A large part of the Holmes legend is that the 1893 Columbian Exposition drew many young, single, women to the city of Chicago, attracted by both the prospects of meeting a potential spouse and the opportunity for work. Many of these women went to Chicago because the prospects in the small towns from which they came were limited, and many were unattached to strings tying them to their hometowns. One such woman was Emeline Cigrand, who was attracted to Holmes after taking a job in the Castle in May, 1892. In December of that year she disappeared, never seen again. Virginia Betts and Edna Van Tassel also vanished around the same time, both after accepting jobs in the Castle, and both after moving into the apartments above the businesses on the first floor. The Columbian Exposition had not yet begun, the White City was incomplete.
According to the legend byy the time of the Columbian Exposition Holmes had established his modus operandi. He advertised in newspapers for young women to work in his businesses and live in his building. He took out life insurance policies on all of his employees and residents. He also made it known to the young women who turned up at his door that he was in the market for a wife, despite already having one with whom he lived in the nearby suburb of Wilmette, Illinois, and another abandoned back east. As the Exposition drew young women to the city, Holmes drew them to his Castle, from which they would simply vanish, forgotten and unlooked for, at least for a time. In 1893 Holmes began to expand his criminal enterprise beyond murder and insurance fraud, taking on a partner by the name of Benjamin Pitezel.
In early 1893 Holmes hired an aspiring actress named Minnie Williams, with the usual hints of potential marital bliss, and later convinced her to sign over property she owned in Texas to a third party, under an alias used by Holmes. After conning her out of the deed, which was transferred to his partner Benjamin Pitezel, the couple rented an apartment in Lincoln Park (presenting themselves as married) and invited Minnie’s sister to visit them. The sister, Nannie Williams, visited that summer and wrote to her aunt that the three of them were planning a trip to Europe later that summer. It was the last anyone heard of Nannie, neither sister was ever seen again after the first week of July, 1893. Both sisters had been covered by life insurance purchased by Holmes, with him as beneficiary.
By that summer several insurance companies had made note of the sums being paid to Holmes, as well as the frequency of his claims. A mysterious fire broke out at the Castle. Several investigators began to dig around his businesses and accounts. Recognizing that Chicago was becoming a bit hot for him, Holmes left Chicago in the summer of 1894, traveling to Fort Worth, planning to use the property he had conned out of the vanished Minnie Williams to create a new business along the lines of his Chicago enterprises. Never one to pay his bills when he could instead scam someone out of money, he borrowed money using furniture as collateral, then sold the furniture, in St. Louis, for which he was arrested. After being released on bail, Holmes made contacts with a less than scrupulous attorney, to whom he revealed plans to fake his own death as part of yet another insurance scam.
With the assistance of St. Louis attorney Jeptha Howe, with whom Holmes planned to split the money, Holmes created a scheme through which his own death would be faked, using a cadaver which Holmes planned to disfigure by burning it, after which he would travel to his Fort Worth property under another name. Accordingly Holmes purchased a $10,000 life insurance policy on himself, with Howe as the beneficiary, in preparation for the scheme. The plan was executed, the claim was filed, and the insurance company refused to honor the claim. Aware that Howe’s law partner was his older brother and was not part of the scheme, Holmes decided not proceed with legal pursuit of the claim, and instead came up with a modified scheme including Howe and Benjamin Pitezel.
The new plan featured Pitezel setting himself up as a Philadelphia chemist, who would be killed in a lab explosion, leaving his body too disfigured for reliable identification. Holmes would again provide a cadaver suitable to the scheme and the insurance payment would be made to Pitezel’s widow, who would then split it with Holmes and Howe. Pitezel traveled to Philadelphia under an assumed name and rented an appropriate space. Shortly after Pitezel arrived in the city Holmes visited with his partner’s wife and announced a modification to the plan, to which she acceded. Whether Howe knew of the new plan has never been fully established, but when Holmes went to Philadelphia to execute the scheme, he did not bring along a cadaver.
8. Holmes changes a faked death to several murders
Holmes arrived in Philadelphia planning to lend an air of authenticity to the anticipated fake death of Benjamin Pitezel. Holmes killed his partner, after which he burned the body using benzene, though whether he burned his partner while still alive or killed him prior to setting the body on fire remains unknown. At any rate, the presence of a real body led to the insurance claim being paid, and Holmes then journeyed to Canada in a bizarre journey in which he escorted three of the Pitezel children, while at the same time Pitezel’s widow and her other two children traveled north on a parallel path. In Detroit, Mrs. Pitezel and Holmes with her other three children stayed in homes only a few blocks apart, though Holmes did not reveal their whereabouts to each other. Holmes killed two of the Pitezel children in Detroit and buried them in the cellar of a rented house.
Holmes then went to Indianapolis where he killed the remaining Pitezel child and burned the body in the fireplace of yet another rented home. Meanwhile a detective from Philadelphia investigating Holmes found the decomposed bodies of the Pitezel children in Detroit. When Chicago police got wind of the investigation into Holmes’s activities they began looking at several missing persons of their own, and a search of Holmes’s Castle was conducted. The search of the Castle was sensationalized by the Chicago newspapers at the time, and became the source of most of the myths surrounding Holmes, nearly all of which are false. The truth is, the Chicago police did not find sufficient evidence to charge Holmes with any crimes in Chicago. There was no torture equipment, no killing machinery, and no evidence of criminal activity.
Holmes built the Castle as cheaply as possible, and the building was a far cry from being soundproof. The building was crowded, and moving about within – despite the presence of hidden passageways – without being seen or heard was difficult. When the police searched the building, they did not find torture devices or the facilities for the cremation of bodies, though there was evidence of a pit of quicklime in the cellar. The castle became a torture chamber designed for the completion of murder on a large scale in the minds of the sensationalist press, without evidence. The Chicago police were unable to develop evidence to charge Holmes with the crimes which his legend says he committed in the building. They did come up with evidence that Holmes had cheated his lenders and contractors when completing the structure, skimping on materials and avoiding his bills.
The Chicago police had searched the Castle before Holmes was ever charged with a murder, on more than one occasion, looking for property against which Holmes had borrowed money which he had not repaid. Articles appeared in Chicago newspapers describing the building’s secret rooms well before the sensational news following his being charged with the murder of Pitezel. They were described as the means of hiding property, or moving it from room to room one step ahead of the creditors. The myth that Holmes planned the Castle to be used as a murder factory during the Columbian Exposition also fails to take into account the fact that construction began in 1887, well before the Exposition was planned for Chicago. Also forgotten is the fact that during the exposition Holmes attempted to burn the Castle (for the insurance), which explains the oversize gas tank in the cellar. The attempt failed.
When Holmes was arrested in St. Louis for selling mortgaged property he spent his time in a cell with a career criminal named Marion Hedgepeth. Holmes introduced himself as H. M. Howard, and in the course of conversation revealed his scheme to fake his own death, if he could find a legal representative willing to help him pull off such a fraud. Whether Hedgepeth suggested it or Holmes made the offer on his own initiative, Hedgepeth was promised a $500 commission for referring an attorney who would be willing to advance the scheme. Hedgepeth was at the time serving a twenty-five year term for train robbery, and it was he, who had long experience with the Missouri criminal system, who recommended Jeptha Howe.
Later Hedgepeth informed prison authorities of the scheme which had been proposed by “Howard” and when word was passed along to authorities in search of Holmes, who was well known as a con artist and swindler, the investigation into the death of Pitezel became one of murder rather than simply insurance fraud. Hedgepeth was eventually pardoned for informing on Holmes, and met his death when he was shot during a robbery of a Chicago bar on New Year’s Eve, 1909. He took with him his motive for informing on Holmes, he had not been promised anything when he approached the authorities with the story. Likely it was because he had been promised something from Holmes and never received it, the $500 which Holmes, if he remained true to character, simply decided not to pay as promised.
Holmes is often referred to as America’s first serial killer – he wasn’t – and the number of murders attributed to him have been wildly exaggerated over the decades. He started the exaggerations himself, at a time when lurid stories of the Murder Castle appeared in the yellow journalism of the day, with each newspaper trying to out sensationalize their competition. Hearst paid Holmes for his “confession” during his trial and Holmes obliged with tales admitting to 27 murders, some of them of people who were still alive. The fiction that he killed the Horton’s emerged in his “confession”. A neighbor of the Castle told a Chicago newspaper that he had long suspected Holmes as the murderer of a woman who died sometime later of heart failure, as attested by her physician who issued a death certificate.
During the 1940s the number of murders attributed to Holmes was frequently recorded as being upwards of 200, without references or sources being identified. The high number was attested to by the ever more graphic descriptions of the Murder Castle, which was so efficient in the disposing of bodies that it was implied that the number was likely even higher than that. By the twenty-first century Holmes was accused of being not only America’s first serial killer, but the Whitechapel murderer known to history as Jack the Ripper as well, though the Ripper killings took place in 1888, a time when Holmes was in Chicago, frequently in court as a result of lawsuits over construction of the Castle and his non-payment of loans. Nine murders have been confirmed with Holmes being the likely killer, including that of Benjamin Pitezel, for which he was convicted. At his hanging Holmes denied killing anyone, other than accidentally during performance of abortions.
12. Holmes’s story to Philadelphia detective Geyer changed many times
When Holmes was finally arrested in Boston he learned that a charge of horse theft awaited him in Texas. Fearful that the charge was considered a capital offense in Texas and unaware that Pitezel’s death was being investigated as a murder in Philadelphia, Holmes voluntarily returned to face what he thought would be insurance fraud charges in Pennsylvania. He confessed to Detective Geyer that he willfully participated in the insurance scheme, first claiming that the body had been a cadaver he had obtained for the purpose, later identifying it as Pitezel, whom he claimed he had found after he committed suicide. He claimed Pitezel had left a note asking him to distribute the insurance money to his children, and to make it appear as if he had died in an accident.
It was then that Minnie Williams reappeared in his story, according to Holmes she was in London, where she had custody of Pitezel’s children. When the charred remains of Pitezel’s son were discovered in Indiana Holmes denied all knowledge of them, as he did when the decomposed bodies of the two girls were found in Michigan. Several other missing persons were traced to Holmes, yet he continued to deny all knowledge of any murders until be provided his sensational confession to Hearst after he was convicted of murder, in exchange for cash which was sent to his then 18 year old son with the first of his three wives. He was convicted of two crimes, insurance fraud, to which he pleaded guilty on the second day of his trial, and the murder of Benjamin Pitezel, convicted by a jury. He was not charged with any other murders.
13. The Castle was described in newspapers without evidence
In August of 1893, during the height of the Columbian Exposition the Castle, which Holmes had been advertising as the World’s Fair Hotel, caught fire on its third floor. Holmes had heavily insured the building and its contents with no fewer than four insurance companies, all of which refused to pay his claims, and which sued him for insurance fraud. Fire investigators inspected the building, as did insurance investigators, and none of the later announced murder and torture apparatus claimed to have been in the building were found. It was the pressure of the insurance inspectors and the potential charges of fraud which drove Holmes to leave Chicago for Texas, and which led to his meeting with Hedgepeth and Howe.
Despite the lack of evidence, or perhaps because of it, the newspapers sensationalized the scant findings in the castle. When Holmes stood on the gallows and made his final statement, which refuted that given to Hearst earlier when he accounted for 27 murders, he denied killing anyone other than two women during what he called a criminal medical procedure, which in the late nineteenth century was often a euphemism for an abortion. “I only want to say that the extent of my wrongdoings in the taking of human life consisted in the death of two women, they having died at my hands as the result of criminal operations”, stated Holmes, according to an eyewitness to the execution, and reported in the San Francisco Call. According to the same account, the two women to which Holmes referred were Emily Cigrand and Julia Smythe Connor.
14. The truth about the Castle’s secret rooms
H. H. Holmes did indeed have numerous secret rooms and concealed passages built in the Castle, which were reported in the city of Chicago in March of 1893, before the opening of the Columbian Exposition, by the Chicago Tribune. Holmes furnished his rooms on credit, did not pay his creditors, and hid the furnishings, as well as cash, from them when they came to collect what they were owed or repossess. It was some of these mortgaged furnishings which he sold, leading to his arrest in St. Louis, removing them from the Castle before the 1893 fire destroyed a portion of the third floor. The first floor of the Castle housed retail businesses, which by their nature have numerous visitors throughout the course of the business day, which included Saturdays in the 1890s.
The main purpose of the Castle was to bilk investors and lenders, and the evidence that Holmes did so repeatedly is undeniable. He was sued in Chicago courts more than 50 times, which were well reported in the Chicago newspapers, as were the frequent visits of the police to the Castle, accompanying bill collectors to enforce court orders. Following the Columbian Exposition some newspapers claimed, without supporting evidence, that more than fifty women had been traced from attendance at the exposition to the Castle, from which they vanished from sight forever. But the police found no evidence of them. What they did find, such as a length of rope, became evidence that Holmes had hanged some of his victims, gas lines became designed for asphyxiation in airless rooms, rather than the source of illumination as they were in most houses, in the fevered imaginations of the reporters of the day. A wood stove for heat became a crematorium.
When Holmes built the first two stories of the Castle he changed builders frequently. This was later reported to be a necessity in order for him to keep the murderous intent of his house of horrors from being known to anyone. The allegation makes little sense, since the more contractors who entered the building the more were aware of the unusual layout of the rooms and hallways. Holmes had to frequently change contractors because he didn’t pay them for their work. For the same reason he was forced to often change suppliers, as his credit ran out and his bills remained unpaid. Far from being a stoutly built prison, the building was shoddily completed, with one worker once putting his foot through the roof when he arrived to make some repairs.
The bodies of the victims he allegedly killed in the Castle were supposedly sold to medical schools and other doctors for the study of anatomy, according to some, or were burned in the woodstove in the basement, a virtual impossibility. It is also a myth that the Castle burned to the ground in August of 1895 (or any other year). It was damaged by fire and repaired, remaining in use until the 1930s, when it was torn down. It was during the building’s demolition that many of the pulp magazine stories about Holmes and the Murder Castle re-emerged, and also during that period that most of the extant photographs of the building were taken. The descriptions of the media which were unsupported by evidence when written forty years earlier were repeated, usually with substantial embellishment. They continue to be repeated and embellished in the twenty-first century.
On Sunday, April 12, 1896 a facsimile of a handwritten note appeared on the front page of the New York Journal. The note read, “To the New York Journal: I positively and emphatically deny the assertions that any confession has been made by me except one and which is the only one that will be made(.) The original confession is the one given to the New York Journal. It alone is genuine all others are untrue. Signed H H Holmes April 11 1896.” His confession, in which he claimed to have murdered 27 people, appeared in the same edition of the newspaper. As has been noted earlier, some of the people he claimed to have killed were later established to still be alive, despite his claims of the confession being “genuine”.
Throughout the confession Holmes wrote of the defects of character which he had developed, and that they were easily discernible in his countenance, having caused physical changes to his face. He wrote of killing for “pecuniary gain” and that as his murders piled up he developed “the light regard I had for the lives of my fellow beings”. Holmes wrote of killing one of his male victims by starving him almost to death before needing the room in which he was held, “for another purpose and because his pleadings had become almost unbearable, I ended his life”. Holmes also described victims selected for the purpose of extorting their money, starving and gassing them over a period of time before they signed over securities and accounts to him, after which he finished them off and sold their bodies to medical schools. The chilling nature of his narrative sold well, and despite it being self-described as true, he later renounced the entire tale.
17. The Philadelphia Inquirer confession was contradicted
The confession which Holmes provided to the New York Journal, accompanied with the handwritten note which was reproduced on the front page, was not, as he claimed, the only confession he provided to the newspapers, if the newspapers of the day are to be believed. His first confession was to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the leading newspaper of the city where he was tried for the murder of his former partner, convicted, and sentenced to death. In it he claimed to have killed 27 people, and gave a mostly chronological (some were listed out of order, according to Holmes) listing of the victims and the circumstances of their deaths, including in some cases the money which he made from the killings. In some instances the victims were unnamed, with Holmes claiming that he simply couldn’t remember the name of the persons he had killed.
In some reproductions of the confessions, Holmes was quoted as saying, “I was born with the devil in me”, which did not appear in all newspapers which ran portions of the statements he gave. Whether Holmes uttered the words which explain his becoming a serial killer through the impetus of Satan has been debated ever since, as have so much of his life and his crimes. At the time of his execution, Holmes again recanted, denying his guilt in any killings. Holmes gave his final statement, according to his own words, because, “by not speaking I may be made to acquiesce in my execution”. After his execution, rumors began almost immediately that he had somehow managed to escape, and that the man buried outside Philadelphia had been another cadaver. The rumors led to his body being exhumed and tested for DNA evidence in 2017.
18. There are those who believe he was Jack the Ripper
H. H. Holmes has been mythologized by those to whom he has become a cottage industry, with longstanding rumors that he escaped the gallows and fled to South America, and even that he was the perpetrator of the Whitechapel murders assigned to the killer known as Jack the Ripper. As early as 1898, newspapers reported that Holmes had bribed the jailers who carried his living body out of prison in a coffin, after which he vanished. The rumors were based, in part, on Holmes being buried ten feet underground, sealed in concrete. A story in an 1898 edition of the Chicago Inter-Ocean claimed that Holmes was alive and living in Paraguay, earning a living as a coffee grower. The exhumation of the body and confirmation that it was in fact Holmes (through dental records) did little to end the speculation.
The truth about H. H. Holmes is forever obscured by the sensationalist manner in which he was described by the newspapers of the time, by his own contradictory statements, and by the continuing efforts to link him to crimes around the world. His name makes money through mystery tours, blogs, books, television specials, and films. Understanding that first and foremost he was a swindler and a liar, who killed primarily for profit, and who sold his story for profit, is important to his story. His alleged memoir, Holmes Own Story, said to have been written in prison, expresses his complete denial of involvement in the murder of his partner, the crime for which he was executed. Holmes was not America’s first or worst serial killer. But he was a murderer without conscience. “The legend of the Devil in the White City is effectively a new American tall tale”, wrote Adam Selzer, after researching the Holmes legend for years. “And like all the best tall tales, it sprang from a kernel of truth”.
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