cropped version of what I think is the same photo was in the Chicago American in 1905. During this period, the castle had a stylish pointed turret that I think might have been removed after a fire in 1907:
And a zoom-in on the turret from this shot:
That the second word is “Block” is quite clear here – for buildings this size to be called “____ Block” was quite common at the time. But what’ the first word?
A comment I had in 2009 or so said that the building used to say “Campbell Block,” and that “Campbell” was later removed. Holmes used the name HS Campbell for most of the legal dealings used for the building. However, by the time it was rebuilt, he no longer had the title or mortgage to the building. At the time of the Aug, 1895 fire, the building (and its insurance) was held by the Frank Chandler Co, which owned dozens of properties around the city and around Englewood; Chandler spoke to the press a bit during the investigation, and after the fire (when it was noted that the paperwork regarding the title and the insurance were a huge mess).  They already seem to have held some title to at least a portion of the place as early as 1889, when the name “Frank Chandler” starts showing up in paperwork related to the lot.
Anyway, the grainy photo may be from about 1905, which is also when Chandler seems to have had to sell off all the properties.
Several real estate listings from 1904 and 1905, when the properties were on sale, refer to the building as “Chandler Block.” Like this Trib classified from 1905:
Now, this brings in some mysteries of its own. The building was three stories, and 45×100 is smaller than most measurements (maybe the candy store in the rear of the first floor, and the extended space behind it, were lopped off when it was rebuilt? The fire started in the candy store).  However, it’s definitely the Castle building – that was the exact address prior to the 1909 renumbering, and a couple of Englewood papers from the same period talking about the sale specifically refer to it as the old “Holmes Castle.”
Now, the weird thing to me is that in that early 20th century shot, it does look a bit more like “Campbell” than “Chandler” to me! The digitization isn’t that clean; it’d be better if I could get a proper microfilm scan of that issue of the Ogden Standard‘s pull-out magazine, but I’m not about to take a trip to Ogden, Utah to find one!  The most likely scenario here is that it’s just hard to read the pixelated version, but that it said “Chandler Block,” and the name “Chandler” was chipped off after Chandler no longer held it, presumably by some buyer who never got around to adding a new name.
Keeping in mind, of course, that this is not a version of the building Holmes ever laid eyes on. The fire in August, 1895 during the investigation didn’t burn the whole building to the ground, but the top two floors WERE removed and rebuilt. They looked very different before, as seen in the surviving photo:
There is one photo that I saw elsewhere around this time this post was published,  and which shows it more clearly, but I didn’t know where the shot came from. I finally found a decent copy in a 1943 newspaper. This is a bit blurrier than the version I saw first, but makes it a bit more clear that it was, in fact, Chandler Block. The DLE part is pretty legible here:
Of course, there’s a whole LOT more castle stuff in the newly expanded ebook:


My HH Holmes Victims Master List

Note: This post is older; I have a new master list here, after spending another two years researching the case and putting my book together.  Not too much has changed, but there are more suspected and debunked victims.  The nine “canonical” victims that he presumably killed remain the same. 



Original post:

The stories one hears about HH Holmes killing hundreds of people mostly came from pulps published decades after the fact.

Same goes for the stuff about him killing people who came to town for the World’s Fair – a couple of out-of-town papers suggested that he could have done that, but no one close to the case had much reason to suspect it.  The whole notion of him doing so comes from a couple of offhand lines in the New York World, which was not shy about making up rumors.

The “hotel” Holmes ran (known as “The Castle” in the press at the time, and as the “Murder Castle” today)  was not a hotel in the modern sense of the term – it was short term apartments. There was no front desk, no nightly rate, no check-in times. People lived there for months, even years, at a time, and when Holmes was arrested, residents were able to make a pretty good list of people who’d lived or worked there and had now dropped out of site.  For some time, it really DID seem like there was a new victim being named every day, but most of them turned out to be alive and well.

About the only known person who came to Chicago see the fair and was probably killed by Holmes was Anna Williams, whose sister, Minnie was engaged to Holmes (or married to him – it’s hard to tell what sort of arrangement the two of them actually had).

The commonly quoted figure of 200 came around in the 1940s, and wasn’t really based on any new evidence. It was just the story getting wilder – these days it seems to go up by another hundred every Halloween.

Holmes confessed to 27 killings in his 1896 confession; he wrote two versions of it, one for the Philadelphia Inquirer and an edited version for the New York Journal. Neither version contained the line “I was born with the devil in me,” which was part of phony excerpts in the Philadelphia North American.  Both versions are notoriously unreliable – some people he confessed to killing weren’t even dead. Others didn’t exist in the first place. Others still weren’t named or described at all, so it’s hard to check out the details.

In reality, there are just nine commonly accepted victims, plus a handful of “possible” victims, some of which are much more likely to be real than others. Skeptic that I am, I’d even consider some of the accepted ones “maybes.”

Here’s my master list of known and possible victims of HH Holmes (there’ll be greatly updated version published in 2017 after my book comes out).


Ben Pietzel
Alice Pietzel
Nellie Pietzel
Howard Pietzel
Julia Conner

Ben was the only one Holmes was convicted of killing, though he surely would have been convicted of killing the children had he been brought to trial for their murders.   Julia Conner is perhaps a bit more of “maybe,”  since her body was never found, but at the time of Holmes’s execution, one of his attorneys, DT Duncombe, said that Holmes had told him he’d killed Julia. Duncombe comes off as a real sleazeball in the one interview with him I’ve ever found, but it’s enough to push Julia onto this list.

There were apparently photos of Emeline;
papers describe one like this as well as
another one, but I think they’re lost now.


Pearl Conner
Emeline Cigrand
Minnie Williams
Anna Williams

These four are generally accepted to have been victims, but there was never a 100% positive identification of a body, so it’s harder to be certain. There were rumors that Emeline and Minnie ran off to England or a nunnery. It’s commonly said that Emeline’s bones were traced to a medical school, but that appears to have been untrue; the skeleton in question was bought years before Emeline died.

There were some bones found in the castle basement that were probably Pearl’s, but, again, there was never a positive identification made.

These are also on the “probably” list because, given a lack of known circumstances, we can’t say for sure that Holmes didn’t farm out the dirty work.

It may be worth noting that off these 9 probably victims, I’m only confident that Emeline, Julia and Pearl were killed in the famous “castle.’ The Pietzels were all killed in other cities, and Minnie and Anna are just as likely to have been killed in their apartment on the north side.


The above nine are about it for commonly-accepted victims, really. The other stories of people he killed come mainly from hearsay and speculation. However, here’s my cheat sheet of “possible” victims. These are people newspapers floated as possible victims in the 1890s, people Holmes confessed to killing (his “confession” was mostly nonsense), and others whose names have come up in recent years. I’ve left out people he confessed to killing who were really still alive, who didn’t really exist, etc. Some more details about some of them are in the new expanded Murder Castle ebook.

Emily Van Tassel; newspapers
drew her, but her photograph
doesn’t seem to survive, either.

Emily Van Tassel – a girl who worked at Frank Wild’s candy store on Milwaukee Avenue; police considered her a “maybe” as of 1895. Frank Wild was said to have been Holmes (or one of his confederates), and he spoke of her in the confession (though in one version he called her Anna Van Tassaud and in one he called her Rossine Van Jassand, for some reason). She’s about the only one among the “maybes” that the police put much stock in, and of all the people on this list, she’s probably the one with the most claim towards being moved up to the other list.

John DuBrueil  – the rich guy who loaned money to Holmes (he held part of the mortgage on the castle), then died in the castle drug store in 1891. A witness says he stumbled off the train into the drug store and collapsed; Holmes poured a bottle of black liquid down his throat, and he died. Any time a guy Holmes owed money to died, especially right in Holmes’ own presence, we have to add him to the list. However, no one suspected foul play at the time, and the debt was simply passed on to DuBrueil’s heirs. See our recent post on him. 

Elizabeth DuBrueil – John’s wife died about 18 months after he did. Both names were floated as possibly victims by a Chicago papers in 1895, though the family was not suspicious. They may have been too busy scheming to get the money on their own to want to bring anyone else into it; the lawsuit over the estate was a real mess, and was still going on when Holmes was arrested.

Katy Gorky – mentioned in papers as running the castle restaurant.  Probably actually Katie Durkie, a friend of Holmes’s wife who Holmes later confessed to killing (though she was really still alive).

“Liz” – a domestic mentioned by the papers said to have disappeared along with her daughter, though few details were given, and the story was not really investigated. Holmes eventually claimed her as a victim in his confession, though he didn’t give a last name. Sometimes said to be Katy Gorky’s sister. This story went around for a while, then disappeared without much follow-up. Holmes mentioned her in the confession.

Liz’s Daughter – as above

Charles Whitney – a Chicago-based traveling salesman who died in NY, and whose obit was said to have been placed by Holmes and Pietzel, who took copies in order to show them to an insurance office. Newspapers called him a victim for a day, but the widow denied the whole thing and said the obit had been placed by someone who definitely wasn’t Holmes or Pietzel. His story came out in 1894, when Holmes was just as likely to have been suspected of faking the death as for killing the guy. When his story first made national news, everyone thought he had faked Pietzel’s death to get the insurance money. It was only after a few days that people started talking of murder.

“Miss Wild” – mentioned by papers; probably a reference to Emily Van Tassell, who worked at Frank Wild’s Candy Story (Frank Wild was thought to have been Holmes).

Mabel Barrett – a Boston woman who vanished after a couple persuaded her to go to New York and open a manicure shop on 6th Avenue. According to the Boston Daily Advertiser, her friends identified Holmes and Minnie Williams from pictures as the couple.  The case was not taken very seriously.

Horace Williams – a brother of Minnie and Annie who died in Denver, possibly under suspicious circumstances. There was some reason to suspect Holmes was involved, but that it was Ben Pietzel who did the actual deed. Data is fairly scarce here.

Dr. Russler – Holmes mentioned killing this guy in the confession, and some papers said he’d disappeared from Englewood in 1892. A couple of papers reported on it for a day or two in 1895, but never in depth.

The Times Herald of 8/1/1895 on Walker. There
was never any follow-up that I know of.

Harry Walker – a guy from Indiana who was persuaded to go to work in Chicago by a guy who registered in hotels as “Waldo Bankhorn,” then disappeared. Walker’s friends suspected that Waldo Bankhorn was Holmes, though police don’t seem to have taken the theory seriously. I hate to say that I hope it was true, because I’d hate for Harry to have been killed, but I would love to be able to add “Waldo Bankhorn” to the list of Holmes aliases.

Mrs. Kron – a woman who was brutally murdered in the early 1890s in her home, which was near Holmes’s house in Wilmette. When stories of Holmes came to light, many suggested that he’d been involved in this one, as all. Police scoffed, as brutal murders weren’t Holmes style; one even said “Holmes was a scientific killer….You might as well connect him with the Jack the Ripper horrors in London!” Ripper theorists can make of that what they will. 🙂

Harry Graham – the original fiance of Myrta Belknap, Holmes’ second wife. Little is known about him or his death, really, but any death that Holmes benefits from make this list, since his death freed Mytra up to marry him.  (note: books that refer to her as “Myrtle” are incorrect).

George Thomas – an apparent insurance dupe in Mississippi; supposedly, Holmes and Pietzel took him out in a swamp in June, 1894, killed him, and disposed of the body there in order to defraud the insurance company. It was generally believed that Pietzel did the dirty work, but there was apparently some evidence (ie, hotel registers) to back the story up, and Myrta Holmes got involved herself with paying for the sherrif of Columbus, MISS to go to Philadelphia to meet with Holmes about it. But the story never had legs; after being in several papers on Aug 17, 1895, it sort of disappeared. Papers said Mytra had found a “confession” about this in the castle, but the confession wasn’t published. There are enough details for this one that I’d make it a stronger “maybe” than the others.

Robert Phelps – Emeline Cigrand’s supposed fiance, whom Holmes said she had run off to marry when she disappeared, is sometimes listed as a victim; he probably never existed at all (the guy she was having an affair with was probably Holmes himself, though accounts of who she was dating and what she was like as a person differed).

The death certificate for Virginia Anna Betts
doesn’t prove Holmes guilt, but doesn’t disprove it, either.

Anna Betts – Holmes confessed to killing her with poison medicine; her death certificate indicates that she lived and died right near the castle and died a few days after suddenly collapsing (which is usually what “apoplexy” meant then). This is the only name from the confession that was unknown to police at the time, but which might have been a real victim.

William Wooten – a rich guy who died in California; annotated newspaper clippings found in a warehouse indicated that Holmes had some sort of interest in the case.

William Green – Ray Johnson has worked more on this angle than I have; Green was an Englishman who was in the cement game. Holmes worked with (and was later sued by him). We’re not totally sure that Green wasn’t Holmes himself under an alias, though. He disappears from the record around the time of Holmes’s death, though his name is common enough to make him hard to trace.

Gerald Riddle – a young Englishman Holmes and Green apparently swindled out of seven thousand bucks; he was supposed to go to the states with Green, but may have actually been killed instead, with Holmes traveling back to the states under Riddle’s name. This is another one Ray has more data on than I do.

Robert Leacock – a medical school colleague Holmes claimed to have killed in his confession. We know that he was a real person and that he was dead by 1896, but the exact circumstances of his death are not currently known. Foul play doesn’t seem to have been suspected.

Gertrude Conner – Julia’s sister-in-law worked for Holmes, then went home to Iowa and died about six weeks later. One of Holmes’ friends actually said “Holmes, you’ve killed her!” to which Holmes replied, “Oh, pooh – what makes you say that?” Holmes later confessed to having killed her. However, his “confession” was way off on the known facts – she died much later after going home than he implied, and her doctor personally refuted the stories that foul play had been involved; she had died of heart trouble. Some suggest a slow-acting poison.

Carrie Sanford – Robert Corbitt, an amateur detective who was present at the castle investigation, listed her as a possible victim. She seems to have been in Holmes’ employ at one point, and Corbitt couldn’t find her. No other source seems to have been interested in her story, and it’s likely that she was still alive.

I can’t claim that this list is complete – I’m sure plenty of other provincial papers listed names of people who had gone to Chicago and never returned, as well, with suggestions that perhaps they were killed by Holmes.

However, the other 180-odd people in the common “200 people” estimate pretty much come out of nowhere, as does the occasional claim that fifty-five missing people could be traced to the castle (I think Herbert Asbury made that figure up in the 1940s). A few newspapers speculated that he could have been preying on World’s Fair victims (mostly out of town papers), but evidence that he actually did was slim. Holmes was not the “Driven to kill” serial killer he’s normally portrayed as; he was more of a swindler who occasionally found it necessary (or profitable) to kill people. More Walter White than Hannibal Lector.

I may elaborate on this stuff in an ebook or something one of these days. There are a few cases above that I’ve never really dug into. I’ll edit the post over time and make notes of changes.

A few people have been removed from the list in recent years. The Holtons, the couple who ran the pharmacy where Holmes worked in the 1880s, were on the list once, but that mystery has been solved and they’re now known to have survived Holmes by several years. Their example shows that some of these mysteries can still be tied up, and hopefully we can learn more some day!

More of my Holmes research is in ebooks:


The Three Confessions
of H.H Holmes
(full analysis of the confessions).

The Man Who Died in the Holmes Murder Castle: John DuBrueil, 1823-1891

Over the winter I went on a quest to catalog and document ALL of the HH Holmes sources I could find here in town that weren’t available online – lawsuit records, defunct Chicago papers, etc. The best of the Chicago papers constitute the best primary sources we have on the Chicago angle of the case, and much of the info there is widely unknown in Holmes circles. The stories one usually hears about him come more from 1890s tabloids and (especially) 1940s pulps.

One story that came up in a few Chicago papers has puzzled me some: the story of John DeBrueil, the man who died in the “Holmes castle” in full view of several witnesses.

Detail of the Times Herald of Oct 1, 1895

On August 1st, 1895, when Holmes stories were just starting to fall off the front page of most papers, the Chicago Times Herald, mentioned that the recent investigations at the castle had sparked renewed interest in the story of a John DeBrueil, who died in the “castle” drug store on April 17, 1891, after “having been stricken with apoplexy” near the place. In 1890s talk, this usually just meant that he had suddenly collapsed and died.  According to the Herald, DuBruell had furnished Holmes with the first chunk of money to build the place (which, at the time, was probably only two stories; he borrowed three grand from Dr. MB Lawrence to expand).  Though bumping people off because he owed them money wasn’t out of line for Holmes, he was not considered a suspect here; the Herald said that “While Holmes borroed considerable money from DuBruell….none of the DuBruell relatives and heirs in Englewood believe that (Holmes) had anything to with the sudden death of either Mr. Mrs. DuBrueil, whose lives were insured.

The Times Herald may have told a slightly longer version of this a week or so before, when they spoke to a man named Ben Nixon who had worked in the castle’s jewelry store. He recalled the one day “a man stepped from a suburban train..and fell in front of Holmes’ store in some kind of a fit. Holmes poured a dark liquid down his throat and the man died. He lived in the neighborhood.”  Nixon thought it was suspicious, and wondered at the time if the man had been insured. “Holmes was regarded even then as a fellow who would do anything for money.”  This sounds like the same story as above.

 From genealogy sites I do see that a Canada-born man named “John L. Dubreuil” died April 18, 1891 in Chicago at the age of 68, but the death certificate doesn’t seem to be scanned. He was buried in Thornton, a small town on the far south side of the Chicago metro area. Presumably, he’s the same John Dubreuil from Canada was living as a farmer in Lyon (a west suburb) in the 1860 census with three people named Bouchard, and the one who was living in Indiana during the Civil War draft a few years later. He married his wife, Elizabeth, in 1876 in Englewood. She was ten years his junior.

Though his death doesn’t seem to have made the Tribune, there is an article from 1894 in the Trib talking about the bitter fight over the DuBrueil estate. According to the artcile, Elizabeth had died in September, 1892, leaving an estate valued at half a million bucks – there was a movement in place to remove Eddie DuBrueil, a son who was living in Englewood, from his position as executor of the estate.

That Holmes would try to kill a person with that kind of money, with the intention of getting it for himself, seems reasonable enough. That Holmes was after people’s life insurance money is pretty well known, though he wasn’t as good at it is he’s often made out to be. It’s commonly said that he was good at talking people into buying insurance and making him the benefactor, but primary sources really only indicate that he tried to do this a lot. No one seems to have been dumb enough to fall for it. Ben Pietzel came the closest, in that he bought a huge policy, but Holmes wasn’t the benefactor; he got the loot by swindling the widow.

This may well have been Holmes’ plan here: he’d kill off the guy, make his widow rich off the insurance (though they must have been well off already; I don’t think got half a million in insurance back then, when Ben Pietzel’s 10k plan was pretty remarkable), then seduce or kill her and get the money for himself. But no one close to the case seems to have suspected it much at the time, so it may just be wild speculation. If they’d had any reason to go after Holmes for money still owed as of 1895, they probably would have done it.

The basic facts don’t all add up to murder here – Holmes pouring a dark liquid down the guy’s throat sounds awfully suspicious, but the idea that he could have arranged for him to collapse right in the store, right after stepping off the train, seems a bit less plausible. Maybe he just saw an opportunity and went for it?

I couldn’t find any info on how Mrs. DuBrueil died, and I haven’t checked the defunct papers from the dates around John’s death to see if it was reported at the time, or if anyone seemed supsicious at the time.  This would have been months before Julia Conner became the first person to disappear from the castle, but Holmes DOES seem to have been thought of as a swindler, at the very least.

The lawsuit over the estate seems to have been based in Crown Point, Indiana, so it’d be tough for me to see how the whole thing turned out, but they still had all of the money as of Oct, 1894, by which point Holmes was out of town, so if he killed John DuBrueil to get his cash, he seems to have failed!  William DuBrueil, John’s son, seems to have inherited any interest in the property; his name starts showing in up Cook County Recorder notes about the property after his father’s death.

The story is mentioned in our new expanded Murder Castle ebook, along with much of the rest of the stuff I found over the winter.

Shadows at the Body Dump?

Some interesting shots from the tours lately.  First of all, for you Hull House fans, the last tree in the adjacent courtyard (subject of much ghostlore and superstition) fell down some time in the last week:

The garden / courtyard area is the subject of a lot of real nonsense stories that go around – people like to say that it was an Indian burial ground, an abortion graveyard, or any number of thoroughly debunked stories.  But not every story about it is untrue, and we do have some weird nights there on the tour. 
On the Saturday tour, Amanda K. picked up a shot at the HH Holmes “Body Dump” site, where he had a building he claimed was a glass bending factory (we’ve talked about this place a lot here; it was well north of the famous “castle,” but very near the homes of about half his known Chicago victims, and, well, there’s a short list of things a known multi-murderer who didn’t really know how to bend glass would have been doing with a 150 foot long furnace). We get pictures of shadowy figures here quite a bit – look in the background of this one, back behind me and to the right:
This is a detail of a larger shot, with the exposure turned up a bit. My guess would be that the figure in the background was just a person on the tour that the photographer didn’t notice (though she was certain that there was no one there). The fact that it casts a shadow is certainly a mark against it being ghostly, but when I tried to reproduce the effect on the 10pm tour I couldn’t quite find a way to stand in that area that would make my shadow go in quite the same direction (it’s all artificial light).  You know what I always say: there is no good ghost evidence, only cool ghost evidence. 
And hey, while I’ve got your attention, we’ve been re-releasing all the Smart Aleck’s Guide ebooks this week, including our guide to Grave Robbing, which features several Chicago grave robbing stories:


Everything you need to launch YOUR career as a 19th century Resurrection Man, the Smart Aleck way! A complete history of one of the oldest professions, with tips and tricks of the trade. Fully illustrated, with an active table of contents. 2.99 on kindle

There’s more on Holmes, the “body dump” and Hull House in our Ghosts of Chicago book (Llewellyn 2013),  and our newly revised and greatly expanded Murder Castle of HH Holmes ebook

Bentley Sage, the Clairvoyant: Seems Legit!

So, just how many times did H.H. Holmes have his palm read, anyway?  Annie Londonderry, a famous bicyclist who became a reporter for the New York World, read his palm while interviewing him in his cell (the full interview is in the expanded Murder Castle ebook) , and even the generally respectable medical report on his body published in the Journal of the American Medical Association spends a lot of time examining the bumps and ridges of his skull (though the doctor did take time to mention that his sexual organs were “unusually small.”)

In the process of looking for new sources for my Abraham Lincoln ghostlore book, I was flipping through the 1907 volume entitled The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth, which puts for the proposition that Booth actually died in 1903 by suicide, not in a barn of a gunshot wound in 1865. The body of the guy said to be Booth was embalmed so well as to be mummified (as was Lincoln’s), and became a carnival attraction for a while.  The book contained a lengthy analysis of the corpse’s palm, read while it was still the morgue by one Bentley Sage.

Looking up Bentley Sage was sort of a rabbit hole – the guy is described as awfully famous in the book, but most articles about him in newspapers are really just classified ads that he took out himself.

His price for readings goes gradually down from 1901 to 1907 (from three bucks to fifty cents), but he never seems to have made much hay out of reading “Booth’s” palm, except for this 1905 ad on the right, in which he also claimed to have read HH Holmes’ palm, as well as the palms of such Chicago notables as Marshall Field, Carter Harrison.  In one ad, he claimed to be able to train anyone to become a spiritual medium in 3-6 months.

Seems legit, huh?