Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Mystery of Dr. Henry H. Holmes

My thriller, A Predator's Game*, takes place in 1896 Manhattan. Nikola Tesla teams up with Arthur Conan Doyle to track down the serial killer, Dr. Henry H. Holmes. The conceit of this story has Conan Doyle functioning in the role of Dr. Watson, Tesla acting as Sherlock Holmes, and Dr. Henry Holmes as Moriarty.

*Rook's Page Publishing, available March 30th through Amazon and major retailers.

I have extensively researched the life of Nikola Tesla and have posted novel information in this blog. Now, I will turn my attention to my research regarding H.H. Holmes. Although Holmes was not Moriarty, a master criminal, he was a fascinating character nonetheless. In this series of posts, I will endeavor to present the reality behind the myths of Dr. Holmes and a theory for his malignant personality.

Dr. Henry H. Holmes, Legend.

On May 7th, 1896, the life of Dr. Henry H. Holmes ended with the drop of a scaffold's trap and the jerk of a noose. Appropriately, the doctors who pronounced him dead were named Butcher and Sharp.

Holmes was a criminal extraordinaire, a serial killer with an unknown number of victims. Second to John Wilkes Booth, he was the most well-known American criminal of the 19th century. As one newspaper described his infamy:

Holmes career of hideous crimes does not find a parallel in the history of the country. He was not only a multimurderer, but a bigamist, seducer, resurrectionist, forger, thief and general rascal, villain and fiend.^1

A headline in the May 8th, Baltimore Sun made an unintentionally apt observation–Holmes's Career: a Story of Crime Rarely Equaled in Fact or Fiction. This sums up his murderous legacy: fact fought against fiction with truth being the victim.

First in line among the fabricators was Holmes himself. He confessed to 27 murders. While some of his claimed victims were still alive, at the same time, other associates who were not included in his list met early deaths and may well have been his prey.

Second on the list of unreliable sources were the newspapers of the day. Sensationalism trumped facts. Did Holmes really build a "Murder Castle?" The preponderance of evidence says, "no." He constructed a building, demented in design, where he committed several murders. Perhaps individual rooms were fashioned as traps, but the newspapers depicted every nook and cranny as evil in intent.

Note the diagram below, reproduced from the Chicago Tribune. A room about the size of a closet is declared "The Maze" (near the bottom). And then there was "The Room of the Three Corpses." Surely, three corpses must have been found there. Or traces of corpses. Or a story that three people were killed there. Nope, just an exciting name. (Some bones were found in the basement which may have been human--or not.) Perhaps my favorite is the "Five Door Room." The room had Five Doors!
Let's back up. I'm not saying that Holmes was anything but a serial killer. His victims included friends, associates and children. He was a con man and a sadist. He did confess to having killed people in his "castle" and it did have peculiar features that may have been used in murders. And he may indeed have killed scores -- it's just that the hard evidence doesn't exist and it is difficult to separate legend from fact.

The Portrait of the Killer as a Young Man.

I'm going to start by laying out Holmes's early life with an emphasis on non-sensational reporting, and eye-witness accounts. In my next entry, I hope to point out where and when his life seemed to go wrong.

Well before his murder trial, before the extent of his crimes came to light, Holmes was already a nationwide sensation. Reporters endeavored to dig up new victims and determine when his murderous career began. Past associates and family members were interviewed.

These narratives of his early life can be divided into two sets: sensational tales that demonstrated he was evil from an early age; and, stories which stated he was ordinary and was raised in an exemplary household. This latter set predominated and, strangely enough, was presented as more disturbing. How could someone so evil come out of good Christian stock and a moral upbringing?

Let's begin with a thumbnail sketch of his first twenty-three years.

  • Henry H. Holmes was born Herman Webster Mudgett on May 16, 1861** in Gilmanton, NH. 
  • He attended Gilmanton Academy, then, already, a 100-year old institution. 
  • He married a local woman, Clara Lovering, on July 4, 1878. 
  • After apprenticing with the local physician, Dr. Nahum Wight, in 1882, Mudgett went to the University of Vermont in Burlington to begin a formal medical education. 
  • In the fall of 1883 he headed off to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he received his medical degree in 1884.
**May 16, 1861 is the most commonly cited date. In Holmes' autobiography, he says May, 1861. A letter from his father reprinted in the Boston Journal (below), says May 17, 1861.

What was he like in his youth? Here are two versions of the same story. First the sensational one.

In a news story titled "Did Holmes Kill Beck?" the Boston Daily Advertiser suggested that a neighbor and relative of Holmes may not have committed suicide.

A Concord Relative of Holmes, Alias Mudgett, Might Not Have Committed Suicide After All.

One morning in 1877, the dead body of a man named Beck, a prominent citizen of the adjoining town of Loudon, was found hanging in a room of the house, his legs bent under him, and his knees touching the floor. This circumstance, and the peculiar manner in which the rope was tied about his neck, aroused much suspicion that Beck had not taken his own life. Holmes, now in jail in Philadelphia, was a relative of Mr. Beck's wife, and member of the family, going to then by the name of Mudgett. Mr. Beck's brother suspected Mudgett of murder, and communicated his suspicion to the other relatives, but no action was ever taken to connect him with the deed. Recent alleged disclosures against Holmes revived these suspicions, and the subject is a matter of general discussion in the neighborhood where Mr. Beck lived, and where there are many people who remember Mudgett and many of his then peculiar traits.^2

So, did Mudgett/Holmes kill a relative when he was 16?  Holmes' Father, Levi Mudgett, responded to the story.

Gilmanton, N.H., Aug 6, 1895
To the Editor of the Boston Journal

 My notice has been called to your dispatch from Concord, N.H., in regard to the named Beck, charging his murder 18 years ago on Holmes, alias Mudgett. There is no truth in what your correspondent says. Mr. Beck married my brother's widow. I don't know the date of their marriage. She came to our house once soon after the marriage, and I think I made them a visit once. I never heard of any trouble in the family. I did not go to the funeral.

  I am sure that our son Herman was never in their house, and I am also sure that he [Beck] must have died as early as 1875. I know it was a number of years before his wife died, which was in October, 1878. Our son was born May 17, 1861, and could not have been over 14 years of age at that time. Mr. Beck was a large, heavy man, I should say his weight was over 200. ...

 I don't wish to screen him from any wrong doing but I feel sure that he has been accused of many things that are wrong, as we also have been as a family.

                                    Yours respectfully,
                                               L.H. Mudgett ^3

Can this matter of when Henry Beck died be cleared up by modern search engines? I failed. I found conflicting information, which would slow down the narrative, so I detail them at the end of this post.

Holmes' mother also spoke highly of him. "The newspapers have done us great injustice in this awful ordeal. I want to say that, until Herman left us, some six years ago [sic], he was the cleanest youth in town." ^4

Let's go outside of Mudgett's family to get a testimonial to his moral and upright life.

A Reverend McGregor spoke to the Minneapolis Journal about his experiences with Holmes when Holmes was nearing twenty years of age.

A Model Young Man Such Was the Monster Holmes.

In 1880-81 Mr. McGregor was the pastor of the Methodist church of that town [Gilmanton, NH] and was very well acquainted with young Mudgett [cutting out some pleasant descriptions of Gilmanton and the surroundings].

  "In one of the smaller houses–it was a story and a half structure with a peaked roof–lived Postmaster Mudgett and his family. The front room was used as the postoffice and the family lived in the rear. Besides the small revenue the postoffice afford him, Mr. Mudgett derived a meager income from a stony farm. Both Mr. and Mrs. Mudgett were the most estimable people, of the simple, frank New England type. Neither were they the kind who allow their children to grow up without moral instruction and discipline. The same simple virtues they had learned from their ancestors through many Puritan generations they strove to inculcate in their son. And to all appearance good seed was never sown in better ground.

  "When I first saw Herman Mudgett . . . he was still attending Gilmanton Academy . . . The Mudgetts, particularly Mrs. Mudgett, doted on their son, and as his wife was the most amiable person in the world . .
  ". . .Mudgett seemed to be very much engrossed with medicine and surgery. Indeed, he seemed to have a strong natural bent in that direction. At the time, as my somewhat vague memory recalls him, he was like his father, a rather slight man, or rather boy, of perhaps 5 feet 6 inches. His eyes were blue and his face excessively long. He was not careful about his dress, being in this respect like the average country swain. His conduct was exceedingly exemplary and he was fairly well endowed with wit and brains. He was unassuming and respectful and a regular church attendant.  . . .

  "It is an inexhaustible sort of wonderment to me that a boy of that good, straightforward, commonplace kind should have developed into the monster that Holmes is."^5
A rather well-done, well-researched and non-sensational article addressing Holmes' early life was presented in an August 1895 edition of the Syracuse Herald.  It included quotes from those who knew "Herman."

Clara Bean, who is clerk at the Post-office, and who also presides over the meetings of the church sewing circle, went to school with Herman, and knew him very well in his school days.

  "Herman was always a very bright scholar," says Miss Bean, "one of those boys who never do anything to displease the teacher, but always study hard. I remember in school he was always the model pupil. He was a perfect little gentleman, always just so polite ever since I remember him, and he was a great deal different from most boys of his age. He never was rude to girls, unlike most boys. But he did like money. He was always very anxious to earn money and he always seemed older in his ideas than the other boys. My father always said he was just like his grandfather.^6"

Madison Nutter worked on the farm that summer with Herman and has a most pleasant recollection of that season [summer, 1878].

"He was then a thoroughly whole-souled, good-natured boy, just as genial a boy as you would want to meet. We all liked him. He was a hard worker in the field, but he did not seem satisfied with the ordinary farmer's life.

"His wife did the housework, and she was a very pleasant little woman, no one could help liking her, and you could see that she thought a great deal of Herman. Herman was a very modest sort of fellow, but yet he had lots of real grit. If he set out to do a job he would do it.^7"

  It could well be that the young Mudgett was already a sociopath, even murderer, who had hoodwinked his parents, the Reverend MacGregor and others. Nevertheless, these were the people who went on the record and spoke of him. Other accounts in newspapers made insinuations or else gave second-hand accounts of his youth. Typical is this account.

[Former associates in New Hampshire] who knew him five years ago [sic] as Herman W. Mudgett, one of the most promising young men that ever went from Gilmanton or Belknap county, are surprised that in so short a time he should be identified with so many peculiar transactions, and, especially, suspected of murder. Many, however, now assert that Herman's sister told them many years ago he would surely come to some bad end, as he has engaged in one or more peculiar transactions that cost his father considerable trouble and money.^8

My next post looks at the bad influence of his medical education.

1. Rock Island Argus, May 7, 1896
2. Did Holmes Kill Beck? August 3, 1895  Boston Daily Advertiser, page 1.
3. Holmes' Father. Writes to the Journal About Mr. Beck. August 8, 1895. Boston Journal, page: 5
4. Holmes Parents. November 4, 1895.  Worcester Daily Spy page: 3  
5. A Model Young Man Such Was the Monster Holmes According to Rev. A. McGregor. August 9, 1895. Minneapolis Journal.
6. Syracuse Herald, August 11, 1895
7. Ibid.
8. Interest Taken At Laconia. November 23, 1894. Boston Herald, page: 3

Some information matched a key part of Levi Mudgett's story, but not other aspects. On the site geni.com, we have this information, along with a link to the tombstone.

Martha A. Dwinell was married twice. First to Albert Newell Mudgett (uncle of H.H. Holmes) and then to Henry A. Beck. Martha died October 24, 1878 in Loudon, New Hampshire in agreement with the recollection of Holmes' father. The 1870 Census has both Martha A. Beck and Henry Beck living together in Loudon. However, at the same site, Henry A. Beck is listed as dying on March 11th of 1893. This Henry Beck has a tombstone that places him at 30 years old at the time of his death, indicating an error on the site. A search of historic newspaper databases yields nothing further. A different Henry Beck died October 28, 1874, in the neighboring town of Canterbury, but he had married a Polly Whitney who died in 1857.
Nikola Tesla, Arthur Conan Doyle and Dr. Henry H. Holmes are all characters in my thriller, A Predator's Game, Rook's Page Publishing.

A Predator's Game is available in soft-cover and ebook editions through Amazon and other online retailers.

A Predator's Game, now available, Rook's Page Publishing.

Back page blurb.

Manhattan, 1896.

When the author Arthur Conan Doyle meets Nikola Tesla he finds a tall, thin genius with a photographic memory and a keen eye, and recognizes in the eccentric inventor the embodiment of his creation, Sherlock. Together, they team up to take on an "evil Holmes." Multi-murderer Dr. Henry H. Holmes has escaped execution and is unleashing a reign of terror upon the metropolis. Set in the late nineteenth century in a world of modern marvels, danger and invention, Conan Doyle and Tesla engage the madman in a deadly game of wits.

Martin Hill Ortiz, also writing under the name, Martin Hill, is the author of A Predatory Mind. Its sequel, set in 1890s Manhattan and titled A Predator's Game, will be available from Rook's Page Publishing, March 30, 2016. It features Nikola Tesla as detective.

His recent mystery, Never Kill A Friend, is available from Ransom Note Press. His epic poem, Two Mistakes, won second place in the 2015 Margaret Reid/Tom Howard Poetry Competition. He can be contacted at mdhillortiz@gmail.com.


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