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December 1943 Issue [Article]

The Master of the Murder Castle

A classic of Chicago crime

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.


His true name, it appears, was Herman W. Mudgett. In his home town of Gilmanton, New Hampshire, he was considered a bright lad. Before he was twenty-one he married the daughter of a well-to-do New Hampshire family and she helped to educate him. He studied in Vermont and at the medical school of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Here began his lifelong preoccupation with cadavers.

He was a brilliant but erratic student. Perhaps this was due to his extra-curricular activities. On the night a body disappeared while being taken to the college dissecting room a resident of Ann Arbor “died” after a brief illness. Holmes collected insurance. Thus he established a pattern for himself. Not long after, he left school. His wife and child returned to New Hampshire; they did not see him again until more than ten years later, when he reappeared, a fugitive. Shortly after abandoning his wife he arranged for her to hear, in a highly roundabout manner, that his memory had been impaired in a train wreck. This was characteristic of the man: he could not simply desert his family; he must erect a complicated structure of improbable lies to explain matters.

After dabbling briefly in petty fraud and an unsuccessful attempt to swindle an insurance company of $20,000 with another planted body, the young criminal turned up in Chicago about 1885 as H. H. Holmes. He married bigamously the daughter of a well-to-do family of Wilmette, a wealthy suburb north of Chicago. Here he set another pattern for himself: the pyramiding of fraud upon credit. The details varied but the main outlines of the scheme remained the same wherever Holmes worked it subsequently. He would borrow, with worthless notes and smooth talk, enough money to buy a lot. To repay the original loan, he would borrow on the lot. He would build a house in highly frenetic fashion, discharging workmen wrathfully, threatening suit against subcontractors, cajoling those he could not frighten, stalling, always stalling the payroll. As soon as the roof was on he would order huge quantities of furniture and other merchandise–on credit of course. He would sell the furniture to pay off the clamoring workmen and the loan on the lot. By the time the furniture company got round to repossessing its property the furniture was gone and so was Holmes; or else he had devised some new swindle which raised enough cash to pay off the furniture company and was now embarked on a fresh scheme to get money to appease his latest victim. And so on.

Withal he found time to father three children and establish himself in the Wilmette house as a solid citizen. His wife of course knew nothing of his many activities, which were rapidly becoming more numerous and more mysterious. How he explained to her his long absences is not recorded, but the task, intimidating to lesser men, probably was relatively simple for a man of his agile imagination.

Before he had been long in Chicago he failed in probably the only honest business he ever attempted to conduct. He was president of the A.B.C. Copier Company, a concern producing an excellent device for copying documents. (Holmes appears in the role of “copier” every now and then.) He even went so far as to pay his typewriter–as stenographers then were called. (He seduced, mulcted, and murdered subsequent typewriters instead of paying them.) When the business failed Holmes gave up his office, leaving behind an assortment of creditors and taking with him fifty gallons of glycerine which did not belong to him. Later it was hinted that he intended to prepare nitroglycerine with the loot and perhaps did so.

Holmes now transferred his activities to the Englewood district of Chicago, centering on 63d Street; here he was to achieve lasting fame. He began humbly, working as a clerk in a drugstore at 63d and Wallace Streets. Before long he had bought out or driven out the proprietress, and in 1892 he built on the opposite corner the enormous, improbable structure later to be known as his murder castle. It was more than a hundred and fifty feet long and fifty feet wide, huge and ugly, with three storeys and a basement. The first floor was cut up into stores, including a drugstore on the corner which Holmes operated until crime became a full-time job for him. The third floor consisted of apartments. On the second floor and in the cellar were the horror chambers, as we shall see.

Holmes ostensibly built the place as a hotel to accommodate visitors to the great Fair of 1893. It was months a-building; sometimes the work progressed with frantic haste; sometimes it languished. Its progress was an index to the success of the swindler’s money-raising schemes.

And he was exceedingly active throughout Englewood, which was, and is today, a thriving, self-contained community on Chicago’s South Side. Here Holmes marketed a sure-fire cure for alcoholism, crusading with great zeal against the evil of drink. He opened a restaurant and sold it before the outfitting company could repossess the fixtures. When, after banking hours, a citizen came to the drugstore to get large bills for $178 in small change, Holmes gave him a worthless personal check and stalled him off successfully for two years. He sold his drugstore by misrepresenting the volume of business; to substantiate his claims he hired various persons to stream into the store and make expensive purchases. He bought a large safe, moved it into a small room of the castle, narrowed the size of the room’s door, refused to pay for the safe, and invited the owner to repossess it but warned him not to mar the house.

Having “invented” a machine which made illuminating gas out of water, he demonstrated it successfully to an expert who could not discover in the Rube Goldberg maze of pipes, pulleys, wires, and other gadgets the one pipe which tapped the gas company’s mains; aided by the expert’s endorsement, Holmes sold his “invention,” which looked like a washing machine on stilts, to a Canadian for $2,000. When the invention was removed from the basement a hole remained; presently Holmes announced that he had discovered in it a miraculous mineral spring; he piped the healing potion upstairs to his drugstore and retailed it successfully at five cents per glass until the water company threatened to prosecute him for tampering with its mains. (It was not long before the hole in the cellar floor was enlarged to accommodate a quicklime pit.)

Perhaps his most spectacular swindle during this period involved the furnishings of the castle. He bought truckloads of furniture, crockery, mattresses, bedsprings, hardware, and gas fixtures (a sinister item, it turned out). All this was delivered to the castle on 63d Street. The Tobey Furniture Company, unpaid a week later, became anxious and dispatched an agent to watch the house, then demanded payment. Holmes’s usual tactics of cajolery failed, and the company sent vans and brawny moving men to repossess its property. They found the house empty. Yet the company’s own agent swore that no furniture had been taken out and, indisputably, it had been taken in. The castle had swallowed the furniture as, later, it would swallow human beings.

A janitor at the castle gave the game away for a $25 bribe. Holmes had moved all the furniture into one room, taken out the door frame, bricked up the door, and papered the wall. (The porter offered further disclosures for another $25 but was ignored; it was a narrow escape for Holmes.) In a space between the top floor and the roof the angry searchers found the missing crockery; one of them put his foot through the ceiling and Holmes sued his company for $75. The suit was thrown out of court. It never has been established whether Holmes, when he built blind rooms and secret passageways into his castle, contemplated murder or merely simple swindles such as this concealment of merchandise. He was not prosecuted by these creditors. But his unsuccessful attempt to cheat them contributed ultimately to his downfall.

During all this time he still was maintaining a home with his wife in Wilmette. (Indeed, his mother-in-law was at one time listed as owner of the castle; its ownership changed constantly and included at least one mythical personage and a company incorporated by five men, of whom two were phantoms.) His Wilmette wife however probably never lived at the castle, and when neighbors spoke of his jealous wife who lived there with him they must have meant Mrs. Julia Conner, who is believed to have been the first woman Holmes murdered. Whoever this jealous one was, she sometimes slipped downstairs when she heard a female voice overlong in the drugstore; to thwart her, Holmes removed the third step on the stairs and installed an electric buzzer that warned him of her approach. The success of this device may have inspired him to develop the singular system of alarms which later betrayed the attempted flight from the castle of any of his prisoners. Mrs. Conner, her husband, and their eight-year-old child came to Chicago about 1890 and the couple found employment in the drugstore which Holmes was engaged in buying or stealing from its proprietor. Mrs. Conner, a good-looking woman, became Holmes’s mistress; when he built his castle she and her daughter moved into it with him, and her husband departed.

During this period Holmes went briefly to Texas where he allegedly stole a horse and indisputably met a young woman named Minnie Williams who later was to play an important part in his career. Also during this period he met in Chicago Benjamin F. Pitzel, an ineffectual man with larceny in his heart, for whose murder Holmes one day would hang. It is known that they lived together for a time, that in 1892 Holmes bailed Pitzel out of a Terre Haute jail where he was held on a bad-check charge, that some of their belongings were intermingled. Whether the two men actually worked together as partners in fraud prior to the insurance swindle which ended in Pitzel’s death is unknown, but probable.


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.


Toward the end of 1893 matters came to a head for the master and before the year was out he was to be driven from his castle, pursued hotly not by the police but by angry creditors and a fire insurance company he had attempted unsuccessfully to defraud. Old crimes were rising to plague him. In need of money, he set fire to his castle early in November of 1893 and tried to collect on a $60,000 insurance policy. The proof of loss looked fraudulent, so did the building’s ownership. Inspector F. G. Cowie, learning something of Holmes’s reputation, shadowed him. He discovered that Holmes had abandoned his family in Wilmette and his castle, and was living furtively in a small hotel on the South Side with Minnie Williams. They moved frequently, and sometimes Ben Pitzel lived with them. The detective described Minnie as “of medium height, with a well-developed figure, big brown eyes, light hair, and what I call a baby face. She didn’t seem to know a great deal.” Using a fictitious name, Holmes brazenly appeared at the insurance office to collect; while clerks kept him occupied, Inspector Cowie called on Minnie and told her the plot was exposed; she broke down and surrendered the policy. Cowie dropped the matter.

But Holmes’s old creditors began to make serious trouble. He owed them between $25,000 and $50,000, much of it for the castle’s furnishings. Up to then he had managed to keep his creditors segregated and at bay with smooth talk. Now, on November 22, 1893, they met in a body. Holmes appeared before them and represented himself as an honest man who had fallen on hard times. They were not impressed. Their attorneys prepared to swear out warrants for his arrest the next day. Holmes fled from Chicago. His next public appearance was in Denver where, on January 17, 1894, he married his third wife, Georgie Anna Yoke, with Minnie Williams as a witness. (It will be recalled that Minnie once had taught school in Denver.) Georgie Anna was a tall, slender beauty of about twenty-five with flaxen hair and blue eyes so large, one newspaper commented, as to be almost disfiguring. Here is another of the not quite solved mysteries of Holmes’s tangled affairs. It is probable that she was the only one of his women that he really loved. For an astonishing length of time she remained loyal to him. Yet in the end she testified against him at his trial for murder. She was the daughter of a respectable family in the small town of Franklin, Indiana. One newspaper described her as “adventurous.” She met Holmes when she went to Chicago during the Fair to work in an office with which he was connected. Holmes must have seen her often during that busy year of 1893, when Minnie was his mistress, and various women, including Emily Van Tassel and Emeline Cigrand, were his victims. Yet Georgie Anna he neither seduced, murdered, nor so much as threatened. He must have courted her in a more or less conventional way; her mother had the impression that he was wealthy and a gentleman.

Minnie Williams dropped out of sight early that spring of 1894. Georgie Anna had the field to herself. But the great days were done. The master was on the run. It is not known with certainty whether he ever again performed his murderous rites in his castle. By June he was in jail in St. Louis charged with a common swindle and Georgie Anna was hiring an attorney to defend him. Before he was released he had confided to Marion Hedgepath his plot to defraud the Philadelphia insurance company by falsely identifying a planted body as that of B. F. Pitzel. Things went according to plan (for everybody but Pitzel) until Hedgepath denounced the plotters. From then on Holmes was a fugitive.


Now he embarked on perhaps the most remarkable flight in criminal history. For, instead of going into hiding alone, he took with him not only his own bigamously wedded wife but also the wife and children of his victim. And before he was caught he visited, supposedly, the only woman he ever married legally, his long-forgotten first wife.

The truly fantastic part of this odyssey–and it is characteristic of the man’s agility–is that neither Georgie Anna nor Mrs. Pitzel knew that the other was anywhere in the vicinity. Holmes performed such miracles as keeping Mrs. Pitzel and Georgie Anna ignorant of each other’s presence on the same train; when they arrived in certain cities he established Mrs. Pitzel in one rooming house, her children in another, and Georgie Anna in a third. And all the while he was inventing lies and carrying on a complicated correspondence involving half a dozen forwarding addresses, all designed to allay Mrs. Pitzel’s suspicions that her husband was not in hiding but was dead. Moreover, at the same time Holmes managed to give “$2,000 and a number of presents” to Georgie Anna; this may have come out of Mrs. Pitzel’s insurance money or it may have been part of the proceeds of the sale of some property in Fort Worth which he probably stole from Minnie Williams, deeded to Pitzel, and stole again from Pitzel’s widow. (The man’s affairs were hopelessly involved; only he could have straightened them out in their proper order, and perhaps, in the end, even he would have been confused.) Mrs. Pitzel later testified that she had received only $500 of the insurance money.

Georgie Anna and Mrs. Pitzel and the children did not all constantly accompany Holmes on his ceaseless travels. After committing the murder he had returned to Indianapolis with Georgie Anna (she had been with him in Philadelphia). In the next few weeks he made two trips to St. Louis and one to Philadelphia; since these and other trips involved the divergent interests of Georgie Anna and Mrs. Pitzel, Holmes must of necessity have invented elaborate lies to explain his absences to them. Early in October he left Georgie Anna in Indianapolis and told her he was going to Cincinnati. She joined him in Detroit. He met Mrs. Pitzel there also; he had told her she would see her husband there, but now he stalled her and sent her to her parents at Galva, Illinois. Then they all went to Toronto. But by now three of Mrs. Pitzel’s children were missing, perhaps lost in the shuffle. So was her husband; his last letter, written four days before he died, had inquired, “Have you seen or heard from Alice, Nellie, or Howard since this man got possession of them? I have not…. ” Nearly beside herself, Mrs. Pitzel wanted to know where they were. Holmes said they were being kept by a widow in Indianapolis; he suggested blandly that another of the children, Jeanette, should join them. But he could not remember the widow’s name. Nevertheless, so persuasive was he that he convinced Mrs. Pitzel that her children were in good hands and that her husband was alive in Montreal. From Toronto she went to other towns in Canada, then to Ogdensburg, New York, and Burlington, Vermont.

Here she found Holmes digging a hole in the cellar. It was a habit he had. When discovered, he left, and Mrs. Pitzel did not see him again until they both were in police custody. He went to New Hampshire, where he visited his aged parents and, reportedly, his first wife, the girl who had helped put him through medical school. On this visit he settled some old accounts, bought a suit for his son, presented his wife with gifts, and cheated his brother out of $300, part of which he reputedly needed to redeem a trunk that contained a body. He then left for Boston, where he was arrested. He decoyed Mrs. Pitzel and her two remaining children into the police net and she was taken to Philadelphia with him.

Here Holmes told a baffling collection of lies concerning the whereabouts of Pitzel and the three Pitzel children. Pitzel, it was quickly established, was dead. (Therein lies the irony of the whole case: Holmes, long-time successful swindler, was ultimately caught in an investigation launched by an insurance company which believed itself defrauded but which actually had not been defrauded at all.) In searching for the missing children, Detective Frank P. Geyer and other officers uncovered Holmes’s entire lurid criminal background. They found the bodies of the two little girls, Nellie and Alice, side by side in a shallow grave in the cellar of a house Holmes had rented at Toronto, and they found the boy Howard’s charred bones in a stove in a house in Irvington, a suburb of Indianapolis. (Apparently the children had encumbered Holmes’s flight.) So well had he concealed his activities that it was not until nearly a year after Pitzel was murdered that the officers learned the truth about the children and the murder castle.

On October 28, 1895, the first day of his trial for Pitzel’s murder, Holmes dismissed his attorneys. (Subsequently he recalled them, but to the end it was really he who tried the case.) He displayed a “remarkable familiarity with the law,” the newspapers observed; during recesses he sat in the dock and read Stephen’s Digest of the Laws of Evidence.

The trial was a national sensation. Perhaps the high point came when Holmes cross-examined Georgie Anna Yoke. As he did so “she never raised her eyes, and gave her replies in a whisper. The crier repeated them aloud.” Holmes wept. (When he had requested a pre-testimony interview with her, “my wife,” the district attorney had snapped, “Which wife?”)

The murderer presented no witnesses in his own defense. In closing arguments his attorneys claimed that Pitzel had committed suicide. The jurors didn’t believe it: Though they reportedly reached a verdict immediately, they waited “for a seemly period” before reporting Holmes guilty. A journalist noted the spectators’ opinion that the evidence against Holmes really was not strong enough to convict but that the murderer had received what moralists of the day termed his just deserts. He was hanged at Moyamensing Prison.

The case is not wholly satisfactory. To begin with, since Holmes was tried in Philadelphia, no really thoroughgoing investigation ever was made of the crimes for which he is remembered: the slaughter in his murder castle. How many people did he kill? Holmes himself made various statements and “confessions,” in which he admitted a varying number of murders. Why did he kill? For money alone? But he was an accomplished swindler; he had easy access to money. Out of passion then? To silence successive mistresses who witnessed his crimes? Or in a perverted spirit of scientific inquiry? (Once he himself said he killed partly for the joy of killing.)

More troublesome still is the consideration of why, precisely, he murdered Pitzel. (One theory is that Pitzel was killed accidentally while he and Holmes were rehearsing the explosion.) Holmes had known Pitzel a long time and, presumably, could trust him. Did he kill Pitzel because he feared betrayal? But Pitzel was as deeply involved as Holmes. Did they quarrel? Perhaps; four days before his death Pitzel wrote of “this man” Holmes who had “got possession” of the Pitzel children. Or did he kill Pitzel because it was the only way in which he could recover the Fort Worth property which he had stolen from Minnie Williams, then deeded to Pitzel? The motive is not established.

But perhaps the most inexplicable circumstance of all is his taking Marion Hedgepath into his confidence and thus bringing about his own downfall. Holmes was an old hand at corpse manipulation and insurance fraud; he already had enlisted the aid of Pitzel, an associate of long standing. Why did he feel that he needed also an outsider, an attorney? And why, to find one, did he seek help from a common crook, whom he must have despised? And anyway, why detail the whole plot to Hedgepath? Does the answer lie in the traditional egotism of murderers that betrays them into braggadocio? But that is the mark of an amateur, not the mark of a veteran murderer and certainly, above all, not the mark of a professional swindler, one of the wiliest, most close-mouthed of all criminals.

No, there simply is no explanation. But for that one fatal indiscretion, Holmes might be alive yet. After all, he would have been only in his seventies when Chicago had another World’s Fair. And at that time, though it has since been wrecked, his murder castle still was standing.

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February 1959

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