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:

Upper:

Lower:

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?

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.

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