Article — From the December 1943 issue

The Master of the Murder Castle

A classic of Chicago crime

holmes

1895 mugshot of Herman W. Mudgett, alias H. H. Holmes, “an old hand at corpse manipulation and insurance fraud.”

 

Viewed from the outside, the murder castle was simply a big ungainly building, one of the architectural monstrosities common in the nineties. But its interior, honeycombed with trap doors and secret passageways and walled-up rooms, was the fulfillment of every small boy’s dream of a haunted house.

If ever a house was haunted, that one on Chicago’s South Side should have been. To this day, fifty years later, nobody knows precisely how many persons were murdered in it. Estimates range from twenty to a couple of hundred. Most, if not all, were women. It is believed that they were chloroformed, gassed, strangled, or perhaps beaten to death. Their bodies were destroyed in cellar pits containing quicklime and acids. Some of their skeletons were sold by their efficient murderer, who was determined to realize every penny of profit from his crimes.

He deserves to rank with the great criminals of history. Crime writers reserve the word “monster” for top-notch murderers. A monster ranks above such lesser criminals as fiends, beasts, and phantoms. He must meet certain rigid requirements. His victims, killed over a period of years and not for money alone, must be numerous and preferably female, and he must do unusual things with their bodies; he must inhabit a gloomy, forbidding dwelling, and he should be of a scientific bent. The master of the murder castle possessed all these qualifications and more. Magnificent swindler, petty cheat, mass murderer, he was a man of nimble, tortuous mind. He pyramided fraud upon fraud. Young, good-looking, glib, he mesmerized business men and captivated and seduced pretty young women, at least two of whom he married bigamously. Physician, student of hypnotism, dabbler in the occult, gentleman of fashion, devious liar, skillful manipulator of amazingly complex enterprises, he died on the gallows when he was thirty-five, his crimes exposed accidentally by the vengeful suspicions of that most despised figure in crime, the police informer.

On September 4, 1894, a caller, thinking it strange that the door to the little office at 1316 Callowhill Street in Philadelphia should be locked, enlisted the aid of Policeman George Lewis of the Eighth District; he forced the door and found the body of a man who apparently had been the victim of an explosion. Burns disfigured the face and left arm. Near by lay a pipe, several matches, and a broken bottle which apparently had contained some inflammable fluid similar to benzine. A coroner’s physician thought the man had been dead three days.

Though decomposition and fire made positive identification difficult, the dead man apparently was B. F. Perry, the tenant of the office. In his pockets were letters, presumably from his wife, though the bottom portions, including the signatures, had been torn away; they indicated that Perry had come to Philadelphia recently from St. Louis and that his wife was still there but expected to join him shortly. Neighbors knew him only as that new inventor fellow; they thought he had been conducting experiments of some sort, but nobody had heard an explosion in his office during the past few days. A coroner’s jury decided that he had died of burns. His body lay unclaimed in the morgue for ten days, then was buried in potter’s field. And that was that.

A few days later the Fidelity Mutual Life Association of Philadelphia received a letter from St. Louis claiming that B. F. Perry was Benjamin F. Pitzel, whose life was insured by the company. To Philadelphia came a pair of professional men representing the widow: Dr. H. H. Holmes, her friend, and Jephtha Howe, her attorney. They brought with them the dead man’s daughter, Alice, about fourteen, and explained that Mrs. Pitzel had been too ill to come in person to establish identification. Holmes said that Pitzel’s distinguishing marks included a mole on the back of the neck, a broken nose, peculiarly spaced teeth, and a twisted fingernail which had been crushed by a child’s rocking chair. The body was exhumed. Holmes identified it calmly, Alice fearfully. It was removed to another cemetery. The $10,000 insurance money was paid to Holmes, acting in behalf of the widow and Pitzel’s five children. Presently Fidelity received a letter from Mrs. Pitzel expressing her gratitude that the claim had been paid so promptly; it was said that the company used the letter for promotion purposes.

And there the matter might have ended had it not been for one of those amazing indiscretions which even the most accomplished of criminals commit. Brooding in a St. Louis jail was a notorious train robber, Marion Hedgepath, alias Hedspeth. Nearly two months after the finding of the body in Callowhill Street, Hedgepath sent a note to Police Chief Larry Harrigan offering to disclose details of a plot to defraud a Philadelphia life insurance company. He hinted at murder. When questioned, Hedgepath said that, some months before, a fellow-prisoner named Howard had offered him $500 if he would suggest an attorney of repute who would assist in a foolproof scheme to make $10,000. Howard planned to insure the life of B. F. Pitzel, to fake a fatal accident, to send Pitzel into hiding, and to substitute a body which he would obtain at a morgue and which he would identify as Pitzel’s. Howard said he had perpetrated similar frauds at other times. Hedgepath recommended as an aide Jephtha Howe, the younger brother of one of Hedgepath’s own attorneys.

Presently Howard was released from the jail, where he had been held briefly as a swindler. The plot progressed beautifully until Howard refused to permit Mrs. Pitzel to go to Philadelphia to identify the body. Attorney Howe suspected, too late, that Howard had double-crossed Pitzel and had actually murdered him instead of substituting a body. After the insurance was paid, Hedgepath said, Howard left Mrs. Pitzel to settle with Howe; they quarreled over his fee and $2,500 was put in escrow. Hedgepath never got his $500 share; this, coupled with a suspicion that his own defenders, including Jephtha Howe’s brother, were deserting him in the case pending against him, probably led Hedgepath to denounce the plotters.

At any rate, Chief Harrigan communicated with the Fidelity company, which called in the police and the Pinkerton private detectives. Before the vengeful Hedgepath was transferred to the penitentiary to begin serving a twenty-five-year term the investigators were hot on the complicated trail of Howard, alias H. H. Holmes. They caught up with him in Boston November 17th. By that time warrants had been issued charging him with conspiracy to defraud, murder, and horse thievery. He promptly helped the officers locate the widow Pitzel and two of her five children, then started telling a long series of complex lies which soon thoroughly confused the detectives. On the train back to Philadelphia in custody, he confessed the insurance fraud, denied the murder, expressed willingness to go to Philadelphia but refused to go to Texas where he was wanted only for horse theft, said that Pitzel was in South America and that the three missing Pitzel children were in (a) South America, (b) Detroit, (c) England. He also offered his befuddled guard $500 if he would permit him to hypnotize him en route. The guard refused.

Attorney Howe was taken into custody in St. Louis and went voluntarily to Philadelphia. He was not prosecuted. Nor was Mrs. Pitzel, who, though nearly prostrated by fear that her husband was dead, was questioned vigorously. The body of the dead inventor–Pitzel’s, or that of a ringer?–was exhumed a second time and autopsy revealed he had died of poisoning by chloroform administered before the explosion and fire. Search was begun for various other persons who had been involved with Holmes, Apparently unruffled by the furor, he continued to talk glibly and nimbly. Detectives spent months untangling his lies and investigating certain mysterious activities of his which had intrigued them while they pursued him all over the country. His career proved to have been remarkable.

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