HH Holmes and Mr. Chappell, the Skeleton Articulator

H.H. Holmes is a notoriously difficult fellow to research. Newspapers felt free to run with wild speculation on him, neighbors were so eager to write themselves into the story that they were probably more than willing to exaggerate, and, of course, Holmes himself barely ever opened his mouth without lying. Even the most basic parts of the story – like tales of him preying on World’s Fair patrons – come from pretty shaky sources, if you get right down to it. And then there’s the story of Charles Chappell, the skeleton articular to whom Holmes is said to have sold fresh bodies to be made into skeletons. He turns up in most books and TV shows about Holmes, but they seldom mention that his story didn’t really hold up, and they always get his name wrong.

In July of 1895, when the police were investigating the castle, newspapers published reports that one Charles M. Chappell had come to the scene and told police that he had purchased three bodies from Holmes, along with a trunk, and that he had sold two of the skeletons to colleges. The other he still had a part of – the skull, painted red, had been hanging from a tree in his yard, and there was a stocking full of hair in a trunk. They had the name wrong, though – his name was M.G. Chappell (Myron George); Charles was his 20 year old son. Papers corrected this at once, but he’s still almost always referred to as Charles Chappell today.

M.G. took the police to his house and gave them an old saratoga trunk containing a half-articulated skeleton and a stocking full of hair, as well as some books on anatomy and articulation. At the castle, he showed them a room where he’d been given the bodies (this is the room labelled ‘the room of the three corpses’ in the diagrams, though it should be noted that he didn’t get them all at once), and a point in the basement were Holmes had kept an acid vat, among other things. Here, he told them, Holmes had boiled down the greater part of the victims body before selling them to him and a man named Richardson to articulate and sell to colleges. He went on to say that Holmes and Richardson then began to bring many more bodies to his house.

Most of the places he told them to dig turned up nothing, but they did find a metal tank in the space where he said the acid pit was. Inside was some crude petroleum. Nothing indicated that it had been used to bleach bones, though; Ned Connor, one of the most reliable witnesses, said it was a fuel reserve for the glass bending furnace Holmes had tried to build in the basement (one of at least three such facilities he tried to make). None of the other vats Chappell told police about were found.

Most of the rest of Chappell’s story was soon dismissed. His son, Charles, and his wife, Cynthia, both told police that M.G. was a drunk – he would make up wild stories when he was drinking, and then he’d forget that he’d made them up when he sobered up. The trunk, they said, had belonged to Chappell’s mother (who was now in a home for Incurables), and the hair in the stocking was hers.

Most reporters mentioned that he seemed drunk off his ass the whole time he was around the castle. None of the people who lived and worked in the Castle recognized him.

It had been the skull in the tree that brough Chappell into the case – a neighbor knew about the skull (how could you not notice a red skull with a hole in the temple dangling from a tree in the yard) and told the police about it. But the skull had been there for eight or nine years, since well become the castle was built.

The other skeleton, Chappell said, was sold to Hahnemann Medical College in 1893 by himself and Richardson, and was, he thought, the remains of Emeline Cigrand.

There were two major problems with this story. For one thing, the college furnished records stating that they hadn’t bought any skeletons in 1893; the one in question was years older than that. And while police did find Richardson, the articulator, and it did seem that Richardson had employed Chappell to articulate a skeleton or two, but Richardson had been dead since 1889, four years before Chappell said he had worked with him to sell the bones to the school.

So, Chappell did tell a few stories and seemed to know a BIT about Holmes, and one news account even said that he knew the combination to the walk-in vault, but his stories that the bones he provided came from Holmes were difficult to verify, and easy to refute. Modern forensics could certainly have cleared it up, but in those days there was really no way to tell whose body a skeleton had been, or even exactly how old the skeleton was. They couldn’t test things like DNA to see if the hair was really Granny Chappell’s, or if the skeleton was a match for Emeline Cigrand or Julia Connor. Stories connecting the bones to them aren’t very convincing, though police kept them in storage for years, and they were displayed to a jury a few years later when Patrick Quinlan, Holmes’ actual janitor, tried to sue the police.

Now, it’s worth pointing out that the idea of Holmes dealing in dead bodies is not exactly unrealistic. He was a medical student in the 1880s at the University of Michigan. Body-snatching was probably not unknown to him in those days. My biggest question would be why he needed someone like Chappell at all.

As the investigations into Holmes’ activities in Chicago fell apart (police sort of gave up on trying to prosecute him in Chicago, and just let Philadelphia deal with him), Chappell was mostly forgotten. But he was back in the news a decade later, when he was one of three people from the castle who claimed that Johann Hoch, another serial killer, had been employed by Holmes.

Chappell was brought into the police station to identify Hoch in February, 1895; he was one of three people who identified Hoch. Chappell said that Hoch had called himself Jake Hoffman in those days. When brought into Hoch’s presence, Hoch said, “Well, you know me?”

“Yes, I know you, Jake,” said Chappell. “And I think you know me pretty well, don’t you?”

“No, I don’t!” said Hoch. “It’s a damned lie!”

Chappell told the police that Hoch/Hoffman had been employed by Holmes both as a janitor and to make ads for the fake gas machine Holmes was selling in 1893 and 1894. Though a few people, such as Dr. Robinson, who worked in the castle (you can see his name on a sign in the contemporary photo of the place), said that he’d never seen Hoch, or Chappell, and that there was never anyone named Jake at the castle at all. Chappell promised police he could furnish photographs and pictures from the castle that would prove that Hoch was Hoffman, including a group photo of people who worked in the castle.

True to his word, Chappell came back to the station a short while later with a whole bunch of photographs that he said were from the castle, including a group photo, but none of them contained anyone who looked remotely like Johann Hoch, and the story about Hoch being at the castle was generally dismissed, along with most of Chappell’s other stories. I sure would like to know what happened to those photos he brought to police in 1895, though! Several papers reported on the story, but none seem to have published the photos, or even any good descriptions of their contents.

Myron George Chappell was born around 1850, and is listed in various census reports and records as a laborer, painter, private detective, railroad engineer, and stationary engineer. Exactly what was going on with Chappell is hard to figure out today. He did furnish some bones to the police, but the story that they came from H.H. Holmes seems to be shaky, at best. He’s not what you’d call a reliable witness, to say the least. He died in 1929, and is buried at Mt. Greenwood Cemetery.

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