Article — From the December 1943 issue

The Master of the Murder Castle

A classic of Chicago crime

( 3 of 5 )


However Holmes now engaged less frequently in petty frauds; he was branching out into mass murder for profit. Gone were the days when he must peddle worthless mineral water and liquor cures. Now he had reached the height of his powers, mentally and physically. He was in his early thirties, handsome, his sallow complexion enhanced by dark brooding eyes and a curled mustache. If he had been skinny as a boy he was supple as a man. His frequent amorous conquests had given him confidence, as had the success of his glib tongue among business men. Widely read, student of hypnotism and the occult, he had evolved certain esoteric theories concerning the origin and nature of human life. He prepared to test them, to conduct experiments on the human body. His old preoccupation with corpses returned. He was ready for important crime, and for the big money. Yet, though his career as a mass murderer was energetic, it was brief. His murder castle was built in 1892; two years later Holmes was in jail. In that space of time he is believed to have killed more than 20 women. Newspapers of the day hinted that the correct total would be nearer 200, pointing out that great numbers of persons who visited the Fair in 1893 disappeared. It is neither possible nor necessary to trace the fate of each of Holmes’s victims. The story of Minnie Williams will suffice.

She and her sister Anna were born in Mississippi; their parents died poor when the girls were very young. Anna remained in Mississippi with an aunt. Minnie went to Dallas, Texas, to visit an uncle, a Dr. Williams, who adopted her. In 1886 he sent her to Boston to attend the Conservatory of Elocution. About the time she was graduated her uncle died, leaving to her property in Fort Worth valued at about $20,000. After a brief visit with another uncle, the editor of the Methodist Christian Advocate, Minnie took her sister Anna to Dallas, where Anna entered school. Minnie, the elder sister, embarked on a teaching career. She taught elocution in Denver and at Midlothian, Texas. Presently she turned up in Mississippi and displayed a photograph of a certain young man named Harry Gordon in whom she was interested because he was “handsome, wealthy, and highly intelligent.” He was of course Dr. Holmes. In March of 1893 (she was in her early twenties) she went to Chicago and soon wrote to her aunt that she had married her friend and that she was very happy.

It is believed that Holmes committed his first murder for her. When she arrived at the castle he was living with Mrs. Conner. Minnie, an extremely attractive, fresh-faced young girl, was jealous. Holmes killed Mrs. Conner and her eight-year-old daughter, it is thought; later, investigators found numerous human bones in the castle and among them were bones believed to be from the body of a child. At any rate, Mrs. Conner and her child disappeared and Minnie Williams took her place as mistress of the castle.

And a strange place it was by that time. In all, it contained nearly a hundred rooms. There were “staircases that led nowhere in particular,” blind passageways, hinged walls, false partitions, rooms with no doors and rooms with many doors. All these centered on the second floor of the gloomy, forbidding structure. Holmes’s own apartments were at the front of this floor. A trap door was cut in his bathroom and from it a short hidden stairway led to a windowless cubicle between-floors in the heart of the house; from this a chute dropped straight to the cellar.

Behind Holmes’s apartments were various rooms labeled in contemporary newspaper sketches as “five-door room,” “secret room,” “mysterious closed room” (behind this last was a “dummy elevator for lowering bodies” to the basement), “the black closet,” “room of the three corpses,” “sealed room all bricked in,” “blind room,” “another secret chamber,” “the hanging secret chamber,” and so on–nearly forty rooms in all. Near the rear of the house was an “asphyxiation chamber–no light–with gas connections.” Here the large purchases of gas fixtures becomes meaningful; it apparently was Holmes’s practice to lock victims in this sealed, asbestos-lined room and to turn on the gas. Immediately behind the asphyxiation chamber was another chute down which the bodies could be dispatched to the basement. Some of the rooms on this second storey were lined with iron plates, some had false floors that concealed tiny airless chambers, nearly all had gas connections. The doors to all the rooms were wired to an elaborate alarm system which rang a buzzer in Holmes’s apartments.

The cellar was perhaps the most remarkable section of the building. It was fitted with operating tables, a crematory, pits containing quicklime and acids, surgical instruments, and various pieces of apparatus which, resembling mediaeval torture racks, never were satisfactorily explained. (Some thought Holmes used these appliances to wring from his victims the whereabouts of their wealth; others said he used them in experiments which he hoped would prove his pet theory that the human body could be stretched’ indefinitely, a treatment that, ultimately, would produce a race of giants.) Holmes sometimes destroyed the bodies of his victims completely; sometimes, aided by a needy skeleton articulator who answered his advertisement in the paper, he stripped the flesh from their bones and sold the skeletons to medical institutions.

To this house of horrors came young Minnie Williams. Her role is not entirely clear. She was almost certainly his victim. But some have hinted that she was also his accomplice; he used her Fort Worth real estate in some of his schemes, though probably without her knowledge. That she was his mistress there can be little doubt. Yet she played a strange role for a mistress on at least one occasion: she served as his witness when he married his third (and last) wife.

A few months after Minnie arrived at the castle she invited her younger sister Anna to join her. Anna left Texas at the end of June, 1893. On July 4th she wrote happily to her aunt that “sister, brother Harry, and myself” would leave the next day for Europe, where Anna might remain to study art. She added, “Brother Harry says you need never trouble any more about me, financially or otherwise; he and sister will see to me.” This proved prophetic: Anna Williams never was seen or heard from again.

Holmes himself later maintained that Minnie killed her younger sister Anna. The two girls had quarreled over Holmes’s affections a week after Anna arrived, he claimed, and Minnie had beaten Anna to death with a stool. Holmes added that he had obligingly put the body in a trunk, had weighted it with lead, and had dumped it into Lake Michigan three miles offshore. Although this seems unlikely, it never was proved or disproved; both girls vanished utterly. (Holmes said also, after his arrest for Pitzel’s murder, that Minnie had gone to England with Pitzel’s three missing children; this was one of his bland, amazing stories which threw investigators into complete confusion. )

That Minnie outlived Anna is certain. That Holmes got his hands on her money, then killed her, seems almost equally clear. He appeared in Fort Worth as O. C. Pratt, displayed title to Minnie’s property, borrowed on it, and prepared to build a house in behalf of his partner, a certain Lyman, who actuaIly was Ben Pitzel. To get a clear field in Chicago and a scapegoat in Fort Worth, Holmes lured his castle caretaker, Pat Quinlan, to Texas and then disappeared, leaving Quinlan to face Holmes’s irate creditors. In Chicago Anna vanished forever, and Minnie was not long for this earth.

During this spring and summer of 1893, while Minnie was Holmes’s mistress, at least two other young women are known positively to have vanished after coming to live at the castle, supposedly also as his mistresses, and the police believed that others fared similarly. All his girls were pretty and many were his stenographers. His favorites he had photographed “in the pose and dress affected by actresses.” He once displayed these photographs to an acquaintance in his apartments, perhaps while the girls’ bodies were decomposing in the cellar below. A contemporary paper noted that he “liked to get a nice, green, young girl fresh from a business college.” He hired more than a hundred and fifty women, it was estimated, and he had all of them appointed notaries public so that they could notarize his fraudulent documents (he told the unsuspecting girls that their appointment was a badge of merit). Frequently he included the “typewriters” as dummy directors in his many corporations.

To all his mistress-victims Holmes represented himself as wealthy, whereas in truth it usually was they who had the money, and that was why he seduced and murdered them. Almost without exception, they appear to have had two things in common: beauty and money. They lost both.

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