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Mudgett, Using The Alias H. H. Holmes

In 1860, Herman W. Mudgett was born in the isolated community of Gilmanton Corners. He would later describe his birthplace as "a tiny, quiet New England village, nestling among the picturesquely rugged hills of New Hampshire". His father, Levi Mudgett, earned a comfortable living for his family as a farmer and postmaster. Yet all was not well in the Mudgett household. His mother, Theodate, appeared to lack any fondness for her children, whereas Levi had a habit of silencing the little Mudgetts with kerosene vapor when they became too noisy. Young Herman sought refuge in his hobby: experimenting on animals, first dead ones and then live ones.

At the age of 18, Herman Mudgett married Clara A. Lovering in Alton, New Hampshire. He attended a Vermont college, paying his tuition with Clara's inheritance. In 1879, Mudgett transferred to the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor. Here, he devised a way to make money. Mudgett stole cadavers from the medical school anatomy lab, funeral parlors and morgues, disfigured them and then staged accidents after taking out insur ance policies on his fictional extended family. Upon graduation, Mudgett returned to his wife and young son, Robert. He performed a surgical experiment on his son that left the boy disfigured and then Mudgett left home.

For the next six years, Mudgett traveled across the country. He spent at least a year in St. Paul and became a respected member of the community. That did not last. After he was appointed the receiver of a bankrupt store, Mudgett stocked the business on credit, sold the goods at low prices and then fled with the money. In New York, he taught school and boarded at the home of a farmer. After impregnating the farmer's wife, Mudgett left without paying his boarding bill.

In 1885, Mudgett settled in the North Shore Chicago suburb of Wilmette, presenting himself as an inventor. He unsuccessfully filed for divorce from Clara. Not to be deterred by legal formalities, Mudgett, using the alias H H. Holmes, married Myrta Z. Belknap. Shortly after the marriage, Holmes opened an office in downtown Chicago, selling machines for copying documents. He soon abandoned the failed business, leaving his creditors holding $9,000 in worthless notes.

As Dr. Holton's health failed, his wife focused on her dying spouse, leaving the management of the store to Holmes. After Dr. Holton died, Holmes offered to buy the store. The widow accepted and lived in an apartment above the store. When Holmes failed to pay the promised $100 per month, Mrs. Holton filed a lawsuit. Soon afterward, she disappeared. Holmes explained that she had sold him the business and then had moved out west. He could not provide a forwarding address. Around this time, Holmes collaborated with Benjamin Pitezel on an insurance scam in Indiana. The venture was a success for Holmes; Pitezel, on the other hand, went to jail. This time, Pitezel would get off easy.

In 1890, Holmes added a jewelry counter to his drugstore and hired Ned Connor as a watchmaker and jeweler. Connor moved into an apartment above the store with his wife, Julia, and daughter, Pearl. After Conner suspected that Holmes and Julia were having an affair, he left his family. It might have saved his life.

Holmes took out large insurance policies on Julia and Pearl; he named himself as their beneficiary. By this time, Holmes had purchased a lot across the street from the drugstore, and had begun to build a structure that he could operate as a hotel during the Columbian Exposition of 1893. More than 150 feet long and 50 feet wide, the three-storey building held about 100 rooms. Holmes used the first floor for a drug store, a candy store and other businesses. He divided the third floor into apartments that would see little use, except for Holmes himself. His bathroom had an unusual feature: a trapdoor that opened to a hidden stairway leading to a windowless room between floors and a chute that dropped to the cellar. The second floor, intended for public rooms, was a labyrinth of bizarrely arranged corridors leading to 35 rooms with their 52 doors. The structure that would become known first as Holmes' Castle and then, the Murder Castle, harbored secret passages, hinged walls and false partitions.

With construction completed in 1892, Holmes began to advertise the availability of accommodations for tourists who wanted to attend the upcoming Columbian Exposition. He also advertised jobs to young ladies in small-town newspapers. After acceptance, Holmes told a job applicant that she had to withdraw all money from her bank account to support herself in the beginning. He also instructed applicants to keep the location and the name of his company a closely- guarded secret. Secrecy was necessary to prevent competitors from stealing clients, he explained. The castle became the last stop for many of the applicants.

In 1893, Holmes, now posing as a wealthy inventor named Harry Gordon, met Minnie Williams, heir to a Texas real estate fortune, who worked as an instructor for a Chicago school. The engagement of Holmes and Williams did not please Julia Connor. Mrs. Connor and young Pearl vanished soon afterward. Holmes later told Ned Connor that his wife and daughter had moved to Michigan. Around that time, however, Holmes paid Charles M. Chappel $36 to strip the flesh from a woman's body and to reassemble the skeleton. The body is believed to have been Julia. Holmes sold the rearticulated skeleton to a local medical school. For over a year, Minnie Williams lived at the castle and learned about the murders that Holmes committed in the place. When Holmes flirted with 17-year-old Emily Van Tassel, it was Williams who urged her murder.

The beautiful Emily Cigrand accepted Holmes' offer of a job. After a few weeks, she became homesick for her family and the man she planned to marry, Robert E. Phelps. Unfortunately, Williams noticed Holmes lusting after the young woman. His interest signed her death warrant. One day, Holmes asked Emily to retrieve something from his vault. He closed the door behind her and she was never seen again. About a month later, LaSalle Medical School purchased from H.H. Holmes a perfect female human skeleton. Robert Phelps visited the castle to talk with Emily. He never left. Holmes had strapped Phelps into a rack-like device to see just how far the human body could stretch.

In June 1893, Minnie Williams' sister, Nannie, visited the castle. After seducing her, Holmes convinced Nannie to sign over her share of a Texas property. Nannie vanished soon afterward. Holmes later claimed that, after discovering the affair, Minnie hdd killed her own sister and that they had disposed of the body together in Lake Michigan.

When Georgiana Yoke applied for a job at the castle, Holmes introduced himself as Henry Mansfield Howard and Minnie Williams as his cousin. The three traveled to Denver where Holmes married Yoke in the presence of Williams, who acted as their witness. The three then traveled to Texas to claim Williams' property while Holmes, presenting himself as D.T. Pratt, managed a swindle of several railroad cars of pedigree horses. The horse theft brought a small fortune for Holmes, along with a possible death penalty conviction under Texas law. Williams vanished soon after the three returned to Chicago. Holmes told police that Minnie Williams had killed her sister and then had absconded to Europe.

Georgiana, Ben Pitezel and Holmes, who was still calling himself Henry M. Howard, traveled across the country and wound up in St. Louis, Missouri. Holmes obtained a small pharmacy and convinced salesmen at Merrill Drug Company to stock the store. He sold the store with the stock and told the drug company to get their money from the new owner. The company filed charges on 19 July 1894, and Holmes was arrested in St. Louis for committing fraud.

Before Georgiana bailed him out, Holmes talked with his cell- mate, convicted train robber Marion C. Hedgepeth. Holmes described his plans to take out an insurance policy on Ben Pitezel and then fake his friend's death in order to collect $10,000. He promised a $500 commission if Hedgepeth provided the name of a lawyer whom he could trust. The train robber referred Holmes to Colonel Jephtha Howe, who willingly went along with the plan.

Holmes and Pitezel put their scheme into action. Pitezel, calling himself B.F. Perry, traveled to Philadelphia and opened a business for buying and selling patents. According to the plan, Pitezel would fake a fatal accident and then the two would use a disfigured cadaver to represent B.F. Perry. It did not work out quite as planned. On the morning of 4 September, a customer tried to talk with Perry about a patent, but found the door locked. With the help of a policeman, the customer broke into the office and discovered the body of a man who seemed to have been caught in an explosion. A coroner's jury concluded that the man, apparently B.F. Perry, had accidentally died of burns. After the body went unclaimed for 10 days, it was buried in Potters Field. The Fidelity Mutual Life Association received a letter claiming that B.F. Perry was actually Benjamin F. Pitezel, a man whose life had been insured with the company. Jephtha Howe, representing Mrs. Pitezel, H.H. Holmes and Ben Pitezel's daughter, Alice, visited Philadelphia. After exhuming the body, Holmes and Alice identified Ben Pitezel as the victim.

The company paid Holmes $10,000 and received a letter from the widow, thanking them for prompt payment. The company reportedly used the letter in advertisements. Howe kept $2,500 and Holmes took the rest. Mrs. Pitezel did not get a cent and neither did Marion Hedgepeth, who read about the death in the newspaper.

Peeved at the Holmes' broken promise, Hedgepeth sent a letter to Major Lawrence Harrigan, Chief of the St. Louis Police, who informed William Gary, a Fidelity Mutual detective who was visiting the company's St. Louis office. The letter described a scam concerning a $10,000 life insurance policy for Ben Pitezel. Meanwhile, Holmes and Georgiana traveled with Ben Pitezel's three children and Mrs. Pitezel, who was unaware that her husband lay buried in Potters Field. Holmes sent Mrs. Pitezel east, presumably to meet Ben and she left her children in the care of Holmes and Georgiana.

After finding evidence of the swindle, Fidelity Mutual called in the Pinkerton Detective Agency. The Pinkerton detectives traced Holmes to Boston, where he was arrested on 17 November 1894. The police offered Holmes a choice: he could be hanged in Texas as a horse thief or he could confess to the insurance scam that he had carried off in Philadelphia. Holmes picked the latter. On the train ride to Philadelphia, Holmes confessed to insurance fraud, but he denied killing Ben Pitezel, insisting that the man was in or on his way to South America with his children.

Holmes pled guilty for a single count of insurance fraud in June 1895. By this time, he had changed the story about the fate of Pitezel and his children several times. According to the latest version, Minnie Williams had taken the children to London and Ben Pitezel had committed suicide. Unfortunately for Holmes, the authorities exhumed Pitezel's body for a second time and performed another autopsy. This time, the results revealed that chloroform had killed Pitezel before the explosion and fire. Holmes now faced a murder charge.

Frank P. Geyer, a detective with the Philadelphia Police Department, remained unconvinced that Williams and the Pitezel children lived in London. While investigating Holmes in Chicago, Geyer discovered that Holmes had arranged for his mail to be forwarded to a series of cities around North America, including Gilmanton, New York, Detroit, Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Toronto. For two months, Geyer followed the trail, investigating all the houses that Holmes had rented.

In Toronto, Geyer found a cottage at No. 16 St. Vincent Street that had been rented by a man who had traveled with two girls. A neighbor recalled that the man had borrowed a shovel to dig a hole for storing potatoes. Geyer borrowed the shovel and unearthed the corpses of Nellie and Alice Pitezel. Geyer also found a modified trunk in an upstairs bedroom. Someone had drilled a hole into the trunk and had inserted a rubber tube that lead to a gas pipe. Geyer feared the worst for Howard, the third Pitezel child entrusted to Holmes.

Holmes' Toronto neighbors recalled that the Pitezel girls had mentioned that they had a brother living in Indianapolis. Geyer traveled to that city and searched every real estate office until he found a trail that led to a vacant house that Holmes had rented in the suburb of Irvington. The kitchen stove held the boy's charred remains.

With the body count rising, the Chicago police decided that the abandoned castle merited a closer inspection. Detectives Fitzpatrick and Norton led a search of Holmes' castle that took several weeks. They discovered that some of the second floor guest rooms lacked windows and were designed to be air-tight. Other rooms had walls lined with sheet iron and asbestos. Concealed gas jets had allowed Holmes to suffocate or burn his guests. The police found human remains in stoves, fireplaces and chimneys throughout the structure.

Holmes had constructed a basement seven feet below the building which extended under the sidewalk. The subterranean rooms contained bloody dissecting tables, surgical instruments, various types of poisons and apparatuses resembling medieval torture racks. One room held a crematorium that contained ash, bone fragments, buttons and Minnie Williams' watch. Beneath the floors, they found quicklime pits, a vat of corrosive acid and the bones of a small child. Ned Connor identified a bloody dress as having belonged to his wife, Julia.

Holmes's trial for the murder of Ben Pitezel started in October 1895 and lasted only six days. It was hailed as one of the "trials of the century". After two and a half hours, the jury returned a verdict of guilty. Jurors later claimed that they had decided in one minute, but stayed out longer for the sake of appearance. The Honorable Michael Arnold issued a death sentence on 30 November.

Holmes used his remaining days at Moyamensing Prison to utter a series of contradictory confessions. He sold the rights to his final, major confession to William Randolph Hearst for $7,500. On 12 April, newspapers printed his detailed admissions in which Holmes said that he had killed a total of 27 people.

On 7 May 1896, Holmes was led to the gallows. Here, he retracted previous confessions. "[T]he extent of my wrongdoings in taking human life", he said, "consisted in the deaths of two women, they having died at my hands as the result of criminal operations." Today, investigators suggest that Holmes was being modest and that he had likely killed anywhere from 19 to 300 people.

Phill Jones. The Crimes of the Mysterious Mr. Mudgett. History Magazine. October/November 2010.

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