Podcast: The Hanging and Burial of HH Holmes

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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!

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