9 Things You Didn't Know About America's First Serial Killer, H.H. Holmes

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

H.H. Holmes—who was born Herman Webster Mudgett on May 16, 1861—would come to be recognized as one of America's first serial killers. But to this day, because of the nature in which he disposed of the bodies and his wildly inconsistent stories and confessions, much of the facts about his life are unclear. So is his death count: Police at the time suspected around nine or 10 victims, while other estimates are in the hundreds; in his published confession, Holmes himself claimed credit for the deaths of 27 people—but several “victims” were later found to still be alive. To make matters more confusing, Holmes took back his earlier confession while on the gallows and claimed to have killed only two people.

Though nearly it's nearly impossible to completely verify them because of Holmes's tall tales—and because he spun them at the height of the era of Yellow Journalism, when nearly everything was hyper-exaggerated—these facts tell the story of his infamous crime spree.

1. HE WAS BULLIED AS A KID.

Because of his contradicting lies, not much is known about Holmes’s childhood (he even manipulated the information on his census forms), but it’s believed that when he was young, his classmates teased and bullied him. When they discovered that he feared doctors, they forced him to stand in front of a human skeleton in a doctor’s office and stare at it. While he was certainly scared at first, Holmes later said the experience exorcised him of his fears about death, and may have lead to his fascination—and later, his unhealthy obsession—with it.

2. HE STOLE AND DISFIGURED CADAVERS.

When Holmes was in medical school at the University of Michigan, he stole several cadavers from the lab, disfigured them, and tried to collect insurance by saying they died in an accident. Over the years, he perfected these insurance scams, and supposedly became the beneficiary on the policies of several women who worked for him, many of whom mysteriously died shortly after.

3. HE WAS MARRIED TO THREE WOMEN AT THE SAME TIME.

Holmes married his first wife, Clara, in 1878; he was only about 19. Two years later, the couple had a son, but Holmes soon abandoned them and married Myrta Belknap in 1887—even though he had yet to divorce Clara. He filed a few weeks after, but the papers never went through. Finally, he married Georgiana Yoke on January 17, 1894, in Denver, Colorado, not long before he was arrested for insurance fraud. So technically, Holmes was still married to Clara, Myrta, and Georgiana when he was put to death in 1896.

4. THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE "MURDER HOTEL" WAS A MYSTERY TO MANY—EVEN THOSE BUILDING IT.

Around the time of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Holmes bought property that he would later use for a hotel, primarily utilized to murder people. In order to ensure that he was the only one who knew the hotel’s true purpose, Holmes hired several different contractors to complete the building's construction. Every so often, he’d fire one if he thought they were seeing too much. Despite this precaution, the plans must have caused at least a little suspicion among the builders. The blueprints included 51 doorways that opened to brick walls, 100 windowless rooms, stairs that led to nowhere, two furnaces, and body-sized chutes to an incinerator.

5. HE SOLD THE SKELETONS OF HIS VICTIMS TO MEDICAL SCIENCE.

As a former medical student, Holmes had many connections that enabled him to sell his victims’ skeletons to local labs and schools. He, and sometimes a hired assistant, were accused of stripping the flesh off the bodies, dissecting them, and preparing the viable skeletons. The rest of the remains would be tossed in pits of lime or acid, effectively breaking down the remaining evidence.

6. HE MADE HIS BUSINESS PARTNER FAKE HIS OWN DEATH.

For yet another insurance scam, Holmes had his friend and accomplice, Benjamin Pitezel, fake his own death so that his wife could collect his $10,000 life insurance payment (which would ultimately go to Holmes). However, rather than find a cadaver lookalike for Pitezel, Holmes decided to just kill Pitezel. Holmes rendered him unconscious with chloroform, then set him on fire. Later, Holmes claimed to have murdered three out of five of Pitezel’s children as well.

7. HE WAS BROUGHT TO JUSTICE BY A HORSE.

The police had been suspicious of Holmes ever since a former cell mate (train robber and Wild West outlaw Marion Hedgepeth) started talking. According to the National Police Journal, “While in the prison Howard [an alias of Holmes] told Hedgepeth that he had devised a scheme for swindling an insurance company of $10,000. And promised Hedgepeth that, if he would recommend him a lawyer suitable for such an enterprise, he should have $500 promised him.”

But Holmes never paid up; as payback, Hedgepeth shared the information with the police. While initially the authorities had little evidence with which to convict Holmes, they did have his outstanding warrant for stealing a horse in Texas.

Holmes was terrified of being sent back to Texas where the punishment would be “rough and ready” and confessed to the insurance scam—but not the murder of Pitezel, according to the National Police Journal. He claimed to have gotten a body from a doctor in New York who shipped it to Philadelphia (where he was living at the time), using his medical knowledge to fit the body in a trunk.

Holmes nearly got away with it, but then the inspector remembered that when the body was first discovered, it was in full rigor mortis, meaning the person had died recently. So the inspector asked what techniques Holmes had learned to stiffen a body after rigor mortis had been broken. Holmes had no answer—and the game was up.

8. AFTER BEING SENTENCED TO THE DEATH PENALTY, HE REQUESTED TO BE BURIED IN CONCRETE.

Holmes asked to be buried 10 feet under and encased in concrete, because he did not want grave robbers to exhume and later dissect his body. Despite being somewhat odd, the request was granted in the end.

9. NEWSPAPERS PAID FOR HIS CONFESSION.

Holmes was paid $7500 (about $215,000 today) by Hearst newspapers to tell his story. However, they didn’t quite get what they bargained for—Holmes gave a number of contradictory accounts, which ultimately discredited him. But one thing a contemporary newspaper reported him saying stuck with people, and later inspired the book and upcoming movie The Devil in the White City: “I was born with the devil in me.”

law

The Time Abraham Lincoln Stopped a Murder Trial in its Tracks

Abraham Lincoln as a lawyer, circa 1847
Abraham Lincoln as a lawyer, circa 1847

One day at the end of May, 1841, William Trailor hopped into a one-horse buggy and began the long journey to Springfield, Illinois, where he planned to reunite with his brothers Henry and Archibald. Joining him was his friend and housemate, a handyman named Archibald Fisher.

In Springfield, the men decided to go for a walk after lunch. But as the afternoon wore on, the brothers somehow lost sight of Fisher. When they returned to Archibald's Springfield home for supper, Fisher wasn't there. The brothers looked briefly for Fischer, but may have assumed he was still out enjoying himself.

But when Fisher failed to show up the next morning, the brothers began to feel uneasy. They spent the day in a fruitless search for the missing man. The same was true of the following day. William eventually left Springfield without him.

According to the local postmaster, rumors circulated that Fisher had died and left William with a large sum of money. True or not, the local postmaster knew about William's trip to Springfield and alerted the postmaster in that city of a possible crime. News of the missing man (and William’s supposed financial windfall) quickly spread.

Within days, all of the Trailor brothers would be arrested—charged with the disappearance and murder of Archibald Fisher.

 

Nobody could find the body. “Examinations were made of cellars, wells, and pits of all descriptions, where it was thought possible the body might be concealed,” wrote Abraham Lincoln, then a young defense lawyer in Springfield. “All the fresh, or tolerably fresh, graves at the grave-yard were pried into, and dead horses and dead dogs were disinterred.”

As locals searched for Fisher’s corpse, both Springfield’s mayor and the Illinois state attorney general ruthlessly interrogated Henry Trailor. For three days, Henry maintained his innocence. But he also began to show signs of cracking. “The prosecutors reminded him that the evidence against him and his two brothers was overwhelming, that they would certainly be hanged,” William H. Townsend wrote in the American Bar Association Journal in 1933, “and that the only chance to save his own life was to become a witness for the State.”

With that bait, Henry confessed: He claimed that his brothers, Archibald and William, had clubbed Fisher to death and had taken all of his money. Henry insisted that he had taken no part in the murder. Rather, he had simply helped his brothers dump the body in the woods.

News of Henry’s confession ignited the public's curiosity, prompting hundreds of people to rush to the forest where Fisher’s body was reportedly hidden. “The story related by Henry Trailor aroused the most intense public indignation, and the murder became almost the sole topic of conversation,” Townsend wrote. “Business was practically suspended as searching parties and amateur detectives scoured the woods and by-ways.”

There, in a dense thicket, investigators found buggy tracks and signs that something large had been dragged through the grass. A nearby pond was partially drained and a dam destroyed, despite protests from the dam's owner. Yet the body continued to elude investigators. The public became antsy.

“It was generally conceded that only a speedy trial and swift punishment could allay the clamor of the populace for the blood of the prisoners and avert the disgrace of a lynching,” Townsend wrote. By June 18, the murder trial had already begun—and a conviction seemed assured.

The courtroom, muggy from the summer humidity, was packed with spectators. Called to the stand, Henry Trailor repeated his confession, claiming that he had helped dispose of Fisher's body. Additional evidence was provided by a local woman who had seen two of the Trailor boys walk into the woods with Fisher—only to see them return alone. Furthermore, investigators claimed they had found human hair in the area near the buggy tracks. The tracks themselves, they noted, had led suspiciously to the pond, as if somebody had tried to dump something.

When the prosecutor rested his case, it seemed like there was no hope for the Trailor brothers.

But the defense had a secret weapon—a 32-year-old lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. The future president calmly stood up and called his one and only witness to the stand.

 

Dr. Robert Gilmore was a widely respected physician in those parts of Illinois. Sitting in the sauna-like courtroom, the doctor patiently explained that he knew Archibald Fisher well—the man had twice lived in his home. Years ago, Gilmore explained, Fisher had suffered a serious head injury from a gun-related accident and had never fully recovered his wits. The poor man was prone to spells of amnesia, blackouts, and derangement. It was very possible that Fisher had just wandered off.

Dr. Gilmore then calmly told the court that he had proof to back up his theory, and proceeded to drop a bombshell: Archibald Fisher was alive and staying in his home.

The courtroom murmured in shock.

Dr. Gilmore continued. Fisher had suffered from a terrible bout of memory loss and had no recollection of his time in Springfield. In fact, Fisher had wandered all the way to Peoria before regaining his senses. The only reason the man had failed to show up to the courtroom today was because his health prevented it.

Lincoln scanned the crowd with glee. “When the doctor’s story was first made public, it was amusing to scan and contemplate the countenances and hear the remarks of those who had been actively engaged in the search for the dead body,” he would later write in a letter, “some looked quizzical, some melancholy, and some furiously angry.”

At first, many were skeptical of the doctor’s claims, but officials were quick to confirm that Fisher was indeed alive. He’d eventually show up to court, later explaining how, indeed, he had no memory of ever visiting Springfield.

To the prosecution's great embarrassment, much of the evidence was proven bunk: It was soon discovered that the controversial path in the forest was, in fact, created by children who had been building a rope swing; meanwhile, the hairs in the woods belonged to a cow. It also became awfully clear that Henry Trailor had been coerced into making a false confession—when the officers had threatened Henry's life, Henry told them what they wanted to hear instead.

All of the charges would be dropped and the men's lives spared. “We have had the highest state of excitement here for a week past that our community has ever witnessed,” Lincoln would write after the trial.

In fact, the case enchanted Lincoln so much that he tried to immortalize the events in a short story written in the style of the true-crime genre. The future president, of course, was justifiably proud of the outcome: It wasn't every day that a single surprise witness helps solve a mystery and saves two people from the hangman's noose.

 

To read Lincoln's own account, check out this excerpt at Smithsonian.

How to Keep Holiday Packages Safe from 'Porch Pirates'

iStock.com/txking
iStock.com/txking

Despite an increase in easy-to-install surveillance cameras and smart doorbells that monitor home activity, package thefts are on the rise. A 2017 survey from InsuranceQuotes.com found that 25.9 million Americans experienced at least one instance of a delivery going missing from their porch, up from 23.5 million in 2015. Frustrated homeowners have set traps and even left boxes full of dog poop in an effort to dissuade—or at least penalize—these brazen thieves, who have been labeled "porch pirates."

Unfortunately, these porch pirates aren't often caught. Security cameras won't do much good once the package has disappeared. And while giving them a box of feces might feel like vigilante justice, spending the holidays handling poop isn't exactly a win. Fortunately, there are some other ways to practice package theft prevention.

The Kansas City Star imparted some pertinent advice from officials at the United Parcel Service (UPS): Packages should be sent to where recipients are, not to where they are not. For most people, that means finding an alternative to getting packages at home when they're away during the day.

One option is to have deliveries sent to your place of business. If workplace policies prevent that, you might want to ask a neighbor if they can keep an eye out and either stash your item in their home or use a spare key to deposit it inside for you.

Don't trust or know your neighbors? Consider finding a UPS branch that's able to receive packages on your behalf. Items are stored securely at their affiliated locations until you come and pick them up in person. The service has 9000 locations across the country, both mailing centers and third-party channels like grocery stores. The service also has UPS Access Points, which are self-service lockers that remain locked until you arrive to pick up packages. You can search the UPS website to find an Access Point location near you.

If you're expecting packages from the United States Postal Service (USPS), you can open a post office box, though there's typically an annual fee for that service. USPS also offers Informed Delivery, a phone app that tracks your package and notifies you when it's arrived. Informed Delivery allows you to communicate with the carrier to offer directions on the best place to leave the package. They might, for example, be willing to deposit your items in an unlocked garage and then lock the door before leaving.

Amazon has a service with a similar premise. Their Key Smart Lock Kit allows you to control access to your door locks, including granting access to delivery drivers. The catch? The feature isn't available in all areas. Neither is Amazon Locker, which consists of storage lockers where packages can be left, though it's worth a look to see if any are available in your area.

If you've taken measures to protect your purchases but still come home to a missing stack of boxes, you should report the theft to authorities and to the U.S Postal Inspection Service. (UPS encourages you to contact the sender.) The odds of retrieving your items are probably going to be slim, but at least both entities will have data that may help them catch thieves in the future. If you report the item as stolen to Amazon, they may replace it at no cost to you. Another alternative is seeing if your homeowner's insurance covers theft of items around your home's exterior. Your deductible is probably too steep to make a claim of missing socks worthwhile, but a package worth hundreds or thousands of dollars is another story.

[h/t The Kansas City Star]

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