Was H.H. Holmes executed for his crimes in 1896? Or did he fake his own death and vanish into history?
Even the White City Devil could not escape the hangman’s noose. The AP confirms that the remains buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in suburban Philadelphia do indeed belong to the infamous serial killer.
Officials began the process of opening up Holmes' grave in May of 2017, after two of Holmes’ great-grandchildren successfully petitioned to have the remains exhumed. The grim endeavor puts to rest a long-standing rumor about the case: that the convicted killer somehow conned his way out of his own execution.
H.H. Holmes, born Herman Webster Mudgett in 1861, looms large in the annals of serial killer lore. The man was officially linked to nine murders. Yet he confessed to as many as 27 slayings—and, according to some accounts, may have been responsible for up to 200 deaths.
Of course, it wasn’t just the number of deaths that earned Holmes his infamy; it was the way he allegedly committed his crimes. As Chicago prepared for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, Holmes began work on a sprawling structure in the city’s Englewood neighborhood. Ostensibly, it was a lodging space for expo attendees. Yet as this in-depth article from Harper's puts it, the structure actually served as the killer's "Murder Castle", outfitted with secret rooms and vault-like chambers designed to entrap and permanently dispose of his victims.
Authorities in Philadelphia finally caught up with Holmes in 1894, after he murdered his business partner in a failed insurance scam. He was hanged in 1896, and his body buried at Holy Cross Cemetery.
Not long after the execution, however, rumors surfaced that the killer and professional con man had faked his own death. NBC 5 of Chicago cites an 1898 article from the Chicago Inter-Ocean that suggested Holmes:
“… cheated the gallows and is today alive and well growing coffee at San Parinarimbo, Paraguay, South America.”
Holmes did grow a beard in the weeks leading up to his execution, fueling rumors that he was planning an escape. He also requested that his coffin be encased in cement and buried ten feet in the ground. This request was likely an attempt by Holmes to thwart would-be body snatchers—a fitting concern for a man with first-hand experience in profiting off of corpses.
University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Samantha Cox examined the remains removed from Holy Cross. While the body had decomposed too thoroughly to conduct DNA testing, Cox and her team successfully used dental records to confirm its identity: they were looking at the remains of H.H. Holmes.
Cox also offered a chilling report from the examination room. She said the clothes that adorned the corpse were near-perfectly preserved, and that Holmes’ distinct mustache remained intact on his skull.
H.H. Holmes features prominently in Erik Larson’s best-selling book, The Devil in the White City. Author Adam Selzer also examines the serial killer’s legacy in H.H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil, casting a scrutinizing eye on the case’s more shocking details. A cinematic adaptation of Larson’s book is said to be in the works, with Martin Scorsese slated as director and Leonardo DiCaprio set to portray the killer.
Holmes’ remains have since been reinterred at Holy Cross Cemetery, buried alongside any lingering doubts about the killer’s fate.
[via Chicago Tribune]
Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons