Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Twenty-Seven Murders of Dr. Henry H. Holmes, Part One

Having considered the early years and education of Herman Webster Mudgett, the given name of the man who went on to become the famous multi-murderer Henry H. Holmes, I'm going to reproduce here a short biography I made of his life. After a short introduction, I will focus on the killings he confessed to.

Dr. HH HolmesDR. H.H. HOLMES

The Twenty Seven Murders of Henry H. Holmes

"Come with me, if you will, to a tiny, quiet New England village, nestling among the picturesquely rugged hills of New Hampshirea*."

   With his hand held out and a twinkle in his eyes, so began serial killer Henry H. Holmes' first penned statement in which he confesses to how truly misunderstood he was. In between occasional touches of New England gothic, he described growing up in an idyllic small town, "...well trained by loving and religious parents.a" He went on to explain away, one by one, the misconceptions surrounding the mysterious disappearances of twenty-two of his companions, business associates and their families.
    Holmes published Holmes' Own Story in September, 1895. Having had so far gotten away with a score of murders and swindles, during the past year his fortunes had descended from bad to worse. He began with the perfect scheme for making money: duping his employee Benjamin Pitezel into undertaking an insurance scam. First Pitezel insured himself for $10,000. Then Holmes was supposed to fake Pitezel's death, provide a substitute cadaver and together they'd split the payout. Instead, to simplify identification of the corpse, Holmes killed his partner. After collecting the insurance money, news of the scam leaked and on November 17th, 1894, Holmes was arrested.

    For a time, all that could be proven was the insurance fraud. On June 3rd, 1895 Holmes plead guilty and received a mild sentence. While in prison in Philadelphia, evidence that Pitezel had been murdered mounted and Holmes was charged in his homicide. As word got back to Chicago, those who knew Holmes had more to say. Soon headlines shouted one horrific discovery after another. The police explored Holmes' boarding house and soon the press trumpeted the discovery of torture rooms, mazes, and a variety of contraptions for disposing of corpses. The papers dubbed the building, The Murder Castle.

    *Throughout this document, the citation "a" refers to the September, 1895 "Holmes' Own Story" and "b" refers to his April, 1896 confession. Although Herman Webster Mudgett did not adopt the name Henry Howard Holmes until 1886, for continuity's sake, I refer to him in his early years mainly as Holmes.

Gilmanton Academy, 1869
Gilmanton Academy, 1869, in bucolic Gilmanton, New Hampshire

 His (Maybe Not-So) Pre-Murderous Life.

    Six weeks before his murder trial, facing a myriad of accusations, Holmes wrote down his life's story. He began by saying he was born in Gilmanton, New Hampshire and raised under the guidance of "... a tender mother's prayers [and] a father's control, emphasized, when necessary, by the liberal use of the rod wielded by no sparing handa."
    Occasional dark events were recounted. Knowing Holmes feared a doctor's office, two of his schoolmates "... one day bore me struggling and shrieking beyond its awful portals; nor did they desist until I had been brought face to face with one of its grinning skeletons, which, with arms outstretched, seemed ready in its turn to seize mea." But all turned out well. " proved an heroic method of treatment, destined ultimately to cure me of my fears, and to inculcate in me, first, a strong feeling of curiosity, and later, a desire to learn, which resulted years afterwards in my adopting medicine as a professiona."
    He went on to describe an encounter with a photographer which left him frightened. "I found the artist partially clothed and sitting near the door, which he at once locked. He then proceeded to remove the greater portion of one of his legs, and not having known until then what was the cause of his lameness, in fact, not ever having seen or even known that such a thing as artificial limbs existed, my consternation can better be imagined than described. Had he next proceeded to remove his head in the same mysterious way, I should not have been further surpriseda."
    On July 4th, 1878, he married Clara Lovering, the first of his four wives1. He soon abandoned her and their son. As with all of his marriages, he never divorced, sometimes juggling his wives in near proximity.
    At age twenty-one, Holmes entered medical school, spending one year at the University of Vermont in Burlington, then heading off to complete his education at the University of Michigan. In a later interview, some of his professors referred to him as a scamp2 while others suggested he became involved in grave-robbing3.
    Holmes graduated as a physician on June 26, 1884. Over the next two years he flitted between a variety of positions in various locations, living in poverty. First, he went to Portland, Maine and became a sales representative selling plant nursery stock. In the winter of 1884, he taught school in Mooers, a small town in the extreme northeastern portion of New York4.
    This location was later cited as possibly being the site of Holmes' first murder. According to The New York Times:

    "H. H. Holmes was once a resident of this (Clinton) county. He appeared at Mooers in 1883 [sic] under the name Herman W. Mudgett as an agent for nursery stock, and created such a good impression that he was engaged to teach the village school. This occupation he found uncongenial. He left Mooers and went to Massachusetts, but returned in a short time, accompanied by a small boy, who disappeared shortly after arrival, Holmes saying he had gone home. It is now believed that the boy was the murderer's first victim.

    After the boy's disappearance Holmes went to Mooers Forks, three miles away, and began practicing as a physician. He remained there about a year, taking while there an active part in politics. He was an enthusiastic supporter of [Republican presidential candidate James G.] Blaine in 1884, and wagered every dollar he had and all he could secure by borrowing or otherwise on Blaine's success. On losing his wagers he was penniless and then his true nature began to show itself in many dishonest practices. His misconduct culminated in a hurried departure for Chicago. He left behind many unpaid bills. He returned to this county again in 1885, when he told Munchausen-like stories of his success in Chicago, where, so he claimed, he owned several stores5."

    Holmes states that around this time, he began working out a scheme with an old classmate to defraud an insurance company by insuring a family of three for $40,000 and providing substitute corpses. Finding three corpses proved difficult. " it was arranged that I was to go to Chicago for the winter, and some time during the intervening months we should both contribute toward the necessary supplya."

Chicago 1880s
Chicago, mid-1880s
    Holmes arrived in Chicago in November, 1885 but quickly bounced to Minneapolis where he spent the winter in a drug store working as a clerk.
    He gave up on his insurance scam, offering these reasons. "Upon my trip from Chicago to New York I read two accounts of the detection of crime connected with this class of work, and for the first time I realized how well organized and well prepared the leading insurance companies were to detect and punish this kind of fraud, and this, together with a letter I received upon reaching my destination, and the sudden death of my friend, caused all to be abandoneda."

    Here is where his autobiography begins to overlap with his death row confession and the truth becomes ever more murky.
Holmes's First Kill?
Class photo of Robert C Leacock
Robert Leacock, graduation photo, University of Michigan Medical School, class of 1884
    In the above citations Holmes states his co-conspirator, an ex-classmate suddenly died — while Holmes was on his eastward trip. Could this sudden death have been a murder?
    For more clues as to what happened, it is necessary to look at Holmes second major autobiographical statement. After having been convicted of the murder of Benjamin Pitezel and while awaiting hanging, Holmes sold a confession to William Randolph Hearst for $7500 (over $200,000 in today's money).

    Up until 1895, William Randolph Hearst had owned one newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner. In November of that year, he acquired the New York Morning Journal thereby commencing the yellow-journalism newspaper wars — and later launching the Spanish-American war. With the revelations of his murderous enterprises, Henry Holmes achieved nationwide fame. Hearst exploited the ongoing melodrama of Henry Holmes making it one of the mogul's early success.

    Holmes' confession was printed on April 12, 1895 in the Philadephia Inquirer with slight variants appearing in papers across the country. It was titled: Holmes Confesses 27 Murders. The Most Awful Story of Modern Times Told by the Fiend in Human Shapeb. (An increase from the twenty-two he tried to explain away in Holmes' Own Story.)

    Holmes announced he would confess all. "I have been tried for murder, convicted, sentenced, and the first step of my execution upon May seventh, namely, the reading of my death warrant, has been carried out, and it now seems a fitting time, if ever, to make known the details of the twenty-seven murders...b"

    He goes on to say, "The first taking of human life that is attributed to me is in the case of Dr. Robert Leacock of New Baltimore, Mich., a friend and former schoolmate. I knew that his life was insured for a large sum and after enticing him to Chicago I killed him by giving him at overwhelming dose of laudanumb."

    Laudanum is a term used to describe a solution of opium. Holmes includes further details. In this version of events he states the murder took place in 1886 and goes on to say, "My subsequently taking his dead body from place to place in and about Grand Rapids, Mich., as has been so other printed heretofore...b"

    The above quote refers to a long section in Holmes' Own Story in which he describes carrying a corpse from Chicago to Grand Rapids to Northern Michigan. In his pretrial autobiography, he did not confess to any murders. Instead, Holmes portrayed the story as an insurance scam in which he tried to collect on his own life insurance by providing a corpse that looked like him. He begins his tale, "It happened shortly after the death of my medical friend and former college chum." He goes on to describe a ripping "Boy's Own Story," in which Holmes purchases a corpse which looks like him from "---- [Rush] Medical College" in Chicago, packs it on ice, heads to Grand Rapids, fights off a nosy Secret Service agent by stealing his gun and forcing him to jump out the window, survives a train wreck, poses as a rich lumberman in Northern Michigan and fakes his own death.

    Specific dates are presented with this version, now said to be in 1887. Holmes paid up his insurance through June. On May 20th, Holmes encountered the corpse he claimed looked like him. "I had a 'cow-lick' which could not be imitated by artificial means.a" The entire venture was completed before he received payment on the insurance on September first.

    An additional bit of information about this incident can be obtained from Holmes' post-arrest statements. Shortly after his arrest in November 1894, Holmes freely admitted to a number of past crimes — although not murder. One newspaper account describes the scheme. "The friend, now a physician, had his life insured for $12,500, the body was procured in Chicago, the identification with the insured doctor was made and Holmes collected the money. The scheme was repeated several times6."

    So, was Leacock, Holmes's first victim? Could it be that the picaresque story of Holmes attempting to collect his own life insurance had some truth and did Holmes in reality return Leacock to Michigan to (somehow) collect the life insurance?

    Robert Charles Leacock was a classmate of Holmes at the University of Michigan Medical School. They graduated together as part of the class of 18847. Photographs of Mudgett and Leacock are still on display in the school. An item from the Ann Arbor Courier, June 29, 1887 mentions "Dr. R.C. Leacock, class of '84, is a guest of O.B. Church and family this week8."

    Leacock went on to experience an early death. According to the publication, The Michigan Alumnus, Robert Charles Leacock died at Watford, Ontario, October 5th, 1889 at age 329. The University of Michigan graduated 85 students in 1884. Three others died before 1890, making Leacock one of the select few.

Cartoon from University Palladium 1883
A cartoon presented in the University Palladium in the
introduction to the section on the Medical College.
Volume 25, 1883-84, Ann Arbor, MI

Summary: First victim*
Dr. Robert Leacock of New Baltimore, Michigan
Friend, former schoolmate
Motive: $40,000 insurance money
Method: Overdose of laudanum
Site: Chicago.
Time: Claimed to be in 1886, 1887. Died October 5, 1889.
Confirmation of murder: unconfirmed, timeline is incorrect, but met early death.

*The numbering presented herein follows that of Holmes' April, 1896 confession. Even within the confession, the deaths are not chronologically presented. Additional possible victims such as the boy in Mooer's Fork (mentioned above) or Mrs. Holton (mentioned in the next section) are not discussed, while other claimed victims survived their supposed murders.

Continued in part two.

References, Notes and Citations
Notes on Sources.
Evaluating Holmes' tales of murders entails sorting truth from fantasy. Whenever possible, I tried to find contemporary newspaper sources to evaluate the alleged events, however, the news stories were often responsible for fictions of their own. Several non-fiction books have been written about him. Schecter's "Depraved" (references 10, others) is a florid recreation of the story of Holmes, but does represent a good presentation of his legend. Larsen's "The Devil in the White City (references 12, others)" includes some of the necessary scholarly footnotes for sorting matters out. Adam Selzer has written a series of  treatises (reference 14, others) on matters relating to Holmes which cite and sometimes include the original sources. Ultimately, in his autobiography and confession, Holmes often has both the first word and often the last word regarding his crimes.

a. Holmes' Own Story in which the Alleged Multi Murderer and Arch Conspirator Tells of The Twenty-Two Tragic Deaths and Disappearances In which He is Said to be Implicated. Philadelphia. Burk & McFetridge Co. 1895.

b. Holmes Confesses 27 Murders. The Most Awful Story of Modern Times Told by the Fiend in Human Shape. The Philadelphia Inquirer, Sunday, April 12, 1896. Copyright 1896 by WR Hearst and James Elverson, Jr.

1. As to whether Holmes had three or four wives, his marriage to Minnie Williams is disputable inasmuch as it was never registered. At the time of Holmes arrest in November, 1894, Clara Mudgett was contacted by the press and added some details to their life together. She mentioned spending a year at Ann Arbor helping raise money for Holmes' tuition. She didn't see him again until just before his arrest.

2. More About Holmes. A Medical Student in Michigan. Evansville Courier, November 23, 1894.

3. While Holmes denied being involved in grave-robbing while at the University of Michigan, he may also have been the source of these rumors. When he described obtaining corpses for insurance swindles, a practice which he engaged in with a fellow medical student, in some reports, he said he undertook this scheme while still in medical school. e.g., Holmes's Crimes. Rockford, Illinois Daily Register Gazette, July 17, 1895.

4. Although Holmes is sometimes described as America's First Serial Killer, for one year beginning on December 30th, 1884, San Antonio, Texas was terrorized by "The Servant Girl Annihilator." Could he have been this killer? Holmes personality makes it facile to think so and one author claims Holmes was also Jack the Ripper. The time from his graduation in 1884 until mid-1886 while Holmes was in and out of Mooers, NY and traveling to a half-dozen cities is one of his least defined periods of his life. The July 31, 1895 NewYork Times article cited immediately below suggests he was finished with his school teaching in Mooers by the time of Blaine's defeat in the November 1884 elections.

5. A Boy Holmes's First Victim. He Was in the Swindler's Service in Clinton County, N.Y. New York Times, July 31, 1895.

6. Part of His Life. The Now Famous Mudgett Tells of His Crimes. Evansville Courier, November 21, 1894.

7. University Notes. Ann Arbor Courier, June 25, 1884.

8. Personals. Ann Arbor Courier, June 29, 1887.

9. University Palladium, Volume 25, 1883-1884, Ann Arbor, Michigan. In Holmes' Own Story, he mentions a lifelong friend from Canada he met while in medical school. "About this time I first became acquainted with a Canadian, a fellow student, and from then until the time of his death he was one of the very intimate friends I have ever allowed myself." According to the Palladium, Leacock is from Watford, Ontario. Other contemporary reports identify the medical student who collaborated with Holmes as "Cummings" (Crimes of Holmes Stand Without Parallel in History. Kalamazoo Gazette, December 7, 1894) and, currently living in New York City (Crime Is His Passion. New York Herald, November 25, 1894).

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.

Nikola Tesla, Arthur Conan Doyle and Dr. Henry H. Holmes are all characters in my thriller, A Predator's Game.

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


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