On the outside, H.H. Holmes,
It's a windy day in Philadelphia--so windy, men's ties flip and twist like fish and women search the bottom of their crowded pocketbooks for hair bands. It's not cold out, but people scurry as if they're in a blizzard, surprised by the breezes that bend tree trunks and make stoplights wobble. It's a strange, surreal day--overcast and quiet. People go home early. Drivers stop honking at the bicyclists they generally despise. An old man says to a young girl, "It's a windy one, ain't it?" and she smiles instead of scowls.
On such a day you can almost imagine what Philadelphia might have been like in 1895--less populated, less congested, a friendlier city in a friendlier time, when people nodded politely as they passed, and were naive enough to believe certain things weren't possible--things like serial murder.
At 1316 Callowhill St., where murderer H.H. Holmes and his partner Ben Pitezel set up a phony patent office, there's now a parking lot that stretches the length of the block. Across the street, where the sturdy North American Building resides, there used to be a station for the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad.
Ask the attendant what the address of the lot is--or if he knows where 1316 Callowhill would have been--and he gives a sweeping look at the cars, as if they might know something. Then he shrugs. "We don't have an address here," he says in heavily accented English. "Maybe you go that way?"
He points toward the building that houses The Philadelphia Inquirer--the paper that covered Holmes' trial with a frenzy--then hurries to get out of the wind and back to his Plexiglas booth.
Traveling down Callowhill, trying to find remnants of Holmes' past, there's the Miller Detective Agency at 309 N. 13th St., a strange little place with a 1940s-style sign that seems to pop up out of nowhere, and evokes images of Humphrey Bogart and cigarette-smoking gumshoe detectives.
Walk through a tunnel smelling of urine between 11th and 12th and there's the J&J Trestle Inn, which juts out of a crumbling building on a deserted corner. The old script on the sign advertising go-go girls takes you back to an indefinable time--it could be the '50s, could be the '70s. Either way, the building is coated with a seamy veneer.
This is an odd half-neighborhood now, filled mostly with abandoned buildings, tucked between Chinatown and the poverty of North Philadelphia. But when H.H. Holmes roamed these streets, the city was very different.
In the early 19th century Philadelphia was the largest, wealthiest city in the country. Where other towns had wooden shacks and dirt roads, Philly had white marble buildings and cobblestone streets busy with horse-and-buggy traffic. It wasn't only the center of a new nation's political life. It was the height of fashion and high society.
By the late 19th century Philadelphia's grand status had evolved even further--with the largest population of African-Americans in the North, and painters like Thomas Eakins forging a link between this city and Paris. City Hall, that opulent example of Second Empire French architecture, was crowned with a statue of William Penn in 1894, as if to cement its grandeur. Philadelphia was so respected, a company chose the city's name to lend culinary sophistication to its cream cheese.
But the city's shine diminished in the last years of the century. Political power moved to Washington, and cultural power slid toward New York. Philadelphia became industrial, and with that industry came dirt, crowds and crime. It was this Philadelphia--half gleaming symbol, half grimy pioneer territory--that H.H. Holmes invaded, taking advantage of the confusion a city on the brink engendered.
Romanticizing the past is easy. The same can be said for criminals, who, no matter their sins, fascinate us. Ask the average guy on the street to name the president of China, and he'll balk. But ask about serial killers, and the names will come fast: Ted Bundy. Jeffrey Dahmer. Son of Sam. The Boston Strangler.
Most serial killers are psychopaths. They tend to share certain key characteristics. They're manipulative, cold, and lack what we might call a moral compass--they know right from wrong but are not invested in that distinction. Their only concern with their "wrong" behavior is getting caught, but because they are deceitful, callous and not subject to anxiety, they easily elude capture.
H.H. Holmes was, in this way, a model serial killer. Before he was finally executed in Philadelphia, it's believed he'd killed at least 100 people. Popular estimates at the time placed the toll as high as 200.
Holmes was born Herman Webster Mudgett in the small village of Gilmanton, N.H., in May 1861. If Mudgett or his brother or sister were bad, their strict Methodist parents sent them to the attic for a full day without speaking or eating. Mudgett's father was especially abusive after he'd been drinking--which was often.
Mudgett was curiously detached from the start. He'd attack animals in the woods and dissect them while they were still alive. And he had no friends--the one he did have died while the two were playing. Despite his odd upbringing--and the distance he kept from other children, who found him arrogant--he grew into an imposing young man. He was polished, bright and handsome, and was good at making people feel special. At 16 he left home, became a teacher and cajoled a young woman into marrying him. At 19 he went to medical school, and left his wife.
In the 1880s Mudgett--now Holmes--came to Philadelphia. He got a job as a "keeper" at the Norristown Asylum, which is now Norristown State Hospital. The experience horrified him, so he took a position at a drugstore instead. After a customer who took medicine he dispensed died, he left town.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014
Election Day 2014: Tues., Nov. 4