The first criminal media circus, part two
Detective Frank Geyer
_Click here for part one.
Detective Frank Geyer of the Philadelphia police force had two clues to follow. Several times during their convoluted flight, the children had written letters to their mother and grandparents, each letter properly headed with the date and place of origin; while Holmes had never mailed their letters, nor had he destroyed them, and thus Geyer had a rough sketch of the path ahead. Secondly, he knew that Holmes parked his victims in the short term at boarding houses, but in the case of Carrie, at least, when he had been ready to finish her, he had rented a house in an out-of-the-way place for the task. So he knew that, when the children vanished from their rented rooms, he needed to turn to the real estate agents and private landlords for his next clue. Armed with photographs, descriptions, and an inventory of the children’s clothing and belongings, Geyer tracked the three children as far as Indianapolis. There Howard’s trail vanished. The two girls he traced as far as Toronto before they, too, disappeared.
Although the Toronto police assisted the hunt, there were simply too many real estate agents and private landlords to investigate. Geyer, an experienced and imaginative detective, had already realized the power of the media and took the gamble that they could mobilize the city faster than he could. On Wednesday night, July 10, 1895, he held what today would be called a press conference in his room at the Rossin House, describing his search for a rental house taken by a man using one of a number of aliases. This man, Geyer said, tended to say he wanted the house for a widowed sister and her children. But a few days later, the house would be found abandoned.
Geyer’s gamble paid off. The Toronto reporters, horrified at the thought of three murdered children, sympathetic to their mother and the quest for justice, plastered the story across the first page of every newspaper in the city and kept it there. Their stories were picked up by the wire services and flooded out to newspapers throughout Canada, the United States, and Europe. The next day, when Geyer and the Toronto police resumed their hunt, they found that most real estate agents had already checked their files and the time required for each visit was minimal.
Found, too late
_Thousands of tips poured in. Each was investigated over a frantic weekend. On the following Monday, Geyer spoke with a Scottish immigrant named Thomas Ryves, who lived next door to a rental house that had been taken the previous October by a man who claimed, when he borrowed a shovel from Ryves, that the house was for his widowed sister. The man had been accompanied by two teenaged girls. But when he left a few days later, he was alone. And he hadn’t returned.
Geyer and his Toronto police assistant borrowed the same shovel and used it to check the entire property for disturbed soil. They found it in the basement, where Alice and Nellie had been buried together, naked, in a shallow grave. Although they had been dead for eight months and the autopsy could not conclusively determine the cause of death, the coroner’s best guess was asphyxiation by gas.
The first part of Geyer’s mission had been accomplished. But Howard’s absence haunted him. He returned to Indianapolis, the last place the boy had been reported, and again the reporters flocked to hear him. Again the story commanded the front page of every paper in the city, nation, and two continents, and again real estate agents and private landlords checked their records. And again thousands of leads poured in. But it wasn’t until August 27 that an agent named Samuel Brown spoke with Geyer about a house owned by a Dr. Thompson that fit the description, out in the suburb of Irvington.
An initial search of the house turned up a battered trunk, hidden beneath the porch steps, that matched the description of the one carried by the children. But there was no sign of a grave this time and the sun was setting, so Geyer and his Indianapolis police assistant returned to the city for the night by trolley. So it was Dr. Thompson’s medical partner, Dr. Barnhill, who along with some neighborhood kids searched the furnace in the basement and found fragments of bone, hair, and charred internal organs blocking the exhaust pipe. Too little was left to determine Howard’s mode of death, but his body had been chopped to chunks and incinerated.
Click here for part three.