Monday, August 29, 2011

An Unsolved Mystery: The Body in the Box

Just before Halloween on in 1903, a man called the 50th street police station to inform authorities that men excavating a gravel pit at 56th and South Park Avenue had struck a box containing a body.

The police borrowed a gasoline-powered torch from a nearby fruit stand and searched the gravel pit. In it, they found a coffin-shaped box. Inside it, wrapped in carpet, was a dead man his hands folded across his chest. “The body was in a mummified condition,” papers wrote, “and evidently had been exposed for a long time after death. In the botto of the box a rusty sword, with the point broken off, was found. Beneath the head was a faded gray-striped bathrobe. The carpet wrapped about the body was dark red and green.” The man was about 50 years old, had dark brown hair, and a gray mustache. His throat had been cut, then stitched shut.

Initially, police assumed that it was a body that had been stolen, sold to a medical college, and dissected. After further examination, though, they hatched a theory that the man had been murdered, and the stitches were just to make people THINK he had been dissected.

Other still believed it was grave robbers, and that the body was of a recently-dead man whose funeral had been held, but at which mourners only witnessed the burial of an empty box.

“The police,” the paper wrote, “are at a loss to offer a plausible explanation why they vacan lot should have been chosen as a place for concealing the body. From the fact that the boards of the box are in good condition, Lt. Backus declares the body could not have been hidden in the gravel pit more than a few weeks.”

We can’t find any follow-up on the stoy, so it remains an unsolved mystery.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Here we go again...H.H. Holmes Goes to College!

Well, it's been a while - we've been busy working on a new series of Smart Aleck's Guides and preparing for the November release of a couple of novels around here. But Halloween is coming, and our Smart Aleck's Guide to Grave Robbing E-book is coming very soon, so....why not talk about H.H. Holmes?

Holmes was, in fact, a doctor. I have some difficulty believing some of the stories that go around about him having a rack in his basement that he planned to use to create a race of giants - no man with medical training, even 19th century medical training, would have been that foolish.

In fact, a great many of the stories about Holmes that are a part of the story today can be traced to crazy gossip from neighbors of his from the 1890s, many of whom were clearly just coming up with stories to get their names in the paper. It seems that everyone who had ever passed Holmes on the street had exaggerated the story in their mind to one in which they narrowly avoided being murdered and sold to a skeleton articulator. The exact number of victims he had will never be known, but I fully expect to hear someone say "500" this year. It was at 400 last year, and the number seems to go up by another 100 every Halloween. A few years back, when I first started working on the story, the "high" estimate was usually 200.

But let's look at one theory that doesn't get kicked around much - why did the New England-born Holmes (or, more properly, Herman W. Mudget), choose to go to college at the University of Michigan?

Do enough research on 19th century crime, and you start to get a pretty good idea. Throughout the 1870s, when the young man would have been thinking about where he ought to go to college, the University of Michigan was a notorious hub for body snatchers who sold fresh corpses to medical schools. All medical schools needed bodies, and most were caught dealing with "resurrection men" at one time or another, but the University of Michigan was written up in the media time and time again. When laws changed in Chicago to provide corpses to the local schools, grave robbers simply began shipping Chicago corpses to Ann Arbor.

It's very easy to imagine that young Holmes had read about the practice, and conceived of the University of Michigan as a place where he could be sure to have access to plenty of dead bodies, and where he could even pay his tuition by supplying some himself.

Here's "Holmes" listed as a third year student (giving Michigan as his home state, which was a lie - nearly all of his official records contain a lie or two):

In 1896, around the time of his execution, a former classmate, John Madden, wrote to the Journal of the American Medical Association to say what he remembered:

"He seemed to take a good deal of pleasure in the uncanny things of the dissecting room. One afternoon's conversation with him I remember distinctly. He talked a great deal about what he had done in the dissecting room with what appeared to me at the time unnecessary gusto, and told me that the professor of anatomy was to permit him to take the body of an infant home with him for dissection during the spring vacation. I asked where he would find a place to carry on his work without offending his neighbors, and he replied with something to the effect that he "would find a place."

"Holmes would lie when it was to his advantage to do so. One one occasion ...it occurred at a final oral examination. The members of the class were called in alphabetical order, and I was surprised to find Mudgett present himself in front of me. I called his attention to the fact that his name came after mine and asked for mine and asked for an explanation. He said that L, mentioning the name of a student, had gone out of town and given him his place. I asked when he saw L, and he said "this morning." Now, I knew, as a matter of fact, that L had let the city the night before...and had been dismissed from the University in disgrace for attempted cheating....I told him that I knew he was lying and that I would not permit him to go in for his examination ahead of me.....When I came out I found him in tears, relating the matter to a classmate, and he whined that it was a "damn mean trick."

"While..I can not recall any direct evidence of his fondness for women, on one occasion, he spoke of his wife, and I was surprised to hear that he was married...Turning to the "class prophecy," which was written at the close of the last year at school, I find that I wrote of Mudgett as follows: "Herman W. Mudgett, unlike George Washington, no widow shall find favor in his eyes. After being charged with innumerable Don Juan escapades for which he is not responsible, he will retire to write a book on the 'Oppression of Man.' This book will make women very unpopular."

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