No one had ever seen anything like H. H. Holmes before.
In 1895, they didn’t have a name for a man as bereft of remorse or empathy as Holmes. Decades later, terms like serial killer and psychopath would help police identify broken individuals like Holmes: an affable entrepreneur who charmed and chatted his way easily into the graces of intelligent men and women. At the time of his trial, newspapers called him an arch-fiend.
Holmes was by all accounts, a good-looking young man…and a narcissistic psychopath. Studying his crimes is equal parts tiresome and terrifying: tiresome in their flat manipulation and, as a farmer in Lowell discovered, terrifying in their truth.
In late October of 1919, Lowell farmer Ira Mansfield was shoveling out the basement of his new home when his shovel struck something hard. He tapped carefully around the object, working the spade beneath it, assuming it a rock or a hunk of wood from the abandoned log cabin that once stood there.
It was neither. His shovel had plunged blade-first into a buried human skull.
Mr. Mansfield took it upon himself to excavate the spot himself before reporting it to authorities (not surprising in the days before modern investigative techniques and tools). After hours of careful digging and sifting, he uncovered the bones of two bodies. Although his digging had crushed the first skull, the second remained intact enough that Mr. Mansfield’s untrained eye saw two obvious bullet holes. That’s when he decided to report the discovery.
The 1895 trial of H.H. Holmes (Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, real name Herman Webster Mudgett) grew into a 19th century media circus, right at the height of yellow journalism. The newspapers narrated a gory tale of a handsome man and hidden monster, complete with lurid illustrations. Artists took as many liberties with the truth as the journalists did, and Holmes’ reported victims grew in number and notoriety. Holmes played right along.
While the optimism of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition reigned in Chicago, Holmes operated a sinister hotel (later called “the Murder Castle”). He invited young women to stay, but would quickly confine, kill, then dispose of them, selling the bodies and skeletons to colleges as medical specimens. In the days before DNA, dental records, or even fingerprinting, disposing of bodies so flagrantly was entirely too possible for a person like Holmes.
The sinister Holmes also earned income by credit scams, the selling of mortgaged properties, life insurance fraud, and even horse theft. Ordinary greed remains the only thread connecting Holmes’ multitude of crimes. This grocery list of felonies so confused authorities that, once Holmes was caught, they didn’t bother investigating or even creating an inventory of them all. Courts only charged him with the evidence on hand: the bodies of his partner in crime, Benjamin Pitezel, and the three Pitezel children.
Nearly as immoral as Holmes himself, Benjamin Pitezel thought he was helping his employer with a Philadelphia life insurance scam when Holmes decided to betray Pitezel, murder him, and collect on a $10,000 policy. He then prevented Pitezel’s family from reporting the crime by dragging them on a cross-country journey, spurring them on by promising they’d join Benjamin at the end.
Eventually Benjamin’s body, initially misidentified by the life insurance company, was correctly identified in Philadelphia. Police discovered two of the Pitezel children in the cellar of a rented Toronto house. The remains of the final Pitezel child littered a fireplace in an Indianapolis’ cottage.
After Pinkerton detectives arrested Holmes on a warrant for horse theft in Boston, and his multitude of crimes were finally discovered. He stood trial in Philadelphia for a single murder—Benjamin Pitezel—and received a death sentence. Holmes’ confession, commissioned and purchased by William Hearst’s publishers, is considered chiefly a work of fiction.
In it, Holmes confessed to 27 murders, some of whom were later found still alive, and proclaimed he had been possessed by the Devil. By this point, the authorities had grown tired of Holmes’ endless machinations. He was hanged in Philadelphia, altering his confession and admitted to the murders of “only” two women just before his death.
Witnesses reported the executioner deliberately fixed a knot that would strangle Holmes slowly, not mercifully snap his neck. It worked. In a small token of vengeance for his victims, Holmes took 15 minutes to die.
In that Lowell field, Ira Mansfield had discovered Holmes’ confessions weren’t entirely fiction. The murderer reported he had killed a woman and buried her “east of Momence, Illinois”, roughly at the location of Mansfield’s farm. Although pressed to reveal the exact spot, Holmes refused unless paid $50. Thinking it a wild goose chase, detectives refused and the exact location remained a secret, although detectives did a cursory search of the area in 1896.
In an attempt to uncover the identity of the newly-discovered victims, police questioned residents between Momence and Lowell. One Illinois witness placed Holmes in Momence during the time of his murders. The witness said the killer had been with an unknown man and woman, and that all three had purchased train tickets to Lineville, a now-defunct town straddling the Indiana-Illinois border, only a few miles from Lowell.
Unfortunately, that was as far as the investigation went. With the rudimentary forensics available to police in 1919, and the 25 years separating the victims’ deaths and their discovery, their identity and murderer could not be proven conclusively. The remains were later given an anonymous burial at an unknown location. With this went any chance of identification using modern DNA testing. Mansfield’s discovery in that cold cellar remains as unsolved today as it did in 1919.
Want to Know More?
View the primary source “New Victims of H.H. Holmes Found Near Lowell” in The Lake County Times, October 22, 1919.
Read Holmes’ Own Story, a confession commissioned from Holmes by none other than William Randolph Hearst (the link sends you to the 1895 edition, available from the Library of Congress).
After discovering the remains of the three Pitezel children, Detective Frank Geyer wrote a more truthful account of the Holmes case. The Internet Archive has several downloadable versions of Geyer’s memoir The Holmes-Pitezel Case: a History.