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Holmes, one of the first serial killers in the United States, preyed mainly on naive and gullible women young women who wouldn’t be missed amid the thousands of World’s Fair tourists streaming into Chicago’s fashionable Englewood neighborhood.
As Chicago basked in the bright light of the White City, the 1893 Columbian Exposition that was making headlines around the world, Holmes was remorselessly collecting people, using them and efficiently discarding them. After arriving in Chicago in the late 1880s, he built what became known as his Murder Castle at 63rd and Wallace streets and proceeded to murder, swindle, lie, steal and cheat, all under the facade of upper class respectability as the friendly neighborhood druggist and businessman.
Holmes gave Americans one of their first well publicized cases of serial killings. The specter of anonymous victims murdered in the big city runs through our popular culture, kept alive by rare but notorious cases. Among them: the discovery this month of seven bodies, and the search for more, in northwest Indiana.
Readers today likely know Holmes, whose real name was Herman Mudgett, from Erik Larson’s 2003 best seller, “The Devil in the White City.” Tribune readers near the turn of the last century met Holmes as the subject of a disturbing story published March 31, 1893, just over a month before the World’s Fair was to open. The article detailed how Holmes had failed to pay for hundreds of dollars in furnishings for a hotel he planned to run at the castle to cash in on fair tourists. When angry merchants showed up to demand that he return the goods, they found nothing but empty rooms. Later a hidden room containing much of the furniture was discovered. Other concealed areas held a number of mattresses and box springs. The furnishings were removed; Holmes was left behind.
And Holmes might well have gotten away with it all had his last nefarious scheme not unraveled faster than he could cut away the loose ends.
On Nov. 17, 1894, he was arrested and accused of attempting in Philadelphia his favorite ploy: a life insurance fraud wherein a badly disfigured corpse plays the role of the insured. But in the following days, the Tribune’s headlines revealed the growing, horrifying reality that Holmes wasn’t just a con man: “Murder in the case,” “Hint of dark deeds” and “Spins his own web.” Officials suspected Holmes didn’t bother to bring in a corpse this time, and just killed his partner, Benjamin Pitzel. Holmes, one of the first serial killers in the United States, preyed mainly on naive and gullible women young women who wouldn’t be missed amid the thousands of World’s Fair tourists streaming into Chicago’s fashionable Englewood neighborhood in 1893. After arriving in Chicago in the late 1880s, he built what became known as his Murder Castle at 63rd and Wallace streets and proceeded to murder, swindle, lie, steal and cheat, all under the facade of upper class respectability as the friendly neighborhood druggist and businessman.
About a week later, the Tribune’s big Sunday paper unspooled a 21/2 page tale of Holmes’ long history of chicanery, much of it in Chicago. HOLMES, CROOK,” with secondary headlines such as “Bad From His Boyhood” and “Began to Tread Devious Paths When a College Student,” it told how Holmes, while attending the University of Michigan, teamed up with a med student there to pull off the corpse life insurance scheme multiple times.
“As an all around fraud Holmes had a wonderful success with men, but he preferred women and insurance companies. He said they came easier. Swindler of men, betrayer of women, he has left behind him a wake of ruin and tears that not all the courts of America can wash away,” the Tribune reported.
The story also asked: Whatever happened to Pitzel’s three children?
The answer and horrifying truth would have to wait about eight months. On July 15,
1895, the bodies of Pitzel’s two daughters, Alice and Nellie, were discovered buried in a cellar in Toronto. Little Howard was believed dead, but his body was still missing.
The swindler was revealed to be a serial killer. It was front page news across the country. And the search for other bodies began. The Tribune described it in a 1937 article: “O, what a queer house it was! In all America there was none other like it. Its chimneys stuck out where chimneys should never stick out. Its stairways ended nowhere in particular. Winding passages brought the uninitiated with a frightful jerk back to where they had started from. There were rooms that had no doors. There were doors that had no rooms. A mysterious house it was indeed a crooked house, a reflex of the builder’s own distorted mind. In that house occurred dark and eerie deeds.”
Police found a house of horrors.
Holmes had created a “murder factory.” Rooms could be locked from the outside. A third floor room was a veritable bank vault, padded to muffle sound and fitted with a gas pipe to asphyxiate victims. A hidden shaft to the cellar made for easy disposal of bodies. And it was the cellar of the “murder factory” where Holmes undoubtedly worked, the Tribune reported. Behind a fake wall, police found a butcher’s table, quicklime vats, bones, bloody clothing and a crematory. In the oven, “They found a woman’s watch chain. They found the buckle of a woman’s garter,” the Tribune reported.
The watch chain was Minnie’s. The garter buckle was her sister’s.
Through the summer, Tribune readers learned of Holmes’ other victims, including the Conner family. Ned and Julia Conner and their 12 year old daughter, Pearl, had moved to Chicago from Davenport, Iowa. Holmes hired Ned Conner to handle the jewelry counter in his corner store, installed Julia as a bookkeeper and leased the family rooms in his hotel. He then seduced Julia, breaking up her marriage and sending the “mild, inoffensive” Ned packing. Julia and Pearl went missing in 1893.
A former secretary named Emeline Cigrand and her fiance also went missing. Her remains were reported found in a story headlined “Bones in a trunk.”
As the bodies piled up, Holmes, still jailed in Philadelphia, remained cool, admitting only to insurance fraud and denying killing anyone.
But when a jury convicted him of Benjamin Pitzel’s death, his facade began to crack. Jeff Mudgett, who says he is Holmes’ great great grandson, claims in a book that his ancestor was Jack the Ripper, who supposedly killed five prostitutes in London in 1888.
Holmes was sentenced on March 9, 1896, to be executed. A month later, the North American newspaper in Philadelphia printed what it said was Holmes’ confession, running three whole newspaper pages, in which Holmes wrote of his “blood curdling atrocities with an abandon that simply appalls one,” the Tribune said.
Claiming again that he killed 27 people and was preparing to kill six more, he wrote, “I was born with the very devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to song, nor the ambition of an intellectual man to be great. The inclination to murder came to me as naturally as the inspiration to do right comes to the majority of persons.”
Editor’s note: Thanks to Kathy Berg, of Chicago’s Clearing neighborhood, and Mark Graham, of Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood, for suggesting this Flashback.