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.
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 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.
PEOPLE HOLMES PROBABLY KILLED
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.
POSSIBLE VICTIMS MENTIONED IN THE 1890s:
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 MURDER CASTLE:
The Three Confessions
of H.H Holmes
(full analysis of the confessions).