He was Chicago’s infamous “White City devil”, a serial killer who stalked the city during the glories of the 1893 World’s Fair.
But did H.H. Holmes pull off one last ghoulish swindle?
“H.H. Holmes was a man who was described as the arch criminal of the century, before they even suspected him of a single murder,” author Adam Selzer said. “A lot of times people got in the way, knew too much, and they mysteriously disappeared.”
History disagrees on the body count for the man born Herman Webster Mudgett, who later took on the Holmes identity. While some ascribe as many as 200 murders to Holmes, and he confessed to over two dozen, the exact number may never be known.
What is known is that his base of operations was a building at 63rd and Wallace, the so called “murder castle”, which popular lore says was festooned with trap doors, sealed rooms, and a veritable chamber of horrors in the basement where bodies were boiled in acid or even cremated.
“It wasn’t a pleasant place in any case,” Selzer said. “There were a number of people who disappeared out of the building.”
But this week, digging began at the Philadelphia cemetery where Holmes was buried following his hanging in 1896. It was in Pennsylvania where the law finally caught up with the notorious killer and he was convicted of murder. But some newspaper accounts at the time suggested he had perpetrated one last scam, cheating the hangman and escaping to South America.
“This was quite a popular story at the time,” said Philadelphia author Matt Lake. “A cynical person might say this was just designed to sell more newspapers, and it did sell newspapers!”
But it also sold the courts in Pennsylvania on the idea of proving once and for all who is in Holmes grave. Two of the killer’s great-grandchildren successfully petitioned to have his remains exhumed, in hopes that DNA testing will prove once and for all if he’s really the one buried in Philadelphia’s Holy Cross Cemetery.
John and Richard Mudgett, along with Cynthia Mudgett Soriano confirmed in affidavits that they are direct descendants of the infamous killer.
“He’d requested a double deep coffin, and before he was placed in it he wanted a layer of wet cement put in there,” Lake noted, quoting popular accounts including a story printed at the time of Holmes’ hanging in The New York Times. “And then the coffin was going to be topped off with even more wet cement.”
“If somebody went to check later, they couldn’t verify that it was his body!”
That of course, did not envision the possibility of modern forensic science. A court order dated March 9 in Delaware County Pennsylvania gives Holmes’ descendants permission to exhume his body, with DNA analysis to be performed by the Anthropology Department of the University of Pennsylvania.
“Petitioners shall cause the remains to be re-interred in the same grave site in which they had originally been buried in Holy Cross Cemetery, regardless of whether or not those remains are determined to be those of Herman Webster Mudgett,” the order stated. “No commercial spectacle or carnival atmosphere shall be created either by this event or any other incident pertaining to the remains.”
On its face, the reports of Holmes’ escape seem the stuff of a 19th century dime novel. One 1898 account, from the “Chicago Inter-Ocean” asked point blank, “Is H.H. Holmes Alive?”
“H.H. Holmes was never hanged in Philadelphia,” the story quoted a purported witness. “On the contrary, as he always declared he would do, he cheated the gallows and is today alive and well growing coffee at San Parinarimbo, Paraguay, South America.”
The account proceeded to explain that Holmes managed to bribe officials at his prison into substituting a cadaver for his hanging, the reason he grew a full beard in the weeks leading to his execution, to further muddy the waters of future identification.
“Within two hours of the hanging an undertaker’s wagon containing a casket drove out of the prison yard,” the article noted. “That casket was supposed to contain the body of Holmes. Instead, it contained Holmes living.”
Such an account differs radically from other descriptions of the execution, including a detailed article in the May 8, 1896 Chicago Tribune.
“Justice followed him with tardy steps for many long years,” the Tribune noted. “Yet when the end came, it was frightfully scientific, methodical, and expeditious.”
Whoever is in the grave, the Delaware County court specifically ordered that the body be returned within 120 days.
“The petitioner shall have the site restored with perpetual grave site care,” the order stated. “In the event it is determined that the remains are not those of Herman Webster Mudgett or are unidentifiable, the Petitioners shall be responsible for purchasing a cemetery marker in addition to requirements for interment.”
Selzer, author of the new “H.H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil”, has never believed all of the more fanciful stories about the “murder castle”, and says he believes the Holmes body count might have only been between 9 and a dozen individuals.
“He was a swindler first and foremost,” he said. “Right after he was first arrested he suddenly became really, really famous. People were calling him the arch criminal, the master criminal of the century!”