America’s first serial killer was tried and hanged for a single murder, that of his accomplice Benjamin Pitezel in the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The story begins with a scheme to defraud an insurance company. Dr. Henry Howard Holmes set out to fake his own death and collect on a $20,000 insurance policy. He took a cadaver to a seaside resort, burned it, altered his appearance, and attempted to collect on the policy. The insurance company refused to pay. Holmes then went back to Chicago and concocted a new scheme – one that involved his erstwhile accomplice, Ben Pitezel.
On September 4, 1894, a carpenter named Eugene Smith came to the patent office at 1316 Callowhill Street in Philadelphia. Finding the door open, he “hallooed” several times while searching within for its occupant – a man going by the name of B. F. Perry. What he found were the charred, decaying remains of a man who, to all appearances, had been killed in an explosion.
Smith immediately notified the police and the body was taken to the local morgue. After speaking with several of the neighbors, police identified the body as B. F. Perry, the owner of the patent shop. The death was ruled accidental, caused by the burns from the apparent explosion. The body was held for ten days and then buried in the potter’s field when no relatives claimed it. A few days after the burial, Fidelity Mutual Life Association of Philadelphia received a letter identifying B. F. Perry as Benjamin Pitezel. It also stated that there was a policy issued by Fidelity Mutual naming the widow as beneficiary.
The body was exhumed and Holmes, accompanied by Jeptha Howe, Esq. and Alice Pitezel, come to identify the body. Holmes was calm, but Pitezel’s eldest daughter seemed intimidated by the process. She did positively identify the body as her father and the $10,000 insurance claim was paid to Howe on behalf of the widow.
$2,500 was retained by Attorney Howe, but due to a squabble with Mrs. Pitezel, those funds were placed in escrow. Mrs. Pitezel had been given $500 of the payout, but Holmes took it back claiming that he would invest it for her. Holmes claimed that her husband had owed a $5,000 note that he would see was repaid on his behalf. Notorious bank robber Marion Hedgepeth, with whom Holmes, as Henry Howard, had discussed his scheme while in jail in St. Louis and promised a share, didn’t receive his share.
Upon hearing about the death of Pitezel, Hedgepeth wrote a letter to be delivered to all insurance companies detailing the nature of the scheme. By June 1895, Fidelity Mutual had become suspicious of Holmes and had begun an investigation. When insurance investigator W. E. Gary came into possession of the letter, he notified his company president. Fidelity Mutual hired the Pinkerton National Detective Agency to investigate Holmes. Detective Frank Geyer was assigned the case.
Holmes began moving about the country to keep Mrs. Pitezel away from her children and to keep her from realizing that her husband had been killed. In November of 1894, he was spotted in Burlington, Vermont. Pinkerton’s agents kept him under surveillance and followed him to Boston, Massachusetts. He was arrested on November 17 for a horse theft in Texas. Given the choice between hanging in Texas or spending time in jail in Pennsylvania, he chose to be returned to Philadelphia to face charges of insurance fraud. In June 1895, Holmes guilty plea to insurance fraud was accepted and he was sent to Moyamensing Prison.
Further investigation by Detective Geyer revealed the fate of the Pitezel children. The bodies of the two girls were found in a Toronto basement where Holmes had interred them. Howard Pitezel’s charred remains were found in a house in Indiana.
Dr. Henry Howard Holmes was arraigned under his legal name of Herman Webster Mudgett on September 12, 1895 on the charge of murder in the first degree of Benjamin Freelon Pitezel. Arraignment occurred on September 23, at which time the defendant was represented by two counsels. The trial was set for October 28, giving counsel five weeks to prepare.
On October 28, 1895, in the Court of Oyer and Terminer and General Jail Delivery of Philadelphia at the hour of ten o’clock precisely, the trial of Herman Mudgett, Alias Holmes commenced. The Commonwealth was represented by District Attorney George S. Graham and his special assistant Thomas A. Barlow. The attorneys for the defendant were William A. Shoemaker and Samuel P. Rotan. Judge Arnold presided.
Mr. Shoemaker immediately requested a continuance, arguing lack of time to prepare a defense. DA Graham protested against the continuance. Mr. Rotan renewed the request, but it was overruled by Judge Arnold. Attorneys Shoemaker and Rotan then stated that they were withdrawing from the case. Judge Arnold reminded them that they risked disbarment if they withdrew from a murder case. Judge Arnold then ordered that the jury be called and it was begun.
After a single juror had been admitted by the Commonwealth, Holmes dismissed his attorneys, and asked of the court to be allowed to question the jurors and witnesses himself. The judge granted his request. Holmes continued to use this ploy to force a continuance two more times until the judge told him that his scheme would not work and the case would continue.
The district attorney began his opening address to the jury by explaining the legal meaning of the charges handed down in the indictment. He told them that there were four possible verdicts to be justified by the evidence: manslaughter, murder in the second degree, murder in the first degree, or acquittal. He was certain that after hearing the evidence that they would believe as he did that the crime was murder in the first degree.
“We have charged in the indictment that the date of the murder was September 2, 1894. We do not know this positively, because the body was not discovered until September 4, but the crime was committed between the first and the fourth.”
Mr. Graham then described the events that followed the discovery of the body at 1316 Callowhill Street by Eugene Smith. His opening remarks included a brief description of the body as it was discovered – a decaying, burnt corpse that had been composed in such a manner as to imply an accidental death. He pointed out the mistakes in the scene. The glass from a broken bottle was inside the bottle and not scattered about, as it should have been from an explosion. A window had been deliberately left open to hasten the decay of the body. He described irregularities discovered at autopsy: the congested lungs, the empty heart, and the lack of irritation to the stomach lining despite the presence of chloroform. Court was adjourned for the day at the end of his remarks.
At this point in the proceedings, Holmes asked for certain privileges in his cell to assist his preparation of his defense. He also asked for a list of the witnesses to be called by the commonwealth.
“I decline to give that. I will furnish that to nobody.”
By today’s standards, the district attorney would be in violation of the law, but his refusal was acceptable at the time. The conversation continued between Holmes and Graham to the subject of a single individual.
“Then I repeat my request for an interview with a certain party – the party I spoke of this morning – my wife.”
“Which wife do you mean?”
“You know what I mean, Mr. Graham. The person you have seen fit to designate as Miss Yoke, thereby casting a slur on both her and myself.”
On the second day of the trial, October 29, the first session featured testimony by the man who found the body, Eugene Smith, and resulted in Holmes protesting:
“I object to the bloodthirsty manner in which the district attorney and this witness are trying to draw the inference that I rushed into this potter’s field and mutilated the dead body of my friend”
“You are drawing the inferences yourself,” Mr. Graham replied.
Next, the district attorney presented expert testimony from the coroner, Dr. William J. Scott, who had first examined Pitezel’s body as to the cause of death. The doctor testified that the presence of chloroform in the stomach along with the congested condition of the lungs and the empty heart signified a sudden and violent death from chloroform poisoning.
After a brief adjournment, the coroner’s physician, Dr. William K. Mattern, was called and testified about the post-mortem exam that he conducted wherein he reached the same conclusions as the coroner. Holmes during cross-examination had the doctor read his autopsy notes in their entirety. Dr. Mattern’s testimony was followed by that of an analytical chemist, Dr. Henry Leffman. Dr. Leffman testified that it was not possible for a man to end up is such a position of repose as the body was found in after having self-administered chloroform. The next witness was Coroner Samuel H. Ashbridge, who produced two affidavits sworn to by Holmes and Alice Pitezel identifying the body as Mr. Pitezel.
After the evening recess, Holmes requested that his dismissed attorneys, Mr. Shoemaker and Mr. Rotan, be permitted to assume charge of his defense as his health was faltering. The court allowed it. That evening, a series of lay witnesses were called to establish certain facts, as follows: Mr. Pitezel did have a habit of imbibing alcohol; Mr. Holmes, under the name of Howell, had lived in a residence on North Eleventh St. from Aug. 5 to Sept. 2 and had been visited there by Mr. Pitezel; and Pitezel had informed another that Perry was not his real name.
The third day of trial, October 30, began with testimony by Mrs. Pitezel describing her travels throughout the various states in an effort to be reunited with her husband and three of her children only to be disappointed at every turn. She also related to the court how Holmes had let her keep only $500 of the insurance payment through trickery. When asked by District Attorney Graham if she had ever seen her children after she gave them to Mr. Holmes, she replied:
“I never saw my two little girls again until I saw them lying side by side in the morgue at Toronto, and I never saw Howard again, but was only shown some things that belonged to him in Indianapolis.”
The witnesses put forth by the commonwealth stood to prove the conspiracy to swindle Fidelity Mutual Insurance, and to show the consequent motive for murder.
The fourth day, October 31, was marked by the successful exclusion of evidence related to the deaths of the Pitezel children. The morning session featured several other lay witnesses followed by the testimony of Miss Yoke. Her presence on the witness stand was the only time that Holmes had shown any emotion during his trial. Her testimony amounted to little more than confirming that Pitezel had seen Holmes the night before he died; and that Holmes was not home between 10:30 in the morning and 4:30 in the afternoon.
Detective Geyer was scheduled to testify in the afternoon. He told the jury about the conflicting stories Holmes told about what occurred at 1316 Callowhill and the identity of the corpse found there. When the prosecution began to introduce the evidence regarding the manner of death of the children, the defense objected. Although this evidence was damning, the judge felt that it was not relevant to the case being tried and fell under the jurisdictions of Toronto and Indianapolis where the murders of the children occurred. The jury did not hear any of the results of Detective Geyer’s evidence. At the prosecution’s request, the evening session was not held.
November 1, the fifth day of the trial, belonged mostly to the defense. A few witnesses were called by the prosecution to finish their case. The defense only recalled three prosecution witnesses for cross-examination before resting its case.
Closing statements were made on November 2, the sixth and final day. Mr. Graham began with evidence regarding the identity of the corpse, reviewing the testimony that positively identified it as being Mr. Benjamin F. Pitezel. He followed with a discussion of the explosion theory and the coroners’ examinations and conclusions. When discussing the manner in which he kept the three groups, Mrs. Pitezel, Miss Yoke, and the children, within four blocks of each other without any of the parties being aware of the other, Mr. Graham stated:
“What marvelous ingenuity, what craft, what cunning. Why did he resort to all duplicity? Why did he adopt so many subterfuges and why did he tell so many stories? It was because he had murdered Benjamin F. Pitezel.”
The prosecutor continued his reiteration of the evidence showing that Pitezel had not and could not have committed suicide, reminding the jury that Holmes had admitted to being in the house on the day the Pitezel died. He urged the jury to consider only the evidence connected with the murder at 1316 Callowhill of Mr. Pitezel. Mr. Graham also lauded Mr. Geyer for his excellent investigation of Mr. Holmes activities in the months that followed the crime. The court took a recess after he concluded his remarks.
The attorney for the defense, Mr. Rotan, stated that the defense admitted that the body was that of Ben Pitezel. Rotan started that Pitezel and Holmes were indeed plotting a fraud against an insurance company. They admitted to Holmes travels with Mrs. Pitezel. They offered no defense because they were confident that the Commonwealth could not prove its case. The defense again advanced the suicide theory. He reminded the court that Mr. Holmes had come back to Philadelphia willingly after being arrested in Boston, arguing that a man guilty of murder would not have done so. At the close of Mr. Rotan’s remarks, the judge charged the jury and sent them off to deliberate.
Upon retiring to the jury room, the members of the jury ate their supper first, and then took a single ballot. The result was a unanimous decision of guilty of murder in the first degree. They spent an hour and a half talking about the case before informing the court that they had reached a decision. After the verdict was read, application was made for a new trial. On November 30, 1895, the motion was refused. Mudgett appealed to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, who affirmed his conviction of murder in the first degree on March 4, 1896.
Herman Webster Mudgett was hanged in Moyamensing Prison on May 7, 1896. He died nine days before his thirty-fifth birthday and entered the history books as H. H. Holmes, America’s first serial killer.
After his death, the undertaker followed Holmes instructions to fill his coffin with cement, place his body within it, and cover it with more cement. His coffin was taken to Holy Cross cemetery, where it was lowered ten feet into the ground and covered with more cement before being filled in with dirt. There is no gravestone.