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.


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:


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

1 comment:

  1. This is amazing! I can't believe you found all this out. I've emailed you, I'll email you again about this.