On the outside, H.H. Holmes,
If the editors at the Inquirer thought they had a good story with the ongoing Holmes case, they lost all self-control when he decided to publish his confession with them. In the issue of April 10, 1896, they hyped the confession with enormous ads and headlines: "The Most Fearful and Horrible Murderer Ever Known in the Annals of Crime. His Confession Was Written Exclusively for Next SUNDAY'S INQUIRER. The Most Remarkable Story of Murder and Inhuman Villainy Ever Made Public. CONVICTION LIES IN EVERY LINE. The only way to describe it is to say it was written by Satan himself or one of his chosen monsters."
Other ads for next Sunday's edition focused on the Inquirer's dominance in the media marketplace: "Holmes' original confession has been secured by the Inquirer and now lies locked in the safe at the Inquirer's office. No other paper can get it. No other paper can print it. Don't miss this exclusive chapter of the crimes of a century. The only way to get it is to read next SUNDAY'S INQUIRER."
Even the paper's advertisers got in on the act. One ad, in a bold circle, read, "HOLMES' CONFESSION is not as startling in its effect, or is it half as profitable to read, as the great bargains offered in Pianos and Organs at the warerooms of The Cunningham Piano Co. 1105 Chestnut St."
When the confession finally appeared, it took up more than four full pages of the newspaper, including illustrations of the house on Callowhill Street, of Holmes murdering the Pitezel girls in the trunk, of Holmes closing the Vault, of the cottage where Howard Pitezel was murdered, as well as drawings of the entire Pitezel clan and a floor plan of the Castle.
The day before the confession appeared, there was yet another front-page article on Holmes, this one headlined "HOLMES IS CHEERFUL." "HOW HE SPENT THE DAY." "His Mind at Rest by Reason of His Confession Through the Inquirer." In the meantime, they published the sad ongoing saga of Carrie Pitezel, who was in poor health, had no money and relied on sewing and her parents to scrape by.
In the month before Holmes' execution at Moyamensing, the press slowly began to lose interest in the famous prisoner. The Wednesday before the hanging, it ran an inside article with a small headline called "IN THE SHADOW OF DEATH," with a crude illustration of a guard sitting and watching Holmes in his cell. Though the paper printed a letter from Holmes to Carrie through her Philadelphia lawyer in which he declared his innocence, the comparatively short article was positioned between advertorial about homeopathic medicine and a piece about a race between two Delaware tugboats.
On the day Holmes died--May 7, 1896--a huge crowd showed up for the execution. Spectators had to be driven back by lines of policemen. The Inquirer wrote, quite eloquently, "There was a good deal of fin de siecle brutality about the crowds. There was nothing that they could possibly see, but the high forbidding walls. There was nothing they could hear. Yet they all seemed drawn to the spot by some morbid fascination. Coarse jests were bandied from lip to lip as the crowd surged to and fro."
It was pandemonium. A certain number of tickets were granted for the execution, but twice that got inside by sheer force.
When Holmes began to speak as he was standing on the gallows, the crowd went silent. He made a brief statement denying he'd killed Pitezel or his children. The executioner's hands trembled, and Holmes reassured him by saying--charming as always--"Take your time, old man."
"Death was indeed merciful to the man who in his life had shown so little mercy," read the Inquirer's account published on the same day. "For a few minutes there was a faint beating of the pulse, but the dying man felt no pain. With the springing of the trap, his neck had been broken.
After the execution, Carrie Pitezel told an Inquirer reporter, "Yes, it is a relief to me to know that he did not succeed in escaping the gallows. Still, that does not bring my husband and my poor little children back to me." Surely if the families of Holmes' many other victims could speak, they'd say the same thing.
It's another windy day in Philadelphia. The sun peeks through dark smudges of clouds. In a neighborhood with busy streets, kids chasing each other on the sidewalks, storefronts blaring music and buses rolling by, Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon feels like a quiet little town unto itself. Its graves are in straight lines, and many are marked by towering and extravagant tombs. One building looks like the old Merchants' Exchange Building at Third and Walnut streets, and if you look inside some of the tomb windows, you'll see gilded crucifixes, colorful stained glass and family portraits.
On one grave is a statue of an angel, her wings like parentheses around her body. In her hand she holds a wilting pink rose that someone placed between her stone fingers. The people buried here are mostly Italian and Irish, with names like Spatiola, Nardi and Toland. Some of the gravestones tell stories, like twins who both died at age 5. Too often, a husband dies only a couple months after his wife. If you're of a certain bent, you'll assume he died of heartbreak.
Holy Cross Cemetery is also where H.H. Holmes--now Herman Mudgett--is buried. After his jailhouse conversion to Catholicism--during which he claimed he was the devil--he requested burial here, in this spacious, tree-filled mini city.
Before his death, his body was the subject of some debate. The Wistar Institute wanted to buy his brain, but Holmes wouldn't allow it. When he died, the undertaker--following Holmes' orders--filled his coffin with cement, put his body in and covered it with more cement. At Holy Cross the coffin was lowered 10 feet into the ground and covered with yet more cement.
There is no headstone, and the place where he's buried is now a large patch of grass. Though Holmes' intention was to keep his body from being dug up, this inattention afforded him something else: anonymity. Without any marker on his grave--and with a new century beginning--Holmes and his crimes slowly receded into the annals of history. Finding his grave now is like a macabre parlor game.
Also buried at Holy Cross are several Philadelphia mobsters: Angelo Bruno, Antonio Pollina (who once tried to kill Bruno), Salvatore "Chickenman" Testa and Michael Maggio. Their graves are marked, and people feel a certain thrill when they see the tombstones of such evil--and charismatic--men.
As mob aficionados traipse across the grass with their cemetery maps looking for the understated elegance of Bruno's gravestone, their feet may land on a block of cement covering the greatest criminal of the 19th century--and America's first serial killer. They'll never know it, though.
PW's 2014 College Issue
PW's Music Issue 2014