Friday, April 21, 2017

The Holmes Curse at the University of Michigan

Herman Webster Mudgett, better known as the serial killer Dr. Henry H. Holmes, was the most notorious criminal of the late 19th century. After he was sentenced to death in 1895, the legend of a curse grew around him: death, disabling disease or personal ruin would follow those involved in his trial and imprisonment. Prominent among those said to have succumbed to the curse were the jury foreman who died by accidental electrocution (a rare thing in the 1890s) and the seemingly violent death of his spiritual adviser.

I don't abide by the notion of the curse. An equal number of those around Holmes prospered for decades beyond his death. Nevertheless, if one is going to talk about a Holmes curse, you might need to go back to his days in medical school when an unusual number of his classmates died.

Mudgett studied medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, beginning his medical education in fall of 1882 and graduating in June of 1884. During the year prior to his arrival one student died. During the two years after his departure, a total of three died. During his two years there, thirteen died.

Excerpted from an 1880 bird's-eye map of Ann Arbor, MI. Holmes lived at 15 Cemetery, at the corner of Cemetery and Observatory (middle right). The entrance to the cemetery is marked with a "6." The Medical School buildings are on the middle left, marked with a "25."


A Diversion: A Medical Education at the University of Michigan in the mid-1880s.

According to a History of the University of Michigan (1885), "The qualification for admission [to the medical school] were . . . a good English education, a knowledge of natural philosophy and of elementary mathematical sciences, and some slight acquaintance with Latin and Greek."

Over the course of the 1880s the program changed, dropping the requirement of a thesis and transitioning to three years. Holmes/Mudgett stayed two years, perhaps receiving credit for his apprenticeship with Dr. Wight in his hometown.

The student's commencement speech for the medical school class of '83 included a volumetric and statistical description—with a bit of tongue in cheek.

The graduating students totaled 2,675 years in age. The heaviest weighed 225 pounds, the lightest 95 pounds. The tallest was 6 foot 3, the shortest 4 foot 11 in high heels.

The costs and living expenses for the medical education averaged $355 dollars per year. Fifty-four students, approximately half, were described as self-sustaining, i.e., working their ways through medical school.

Occupations before entering*:

36 students.
31 teachers.
10 farming.
5 clerks.
5 jacks-of-all-trades.
2 railroading.
1 each: mechanic, agent, druggist, jeweler; oil operator; "woman's sphere."
1 each: idle, pleasure-seeker, growing up.

*Note: not all total the same number of responses.

Affiliation:

48 Republicans.
20 Democrats.
5 Prohibitionists.
4 Free-traders.
1 each: Liberal, Anti-monopolist, Anti-secret, Anti-whiskey.




Student Deaths, 1882-1884.



The following are the student deaths which took place during the time in which Mudgett/Holmes was enrolled. The main sources were The Palladium, a student annual put out by the secret societies (i.e., fraternities and sororities) and The Chronicle, a student newspaper published during the terms.

1882-83. The fall session began September 27, 1882 and the professional schools began classes on October 1st.

  • d. September 29, 1882. Sidney H. Burt. (Literary Department) No cause of death mentioned. Died at home. "Cut down in bloom of life."
  • d. October 21, 1882. Sarah Ella Hunt. (Medical School). In the Michigan Argonaut it says she died of a sudden and painful illness, typhoid. (class officer: seer)
  • d. November 4, 1882. Leonard B. [or D.] Smith. (Medical School). Hemorrhage of the lungs.
  • d. January, 1883. Ralph Kuechler. (Literary Department.) Died of pyemia after tonsil surgery led to infection.
  • d. February 10, 1883. W.J. Nichols. Fatal shooting, believed alone in barn, bullet through his eye. Labeled as accident.
  • d. February 1883. Robert D. Stephens. (Medical School) Died of pneumonia while accompanying body of Ralph Kuechler to Austin, TX for burial.
  • d. February 7, 1883. William A. Turney. (Literary Dept.). Typhoid pneumonia.
  • d. May 4, 1893. Jason DeWitt Schafer [also written as J.W. Shaffer]. Died of pyemia. (Described as friend of Robert Stephens)

1883-84. The fall session began September 26, 1883 and the professional schools began classes on October 1st.

  • d. January 16, 1884. William Walter Harris. (Literary Dept.). "Quick consumption."
  • d. January 18, 1884. Frank Kilbourn Ferguson. (Literary Dept.). Typhoid.
  • d. February 5, 1884. John F. Cowing, (Law School). Bright's disease.
  • d. February 14, 1884. Lincoln G. Williams, (Law School). Stated that he died February 14 in The Chronicle but corrected in March, saying that he had not died. Michigan Death Index, 1867-1889 lists him as dying June 14, 1884. He could have had a lingering illness, supposed death and then ultimate death.
  • d. May 21, 1884. James A. Jennings, (Medical School) Malignant diphtheria.

Holmes graduation: June 26, 1884.

Before and After.

Let's compare this to how students fared the year before Holmes arrived.

The year before Mudgett:

1881-1882. (one death)

  • d. January 9, 1882. Noyes A. Darling. (Dental school) Cause of death uncertain. Suspected "poisoning of organic nerve centers."

The year after Mudgett:

1884-1885. (three deaths)

  • d. August 19, 1884. Lincoln Buzzard. (Literary Department) Drowned in Base Lake.
  • d. November 14, 1884. George B. Mizner (Law School). (Cause of death not stated)
  • d. February 15, 1885. Homer S. Lynn (Medical School). (Cause of death not stated)

Two years after Mudgett:

1885-1886

no deaths.

What to Make of This.

 During Holmes's two years at the University of Michigan, there were an average of five more deaths than usual per year. Nine of these deaths were ascribed to infections, one due to hemorrhage of the lungs, one violence, and for two I could not find the suggested cause.

The uptick in mortality was noted at the time:

"This [Cowing's death] is another factor in the unprecedented mortality in the University." (The Chronicle, February 16, 1884, p.174)

Is it possible that Mudgett was responsible? First of all, "is it possible" is near the lowest of all standards. So, yes, it is possible. Here, in my personal order of likelihood (most to least likely and they are all unlikely), are the means by which Holmes could have been behind several of the deaths.

  • 1. He could have been involved in the gunshot death and the deaths for which I could not find a cause.
  • 2. Determining cause of death at the time was (and still is) an imprecise task. Certain poisons can cause diarrhea and wasting and electrolyte imbalances and kidney failure. Perhaps some of the causes of death were misdiagnosed.
  • 3. Holmes could have visited sick beds and did something to make the patient worse. 
  • 4. Holmes was involved in the acquisition of bodies for dissection. He could have lowered the standards and acquired bodies from places with disease outbreaks. Included with the story of the dental student's death was a note that said they did not believe it was secondary to dissection of a contaminated corpse.
  • 5. Holmes could have purposefully infected his fellow students.

Let me comment on the last one. Although purposefully spreading disease by, for example, passing over a louse-filled blanket taken from a dead man was a possibility, culturing microorganisms, even the science of understanding which microorganisms caused which disease, was in its infancy at the time. Infecting with specific organisms would have been borderline science fiction. The University of Michigan Medical School would open its first microbiology laboratory for students in 1887.

A final note: the time before and after Holmes in the 1880s were associated with violent death for Ann Arbor. In 1881, President James Garfield was assassinated by an ex-student of Ann Arbor High School, Charles Guiteau. Guiteau had been turned down for admission to the University of Michigan. Of course, Holmes went on to a career as the most notorious murder in the United States in the 1890s.

On top of this, the most notorious murderer in England of the 20th century, H.H. Crippen, was a classmate of Holmes, having attended the homeopathic program in 1883.

While Holmes went on to star in Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, Crippen took center stage in Larson's next book: Thunderstruck.

Previously: Holmes at the University of Michigan, Part One.
Holmes at the University of Michigan, Part Two.

Adam Selzer endeavors to separate myth from fact in his new biography of H.H. Holmes.

H.H. Holmes is a major character in my novel, A Predator's Game.

---------------------------
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, Rook's Page Publishing.

Back page blurb of A Predator's Game.

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,  available from Rook's Page Publishing.


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.



Tuesday, April 18, 2017

H.H. Holmes: A Man for Our Times

Selzer's Biography of Holmes

Dr. Henry H. Holmes was the most notorious criminal of late nineteenth century America.  Adam Selzer, who has spent years separating out Holmes the historical character from Holmes the myth, has put together a near-500-page biography of Holmes which came out just this month. Holmes comes across as a ruthless entrepreneur who did in his victims as part of swindles, scams and cover-ups. A pitiless killer, many of his business practices make it sound as though he could succeed even in the very competitive New York real estate market of today.

1. One means by which Holmes made his fortune was  by constructing buildings and then refusing to pay his laborers. He would often cite something wrong with the workmanship, not pay, and let the companies sue him.

When Aetna Iron and Steel sued Holmes in 1888 for non-payment, Holmes responded to the suit alleging that "one of the steel beams provided was slightly too short, negating the entire contract." A. Selzer, H.H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil. loc. 775, Kindle, 2017, Skyhorse Publishing.

2. Holmes put together famous buildings in or at the border of major cities (Chicago, Fort Worth). In fact, the Holmes Castles (often referred to as hotels or "murder castles") became some of the best-known real estate in America. Truly, he was ahead of his time at branding his name.

A Holmes hotel promised a certain quality of lodging experience.


3. Holmes would often denounce the lying press of his day. This would occur both when the press invented a story, such as accusing him of murdering someone who was still alive, or when the press correctly quoted him. The latter would follow a pattern: Benjamin Pitezel committed suicide. I murdered him. How dare you say I murdered him? He died in an accident. Benjamin Pitezel is still alive. He's in Paraguay.

After several confessions, Holmes claimed to have murdered no one.


4. Holmes had diversified businesses. Although he never claimed to run a university, he had at various times and often simultaneously: a clinic for alcoholism, a glass-bending business, a printing company and a company marketing printers, an invention for making gas from water, a pharmacy, landlord at a boarding house, sold real estate, and a second-hand furniture business where he bought furniture on credit (and never paid) and sold it.

5. Holmes married three times. A master of efficiency and juggling, he was married to all three at once and, until his arrest, none of his wives knew of the others' existence. It is possible he faked marriages on other occasions to get the women to sign over properties before their untimely deaths or strange disappearances.

6. Holmes was a loyal Republican. When Holmes was in prison, accused of, among other crimes, having murdered three children, he claimed these victims were still alive and in the care of a confederate, Minnie Williams. In reality, Holmes did kill the children, along with the children's father and Williams and her sister. Nevertheless, he claimed that Williams could be contacted using a New York Herald personal ad and the following code:

The Republican Code. From: The Holmes-Pitezel case; a history of the greatest crime of the century and of the search for the missing Pitezel children by Geyer, Frank P.,1896

Other Holmes' posts at my site:

The Mystery of H.H. Holmes
Holmes at the University of Vermont Medical School
Holmes at the University of Michigan, Part One
Holmes at the University of Michigan, Part Two
The Twenty Seven Murders of Holmes, A Series
Criminality in the Hair.
Holmes in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Holmes Doomed to Misfortune

And some related to Trump:
The Strange Case of Donald Trump and Mr. Hyde
Did The Apprentice Kill NBC?
Those Whom Trump Called Racist.


A 1947 comic book with the story of H.H. Holmes.




---------------------------
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, Rook's Page Publishing.

Back page blurb of A Predator's Game.

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,  available from Rook's Page Publishing.


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.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

To Kill A Dead Man: The Afterdeath of Edgar Allan Poe.

Poe - army deserter, drug fiend, erratic genius - or not.

Edgar Allan Poe had the misfortune of having his enemy take charge of his literary estate and reputation. Upon Poe's death, the Reverend Rufus W. Griswold penned an obituary which began:

"EDGAR ALLAN POE is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it."

And continued with:

"Irascible, envious — bad enough, but not the worst, for these salient angles were all varnished over with a cold repellent cynicism, his passions vented themselves in sneers. There seemed to him no moral susceptibility; and, what was more remarkable in a proud nature, little or nothing of the true point of honor."

Griswold went on to claim that Poe had named him literary executor. To support Griswold's claim of his close association with Poe, he offered correspondence—which he had forged. In exchange for six sets of the books forwarded to Poe's aunt (who was not Poe's heir), Griswold published and pocketed the money from the first posthumous Poe collection.

As part of the introduction to one of the volumes, Griswold wrote a highly-imagined biography of Poe. Of Poe's time at the University of Virginia:

"[Poe] would have graduated with the highest honors, had not his gambling, intemperance, and other vices, induced his expulsion from the university"

Reality: Poe was not expelled. Other than gambling, he didn't appear to have vices, nor could he afford them. According to Griswold, Poe, to escape gambling debts:

". . .soon after left the country with the Quixotic intention of joining the Greeks, then in the midst of their struggle with the Turks. He never reached his destination, and we know but little of his adventures in Europe for nearly a year. By the end of this time he had made his way to St. Petersburgh."

Poe never made such a trip to Europe or Russia, nor had he ever been out of the United States since age 11.

After many more errors in Poe's biography, Griswold summed up the man whose estate he was currently robbing: "Poe exhibits scarcely any virtue in either his life or his writings."





What Had Poe Done to Earn Griswold's Wrath?

Reverend Griswold's greatest crime was his mediocrity. Beginning in the 1840s, Griswold compiled a series called The Poets and Poetry of America. Other than including one or two who were deserving, such as Poe, the work was filled by forgettable poets. As the critic Henry B. Wirth said in a review, ". . . if ever such a thing as literary ruin existed, or exists, nine-tenths of the Poets (!) of America are ruined forever by the praise of Mr. Griswold!"

An anonymous critic used poetry to lampoon Griswold's choice of poets.

  So cold your strain, so dead your accents fall,
  Great thanks to Griswold that ye live at all!

One contemporary, John Sartain, declared Griswold a blackmailer, saying that he had to pay Griswold to avoid a negative review.

Poe joined in the criticism. "Have you seen Griswold's Book of Poetry? It is a most outrageous humbug. . ." (Poe to J. E. Snodgrass, June 4, 1842)

"It is a pity that so many of these biographies were entrusted to Mr. Griswold. He certainly lacks independence, or judgment, or both" (Poe to James Russell Lowell, October 19, 1843)

Griswold's characterization of Poe has haunted him since. This was due to those who took Griswold's biography at face value, those who incorporated it into future biographies and those who insisted on seeing evil inside a man who often wrote about evil.

Poe had personality flaws. Many great writers have been forgiven for their alcoholism. His melancholy bouts seem to be no more than what had been pressed upon him during his brief and tragic life.

Some of his work now seems contrived. The Gold-Bug, his first huge success is racist both in its language and in its depiction of a slow-witted slave.

His choice of subjects, horror, mystery and the fantastic, are often considered a lower art. Poe was acutely aware that he often wrote "pulp." Poe took these forms seriously and codified the rules for new genres: the detective story and science fiction.

Nevertheless, Poe was a professional. He was brilliant, dedicated to his craft, a formidable stylist and critic.

The citations in this article are all from the Poe Society [links below]. The general story was filled in using the biography, "Edgar Allan Poe: The Fever Called Living." Paul Collins, New Harvest, 2014. 

Poe's place on the list of the Top 100 Mysteries.

Among the titles referred to on the Top 100 Mysteries (Mystery Writers of America) and the Top 100 Crime Novels (Crime Writers Association), Tales of Mystery and Imagination is the most enigmatic. There have been several Poe compilations some with this exact title, some with a slight variant.

Author: Edgar Allan Poe
Book: Tales of Mystery and Imagination.
Publication: 1852? As noted by CWA and MWA.
There was a Poe book titled: Tales of Mystery, Imagination and Humour and Poems published in 1852. The first Poe collective titled, Tales of Mystery and Imagination was published in 1902.
Rank: #23 on the CWA list, #3 on the MWA list.
Age of author at time of publication: posthumous
Previous novels published by this author: one novel, several collections of short stories.
Opening line: Many years ago I contracted an intimacy with a Mr. William LeGrand. (from The Gold-Bug, the opening story in the 1902 edition.)
Significance: Helped invent the detective story and science fiction. Has given melancholy teens something to obsess about for going on two centuries. Many stories have defined our cultural heritage, including, The Tell Tale Heart, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Black Cat, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Raven, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Cask of Amontillado, and The Mask of Red Death.

Links to the Edgar Allan Poe Society.

Poe Versus Griswold
Griswold's Memoir of Poe.

--------------

 Martin Hill Ortiz is the author of Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press.



Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press

Never Kill A Friend is available for purchase in hard cover format and as an ebook.
The story follows Shelley Krieg, an African-American detective for the Washington DC Metro PD as she tries to undo a wrong which sent an innocent teenager to prison.

Hard cover: Amazon US
Kindle: Amazon US
Hard cover: Amazon UK
Kindle: Amazon UK
Barnes and Noble