The first criminal media circus, part one
Dr. Herman Mudgett, alias H.H. Holmes
_He was a serial killer. He was tried in the press, convicted, sentenced, and damned, before he ever entered a courtroom. In return, he wrote his own story and published it, cashing in on the public’s fascination with his case, and later sold the rest of his story to a newspaper as an exclusive. During the hunt for evidence, the lead detective twice held press conferences, to acquaint the public with his needs and request their cooperation. During jury selection, each panel member was asked if he’d already formed such an unshakable opinion on the case from the press that he could not consider the evidence in an impartial manner. And the only potential juryman who was excused was one who claimed never to have read of the case at all, a claim that no one found believable.
Welcome to the first criminal media circus, in the year 1895.
Dr. Herman Mudgett, a/k/a Henry Howard Holmes plus a list of other aliases long enough to spin almost any head, was first arrested for insurance fraud. A body identified as his alcoholic employee, Benjamin Pitezel, had been found in a decrepit Philadelphia patent office, several days dead, ostensibly of an explosion caused by lighting his pipe in a roomful of chemicals. However, only one bottle of benzene was broken, the burns across the body were not that severe, and the pipe found beside him had sustained no damage. Besides, the pieces of broken glass were found inside the bottle, not scattered about the room, and the liquid in the corpse’s stomach wasn’t alcohol but chloroform. And Pitezel carried an insurance policy for $10,000, an enormous sum in 1895. Everything spelled fraud and the company was understandably leery.
_Benjamin Pitezel’s wife, Carrie, was even more leery. She knew that her husband and Dr. Holmes, as she knew Mudgett, intended to defraud the insurance company with a substitute corpse, which made her an accessory to the crime through her silence. Spending time in prison, locked away from her five children, was her worst nightmare, and the longer her husband spent working for the scofflaw Holmes, the more likely it seemed to become.
So when she read in the local St. Louis paper that the body of an unfortunate individual named B.F. Perry had been found dead in Philadelphia, she recognized her husband’s alias and knew the fraud was on. Her heart sank, but her choices were miserable: to turn in her beloved husband, or break the law with him and risk prison and separation from her children. She steeled herself to play her role and hoped for the best.
Carrie was too ill to travel so far and identify the body herself, and had no choice but to send her fifteen-year-old daughter, Alice, in the care of a sharp attorney hired by Holmes. Alice recognized her weeks-dead father by the only part of his anatomy she was allowed to see, his twisted lower teeth. Holmes, also present, pointed out several other distinguishing features on the decaying corpse. The identification was complete, the insurance company had no proof of fraud, Holmes’ open and forthright manner impressed the corporate officials, and Alice’s ragged clothing, complete with holes in both shoes, moved them to pity. They paid.
Alice and Howard Pitezel
_Unfortunately for Holmes, Alice really had identified her father and knew that wasn’t a substitute corpse. So rather than return her to her mother, pining in St. Louis and more panicky by the day, Holmes parked Alice in a boarding house in Indianapolis. Leaving her there, he traveled to St. Louis and told Carrie that the scheme had worked to perfection. But, he said, Benjamin was now in hiding and couldn’t come to her, and it was too dangerous for her to travel to meet him with five children–the authorities were bound to pick up her trail and follow her to Benjamin, and then they would all go to jail. He gave the terrified and confused woman some money, told her to take a train to Cincinnati with her youngest and eldest children–and took the other two, thirteen-year-old Nellie and ten-year-old Howard, back with him to join Alice in Indianapolis. From September 28 to November 17 of 1894, Holmes dragged three groups of people from city to city across the Northeast–St. Louis, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, back to Indianapolis, back to Cincinnati, on to Detroit, Toronto, Ogdensburg, Burlington, and finally Boston, laying a trail he thought would be impossible for the law to follow. He managed to keep each of these three groups ignorant of the other two, and split his time amongst them as necessary. Sometimes the groups were in different cities, sometimes merely blocks apart. In one group was poor Carrie Pitezel, with her seventeen-year-old daughter Dessie and her infant son Wharton. In the second were her other three children, Alice, Nellie, and Howard. In the third was Holmes himself and one of the three women he had married, Georgiana Yoke. (His true wife, Clara Lovering Mudgett, lived in Tilton, New Hampshire, with their thirteen-year-old son; his second, Myrta Holmes, in Wilmette, Illinois with their six-year-old daughter. No, he was never divorced.)
Somewhere along that convoluted path, Alice, Nellie, and Howard vanished.
_The hunt begins
In Boston, the Pinkerton Detective Agency, hired to track Holmes after the insurance company received a tip regarding the swindle and following him since Ogdensburg, watched him make the rounds of the steamship agencies and decided the farce had gone far enough. They informed the Boston police, who arrested Holmes and picked up Carrie as an accomplice. Poor Carrie, living her worst nightmare and close to collapse, begged the police to find her three missing children as she and Holmes were returned to Philadelphia to face charges.
The charge against Holmes, insurance fraud through a substitute corpse, was quickly replaced with the far more serious one of the murder of his former employee. At first he willingly admitted to the fraud, bluffing that he’d put Benjamin Pitezel and little Howard on a train for Florida en route to South America. When that didn’t fly, he made a second confession, claiming that Pitezel had committed suicide by ingesting chloroform. He’d merely staged the scene and helped Carrie collect the money, sending the children to London with his former mistress, Minnie Williams.
But the initially unbelievable possibility, that Holmes had attempted to murder the entire Pitezel family, was given a boost when Carrie revealed that he’d sent her a final letter before his capture, telling her of an expensive chemical he’d left in the cellar of her rental house and asking her to take it upstairs for him. Carrie, her little trust in Holmes by then obliterated, had taken the vial of colorless liquid outside and cautiously buried it in the yard. When the police retrieved it, they found it was nitroglycerine in a sufficient quantity to kill Carrie, Dessie, infant Wharton, and everyone else on the block.
Repeated demands by the police for Holmes to produce Alice, Nellie, and Howard led to story after creative story from the practiced and pathological liar. Finally the Philadelphia district attorney dispatched the city’s most skillful detective on an international mission: recreate Holmes’ twisted trail and find those children.
Click here for part two.