On the outside, H.H. Holmes,
During the Castle years, Holmes acquired a second wife--though he wasn't divorced from the first one--and pursued several other romantic entanglements. If they didn't resolve to his liking, or if a girlfriend got too needy, the woman in question would disappear.
One of his relationships was with Minnie Williams, who was a Texas heiress. Minnie's sister, Nannie, came to visit for the Exposition, but they both vanished in 1893. Detectives would later find Nannie's footprint in the Vault, which Holmes admitted was made "in the violent struggles before her death." Minnie's will left everything to Holmes' personal assistant, Benjamin Pitezel, who lived nearby with his wife and four children.
When Holmes and Pitezel went to Texas to try to collect on Minnie's will, they were almost arrested, so they left town. Holmes was soon picked up in St. Louis for stealing from a drugstore, but was released shortly thereafter.
For reasons unknown, Holmes chose Philadelphia as the site for his next venture. He insured Pitezel for $10,000 and made Pitezel's wife, Carrie--who'd stayed behind in St. Louis--the beneficiary. The plan was to fake Pitezel's death, collect the money from the insurance company and split the profits between them.
He installed Pitezel in a fake patent dealership at 1316 Callowhill St., which was right in front of the city morgue. Pitezel hung a sheet of muslin that read "BF PERRY PATENTS BOUGHT AND SOLD" outside the building to make it look legitimate. (Holmes had an apartment at 1905 N. 11th St., which is now on Temple's main campus.)
A patent-seeking carpenter named Eugene Smith came to the office one day in September 1894 looking for the man he assumed was named Perry. No one was in, but the door was open. The Holmes-Pitezel Case: A History of the Greatest Crime of the Century, by Detective Geyer, says Smith "hallooed" several times but didn't get a response.
When Smith went upstairs, Geyer writes, "His gaze met a sight that chilled his blood." It was a man lying on his back, his face "disfigured beyond recognition by decomposition and burning." It seemed there'd been some kind of explosion, and the rigid body was singed on one side--including half his mustache. There was, according to Geyer's book, "a considerable quantity of fluid" spreading out for more than a foot around the body.
The only person who knew the true identity of the corpse was H.H. Holmes, and he was more than happy to come forward to identify it as Ben Pitezel's. He even brought Pitezel's daughter, Alice, with him from St. Louis to seal the deal. Pitezel's wife, Carrie, still believed it was all a scheme, and that Ben was hiding out and waiting for her.
In his confession, Holmes said he'd been planning to kill Pitezel from the moment he met him, and that everything he did with the man, for seven years, led up to that very moment. Such a long-term investment, wrote Holmes, "furnishes a very striking illustration of the vagaries in which the human mind will, under certain circumstances, indulge," and compares the anticipation of Pitezel's murder to "the seeking of buried treasure at the rainbow's end."
The reality of Pitezel's death was far worse than what Eugene Smith saw. Holmes wrote in his confession that he went to 1316 Callowhill and found Pitezel drunk and passed out, as he expected. (Holmes had earlier forged a series of hurtful letters from Pitezel's wife, which caused Pitezel to start drinking--all part of the plan.) He bound Pitezel's hands and feet, and then he wrote, "I proceeded to burn him alive by saturating his clothing and his face with benzine and igniting it with a match. So horrible was this torture that in writing of it I have been tempted to attribute his death to some humane means--not with a wish to spare myself, but because I fear that it will not be believed that one could be so heartless and depraved."
After he collected the money, Holmes went to St. Louis and convinced Pitezel's widow to lay low too. He offered to place her children with his cousin, whom he called "Minnie Williams," until she and Ben could come out of hiding.
Geary writes, "Through the man's unimaginable powers of persuasion, Carrie agreed to surrender two more of her children." There was no pragmatic reason for Holmes to take the children. But as he wrote in his confession, he chose Pitezel as a victim "even before I knew he had a family who would later afford me additional victims for the gratification of my bloodthirstiness."
And so began the horrible journey of Alice, Nellie and Howard Pitezel.
A letter to Carrie Pitezel from Alice Pitezel, dated Sept. 20, 1894:
Just arrived Philadelphia this morning ... I am going to the Morgue after awhile ... We stopped off at Washington, Md., this morning, and that made it six times that we transferred to different cars ... Mr. H says that I will have a ride on the ocean. I wish you could see what I have seen. I have seen more scenery than I have seen since I was born ... You had better not write to me here for Mr. H. says that I may be off tomorrow.
A letter to Carrie Pitezel from Alice Pitezel, dated Sept. 21, 1894:
I have to write all the time to pass away the time ... Mama have you ever seen or tasted a red banana? I have had three. They are so big that I can just reach around it and have my thumb and next finger just tutch. I have not got any shoes yet and I have to go a hobbling around all the time. Have you gotten 4 letters from me besides this? ... I wish that I could hear from you ... I have not got but two clean garments and that is a shirt and my white skirt. I saw some of the largest solid rocks that I bet you never saw. I crossed the Patomac river."
PW's Summer Guide 2015