H.H. Holmes Letter Found

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Just when you thought he was going to fade into obscurity, there’s still yet more news about the man we all know as H. H. Holmes. If you’re new to our blog, we have several old posts about him, most notably regarding his exhumation to find some shred of evidence that he and Jack the Ripper were one and the same. If you’re interested in reading further details about who Holmes was and his infamous Murder House, you can find those stories in these links: America’s First Serial Killer and H. H. Holmes’ Murder Castle. Now on to today’s story…

The first American serial killer may have felt remorse for his crimes, after all.

H.H. Holmes (born Herman Webster Mudgett) constructed an elaborate “Murder Castle” full of trap doors, acid vats and a crematorium in Chicago in 1892 where he lured the unsuspecting in with the promise of apartments.

Holmes was caught in 1894 and convicted for the murder of one of his accomplices, Benjamin Pitezel. At the time he confessed to killing more than 20 people (although he later altered the number to just two). He was hanged in 1896 in Philadelphia for his crimes and largely believed to have been unremorseful to the end.

His life and crimes went on to become the subject of the book “The Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson.

The most notorious murders, scams and scandals in Pennsylvania can be irresistible to Hollywood. Here are more than 20 that have become true crime movies, documentaries and television shows.

But a family in New Jersey has a found a note, written in Holmes’ hand, that may imply he felt guilt at the end, according to NBC 10.

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Linking H H Holmes to Jack the Ripper

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A mere three days ago, I shared with you the planned exhumation of the remains of the notorious serial killer known as Dr H H Holmes. Well, that exhumation is now officially underway and we now have a reason for the sudden exhumation: a silly television show aims to prove that H H Holmes and Jack the Ripper were one and the same. It’s a stupid idea, but anything to sell yet another television show, I guess.

The idea that Jack the Ripper and Holmes were the same man is a ludicrous one. First of all, their respective methods of murdering the women were vastly different. Second, their choice of victims were different: Jack murdered prostitutes while Holmes murdered ordinary girls who had traveled to Chicago in the hopes of finding employment. There’s never been a serial killer who has suddenly changed his method of killing nor his choice of victims. There’s usually a very specific reason why serial killers go after the people they do. Third, and most important of all, there’s a clearly documented trail of Holmes’ whereabouts here in the United States while the Ripper murders were happening. He was busy here being married to two women at the same time and having a little girl with one. I can’t see how he’d suddenly have interest in traipsing off to England to murder a few whores. Jack, on the other hand, seemingly appeared and vanished from existence just for that short span of time.

I don’t know how they will connect any DNA found in the remains of the body in Philadelphia to anyone in England. There have been many different individuals purported to be Jack the Ripper. Will they search for the descendants of each suspect until they find a match?

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H H Holmes’ Exhumation

Seven years ago we shared with you two stories of one of America’s first serial killers who plucked his victims from the hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Chicago World’s Columbia Exposition (the forerunner to the World’s Fair subsequently held in cities around the world) of 1893. Young women would travel to Chicago seeking work and would simply vanish, all thanks to a man who would become known as America’s first serial killer. Though his notorious Murder Castle no longer occupies its previous space in the city of Chicago, there is one aspect of this grisly tale that does still exist: the mortal remains of Herman Webster Mudgett a.k.a. Dr Henry Howard Holmes. His remains are due to be exhumed at the request of his great-grandsons John and Richard Mudgett as there has been rumors that not only was Mr Mudgett a serial killer but also a consummate con artist and he somehow conned his way out of the death penalty and took off for parts friendlier to unknown individuals.

If you’re unfamiliar with Holmes’ tale, you can read our previous posts here: H H Holmes’ Murder Castle and America’s First Serial Killer. More information about the exhumation can be read here: The Body Of ‘Devil In The White City’ Serial Killer H.H. Holmes Is Being Exhumed and Who Is Really Buried in the Grave of the ‘Devil in the White City’? There’s also the book titled Devil in the White City A Saga of Magic and Murder at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson.

As a personal note, I tried listening to the audio version of this book and I have to say it’s pretty boring. It’s non-fiction and there’s only a very tiny amount of dialogue. The book takes you through the entire creation of the World’s Fair from the very very beginning when it was all still in the planning stages. Truthfully, the most interesting part for me was learning of the various ideas that the planners were trying to come up with to top the centrepiece of the previous World’s Fair in Paris (1889): the Eiffel Tower. In the end, as you probably are aware, it was the Ferris Wheel (also known as the Chicago Wheel) which was created by George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. and debuted at the 1893 World’s Fair. Some of the ideas people came up with were pretty crazy, even by today’s standards.

Britain’s First Female Serial Killer

Though on the whole, serial killers tend to be male, there have been a fair number of female mass murderers. There’s currently a two-part docu-drama on ITV in the UK about Britain’s first female serial killer: Mary Ann Cotton.

mary-ann-cottonCotton was born on Halloween 1832 in the small village of Low Moorsley in County Durham England. Her parents were Michael and Margaret Robson. When Mary Ann was 11, her father died in a mining accident, plummeting 150 feet down a mine shaft. Three years later, her mother remarried. George Stott wasn’t a man Mary Ann got along with. This familial conflict caused Mary Ann to flee the family home at age 16.

By 20 she was working as a nurse and married for the first time. She gave birth to five children, four of who died in infancy of gastric fever. The couple moved to the northeast of England where they had and lost three more children. It is said that later, Mary Ann would struggle to recall just how many children she had at this point in her life. In January 1865, Mary Ann’s husband, William Mowbray, died suddenly, of an intestinal disorder similar to that of his children. His life insurance paid out £35 which was the equivalent of half a year’s wages.

With her one remaining child and the insurance payout, Mary Ann moved to Seaham Harbour, County Durham. There, she became employed at the Sunderland Infirmary, House of Recovery for the Cure of Contagious Fever, Dispensary and Humane Society. She sent her daughter Isabella. While working at the infirmary, Mary Ann became friendly with George Ward, a patient there and was married for a second time a mere 10 months after the death of William. Thirteen months after their nuptials, George was also dead, also of intestinal problems. Once again, Mary Ann collected the life insurance money George had.

In 1866, Mary Ann was hired as a housekeeper by widower James Robinson. Shortly after beginning work, Robinson’s infant son John, from his deceased wife Hannah, died of gastric fever. A second of his four children would also die, leaving him with two. Never suspecting his housekeeper, James turned to Mary Ann for comfort and soon the pair were a couple.

A short while later, Mary Ann’s mother became ill, so Mary Ann, being the loving daughter she was, returned to home to care for her. Nine days after her daughter’s arrival, Margaret Robinson was dead. This, despite word from her doctor that she was on the mend. It should not surprise you, by now, to learn that Margaret also succumbed to an “undetermined stomach ailment”.  Do you see a pattern yet?

When Mary Ann returned to her beloved James, she brought her daughter Isabella with her. Within a short span of time, not only was Isabella dead, but James’ other two children by Hannah, Elizabeth and James. All three children were buried in April of 1857. Still, James married Mary Ann on August 11, 1857. Their first child, Margaret Isabella was born in November of that year, but died by the following March. Mary Ann became pregnant again, this time giving birth to a son, George, in June 1869. By now, James was growing suspicious of his new wife, especially when she consistently pestered him to take out a life insurance policy on himself. But the straw(s) that broke that old camel’s back were two-fold. First, Mary Ann had run up debts of £60 behind James’ back, not to mention stealing a further £50 that should have been deposited into the bank. Second, he learned that she’d been forcing her step-children to pawn items from the household prior to their deaths. He kicked Mary Ann out and retained custody of George. They would be the only two survivors of Mary Ann. She was kicked out of the house.

You’d think by now that someone would’ve noticed something and brought all these deaths to the attention of the authorities. Perhaps James Robinson, since he’d lost so much under Mary Ann’s attentions, but he said nothing. And so, the murders continued…

Mary Ann met her fourth and final husband, Frederick Cotton, after being introduced to him by Mr Cotton’s sister, Margaret. Mr Cotton was a recent widower, living in Northumberland. Mr Cotton had lost not only his wife, but also two of his children, with Margaret serving as a surrogate to the two remaining children, Frederick Jr and Charles. Frederick was in need of a housekeeper and Mary Ann was able to fulfill that role. Surprise surprise, Margaret died soon after Mary Ann was hired, in March 1870 of, you guessed it, an undetermined stomach ailment.  Margaret was a wealthy woman and all of her money went to her brother Frederick. And Frederick turned to Mary Ann for comfort. Mary Ann was soon pregnant and Frederick married her, despite the fact that she was technically still married to James Robinson. He’d merely kicked her out, remember? A few weeks after this illegal marriage, Mary Ann took out life insurance policies on her two stepsons.

After Mary Ann gave birth to Robert Robson, the family of five moved to West Auckland. Incidentally, they happened to find a house on the same street as a former flame, who was now unmarried. It is here that our murderess became reckless, no longer willing to wait years or even a few months before snuffing out the family. Frederick Sr. quickly and quietly died and just as quickly and quietly, one Joseph Nattrass moved into the home as a “lodger.”

Vintage arsenic poison bottle on antique shelfNo sooner had Nattrass moved in, though, than our Black Widow had her sights set on someone new. Mary Ann became nurse to an excise officer recovering from small pox by the name of John Quick-Manning (or perhaps Richard Quick-Mann as there’s no record of a John Quick-Manning existing). With a new man in her sights, Mary Ann quickly dispatched those in her way: Frederick Cotton, Jr. died of gastric fever; infant Robert Robson died from teething and convulsions; while Joseph Nattrass died of typhoid fever. Incidentally, typhoid fever closely mirrors that of poisoning by arsenic which was Mary Ann’s method.

Free and clear yet again, she became pregnant for the 12th time by Quick-Manning. But there was still one dependent left: her stepson Charles Edward Cotton. She perhaps resented his living status most of all because he wasn’t even her child, of her own flesh and blood. And he had to go. Yet it was this small boy who would prove to be her ultimate downfall.

In the midst of trying to get rid of him a semi-legitimate way – sending him to a workhouse – she inadvertently revealed her ultimate intentions to a local man by the name of Thomas Riley. When little Charles did, in fact die, Riley went to the authorities and reported Mary Ann. There was an inquest and associated post-mortem, but it was ruled a natural death, sending Mary Ann on her merry way. However, popular gossip soon pressured the doctors to reexamine the child’s body and it was soon discovered that arsenic was in his stomach.

Mary Ann was quickly arrested and put on trial for the murder of Charles Edward Cotton. While his death was initially the only one she was accused of, soon things blossomed into a trial for multiple murders. The trial began on March 5, 1873 and by March 20th she’d been convicted. Four days later, she was hanged for all the murders she’d committed. She died not from her neck breaking, as is common, but by strangulation, the rope being rigged too short. Apparently the executioner chosen for the job was known to botch several executions and preferred using a short rigged rope. It was meant to bring a quicker end, but sometimes that didn’t work and so he was obliged to push down on the criminal’s shoulders to end the suffering.

So, how could a woman such as Mary Ann continually murder those she allegedly loved? Surely she wasn’t born with murder in mind. Her biographer, Tony Whitehead, writing in 2000, had this to say:

…she may have “snapped” in 1864, when William was out to sea and she was stuck with the children. Somewhere around this time, she discovered what arsenic could do to the human body. She also figured out how easy it was to mix it into a cup of hot tea.

Other thoughts…

Was Mary Ann a sociopath, hooked on the power of killing the innocent? Was she a capitalist, climbing the social ladder of husbands in a desperate attempt to gain some autonomy? She was clearly striving for something, but it’s unclear what she wanted most. Money? Freedom? Other people’s pain? She never stopped moving and plotting, but despite all her frantic action, she only ever spun in circles. She must have seen marriage and motherhood as a form of imprisonment, but every time she broke free, she immediately locked herself up again. She killed one husband only to marry the next; she poisoned one child and soon became pregnant with another. Mary Ann Cotton wanted a different life for herself, but she could never break free from her hall of mirrors, reliving her history time after time.

Sources:

Mary Ann Cotton: England’s First Serial Killer
The Big Book of Female Killers: Mary Ann Cotton, the Arsenic Queen
Mary Ann Cotton

 

Screams Unheard

There is no comparison between a ghost story that is meant to thrill and a true monster.  Those monsters don’t live under the bed or in the closet; they aren’t waiting to make you scream in a darkened movie theater.  The real monsters may include the mild mannered, unassuming man driving in the car next to yours.  They may include the quiet neighbor that smiles and waves to you as you simultaneously pick up the morning paper.  You may never suspect who they are–a fact they are very aware of and play to their advantage.  This was certainly the case with Gary Ridgway, who outwardly appeared as harmless as they come.  It was a deceptive facade for a depraved, cold blooded killer.  Although originally convicted of 48 murders in 2003, with an additional charge of murder added in 2011, his death rate was likely much higher.  He has confessed to more murders since his conviction and eluded to others, putting the number closer to 71.  Who really knows the number of women that lost their lives to this pathetic yet ruthless excuse for a human being, for even Ridgway has claimed to have ‘lost count’.
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Murderous May: Devil Tree Legend Has Gruesome Truth

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I originally read about this story some time ago in the book Weird Florida.  I was intending to write a piece about it during our Urban Legend month, but when I did more research, I found out that there was a gruesome, sad ring of truth to the tale.  The urban legend is that a serial killer kidnapped two teenage girls, tied them to a tree in what is now known as Oak Hammock Park in Port Saint Lucie, Florida, tortured and killed them. Supposedly for months after, he would return to the scene of the crime to satisfy some perverted urge of his own. Four years to the day that the killer murdered the girls, their remains were found by some fishermen (not sure why as most of the reports have the “devil tree” located so deep in the woods that people have spent hours trying to find their way back out).  After the poor girls were discovered, locals started whispering about strange sounds coming from the vicinity of the devil tree. Shadowy, robed figures were seen darting between the oaks, and rumors were told of satanic rituals being performed beneath the branches.  Some say a local clergyman was asked to come out and conduct an exorcism on the tree (first tree exorcism I’ve ever heard of!).  The local authorities were so distressed about what had occurred in and beneath the tree that they decided to cut down the tree…..but the chainsaws that were brought out to do the job wouldn’t work.  When chainsaw after chainsaw failed, the determined lumberjacks brought out an old fashioned two-man saw….but the teeth broke right off when set against the cursed bark.  The tree stands rebelliously and malignantly to this very day.

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America’s First Serial Killer

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Imagine, if you will, being in a place where you could disappear and no one would notice. Until it’s too late.

These days one might argue that these days a place like that could be anywhere, but over 100 years ago when the population of the United States was a mere fraction of what it is today, one would think that this situation would be nearly impossible. But then, in 1893, the World’s Columbian Exposition happened in Chicago, Illinois, providing a concentration of massive numbers people in a relatively small area.
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