Friday, March 30, 2012

H.H. Holmes Confessions: A Cheat Sheet

In April, 1896, HH Holmes published a "confession" in which he claimed to have killed twenty-seven people. Actually, there were two, and possibly three, confessions written out from his prison cell.

The main confession was written for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Consisting of about 10,000 words, he claimed early on that he had killed twenty seven people, and proceeded to detail each murder. However, he may have left a couple out; he only actually mentions 24 or 25 of them (including a couple of unborn babies). A few of the people he confessed to killing, though, were actually still alive, and others appeared never to have existed in the first place. One (Gertrude Conner) was found to have died of neuralgia of the heart several weeks after leaving Holmes' employ, and was presumably not a victim (though a slow acting poison isn't out of the question).  A couple more were un-named. The police claimed at the time that they only suspected Holmes of killing nine or ten people, and that the confession didn't give them a single reliable name to add to the list. They may have been wrong; there was one girl, Anna Betts, whose death certificate may back Holmes' story up. A few others were unnamed and couldn't be confirmed or denied.

The other confession was written for the New York Morning Journal. Like the Inquirer, it ran a hand-written statement from Holmes saying that this would be his only confession. It was largely the same as the Inquirer, but with stories of six or seven victims omitted, one story expanded, and few minor word changes (most likely, Holmes wrote out the first and then copied it down, making minor changes as he went). This was the version that was published in most of the regional papers, including the Chicago Daily Inter-Ocean.

The day before these two were published, another confession appeared in the Philadelphia North American. The paper claimed to have seen advance copies of the confession that was to be published the next day, and a few things it lend credibility to the idea that they had, in fact, seen a copy. However, most of the text of their version, including a story about mutilation his son and the famous "I was born with the devil in me" section, was not present in either of the confessions published the next day, and the Inquirer included a hand-written bit from Holmes saying that other confessions printed were "false." So, where this one came from is sort of a mystery. It's possible that they saw an earlier draft, and it's possible that Holmes sold them another version under the table (this is just the sort of thing he WOULD have done). The writing style of this version is a bit more dramatic, though, and my guess is that they saw or heard just a bit of the confession and wrote up a bunch of extra stuff themselves. But papers of the day seemed to believe them; many papers, including the Tribune, published excerpts.

A century later, we're really no further on the case than the police were. We still can't really NAME more than a dozen or so victims. We suspect the number is much higher, but we don't have much more information about who those other victims might be! I'll be running a Devil in the White City tour tonight with Ursula Bielski and Jeff Mudgett, Holmes' great great grandson.  If you want to know more about what was in the confession, there's a new ebook which includes the full texts (with notes on differences between versions) and contains highly detailed analysis of how the confession lines up with what we know of the truth

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Johann Hoch and HH Holmes: Partners in Crime?

It's kind of a disturbing thing to have  "favorite serial killer" at all, but mine is probably Johann Hoch, the goofball who spoke like a German dialect comic, looked like the dude on the Pringles can, and had already a proposed to what may have been his 55th wife when they caught him.  Wife #53 was a Chicago woman who ran a candy shop near Halsted and Willow; he had slipped her some arsenic shortly after the wedding, thrown a big pity party for himself while she lay in agony, and then proposed to her sister while the coffin was still in the room. HE married the sister a day or two later, then took her money and ran.
     "All the women for Johann go crazy, ja?" We went to Hoch's burial place on our latest podcast.

When he was caught and brought back to Chicago, the Chicago American started spreading all sorts of rumors about him, like one that he was a twin brother of Louis Thombs, a guy who had been hanged a couple of years before, and that he had enchanted women by playing a magic zither of some sort. 

But one charge seemed to stick: that Hoch had once been an apprentice or pupil of H.H. Holmes, and had worked at the famous "murder castle." 

The American was famous for making up stories to sell papers (it was owned by William Randolph Hearst), but one by one, people who had lived in the castle lined up to identify Hoch. There were some holdouts, like EC Davis, the jeweler, who was generally known to tell it like it is; he said that he'd never seen Hoch in his life. But other residents swore that Hoch had lived at the castle and collected their rent under the name Jake Hecht.

In Richard Lindberg's recent book on Hoch, he speculates that, while the police didn't believe Hoch had been in the country until 1895, by which time Holmes was in jail, he had deluded the police with a web of lies, and had, in fact, been a worker at the castle. I'm a bit of a doubter. Davis the Jeweler was generally one of the more reliable witnesses in the crowd (though that isn't saying much). They also brought in M.G. Chappell, the skeleton articulator, to identify Hoch. He identified him, but he was not exactly a reliable source. No one from the castle had ever seen Chappell when he came there to talk to police in the first place, and most of what he told them was quickly dismissed; Chappell's family said he was a drunk who was given to making up wild stories. I've always thought that the Holmes/Hoch thing was just an example of the papers playing "connect the dots" with criminals, which they loved to do in those days.

But in all of the controversy, no one seems to have taken any notice of one of the murders Holmes talked of in his 1896 "Confession."

The "confession" itself was sort of a joke; of the 27 murders he confessed to, at least three were of people who weren't dead yet. Several more were people who may never have existed, or had already been shown to have died of some other cause.  But there were a couple where he didn't give names, and were therefore hard to refute.

One of these he blamed on a castle "tenant." The man had grown tired of his wife and had his eye on a wealthy widow, whom Holmes suggested they kill. The man had balked, but took Holmes suggestion to come live at the castle with the widow, and that they'd kill her if life with her became intolerable. This happened in due time, and Holmes had killed the woman with chloroform (his preferred method, really) while the man held her down. This, according to Holmes, started the man off on a life of crime.

Leaving one's wife to marry and kill a wealthy widow sounds like Hoch to a T.

Of particular note here is that that particular part of the confession is different in the two versions of the confession Holmes wrote. He wrote one, the best known, for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and then seems to have immediately copied down another version for the New York Journal, both of which printed hand-written notes in which Holmes said that what they were printing was his real - and only - confession. The two are mostly the same, except that the Journal version (which was the version published in Chicago papers) leaves six of the stories out, and is missing a word or sentence here and there from other sections. There's only one section in which the Journal version is longer than the Inquirer, and that's the story of the man in the castle who killed the wealthy widow.

Get the whole confession, with detailed notes on how the two versions differ (as well as the mysterious version published in another paper the day before, which is the source of the famous "I was born with the devil in me" quote) and over 20k words of analysis on whether he was telling the truth in each section in our new "Confession of HH Holmes ebook!"

Monday, March 19, 2012

Ebook: The Confession of HH Holmes

In 1896, H.H. Holmes, "arch fiend of the century," was paid to write a "confession" by newspapers. Published a month before his execution, he confessed to twenty-seven murders.  Today he's suspected of far more, but many of those he confessed to were lies. Some of the "victims" were even still alive.

So, how much of the confession was real? Did it contain dark hints that he was leaving a lot out?  But clues found in his famous "murder castle" backed many of his stories up. Holmes, the star of DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY, is now often said to be the most prolific serial killer in American history.

In fact, two confessions were written at the same time - one for one paper, and one for another. THE CONFESSION OF HH HOLMES contains the complete 10,000 word confession as published in the PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER, as well as detailed notes as to differences between that version and the slightly different one that appeared the same day in THE NEW YORK JOURNAL.  In addition, there are over 20,000 words of new explanation and analysis, based on new findings and evidence from 1895, telling what we know of the true stories of each crime he wrote about.  Also included is the bizarre, completely different "confession" published a day earlier in another paper, which included Holmes' most famous line: "I was born with the devil in me...."

CHICAGO UNBELIEVABLE asserts that the truth about Holmes will never really be known - most of the evidence has long since vanished. But the information here is essential for anyone interested in trying to get to the bottom of the tantalizing mystery.  Includes an active table of contents and active internal links for easy navigation, and more than a dozen illustrations.

Full length ebook only $2.99!
Available for
or Nook

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Ghouls of the Eastland Disaster

Robbery of the dead does not seem to have been as major an issue after the Eastland Disaster as it was following the Iroquois Theatre fire. This may be due to the fact that people didn't carry as many valuables or as much cash on a boat trip, or it may simply be that Western Electric company employees didn't have as much as to carry as theatre patrons did.

But that's certainly not to say that there were no incidents.

Above: the "floating morgue" beneath the Wells Street bridge

One victim was Mrs. Mary Puts, 1210 Addison. More than $2000 worth of jewelry was found on her person after her body was recovered from the interior of the boat - a lavaliere containing three diamonds, several diamond rings, a pair of earrings containing two diamonds each, a cameo pin and ring, and a gold wedding band.  The jewelry was taken by two patrolmen and given over to the DeWitt Cregier, the city custodian, just as it should have been (the police seem as though they may have been more careful to handle valuables found on victims in this manner after what had happened with the Iroquois victims).  But when Joseph, her husband, went to the office to retrieve them, they couldn't be found. I don't know if they were were.

More common that this seems to be a particularly dastardly form of robbery - ghouls would go right into the homes of the bereaved families of the victims. This type of thieve, known as a "mourning raffle," would go into the homes of victims during their wakes, kneel beside the mourners, and approach the coffin, then deftly steal the jewelry from the coffin. if they had the room to themselves, the sometimes also stole furniture, pictures, and anything else they could get their grubby hands on. The Tribune reported at least a score of these "raffles" were operating in the Cicero area, and the police began to station guards at the homes of the grieving families.

One Tribune article did refer to there being ghouls caught stealing from victims as they were pulled from the hull of the ship or as they were laid out in the improvised morgues.

Heres a photo of the disaster site taken by Lynn Peterson on one of the tours just last week - some see the image of a person trying to climb out of the river in the photo.

Saturday, March 3, 2012


Did the murderous H.H. Holmes put a curse on all those present at his trial? And did so many of them die that some believed Holmes was taking revenge from beyond the grave? Stories of Holmes and his "Evil Eye" have been circulating since before his execution in 1896. In the twenty years after that, around 30 people were listed as victims of the "curse." Here, for the first time, is the surprising truth - a comprehensive list of supposed victims and their stories, all taken from contemporary sources. Though author Adam Selzer, (Your Neighborhood Gives Me the Creeps, Llewellyn 2009 and the Chicago Unbelievable blog) believes some of the stories were hearsay, some of the evidence is truly shocking. This 17,000 word mini-ebook contains 24 illustrations, including the death certificates of Holmes and several of the curse victims, as well as an active table of contents. Also included is the mysterious 2000 word "missing confession" from the Philadelphia North American.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Open Ghost Investigation

Another open investigation is scheduled for Sunday night. It'll be a short one, most likely, in an outdoor spot on the northwest side. Email for details!

Major Myths About H.H. Holmes

For the last week, we've been preparing a new ebook about the H.H. Holmes "Curse" that was said to follow those involved in his trial. I assumed it was just the invention of later pulp writers, but, in fact, over a twenty year period, about 30 people were mentioned in the press as victims of Holmes and his "evil eye." There's some misinformation out there, but it's kind of refreshing to find a Holmes story that does turn out to be real.  I don't know if the "curse" was real, but a lot of people around the time of Holmes's execution sure thought it was. 
Though getting to the “truth” of the matter with Holmes is frankly impossible, there are certain bits of misinformation that come up over and over again, leading serious researchers to make mistakes. 
None of this, of course, is to say that Holmes was NOT a criminal mastermind or a murderous monster. He was certainly both of those things. But anyone who wants to study the case should be prepared to learn taht we really don’t know a thing about Holmes, really, and much of what we THINK we know is just a guess. A lot of what we think we know come from wild guesswork, pulp retellings, and the like. 
Here are few common misconceptions:

1. The “Murder Castle” was a hotel.
This is sort of half true. Holmes called the building “The World’s Fair Hotel,” but it doesn’t seem to have functioned as a hotel in the modern sense of the word. The first floor was mostly businesses, the second was mostly labs (and, well, murdering equipment). Most of the “flats” were on the third floor, and seem to have functioned mainly as extended-stay apartments, not as more modern hotel rooms. There was no “front desk.”  People paid rent. 

2. The Murder Castle Burned Down in 1895
There was a fire that destroyed most of the evidence in 1895, but it didn’t burn the building to the ground. The second and third floors were torn down several days after the fire (they were already in terrible shape), but they were rebuilt. The first floor and basement, with the new upper floors, survived until the 1930s.

3. Holmes stalked victims at the Congress Hotel.
This story seems to come up a lot lately - someone has been going around saying that he stalked or picked up many of his victims here. Not only is there no evidence of this that I could ever find, there's nothing out there from before a couple of years ago that would even create that impression. I wouldn't state with certainty that he was never, ever in the building, and that none of his friends or victims ever were, but there's nothing to indicate that there was.  I did once hear a rumor that his name had been found in the old records, but when I asked the security guards about it, they thought it was very funny. Now, the story has gone around enough that the newer guards might say "I heard that he was here," but there's still no evidence of it. The Congress was built in 1893 to cash in on the same World's Fair Holmes is often connected to, but that's the only connection. But because of this, a stop there was sometimes used on early Devil in the White City tours (it was a useful bathroom break and the ballrooms are stunning), and the story grew from there. 

I'd love to find a solid connection between Holmes and the hotel (if that building ain't haunted, no building is), but it remains wishful thinking. He is known to have stayed, or put people up, in a number of local hotels, but I don't think any of them are still standing. One was right across from where the Chicago History Museum is now. He seems to have generally preferred smaller ones - the kind with just a handful of rooms. Finding a building Holmes was definitely in, and that is still standing, is a real trick (though I imagine he was in the courthouse now and then, as often as he got sued). 

4. Holmes Had a Torture Chamber in the Basement of his castle.
The castle basement was not soundproof - you couldn't torture people in there without people finding out. PLenty of people had access to it. The police found an unused quicklime pit and a 12 foot tank full of gas down there, and it seems likely that Holmes probably planned to get rid of their bodies in the basement, but mostly likely he tried it once or twice and found that trying to do it in a crowded building was more trouble than it was worth. Stories were told of trunks being shipped out of the castle frequently, and Holmes had a couple of facilities that he said were for bending glass. These other facilities would have been better places to cremate people.

5. Holmes Is Known to Have Killed Over 200 People
The actual “known” victims number about 12, and even a few of those are sort of dubious. The number 200 was casually tossed off in an article in the 1940s and seems to have stuck. It’s not at all impossible that he did kill that many people in his career, but most of the victims we know of were people that he knew fairly well, not random strangers. Of course, if he killed random strangers, we wouldn’t likely know about it. No one is quite confident that those two dozen are his only victims, by any means, but the body count seems to go up by a hundred or so every Halloween when the story is retold. 

6. The Police In Chicago Knew Nothing About Holmes
The police were well aware of Holmes and his activities - he was being sued and searched constantly, mainly for non-payment of funds. That his “castle” was full of secret passages was even the subject of a Tribune story in Spring, 1893. What they didn’t know, though, was that he was a murderer, not just a swindler. 

7. Holmes sold bodies of his victims to be articulated as skeletons for sale to medical schools.
Holmes, as a University of Michigan med student, surely had some experience with the body snatching trade - it was a rite of passage for med students then, and the University of Michigan had a particular reputation for it. But during the investigation of the castle, a man named M.G. (not Charles) Chappel came to the police and said he'd bought bodies from Holmes at the castle. His story didn't hold up, though. None of the colleges he claimed to have bought bodies from had ever heard of the guy, and his relatives told police that he was a heavy drinker who made stories up, then forgot that he had made them up. He told them places in the castle basement to dig for more skeletons, but they didn't find any. The police kept the bones he gave them, but considered the clue to be weak. 


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