Holmes Sweet Holmes

On the outside, H.H. Holmes,

By Liz Spikol
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 18 | Posted Oct. 29, 2003

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Imperial Hotel, Eleventh, above Market Street, Hendricks and Scott, Propr's

These letters, and others like them, were never sent. Holmes kept them in a tin box, "stored them," Larson writes in Devil in the White City, "as if they were seashells collected from a beach." He dragged the children from city to city to complete various schemes, and sometimes took them to the zoo, which Alice wrote to her mother about. No matter what they did together, the outcome was to be the same: Holmes would kill all three Pitezel children.

By June 1895 the Fidelity Mutual Life Association, near 23rd and Fairmount Avenue, was suspicious of Holmes. Hadn't Pitezel's stomach emitted the stench of chloroform when the autopsy was performed? And didn't that suggest foul play?

Fidelity hired the Pinkerton National Detective Agency to find out if Holmes had faked Pitezel's death or simply killed him. When they determined it was the latter, the Pinkertons chased Holmes to Boston and arrested him. They brought him back to Philadelphia's Moyamensing Prison at 10th and Reed streets, where he occupied a 9-by-14-foot cell.

Larson writes, "The stone construction of the prison helped blunt the extreme heat that had settled on the city and much of the country, but nothing could keep out the humidity for which Philadelphia was notorious. It clung to Holmes and his fellow prisoners like a cloak of moist wool." Some things never change.

But Holmes was well taken care of. The guards let him read the newspaper, wear his own clothes and get food from the outside. Holmes' friendship with his jailers was just another example of his charm and manipulation.

The city of Philadelphia had more to worry about than Holmes' accommodations. Where, for instance, were Carrie Pitezel's children, who hadn't been seen or heard from since she entrusted them to Holmes' care? Holmes maintained the children were alive, and kept up the charade even in private documents.

Detective Frank Geyer was assigned to find the children. Geyer wrote about himself in the third person in his book: "He had been for 20 years an esteemed and trusted member of the Philadelphia Detective Bureau. He had had a vast experience in detective work, and more particularly in murder cases and justly enjoyed the friendship and confidence of the District Attorney."

Larson puts it differently: "[Geyer] knew murder and its unchanging templates. Husbands killed wives, wives killed husbands, and the poor killed one another, always for the usual motives of money, jealousy, passion and love. Rarely did a murder involve the mysterious elements of dime novels or the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle." By the time the trial was over, Geyer was known across the country as America's own Sherlock Holmes.

Using the scant geographical information the children's letters provided, Geyer took train after train to cities across the country, even going as far as Toronto, where he and a fellow investigator found the bodies of Alice and Nellie Pitezel, who'd been buried in a cellar. Nellie's feet were gone; Holmes had cut them off so police wouldn't be able to identity her by her clubfoot. He'd killed them by stuffing the two girls in a large trunk, poking a hole in it and leaking gas from the lamp into the trunk. When Carrie Pitezel was called to identify her girls' bodies, all that was left of Nellie was her thick black braid. The rest of her body had decomposed.

Weeks later, Geyer--who called Holmes "verily an artist in roguery"--found the body of Howard Pitezel in Indianapolis, where Holmes had strangled him, cut up his body and burned the remains in a large stove. Finding Howard was the tragic end to Geyer's mission.

In his book, Geyer wrote of the moment of Howard Pitezel's discovery: "All the toil; all the weary days and weeks of travel,--toil and travel in the hottest months of the year, alternating between faith and hope, and discouragement and despair, all were recompensed in that one moment."

Moyamensing Prison at 10th and Reed streets was once an enormous turreted building towering over the city like a dark cloud. Go to 10th and Reed now, and the prison has become an Acme. On the other corners of that same street are a CVS, a Colonial Village and the legendary Triangle Tavern. Passyunk Avenue and the bright lights of Geno's and Pat's twinkle in the distance, and people slam car doors in the large parking lots.

Standing at that crossroads of 21st-century Philadelphia, you need a bold imagination to conjure old ghosts. The street is painted now with thick yellow stripes, and the horse-and-buggies have become Volkswagens and Fords. Awnings that once snapped in the wind are now neon signs.

But certain things remain the same. When Holmes was imprisoned here, perhaps between the produce section and the laundry detergent, it was to the excruciating pleasure of Philadelphia's news media. As the case unraveled bit by bit, with Detective Geyer's revelations coming every day, the local press was in a frenzy to get the best coverage.

When Pitezel's body was dug up once again from the American Mechanics Cemetery at 22nd and Diamond in September 1895, the paper gave what it billed "A GRUESOME HISTORY," including the upcoming plan to have Carrie Pitezel identify her husband's teeth. "Dr. Sidebothom will boil [Pitezel's] head and remove what remains of the rotting flesh. He will then bleach and articulate the skull, taking great care to keep the teeth in their original positions. The head will then be mounted and turned over to District Attorney Graham ... When Mrs. Pitezel ... reaches the city the head will be shown to her, and if she can identify it by the peculiar teeth of her husband, another strong link will be added to the chain of evidence that is gradually closing in around H.H. Holmes."

The details provided were always elaborate. Every move Geyer made, every word Holmes spoke, every tooth submitted for identification became the subject of thick columns of labored prose.

In March 1896 the Supreme Court denied Holmes' petition for a new trial, and he was sentenced to death for the murders of Pitezel and his children. The other murders--at the Castle and elsewhere--weren't even pursued; law enforcement just wanted Holmes dead. The Inquirer provided several heads and subheads for the article trumpeting this success, as was customary at the time: "HOLMES' DOOM FIXED." "MUST PAY THE PENALTY." "LAWYER ROTAN'S SAD ERRAND." "ON HEARING THE NEWS THE MURDERER ALMOST LOST HIS GREAT SELF-CONTROL." The paper ran a prepared statement by the district attorney, as well as an in-depth dissection of the legal opinion.

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Comments 1 - 18 of 18
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1. Bart said... on Feb 22, 2009 at 03:31PM

“Scary stuff...and amazing this was only about 100 years ago. ”

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2. Anonymous said... on Oct 10, 2009 at 11:11AM

“I am fascinated by this story. I have been told at work at the local hospital where I work that one of our Dr.'s is a decendant of Mudgett's. Did he have any children of his own?”

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3. Cat said... on Oct 31, 2009 at 07:33AM


Yes, he did. One daughter.”

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4. Anonymous said... on Nov 5, 2009 at 10:33AM

“He also had a son and I think maybe another daughter. If you are interested in more you should check out Harpers Magazine, the article is The Master of the Murder castle. It has links to actual articles from the time the murders took place. Also the book "Devil in the White City" by Erik Larson is pretty good and gives a vivid if not very detailed account.”

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5. Anonymous said... on Nov 11, 2009 at 03:31PM

“he had a daughter her name was LUCY.”

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6. Jake said... on Jan 3, 2010 at 11:44PM

“This is just a wonderful article. A treat to read.”

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7. Mike said... on Jan 28, 2011 at 05:25AM

“Heard in another story that in fact his neck did not snap from hanging, and that it took some 15-20 minute for him to die. Which would be a bit closer to justice. Amazing story, truly frightening”

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8. Sean McDue said... on Jul 6, 2011 at 09:15PM

“Has anyone heard of the documentary Burke and Hare the Body Merchants? I would like to see it and was wondering if it was similar to the recent Burke and Hare (2010) movie.”

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9. Dr. Kevin Still said... on Jul 16, 2011 at 02:39PM

“This is a photograph of the place where Pitezel was murdered. The sign reads "BF Perry, Patents Bought & Sold". He was killed on the second floor within months of this photo being taken. http://shar.es/HkpX5”

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10. Sharon said... on Nov 11, 2011 at 04:30PM

“Facinating story. I am currently reading Devil In The White City. Can't wait for the movie to come out!”

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11. Mart said... on Nov 17, 2011 at 06:40PM

“If you like Devil in the White City you will love Bloodstains written by Jeff Mudgett the Great Great Grandson of H. H. Holmes, talk about great reading!!! he really draws you into his great great grandfather's horror. I believe his book is website purchase only to keep the book affordable for everyone, I got my copy at www.Bloodstainsthebook.com this guy is working with London yard on some stuff great book. He also has a facebook page for Bloodstains the book and the author has a page as well. Mart”

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12. Carley said... on Apr 16, 2012 at 12:35PM

“Great article...a lot of good information and pretty scary stuff.”

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13. Historybuff said... on Apr 18, 2012 at 01:00PM


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14. Philly History Buff said... on Apr 18, 2012 at 01:09PM

“The shell game of his burial place goes on beyond this article. Family of a Catholic priest, who was present at the cemetery for the burial, said that HH is actually burried in another unmarked grave in the same cemetery. There us a body burried as the article states but is the remains. Of an unnamed homlesss man. HH still confounds and confuses even from the frave.”

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15. TempesT_817 said... on May 10, 2012 at 08:30AM

“Holmes was a genius,!! the way he would have a contractor come in and start working only to be fired after finishing half a stair case or a wall or two, so no one would really know the layout... too bad it burnt down it would of been awsome to check out”

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16. Anonymous said... on Feb 13, 2013 at 02:18PM


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17. Anonymous said... on Jan 5, 2014 at 04:01PM

Holmes actually had 25 children, it was stated in the book Bloodstains By Jeff Mudgett”

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18. Anonymous said... on Feb 19, 2014 at 07:28PM

“It would medically be interesting study to see how the 25 children turned out. More research & testing needed to analyze the cause of a serial killer. It's a malfunction due to a few specifics or many influences as why one turns into a serial killer.”


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