H. H. Holmes, America’s First Serial Killer – Part II

H._H._HolmesPart I left off with one burning question: how did H. H. Holmes kill the Pitezel children? We’ll get to that in a minute. If you haven’t read Part I, you may want to before continuing on.

Flush with the insurance cash from Pitezel’s death, Holmes took off on his own. In Boston, he met a railroad heiress, Minnie Williams, who became his mistress and stenographer—a position held by many of Holmes’ lady friends who never made it out of the castle alive. Minnie was different, though. Some say she acted as his accomplice. A few months into her stay at the castle Minnie invited her younger sister, Anna, to join her. Anna left Texas at the end of June, 1893, and on July 4th, she wrote home, telling her aunt, “Sister, Brother Harry (meaning Holmes), and myself will leave in a few days for Europe, where I might remain to study art. Brother Harry says you need never trouble any more about me, financially or otherwise; he and sister will see to me.”

At the time she didn’t know how right she was…no one ever heard from Anna Williams again.

Later, Holmes would claim that Minnie killed her sister in a fit of jealously. In his version of events Minnie beat Anna to death with a stool and he assisted Minnie in stuffing the body inside a trunk, weighting it down with lead, and dumping it into Lake Michigan, three miles offshore. This theory could never be proven or disproven, though it seems unlikely since Minnie disappeared shortly after.

Holmes later claimed Minnie was hiding out with the three missing Pitezel children.

During the spring and summer of 1893, while Minnie was still very much alive, at least two other young women vanished after arriving at the castle—supposedly they were Holmes’ mistresses, too. Police believe there are many more whose remains they never recovered. All the girls were beautiful, and many held the position of stenographer. Another of Holmes’ “creative outlets” was photography. In his words, “[he] liked to get a nice, green, young girl fresh from a business college.” More than once he showed photographs to house guests while the model decomposed in the basement.

It’s estimated that he hired more than one-hundred-and-fifty women as notaries to legitimize his fraudulent documents or as “typewriters”—faux directors in his numerous corporations. He told them this was a “badge of merit” when in reality, he was sealing their fate. To all his victims, including the young women, he represented himself as wealthy. In truth, they were usually the wealthy ones, which is what enticed Holmes in the first place.Holmes Murder Castle

Eventually Holmes convinced Minnie to sign over the Fort Worth property, worth over $40, ooo., to O. C. Pratt (another of Holmes’ alibis). When she did Holmes sucked it clean of equity in preparation of building on the land. But the creditors lined up before he had the chance. Holmes, being the crafty, manipulative master that he was, lured the Murder Castle’s caretaker, Quinlan, to Texas, then disappeared, leaving Quinlan to face the irate creditors alone.

In what some describe as the most remarkable flight in criminal history, Holmes went into hiding with Georgiana Yolk (his third wife, and perhaps the only woman he truly loved), his mistress, Mrs. Carrie Pitezel, and her two remaining children. The truly fantastic part of this journey—and a testament to the craftiness of H. H. Holmes—is that neither Georgiana nor Carrie knew the other was anywhere near the vicinity, even while on the same train. When they reached a new city Holmes set up Carrie Pitezel in one rooming house, her children in another, and Georgiana in a third—all while using half a dozen forwarding addresses in correspondence in order to keep Mrs. Pitezel’s suspicions about her husband at bay. The numerous schemes, lies, and affairs were so intertwined that even Holmes himself might have had a problem constructing an accurate timeline, never mind investigators ever having a shot of figuring it out.

The Pinkerton Detective Agency was known for chasing criminals from one end of the country to another. They were also the innovators of the mugshot. “We never sleep” was their motto, which would be put to the test with H. H. Holmes when the insurance company that paid the benefits to Mrs. Pitezel hired them to track the widow, as well as Holmes.

In a bizarre twist of irony, the insurance company who hired The Pinkerton Detective Agency because they believed they had been swindled, when in reality they hadn’t (Benjamin Pitezel was in fact dead), would become Holmes’ undoing.

Tracking Holmes’ trail to Toronto, Canada, Detective Frank Geyer found the decomposed remains of the three Pitezel children—one girl was stuffed inside the stove at 16 St. Vincent Lane, a property Holmes rented, and the other was buried in the cellar. Nellie’s feet had been removed to prevent the identification of her club foot. Geyer followed Holmes to Indianapolis, where he’d rented a cottage. Before the murder of his co-conspirator, Pitezel, Holmes had visited a local pharmacy to purchase chloroform and swung by the repair shop to sharpen the knives he used to chop up Pitezel’s son before burning his corpse. Geyer found the boy’s teeth and bits of bone in the chimney at 16 St. Vincent Lane.

How did he kill the two girls?

By forcing them into a large trunk, locking them inside as he drilled a hole into the lid, and then stuck one end of a hose through the opening, filling the trunk with poisonous gas, asphyxiating them to death. What a horrible way to die!

In his haste to allude authorities once Pitezel’s manner of death was changed to homicide, Holmes made one fatal error. He never sent Hedgepeth the $500 finder’s fee. Still in prison, Hedgepeth contacted the warden and informed him of the insurance scam as well as several of Holmes’ more sinister activities that he’d shared during Holmes’ brief stint in jail.

In Boston, Detective Geyer tracked down the elusive H. H. Holmes and arrested him for first degree murder and fraud.

One year later, the police would enter the Murder Castle and discover the horrors inside. Among the chains and numerous death devises they found piles of human and animal bones, bloody undergarments, and a dissection table saturated with dried blood. Chicago police were inundated with reports of people missing from the World’s Fair. Fifty were eventually traced to the castle. But because of the heiness nature of how they were killed it made it difficult to ID them. Most of the bones were crushed into fragments.

H. H. HolmesThe world now dubbed Holmes the Monster of 63rd Street, Torture Doctor, and Modern Bluebeard. Overnight he’d transformed into “The Mighty Murderer,” a nickname dubbed by a journalist. He was more widely known than Jack the Ripper. The Murder Castle piqued people’s curiosity so much that a businessman bought it in order to turn into a morbid tourist attraction. Days before the “museum” was set to open the castle mysteriously burned to the ground.

Obviously someone, probably a family member of one his victims or a neighbor, didn’t want the castle to draw this type of attention.

Now behind bars, Holmes wrote an autobiography entitled Holmes Own Story to appeal to the public for a “fair trial.” He was desperately trying to convince them he was innocent.

In October 1895, a trial date was set. The trial of the century, filled with manipulation and theatrics, would shock spectators for years to come. Holmes dismissed his counsel in an attempt to control the courtroom.

On the third day of trial, Mrs. Carrie Pitezel took the witness stand, recounting the insurance fraud and Holmes’ taking her three children across the country, never allowing her to see them again. The entire courtroom cried with her, even the judge and the detectives who worked the case…everyone except H. H. Holmes, who seemed indifferent as he doodled on a notepad. The letters she’d written to her parents, the ones Holmes intercepted and police later found in his custody, gave the prosecutor a perfect timeline of events.

With the cards quickly stacking against him Holmes hired a new attorney to take over.

As the days roll into weeks the courthouse crowd grew. Georgiana Yolk took the stand. By the mere sight of his wife, Holmes fell apart, sobbing uncontrollably. Georgiana told all she knew about her husband, but unfortunately, she wasn’t privy to the darker side of his personality.

Holmes’ new attorney offered no witnesses. Holmes made no statement of his own.

Not one juror looked him in the eye when they entered the courtroom to read the verdict. Guilty on all counts.

Now behind bars, William Hurst offered Holmes a large sum of cash in exchange for the confession of every crime he’d ever committed, and Holmes accepted. It’s here where authorities learn the true details of Pitezel’s horrifying death. Holmes bound his hands and feet, then burned him alive with Benzine, igniting him with a match.

On those final days while Holmes awaited his hanging he believed he was literally morphing into the devil himself, with an elongated face and horns protruding through his scalp.

On May 7th, 1896 @ 10:25 a.m. H. H. Holmes was hanged…nine days before his 35th birthday. Right before he died he recanted his confession and said his autobiography was a complete fabrication. Because he was concerned his body would be dug up by “medical men” he requested his grave be filled with concrete, which it was. No one knows for sure how many victims Holmes killed during his reign of terror, but speculation puts the number in the hundreds if not thousands, at the height of the World Fair.

About Sue Coletta

Member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers, Sue Coletta is an award-winning, multi-published author in numerous anthologies, and her forensics articles have appeared in InSinC Quarterly. In addition to her popular crime resource blog, Sue’s a radio show host—check out "Partners In Crime" in the menu bar—the communications manager for the Serial Killer Project and Forensic Science and founder of #ACrimeChat on Twitter. She lives in rural New Hampshire where she's surrounded by wildlife...bear, moose, deer, even mountain lions have been spotted. Course, Sue would love to snuggle with the animals, but her husband frowns on the idea.

22 Comments

  1. At last I could finish to read about H.H. Holmes. A macabre, twisted mind. No emotions of guilt. Just take, take & kill.

    Excellent that the original ins & outs of the house even exist. Look how a criminal like him for $500 fall.

    The Pinkerton Detective Agency on those days and withoutany tech will find and trap this monster.

    How many stories or kills where unaccounted beause his ability to jumble things around like a magitian? But, even magitians fails. What an Evil mind and people just follow like lambs.

    I think he really think he isn’t doing something so bad. It just a way to move around & fill the tine & void between scams.

    As always, Ms. Sue; many steps in front of others in Crime Investigation.

    Keep writing because I will be reading & sharing?

  2. Holmes was a fascinating and evil man, The way way he manipulated those he befriended and then murdered was horrific. If anyone wants to read Detective’s Frank Geyer’s investigation and capture of Holmes, his book is here; https://www.amazon.com/Holmes-Americas-Serial-Killer-Illustrated-ebook/dp/B00M93L1ZO
    or a An atmospheric dramatization of Holme’s murders here:
    https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00ZS2I70A

  3. They say truth is stranger than fiction. This is one story that proves it. *shudder* Yikes! Glad I wasn’t around in that area back then. Makes one wonder why that sort of depraved mind develops. Great spine-tingling story, Sue!
    JHolmes, author recently posted…Of Cuteness and GardeningMy Profile

    • Thanks, Julie! In Holmes’ case, my guess would be he was born with psychopathic tendencies and his upbringing (his father was extremely physically and mentally abusive) helped to create a sociopath. Other reasons could be damage to his frontal lobe or even a birth defect that affects his frontal lobe…that’s the part of the brain where we learn right from wrong, as well as empathy for other people.

  4. Brendon La Scoob

    Amazing part two Sue, I was glued to the page….
    And what a monster!
    Over on this side of the pond we do things in a small way…nay, tiny way. Our Big Ben would fit into most of your shopping malls, our fire-engines (trucks) would fit into most of the boots (trunks) of your cars and our very own Ripper, whilst reasonably nasty, never really makes it into the Killer Big League when compared to some of gruesome geezers on your side…..my point? …well, if you put pen to paper in the way you have but in the form of a screenplay, you would have a ‘monster’ hit on your hands…send it to this side of the pond first, send it to the BBC, they would love this sort of thing…..trust me, we just don’t know about this guy, well. most of us don’t….I love,, once again reading your thoughts, the factual, the fiction, the flash fiction…….you are fast becoming the No 1 Sue, in a whole new genre….Slash-Fiction…and now it seems, No 1 in Slash Factual.
    More, please…….

  5. It’s hard to imagine one man being responsible for such horrible atrocities and getting away with them for so long. He was obviously quite deranged. Odd, too, and somewhat ironic what finally tripped him up.

    A riveting look at a heartless killer.
    Mae Clair recently posted…“NOVY’S SON: THE SELFISH GENIUS” Book Trailer Debut! #RRBCMy Profile

    • It’s true, Mae, the irony of how he was finally apprehended is fascinating, isn’t it. My guess is, if Holmes had committed these heinous acts in modern times, he wouldn’t have lasted as long as he did. The authorities back then had trouble IDing a corpse, never mind investigating homicide cases. Still, Holmes was extremely clever, which made him even more terrifying.

  6. Wonderful, informative post, Sue. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.
    E. Michael Helms recently posted…Is There a Book Bubble?: Discussing a Novel’s Market ValueMy Profile

  7. Still camping, but I can get enough service to comment via linking to my phone. Great post, and I need to check out those drawings of the house.

    • How fun! We took off yesterday after I posted this and explored…found this cool spot where water rushes over layers of rocks, creating several waterfalls and a lagoon-type pool. The best part is it’s only 10 min. from our house. It’s our new paradise. Perfect place to write, too, though my husband would probably kill me if I brought my netbook. 😉

  8. What a monster, Sue. Boggles my mind how this guy was so prolific. Hey – what’s your thoughts on the possibility that Holmes may have been London’s real Jack The Ripper? I wrote a blog post on the Ripper a couple years ago and I remember while doing the research, someone had offered Holmes as a suspect and produced a timeline that Holmes was out of America and on a business trip to London in the fall of 1888 when the Ripper murders happened. Something unique about the five Ripper murders is they started and stopped quickly. It’s like the perp was only in town for a visit and didn’t stick around to get caught. Thoughts?

    • Garry, that’s a very intriguing possibility. I do believe it would take a lot of intensive research to mesh the timelines of Holmes’s business trip and the Ripper murders together with no possible loose ends. Care to take that on?
      E. Michael Helms recently posted…Is There a Book Bubble?: Discussing a Novel’s Market ValueMy Profile

    • Bob asked me the same thing. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility, but I doubt Holmes was the Ripper, because Holmes was constructing his castle when Jack the Ripper first started his reign of terror in London. Holmes was so paranoid about someone discovering the inner workings of the castle, there’s no way he’d risk leaving Chicago during that time. After the castle was built he went to Europe, but Jack the Ripper was already killing by then.

  9. These days, convicted murderers aren’t allowed to benefit financially from writing a book about their crimes. Thank goodness neither you nor I have yet been convicted, Sue.
    pauldaleanderson recently posted…Hate KillsMy Profile

    • Hahahahahaha! Not long ago, Paul Bernardo (Canadian serial killer) tried to upload a crime fiction novel to Amazon. Amazon accepted it and put it up for sale. But the public was so outraged they had to take it down. It bears the question: how does he have access to the internet?

      • Robert Pickton also published a book on Amazon and got shut down from public outrage as well. For anyone who doesn’t know of Pickton, he’s the Vancouver serial killer who butchered 49 women and fed them to his pigs.

        Canada doesn’t have a federal law preventing profiteering by writing about personally-committed crimes, but should have. I know Canada is an extremely liberal country, but come on.

  10. That is a truly frightening story, Sue. And what makes it all the scarier is how long the whole thing went on. It just goes to show how masterful he was at hiding his real self *shudder.*

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