The first criminal media circus, part three
The murder castle
Dr. H.H. Holmes's murder castle
_Click here for part two.
The story of Dr. Holmes and his cold-blooded murders electrified the nation and spread around the world. The newspapers, both the respected ones and the yellow press, vilified him, and the breaking story remained on the first pages of them all for months on end.
Philadelphia, with Holmes securely in custody, pressed its claim and scheduled his trial for the murder of Benjamin Pitezel. Indianapolis and Toronto made it clear that, if he escaped justice there, they would be more than happy to finish the job by trying him for the murders of Alice, Nellie, and Howard.
Carrie Pitezel, her health so broken by her ordeal that she appeared twice her age, was released from prison and reunited with her two surviving children on humanitarian grounds. The pity aroused by her sufferings prevented any jurisdiction, as well as the insurance company, from pressing charges against her.
But the big news came from Chicago, where Holmes had resided for seven years prior to attempting the Benjamin Pitezel insurance fraud. Belatedly, the Chicago police department investigated his former residence and commercial building, popularly known as the Castle, a building that Holmes had designed and constructed himself on the corner of 63rd and Wallace Streets in the suburb of Englewood.
By 1895, the Castle was partially damaged; its top, third floor had mysteriously caught fire in September 1893, in several different locations simultaneously and with strong evidence of an underlying liquid accelerant. But the fire had not spread to the lower floors (and the insurance company had not paid Holmes’s claim). The building’s caretaker, Pat Quinlan, still lived in one of the thirty-five bedrooms on the second floor, and the street-level retail shops remained open for business. The Chicago police had hesitated to investigate the Castle prior to July 1895 for fear of injuring those companies’ trade, as the United States remained mired in the deep economic recession caused by the Panic of 1893, and those retail tradesmen voiced strong opposition to any search of the premises now.
_But the discovery of the murdered, incinerated, and buried bodies of the three Pitezel children, in basements of houses rented by Holmes, raised too many questions for the Chicago police to continue ignoring the Castle, which had served as his residence and place of business for two and a half years. Rumors had begun circulating of women associated with Holmes who had gone missing during his years in Chicago. These women included:
The Castle unveiled
Holmes's chamber of horrors
_On Friday evening, July 19, 1895, a few days after the discovery of Alice’s and Nellie’s bodies in Toronto, the Chicago police were finally moved to action and initiated a search of the Castle’s basement and upper stories. What they found stunned the world.
From the walk-in safe with the human footprint embedded on the inside of the door, to the quick-lime and chemical vats in the cellar, the Castle had been designed and constructed as a murder and disposal factory without comparison. Among the thirty-five bedrooms on the second floor, many included hidden “amenities” such as asbestos sound-proofing, hidden gas jets, and sliding entrances through the closets for unannounced night-time callers. Some rooms could only be locked from the outside. Others had what at first appeared to be laundry chutes, but which were large enough to accommodate a human body and had been greased to prevent stoppages. Beneath one such chute, a bloodstained hangman’s noose was found, the rope just long enough to prevent a victim’s feet from touching the ground when suspended from a hook above the trapdoor.
Little actual evidence was found—scraps of bloodstained women’s clothing, charred hair and bones in a huge furnace, human bones mixed with old soup cast-offs in a refuse pit. When some ribs and the pelvis of a child were found buried in quick-lime in the cellar, the Chicago police were satisfied they had found Julia Conner’s little daughter, Pearl, although in those pre-DNA days absolute identification was impossible.
However, when an anatomist named Charles M. Chappell told police that he’d cleaned and mounted skeletons for Holmes, they were able to trace two grisly trophies to a medical school and a physician’s office. Both skeletons, carefully articulated and proudly displayed, were adult women. One, like the missing Julia Conner, was nearly six feet tall, a rare trait for a woman in the 1890s. (Jack the Ripper’s tallest victim, Elizabeth “Long Liz” Stride, was five feet, five inches tall.)
These findings were widely publicized by the press. Many reporters and gawkers broke into the Castle, wandering its maze-like corridors, staring at its grotesqueries, stealing Holmes’ abandoned belongings, and generally destroying it as a crime scene. Thanks to these reports, the world considered him guilty of murder long before he ever came to trial.