H. H. Holmes’ Murder Trial

by Joseph Tyson III

Herman Webster Mudgett (a.k.a. Henry Howard Holmes) was a bigamist, swindler, and serial killer. Various researchers have estimated his murders between nine and over one hundred. No one knows the actual death toll. (I would guess between fifteen and thirty-five people.) He definitely killed mistresses Julia Conner, Emeline Cigrand, and Minnie Williams, Julia’s six year old daughter Pearl, and Minnie’s younger sister Nannie Williams, plus Benjamin F. Pitezel, his children Alice, Nellie, and Howard. Among Holmes’ possible victims were Emily Van Tassel, Anna Betts, Sarah Cook, Mary Haracamp, businessman John DuBreuil, employees Mary Kelly, Jessie Brunswigger, Mary Stevenson, Harry Walker, and “Miss Wild,” as well as 1893 Columbian Exposition tourists to whom he rented rooms in The Castle: Pansy Lee, Lucy Burbank, Jenny Thomson, and others. (Though Holmes confessed to slaying former medical school classmate Robert Leacock, drug store owner Elizabeth Holton, and businesswoman Kate Durkee, he did not kill any of them.)

Born on May 16, 1861, Herman was the third child of a church-going Methodist family which had lived in Gilmanton, New Hampshire for generations. His parents were Levi Horton Mudgett (1826 – 1911,) and Theodate Price Mudgett (1826 – 1903,) who had five children: Ellen (born 1852,) Arthur (1857,) Herman (1861,) Henry (1865,) and Mary (1871.) Levi Mudgett worked as a farmer, house painter, and the village postmaster. Herman’s four siblings all developed into normal, law-abiding citizens.

Pinkerton detectives ended Holmes’ decade-long crime spree by arresting him in Boston on November 17, 1894. He was only tried for one homicide: that of his alcoholic confederate Benjamin Pitezel, whom he killed on September 2, 1894 at 1316 Callowhill St. in Philadelphia. The two men had conspired to fake Pitezel’s death in order to collect on a $10,000 life insurance policy with Fidelity Mutual Assurance Company. ($10,000 1894-dollars would translate into $126,000 today.) Not wanting to split the proceeds with co-conspirator Pitezel, Holmes asphyxiated him with chloroform while he slept, then arranged the crime scene to make it look as if an explosion had occurred.

Why did Holmes murder the Pitezel children? A complication arose after he killed their father. Fidelity Mutual wanted a family member to identity Pitezel’s body. Holmes had been assuring Ben’s wife Carrie that he stilled lived. To solve this problem he persuaded Mrs. Pitezel to allow her fourteen year old daughter Alice to accompany him back to Philadelphia so she could visit Ben and verify that he was alive. On September 22, 1894 Holmes and Alice met with Assistant Coroner William K. Mattern and Fidelity Mutual officials at the Philadelphia morgue. After viewing Benjamin Pitezel’s exhumed cadaver on a slab, “family friend” Holmes and terrified Alice signed papers certifying that the decedent was him.

Since Alice knew her father was dead, but Carrie did not, Holmes had to keep them apart. Because fourteen year old Alice missed family members, Holmes brought sister Nellie and brother Howard to keep her company. He murdered ten year old Howard in Irvington, Indiana on October 10th, then Alice and twelve year old Nellie in Toronto on October 25th.

Holmes’ murder trial started in confusion on October 28, 1895. Defense attorneys William A. Shoemaker and Samuel Rotan requested a postponement because they didn’t have sufficient time to prepare. Witnesses helpful to their client’s cause had not cooperated.

As it turned out, no defense witnesses materialized. Even Holmes’ third “wife,” Georgianna Yoke, testified for the prosecution. Besides two or three deluded women who fell in love with newspaper pictures of him, Holmes had few sympathizers. Second “wife” Myrta Belknap proved to be his most credible defender. She acknowledged that he engaged in shady business practices, but refused to believe him capable of murder. Church choir director Myrta praised Holmes as a good provider, affectionate father to their daughter Lucy, and lover of animals.

Other Holmes advocates were less wholesome. On July 18, 1895 a wild-eyed Russian named Francis Winshoff announced that he’d encountered Holmes in Toronto and knew him to be innocent of the Pitezel girls’ murders. Philadelphia newspapers quickly exposed him as a charlatan. He supported himself by hawking dubious nerve tonics, and conducting séances in his Brown Street apartment. Reporters discovered that Winshoff had never met Holmes in Toronto or anywhere else. His information originated from clairvoyant spirits on the astral plane.

For reasons unknown, self-styled playwright and would-be detective Robert Corbitt crusaded for Holmes’ release. In August, 1895 he published a pamphlet full of uncorroborated rumors, supplemented by some inconclusive documents he’d purloined from Holmes’ “Murder Castle” in Chicago. Without proof Corbitt claimed that Minnie Williams was living in Europe and Julia Conner had moved to Michigan with daughter Pearl. “As for Miss Cigrand, she will be found in one of our large cities.” Corbitt embarked on a fruitless search for Edward Hatch, the fictional character Holmes implicated in the Pitezel children’s murders. Chicago journalists soon discredited Corbitt as a wife-beater, who’d been evicted from several apartments for non-payment of rent.

Though desperate for friendly witnesses, Holmes’ lawyers realized they could put neither Winshoff nor Corbitt on the stand.

Judge Michael Arnold rejected Shoemaker and Rotan’s motion for a postponement and ordered the trial to begin. Holmes then rose and requested permission to act as his own lawyer. Arnold advised him that he had the right to do so, but it would not be in his best interest. At that point attorney Shoemaker attempted to resign as Holmes’ counsel. The judge refused to accept his resignation, and threatened him with disbarment if he failed to attend future court sessions.

Holmes competently handled jury selection. Nevertheless, on October 31st he informed Judge Arnold that Rotan and Shoemaker would represent him for the trial’s duration.

District Attorney George S. Graham and Assistant D.A. Thomas W. Barlow subpoenaed witnesses from all over North America, and housed them in The Hanover Hotel at city expense. But during Detective Franklin P. Geyer’s testimony, defense attorney Samuel Rotan objected to introducing evidence about the Pitezel children’s homicides because it was not germane to Benjamin Pitezel’s alleged murder. To D.A. Graham’s dismay, Judge Arnold sustained Rotan’s objection. He ruled the children’s October, 1894 murders in Indiana and Canada irrelevant to the case at hand.

Eugene Smith was a carpenter who’d done work for Benjamin Pitezel. He discovered Pitezel’s lifeless body on September 3, 1894. Smith testified that Holmes possessed keys to the premises at 1316 Callowhill St., regularly came there, and acted like Ben’s boss. Right after Pitezel’s death, busybody Holmes suddenly vanished.

Dr. William Scott, who examined Pitezel’s body at the crime scene, stated he could not have died from an explosion. His visage looked composed. Objects such as the victim’s tobacco-filled pipe, memo book, and broken chemical bottle were close to him. Shards from the bottle remained inside its base, not strewn about by centrifugal force, as would be expected if a blast had occurred.

Attorney Samuel Rotan objected to Georgianna Yoke taking the witness stand because she was the defendant’s wife. Judge Arnold disallowed the objection, asserting that Holmes’ “marriage” to Miss Yoke had been null and void from inception since he never divorced first spouse, Clara Lovering Mudgett. As Georgianna approached the witness stand, Holmes wept, or pretended to weep. District attorneys Graham and Barlow interpreted this outburst as one of his dramatic performances—calculated to agitate Miss Yoke. Oblivious to his crocodile tears, she calmly affirmed that Holmes was in Philadelphia on September 2nd, 1894. He left their apartment at 1905 N. 11th St. shortly before 10 A.M., then returned home around 4 P.M. exhausted, sweaty, tense, and in a great hurry to get out of town.

A matronly German nurse accompanied widow Carrie Pitezel into the courtroom, and periodically administered smelling salts to her. The court crier had to repeat some of Mrs. Pitezel’s inaudible testimony so judge, attorneys, and jurors could hear it. She related how Holmes set up the life insurance scam with Ben. District Attorney Graham showed her samples of Benjamin Pitezel’s grave clothes, which she recognized as his. She testified that Holmes falsely reassured her of Ben’s continued existence, took away three of her children, and seized most of the insurance money.

To counter Holmes’ latest contention that Benjamin Pitezel committed suicide, D. A. George Graham elicited testimony from carpenter Eugene Smith, bartender William Moebius, and tobacco shop owner Mrs. Alice Pierce. All concurred that Ben seemed in good spirits during the days preceding his death. In his summation, Graham informed the jury that Pitezel had stockpiled a week’s supply of whiskey and cigars on September 1st—unlikely behavior for someone planning to kill himself.

Toxicology expert Dr. Henry Leffman determined that chloroform found in Benjamin Pitezel’s digestive system could not have been self-administered since it wasn’t absorbed into his stomach lining. Hence, it must have been injected into his system post mortem by someone else. Furthermore, his skin “cooked” rather than blistered from exposure to flames, proving that he’d been deceased when a fire set by the perpetrator discolored his face, neck, and hands.

Holmes’ attorneys called no witnesses. Samuel Rotan, Esq. simply declared the prosecution had failed to make its case. “They must provide (guilt) beyond a reasonable doubt. We feel from the evidence that there exists … reasonable doubt.”

After deliberating for three hours on November 3, 1895 the jury filed back into the courtroom. When asked if a verdict had been reached, jury foreman Linford L. Biles responded: “Yes!” To the question of whether they’d found Holmes guilty or not guilty, Biles exclaimed: “Guilty!” At the November 30th sentencing hearing Judge Arnold denied Holmes’ motion for a new trial, and condemned him to death by hanging.

Following his conviction, Holmes branched out in new directions. He became vegetarian, tamed a mouse, pampered a pet chick he hatched from an egg, and converted to Catholicism. Father P. J. Dailey and Father Henry McPake gave him religious instruction. He was baptized in jail, confessed his sins, and received Holy Communion.

Holmes earned an undisclosed sum to write Holmes’ Own Story (Burk & McFetridge, Philadelphia, 1895, edited by John King.) Being a pathological liar, he made up stories, denying responsibility for the Pitezel children’s deaths, yet confessing to murders he never perpetrated. To stimulate sales, both King and Holmes invented tales. Ever the crook, Holmes suggested to editor King that more cash could be earned by blackmailing parties such as lawyer Jeptha D. Howe, private banker Frank E. Black, and skeleton dealer Myron G. Chappell, all of whom might pay to be omitted from their book.

Philadelphia authorities incarcerated Holmes at Moyamensing Prison (1400 South 10th St.) from November 20th, 1894 until his execution six months later. On May 7, 1896, the last day of his life, Holmes arose at 5:30 A.M. After washing up, he greeted jailer John Henry with a hearty “good morning.” Henry asked if he felt nervous. The condemned man answered: “not a bit!” He then ate a hearty breakfast of eggs, buttered toast with marmalade, and coffee.

Around 9 o’clock Father P. J. Dailey administered the last rites. At 10:10 A.M. Prison Superintendent Howard Perkins and Sheriff Samuel W. Clement led Holmes, who held a crucifix, to the gallows. He was flanked by fathers Daily and McPake. Samuel Rotan, Esq. and Assistant Prison Superintendent Alexander Richardson followed behind Holmes and the priests. Moyamensing’s dark green scaffold loomed menacingly in its main hall. Since 1850, fifty men had been hung on it. The eight foot high structure consisted of a short flight of steps, crossbar overhead, and double-doored trap built into the scaffold’s platform.

Approximately one hundred people witnessed Holmes’ death (61 invited plus 39 “crashers.”) Judge Arnold appointed a panel of twelve eminent men to witness the execution, including a city councilman, two former sheriffs, and six doctors.

Standing on the gallows, Holmes repudiated his book and newspaper confessions by declaring himself innocent of all crimes except two “criminal operations” (i.e. botched abortions) which resulted in patients’ deaths. After uttering that lie, he bade the audience farewell. Assistant Prison Superintendent Alexander Richardson handcuffed him, placed a black leather mask over his head, then fumbled for some time with the noose. Mudgett quipped: “take your time, Richardson. I’m in no hurry.”

Richardson signaled Sheriff Samuel M. Clement by throwing a white handkerchief to the floor at 10:13 A.M. Clement pulled the lever, causing a trap door to open. Holmes fell through. His body jerked upward, and went into spasms. The fall broke his neck and suffocated him. According to The Philadelphia Public Ledger, he “spiraled in a shaft of sunlight.” Holmes probably died within twenty seconds, but his fingers and limbs continued to twitch for nearly fifteen minutes, leading some observers to surmise that the hanging had been bungled. Dr. Benjamin Butcher stepped onto a stool and listened to his heart. When it stopped beating, attendants cut Holmes down. Butcher and Dr. Jacob Sharp inspected his body a second time. They certified that his atlas had been severed from its axis, indicating a broken neck. Richardson removed the mask, exposing Holmes’ saffron-colored face. Guards wrapped his body in a white sheet.

Coroner Samuel H. Ashbridge had applied for a permit to perform an autopsy, however Holmes’ Lawyer Samuel Rotan adamantly opposed it, and prevailed. According to The Philadelphia Public Ledger, grave-robber and corpse-abuser Holmes had a phobia for “… the pickling vat, and (surgeon’s) knife.”

South Philadelphia undertaker John J. O’Rourke and his assistant drove their wagon down Reed St., into the yard behind Moyamensing Prison. They placed Holmes’ corpse into a coffin and headed back to O’Rourke’s funeral parlor at 10th & Tasker streets. There contractors had mixed a batch of mortar. O’Rourke and employees lifted Holmes out of the coffin and placed him into a much larger one partially filled with cement. Workers poured more concrete on top of his body, then locked the casket. At least ten men humped this much heavier load into a mule-drawn furniture van. Two armed Pinkerton detectives rode on that vehicle to Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, seven miles to the west. Carriage loads of city bureaucrats, policemen, and newspaper reporters followed them. Once they reached Holy Cross, laborers deposited the cumbersome casket in a holding vault built into a grass-covered hill. Pinkertons guarded this repository overnight. Their only chore that evening was to shoo away an inebriated “hobo” who’d been attracted by their campfire.

On May 8th workmen removed Holmes’ casket from the vault, and lugged it to Section 15, Range 10, Lot 41, graves 3 and 4 of Holy Cross Cemetery. They used ropes and straps to lower the weighty box ten feet under, placed a smaller empty coffin on top, dumped in four more barrels of cement, then filled the hole’s remainder with earth.

The legend of “Holmes’ Curse” gained traction because so many people associated with him suffered misfortunes. Forty-four year old Dr. William K. Mattern, who performed Benjamin Pitezel’s autopsy, exposed himself to deadly microbes while dissecting murder victim Lizzie Campbell in March, 1896. On April 16th, he died of blood poisoning. Jury foreman Linford Biles saw bluish flames from fallen electrical wires consuming the flat tar roof of his South Philadelphia row house on April 21, 1896. In an effort to extinguish the fire, Biles climbed onto the roof, and died from electrocution. Days later a gas explosion nearly killed Peter Cigrand, father of Holmes’ victim Emeline Cigrand. On the morning of November 24, 1896 Moyamensing Prison Superintendent Howard Perkins showed up for work, complained of chronic insomnia, trudged into his office, took a loaded Colt 45 pistol out of the desk drawer, and blew his brains out. Thirty year old Father Henry McPake, who’d given Holmes religious instruction, died a violent death on November 10, 1897. The young priest had been beaten severely, then dragged into the rear yard of St. Paul’s Academy on Christian Street, where he died from loss of blood. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, his assailants posed McPake’s body “in a position suggesting improper conduct.” Despite a broken nose and fractured skull, the priest’s death register entry listed “uremia” as cause of death.

In November, 1897 a fire badly damaged Fidelity Mutual Assurance Company’s building at 914 Walnut St. in Philadelphia. Holmes case investigator O. LaForrest Perry’s 10th floor office was completely destroyed except for one item: a framed photograph of H. H. Holmes.

About the Author: Joseph Howard Tyson, a native of Germantown, graduated from LaSalle University in 1969 with a B.A. in Philosophy.  He has worked in the insurance industry since 1972, and still lives in the Philadelphia area.  He has written six non-fiction books:  Penn's Luminous City, Madam Blavatsky Revisited, Hitler's Mentor, The Surreal Reich, World War II Leaders, and Fifty-Seven Years of Russian Madness.