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 Medieval Woman Who Made a Living Pretending to be Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc as painted by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
Joan of Arc as painted by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It didn’t take long after Joan of Arc was executed in May 1431 for the rumors to start. Although plenty of witnesses watched as she was burned at the stake in the marketplace in Rouen, France, Joan’s status as a revered military and religious figure seemingly encouraged people to believe that she hadn’t actually died.

Joan’s executioners anticipated this. After her body was burned, they raked back the coals to prove that she was dead, then set her remains aflame twice more. Finally, they threw the charred results in the Seine to prevent relics from being collected.

But in a country grieving a national heroine, the idea that Joan had escaped death persisted.

At first, a story circulated among the populace that someone else had been burned in her place and that the real Joan had fled. Others said it was Joan in the flames, but she’d been spared by God and escaped. Within a few years, women began to appear around France pretending to be Joan, or at the very least acting as if they were "inspired" by her. They claimed prophecies and visions, and collected gifts and attention, though in most cases their ruse didn't last long.

By far the most famous, and successful, was a woman whose real name was Claude des Armoises. Her ploy would last four years. It earned her a great deal of cash—and almost ensnared the King of France himself.

The False Maid

Claude is said to have begun her career in deception by posing as a male solider in Pope Eugene IV’s army, where she killed two men in fighting around 1435 during a rebellion in Rome. The next year, she started laying the groundwork for her Joan of Arc scheme.

She began with the real Joan’s family: In May 1436, she met Joan’s brothers, Pierre and Jean, and convinced them that she was their departed sister—or at least, got them to publicly agree to the idea. Claude is said to have strongly resembled Joan, and it's possible the men were blinded enough by grief to think that Claude was really their kin. As the 19th-century French writer Anatole France described the scenario, "They believed, because they wished to believe." But other scholars note the brothers may also have agreed to the deceit because they knew there was money to be made.

Claude did her research: She cut her hair short and frequently wore men’s clothes, like the real Joan. She almost always spoke in Christian parables, which lent a mystical, legendary quality to her image—and also effectively clouded facts. After all, you wouldn’t want to disturb a poetic, holy anecdote by asking for clarification.

All of this worked. When the brothers d’Arc brought their so-called sister to meet some noblemen, the men were so impressed they provided her with a horse, a hooded cloak, and a sword. The 19th-century French historian Jules Quicherat noted that she rode the horse expertly, lending even more credence to her story (not just any peasant girl could ride a horse, while Joan had relied on hers during battle). The group then visited towns across the northeast of France, collecting horses and jewels along the way. Upon arriving in Arlon, the party was deluged with more gifts by the Duchess of Luxembourg, and the group set up camp there.

In this way, Claude and her supposed siblings traveled around the continent living the good life at other people’s expense during the summer of 1436. Princess Elizabeth de Luxembourg and Duchess Elisabeth von Görlitz in particular were great benefactors of the three, while the Comte de Virnenbourg was said to have fallen in love with Claude (as Joan). He even made her the head of a military unit he sent to Cologne to provide support for a candidate for the bishopric of Trier.

But in Cologne, things turned sour. The 15th-century Dominican friar Johannes Nider described her activities: "There was a young woman, who from time to time took on the behavior of a male, and who was running around armed and with wildly flowing clothes, as soldiers in the pay of a nobleman do." What's worse, Nider said, "She also let herself be seen dancing with men. And she used to drink and to carouse."

In other words, her behavior was beginning to attract the wrong kind of attention.

It didn't help that Claude sometimes performed minor feats of magic: tearing a large cloth and then making it whole again, or smashing a glass against the wall and somehow restoring it to one piece. An inquisitor in Cologne, suspecting witchcraft, began an investigation and sent men to fetch her, but she escaped with help from the Comte de Virnenbourg. The inquisitor responded by excommunicating her—for witchcraft, wearing men's clothes, and supporting the wrong candidate for the bishopric.

But Claude, or Joan, was relatively safe in France—at least for the time being. She married a knight, Robert des Armoises, and is said to have born him two sons. In 1439 she turned up in Orléans, the site of Joan’s renowned siege, where she was celebrated with a series of lavish suppers and a gift of cash, in honor of "the good she had done for the city during the siege," according to the town's records.

But by then, Claude must have been getting nervous. She left early from a dinner in Orléans, one source notes, "As the wine drawn for her was drunk, in her absence, by Jean Luilier, the very tailor who had made clothes for the true Maid [Joan of Arc] in 1429. Possibly the false Maid fled from a misgiving as to an encounter with her tailor, who of all men would have been able to detect an imposture."

The net was starting to close in. A few months after her lavish dinner in Orléans, Claude was finally called to meet King Charles VII himself.

The Secret Sign

The French king had heard about this alleged Joan, but he was suspicious. So he decided to set up a test for her.

At the palace, Claude was met by a man claiming to be the king, while the real Charles watched from afar. But Claude knew—perhaps from royal gossip—that the real king wore a soft boot on his ulcerated leg, which this man did not. She called his bluff, going to the true king instead.

Charles was astounded. Saluting her, he said, “You are welcome back, in the name of God, who knows the secret that is between us.”

At this, Claude fell to her knees. She knew that she didn't know the king's secret, and confessed to being an imposter.

We don’t know what the secret was either, except that it was a reference to a clandestine sign that Joan of Arc and Charles shared when they first met in 1429, and which had to do with his legitimacy to the throne. Historians have long debated what this sign may have been; little seems clear except that whatever it was, it helped the real Joan earn the king's trust.

Claude was exposed at last. But she and Joan's brothers weren't punished for their lies; instead, Claude was sent back to her husband in Jaulny to live out the rest of her life.

Afterlives

Claude was not the first false Joan, and she wouldn't be the last. Years after Claude confessed, a woman named Jeanne la Féronne appeared and began claiming to be the Maid of Orléans. She didn't last long as long as Claude, and was soon sent to the pillory for false revelations.

As for how all these women managed to pull the wool over a gullible public's eyes, the scholar Dick Berents writes, "it was apparently extremely difficult to obtain certainty about anything in 15th-century society, even about a person's death." Furthermore, he theorizes, when a popular figure dies violently, it can be hard for their followers to adjust. "People would rather believe that a person continues to live," he notes.

About 15 years later, in July 1456—a few years after the Hundred Years’ War finally ended—a retrial declared the real Joan of Arc innocent and annulled her sentence. She would be made a saint in 1920, and remains the only person in history to be both condemned and canonized by the Catholic Church.

How British Spies Used a Cupcake Recipe to Stop Terrorists

iStock.com/400tmax
iStock.com/400tmax

In 2011, Arabian Peninsula-based Al-Qaeda members published a 67-page English-language magazine called Inspire in an attempt to recruit new terrorists. Instead, they might have inspired a new generation of bakers.

In the United States and United Kingdom, intelligence agencies knew the magazine was being launched well in advance. The also knew the magazine would be digital-only and could be downloaded as a PDF by anybody with an internet connection. For months, the U.S. Cyber Command planned on attacking the publication's release, crippling it with a hail of computer viruses. "The packaging of this magazine may be slick," one counterterrorism official said, "but the contents are as vile as the authors."

Their plans, however, were blocked by the CIA, which asserted that targeting the magazine "would expose sources and methods and disrupt an important source of intelligence," according to The Telegraph. So as progress halted in the U.S., British agents cooked up their own plans.

It involved treats.

At the time of the magazine's launch, the UK Government Communications Headquarters and the Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6, successfully hacked the computers distributing the mag and tinkered with the text. They removed articles about Osama bin Laden and deleted a story called "What to expect in Jihad." Elsewhere, they destroyed the text by inserting garbled computer code.

One sabotaged story was an article by "The AQ Chef" called "Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of your Mom," which explained how to make a pipe bomb with simple ingredients that included sugar. The new code, however, contained a sweet recipe of a different kind.

Instead of the bomb-making instructions, the article contained code leading to an article called "The Best Cupcakes in America," hosted by the Ellen DeGeneres Show website [PDF]. The page featured recipes for "sweet-toothed hipsters" and instructions for mojito-flavored cupcakes "made of white rum cake and draped in vanilla buttercream" (plus Rocky Road and Caramel Apple varieties!).

Two weeks later, the magazine's editors found the errors and fixed the edition—but, presumably, not until some bad guys discovered that "the little cupcake is big again."

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