Thursday, March 17, 2016

Dr. Henry H. Holmes at the University of Michigan, Part Two

In my first two posts, I examined the ordinary childhood of the notorious 19th century serial killer, Dr. Henry H. Holmes, then examined his experiences at the University of Vermont at Burlington, where he began his formal medical education. In the third post, I looked at the problem of grave-robbing in the 19th century, at how medical schools were involved, and how the University of Michigan possessed a particular infamy. Now, I intend to merge the story lines by looking at the finish of the education of Henry Holmes at the University of Michigan and to suggest how the moral, country kid became permanently twisted.

Trafficking Corpses and the University of Michigan Medical School in the 1870s and 80s.

Over the last half of the 19th century, the University of Michigan acquired an unusually large appetite for dissection cadavers. The institution had risen to become the largest medical school in the country and the state legislature required medical students to learn anatomy through dissection. Furthermore, every medical school in the country competed for the few legitimate corpses and, considering the wide-ranging and frequent scandals, it seemed every medical school obtained those corpses by contracting out to grave-robbers.

The Pickle Vats

Here is how the operation was set-up at Michigan. The demonstrator at the anatomy department bore the responsibility of acquiring the corpses. He filled a small portion of the quota through legal means, a few more by providing incentives to students to find corpses (through legal or illegal means), and then collected the remainder by dealing with grave-robbers, also known as the resurrectionists. Corpses would arrive at the school in barrels, usually labeled "Pickles." They were received by the medical school janitor, Gregor Nagele (his last name misspelled in the quotes below), who placed the corpses in  large communal tubs filled with preservatives: the pickling vats.

Nagele (right) and his pickling vat. Illustration from the student magazine, The University Palladium, University of Michigan, 1878.

The pickling vats had a wide and infamous reputation. One 1885 story in the Michigan Argus recounted the recovery of a corpse that had "accidentally" ended up among the cadavers set for dissection.

"Jesse Goodrich's body was rescued from Nagle's pickling vat on Saturday and restored to his relatives." ^1

Newspapers as far away as Illinois ran jokes about the Michigan pickler.

"How is the corpse?" asked an Ann Arbor medical student of the pickler. "The corpse?" was the reply, "the corpse? Oh, it's in the best of spirits." For proof of which he showed the liquor it was put up in. ^2

Doc Nagele

An institution in his own rite, "Doc" Nagele began work at the medical school at the time of its opening in 1850 and continued on until 1896, ringing the bell each morning without fail for 46 years to announce the beginning of morning classes . He received the corpses and tended the vats. Although unschooled and speaking broken English, he became an expert in dissection and instruction. When the acquisition of bodies brought him to court, he famously forgot his English altogether.
Gregor "Doc" Nagele

  In 1878, an incident occurred which would direct national outrage toward the activities of the resurrectionists. On May 29th, John Scott Harrison, Congressman, son of former President William Henry Harrison and father of future President Benjamin Harrison, was laid to rest in North Bend, Ohio. During the burial, those attending noticed the grave of the recently departed Augustus Devin had been dug up. John Harrison, Jr. and a friend headed off to search local medical schools for Devin's body. When visiting the nearby Medical College of Ohio, to his shock, John encountered his father, John Scott Harrison's, body, instead.

  On June 12th, a search party visited the University of Michigan to locate Devin's body. The account of the discovery makes for lurid reading.

  "The building, a great, gloomy old stone pile, situated in the outskirts of the town [Ann Arbor], was found nearly deserted, and the school term having closed, and nobody, but the janitor, whose name was Negley [sic], in charge. After some protestations on his part, which were quieted by the display of documentary authority, he led the way to the cellar under the building, where he admitted there were a few bodies which had been recently sent in, and been put in pickle by himself.

  "There arranged along the side of the vats, were three monstrous vats containing a large number of dead bodies floating in brine. Piled high above these were a number of empty coffins rudely broken open and rifled of their precious dead, while upon a rough table in the center of the room, was a mixture of red paint and nitrate of silver, used for injecting the veins.

  "First Negley hurled from their places huge rocks which had been placed above to weigh down and keep in place the bodies. Then, with bared arms, and an expression of fiendish satisfaction, he began reaching down into the vats in search of the bodies. As the weights were removed they floated to the surface and were seen to be closely packed in tierces in the vats, like so many slaughtered hogs packed for market." ^3

  The piece continues with bodies dragged out one by one. An example:

  ". . . the body of a beautiful woman of about thirty, the abdomen ripped open, the limbs twisted and disfigured, and the black streaming hair floating in the water about the head. Drawing it from the water he [a student assistant] threw it suddenly upon the heap of corpses and as it struck an infant of perhaps seven months fell from the womb. Snatching it up with a ghoulish leer and an expression beyond description, his assistant held it up to full view and with a heartless laugh asked if that was the one of which we were in search." ^4

After an hour, after more than forty bodies were retrieved, one of the bodies was identified as Devin's.

Dr. William J. Herdman

  The above incident took place under the watch of Dr. William J. Herdman. In 1875, Herdman graduated from the medical program at the University of Michigan and that same year took over the role of demonstrator of anatomy. He would continue in that position until 1890 after which he pursued his interests in electrotherapeutics (using electricity to treat nervous disorders), and nervous diseases and abnormal psychology, eventually becoming an alienist. The Cyclopedia of American Medical Biography (1912) described him thusly:

"Herdman was about six feet high, perfectly proportioned with a large head covered with luxuriant brown hair, high forehead, brown, bushy eyebrows shielding the deep set eyes, long curly mustache, keen glance, kindly manner and of remarkable dignity."^5

William J. Herdman

  During his tenure Herdman set about aggressively collecting cadavers and this period was filled with scandals--and progress towards laws which would allow corpses to be collected more ethically.

  After yet another debacle in early 1880, these comments from the Ypsilanti Sentinel summed up the attitude of the public towards the ghoulish dealings at the University of Michigan. (The city of Ypsilanti adjoins Ann Arbor.)

  "The study of medicine seems to develop the disposition of hyenas and vampires and an average medical student seems to imagine that the acquirement of his profession consists in hacking, and mutilating dead bodies. Even female students become she hyenas, and cackle round a corpse, like magpies. Yet when all these creatures enter practice, what are they? Mere pill peddlers. Not one in ten of them can amputate a limb, or reduce a dislocation." ^6.

  In June of 1880, the Medical School regents demanded that Herdman address the charges that he had dealt with  grave-robbers. He was defiant.

  "Though not strictly legal, I have endeavored … to secure this pauper material from different parts of our own state for dissection. You know full well the character of many of the men we are compelled to employ in this clandestine business." ^7

  "I have labored early and late and have tested every honorable method." He pledged "to exhaust all strictly legal sources of supply before resorting to any other means; to complete the supply from the surplus at other colleges, if possible; when draw from the pauper and friendless dead at our County-houses and asylums with the consent of the proper authorities if such consent could be obtained." ^8

  And still the scandals continued. In March of 1881, the Baltimore Sun published the results of a major investigation into grave-robbing. Among their discoveries were letters from various medical schools directed to a gang of graverobbers. One came from the University of Michigan.

  Ann Arbor, Mich., Nov. 21, 1880. – I learn through Dr. Rochester, of Buffalo, that you are prepared to furnish material for dissection, and I write to ask you how many you may be able to furnish us during the next three or four months, what price you may want, and how you have been in the habit of shipping. We consume over 100 in the course of a winter, and if you desire, and we can make satisfactory terms, we can give you large orders. Please let me hear from you at once.
                                     W.J. HERDMAN ^9

  Also in 1881, in part through the advocacy of Dr. Herdman, the state of Michigan passed a law declaring that those who died while in state-operated poorhouses, if not claimed by family or friend, would be forwarded to the medical school. This is generally noted as the beginning of the end of the medical school's association with graverobbers. The large scale scandals were fewer, but still news reports continued about illegally obtained cadavers bound for Ann Arbor.

  What was Herdman really like? News articles mention that he was a Sunday School teacher at the Presbyterian church, that he ran for mayor of Ann Arbor on the Unionist ticket (and lost) and that he was convicted for assaulting a man who had stepped on his recently painted floor. He was dazzled by the possibilities of electro-therapy. He began an electro-therapeutics lab at the University of Michigan in the early eighties and would later serve as the president of the National Society of Electro-Therapeutics. In the nineties, Nikola Tesla lectured this society about the health benefits of electricity.

Enter Herman Webster Mudgett.

Mudgett, aka Holmes, began his education at the University of Michigan in September, 1882. After he had become infamous, several of his classmates and professors reminisced about his time there.

One story reported in the Ann Arbor paper, noted that Holmes worked for Dr. Herdman. "He [Holmes] appeared to be in straightened [sic] circumstances financially, and for some time earned his room rent at Dr. Herdman's by doing odd chores about the place, caring for the doctor's horses." ^10

Odd chores was likely a cover story. Dr. Herdman would hardly announce that Mudgett had been contracted as a go-between for body-trafficking. In another story, a classmate, Dr. A.E. Coy confirms Holmes worked for Herdman, adding some speculation, "I believe he was working his way through college, for he found employment during his spare hours in the service of William J. Herdman, demonstrator of anatomy of the school. In that way he spent much of his time in the dissecting rooms, assisting Professor Herdman, and I believe he had the keys to that part of the building, so you see it would not be such a very difficult matter for him to have stolen a corpse with which to have swindled the insurance companies." ^11

Another indication that Mudgett was strongly influenced by Dr. Herdman comes from a report from a journalist who came upon a locked box of items which Holmes had left in safekeeping with an associate. The items inside included: his degree from Gilmanton Academy, on the back was written, "One round higher;" a certificate for a course in electro-therapeutics, "A little higher;" and, his University of Michigan medical degree, "Still higher." ^12

What was Mudgett like at the University of Michigan? One of the faculty, Dr. J.L. Rose recalled:

"... he remembers Mudgett well, that he looked and acted "like a clodhopper." He did not distinguish himself as a student and showed no marks of brilliancy or even acuteness. He did, however, get into trouble with a Mrs. Fitch, a hair dresser, who demanded that he marry her. This was impossible as Mudgett was at this time married. The matter was brought before the medical faculty and Mudgett narrowly escaped expulsion, as he afterwards narrowly escaped "plucking" on his merits as a student." ^13.

Also among the items in the above-mentioned locked box was a letter from one of the faculty, E.S. Dunster, stating that he and Dr. Herdman would not allow "this disagreeable affair" to prejudice Mudgett's examination for his degree.

From another classmate: "Dr. George A. Heath, resident surgeon at the University hospital, Ann Arbor, Mich., writes from Monroe, Mich., as follows: "In reference to the man H. H. Holmes, I knew him fairly well while he was studying medicine at Ann Arbor. He did not, while there, pass by the name of Holmes, but Herman W. Mudgett. I remember him as a mild, inoffensive student of ordinary ability, and, seemingly, the last person in his class to follow the murderous career that he seems to have followed." ^14

Another classmate Dr. A.E. Coy (also quoted above) stated: "He [Holmes] was a rather quiet sort of a fellow and was industrious. ... He was such a conservative sort of a fellow that we were all greatly surprised when he got into a serious scrape in which a woman figured. He managed to get out of the difficulty, however, and graduated. He immediately disappeared, and it was given out that he had gone to Zululand to become a medical missionary." ^15

One schoolmate of Holmes went on to fame. William J. Mayo of the Mayo Brothers Clinic (U of M, class of 1883), made no public statement available regarding Holmes.

At the University of Michigan, Holmes is described as quiet, but seems to have grown into a ladies man. The exposure to the bodies and the dangerous but high-paying world of body-snatching seems to have begun to infect him.

Continued in Supplementary Files.

Holmes, graduation photo, University of Michigan Medical School, 1884

Robert C Leacock, graduation photo, UM, 1884. Holmes lists Leacock as his first victim.


1. Jesse Goodrich's body was rescued from Nagle's pickling vat on Saturday and restored to his relatives. July 24, 1885. Michigan Argus (Ann Arbor, Michigan), page: 3.
2. March 10, 1880. Rockford Weekly Gazette (Rockford, Illinois), page: 4.
3.  Horror On Horror. How the Dead of Our People Rest. The Remains of Forty-eight Pickled. June 15, 1878.  Cleveland Plain Dealer, page: 2.
4. ibid.
5. A Cyclopedia of American Medical Biography vol. 1, p. 399-400. Copyright 1912, W.B. Saunders Company.
6. As quoted in: The News And Comments. May 7, 1880. Jackson Citizen Patriot, page: 1.
7. As quoted in: In the Archives: The Friendless Dead. Ann Arbor Chronicle, October 1, 2013. Laura Bien.
8.  As quoted in Such Horrible Business, James Tobin, University of Michigan Heritage Project.
9.  Rifling of Cemeteries. Investigations of the Subject in Baltimore-the City a Control Point for Traffic to Human Bodies. March 22, 1881. Baltimore Sun. Supplement 1
10. A Murderer's Career in Ann Arbor. July 26, 1895. Michigan Argus (Ann Arbor), page 1.
11. Holmes at Ann Arbor. November 23, 1894. New York Herald, page 3.
12. "Mudgett" Was Holmes. August 05, 1895. Birmingham, Alabama Age-Herald.
13.  The First One Hung. May 15, 1896. Michigan Argus (Ann Arbor), page: 1.
14.  The Daily News, Denver, Colorado. July 24, 1895.
15. Holmes at Ann Arbor. November 23, 1894. New York Herald, page: 3

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 of A Predator's Game (advance copy, subject to change).

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, is 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


Post a Comment