PHILADELPHIA, PA — H. H. Holmes, known as Chicago’s infamous “White City Devil,” was a serial killer who stalked the city during the glories of the 1893 World’s Fair. Holmes confessed to over two dozen murders, but some experts suspect that he may have killed up to 200 victims.
While Hyde Park was staging the World’s Fair, Holmes operated out of a home nicknamed the “murder castle,” which was a real-life house of horrors and supposedly contained a labyrinth of trap doors and sealed rooms.
“H.H. Holmes was a man who was described as the arch criminal of the century, before they even suspected him of a single murder,” Adam Selzer, author of H.H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil, said. “A lot of times people got in the way, knew too much, and they mysteriously disappeared.”
Selzer, however, says he believes the Holmes body count might have been greatly exaggerated, and that Holmes may have only been responsible for between 9 and 12 murders. No matter how many people he may or may not have killed, it’s established that if nothing else, Holmes was a master con artist.This week, investigators began digging at the Philadelphia cemetery where Holmes was buried following his hanging in 1896 to determine if he pulled off one last scam: faking his own death. Some newspaper accounts at the time suggested he was not actually executed, but managed to escape to South America instead. The theory was put forth that he was growing coffee there.
The rumor was that Holmes managed to bribe officials at his prison to only make it appear as if he were hanged until he died, and then substitute a medical cadaver for Holmes’ body. He would have then escaped in the undertaker’s wagon.
Other facts that add interest to this theory is that before his execution, Holmes grew a beard and also announced that he thought that his facial features were changing in appearance, perhaps to become more devilish. These could have both been ploys to explain why the dead body maybe wouldn’t look exactly like the Holmes people knew.
Additionally, according to an account of Holmes’ hanging in The New York Times, Holmes requested a double-deep coffin, and that it be topped off with wet cement. He claimed it was to protect his remains from being stolen and dissected (a protection not afforded to some of his victims, as the story goes), but some experts speculate that this may have been to prevent identification of the body.
Now, with modern forensics, investigators hope to lay the question to rest. Two of the killer’s great-grandchildren, John and Richard Mudgett, along with Cynthia Mudgett Soriano, have successfully petitioned to have his remains exhumed from Philadelphia’s Holy Cross Cemetery, according to a court order. (Although commonly known as H. H. Holmes, that was only one of many aliases used by the killer, whose real name was Herman Webster Mudgett.)DNA analysis will be performed by the Anthropology Department of the University of Pennsylvania. The Delaware County court has ordered that, whatever the outcome of testing, the body must be returned within 120 days.
“Petitioners shall cause the remains to be re-interred in the same grave site in which they had originally been buried in Holy Cross Cemetery, regardless of whether or not those remains are determined to be those of Herman Webster Mudgett,” the order stated. “No commercial spectacle or carnival atmosphere shall be created either by this event or any other incident pertaining to the remains.”
Main photo: H. H. Holmes [Wikimedia Commons]