H. H. Holmes: Master of Illusion
The discovery of a murder in Philadelphia in October 1894 opened the door to a case that few could believe. Marion Hedgepeth, a one-time cellmate of a man who went by the name H.M. Howard, informed police about a recent scam. It involved insuring a man named Benjamin Pitezel for $10,000 with the Fidelity Mutual Life Association in 1893 in Chicago, and then faking his death in a laboratory explosion by substituting a cadaver. All participants were then to split the insurance payment, but Howard had reneged and run off with the money. Hedgepeth was informing on him as payback, and his detailed letter about the scheme was passed along to the company. In short order, they realized that H.M. Howard was actually H. H. Holmes, clearly a swindler. A company representative who had already expressed suspicions about the death scene re-examined the circumstances surrounding the discovery of a body at 1316 Callowhill Street in Philadelphia. It had been found in a state of rigor mortis and so badly burned in the face from chemicals and sun exposure that identity of the person could not be judged. Nevertheless, Holmes, accompanied by one of Benjamin Pitezel’s children, had indeed identified this body from certain characteristics as the remains of Pitezel. After he’d collected the money, he’d disappeared with that child and two more of Pitezel’s children.
Given these details, company officers tried unsuccessfully to track him, so they hired agents from the Pinkerton National Detective Agency to go after the scoundrel. As these more experienced men followed his trail around the country, they gathered information about his numerous frauds, thefts, and schemes, including other insurance scams years earlier in Chicago that had provided him with funds to build a three-story hotel. He was among the top swindlers they had ever come across, possibly the most accomplished. If he hadn’t gotten greedy, he’d still be in business. But this time, they had him.
Pinkerton Detective Agency
Herman Mudgett, aka HH Holmes
They finally caught up to Holmes in November in one of his childhood haunts in Vermont, put him under surveillance, and gave the information to police. On the afternoon of November 16, 1894, H.H. Holmes was arrested in Boston as he was preparing to leave the country by steamship. He surrendered easily, probably believing that he could resort to his highly successful weapon, a glib tongue and a load of lies, to get himself out of a tight spot. It’s likely that he was further convinced of this when they told him that he was being charged with the rather petty theft of a horse in Texas. Secretly, he knew a lot more about what he’d done, but so did police. Even so, neither side realized at that moment what they were dealing with.
The Holmes Pitezel Case
The best sources for the Holmes story are the documents from the case itself: Detective Frank P. Geyer’s book on his experiences (which included evidence not used in court and which Geyer describes as “one of the most marvellous [sic] stories of modern times”) and the autobiographical pieces that Holmes penned. At first Holmes told one story, which included mundane details about his life and a load of lies posed to cover up his crimes, and then he offered a sensational confession, which was printed at the time in the Philadelphia Inquirer (and all three documents are now available on a CD-ROM from Waterfront Productions). As well, since the Holmes story was an immediate sensation, editions of the major Philadelphia newspapers carried the story from the moment he was arrested, and in 1975, David Franke published The Torture Doctor (later found to have been read by healthcare serial killer Dr. Michael Swango). In addition, authors Harold Schechter and Erik Larson both have written exemplary renditions of the Holmes tale. Schechter tells the tale imaginatively as...
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