Exhuming Evil: H. H. Holmes Death Sites

May 13, 2017 — Last week, Philadelphia dug up a serial killer. Below is a photo of the freshly dug dirt of his grave, thanks to a friend of OTIS. Let’s talk about him. The serial killer, I mean.

Photo credit: Mark Schroeder

The exhumed wasn’t just any serial killer. He’s the most notorious villain in that category that the country has ever produced: Herman Webster Mudgett, who gave himself the name that he is better known by today: H. H. Holmes.

I’ve written about Holmes on OTIS before, back in 2009 when I dropped by his birth home in Gilmanton, New Hampshire, but here’s a summary of the guy: Holmes built a hotel in Chicago in the late 19th century designed to kill hundreds of people. They called it the Murder Castle.

Holmes's birth home.

Now, there’s plenty of exaggeration and distortion in the mainstream H. H. Holmes story, much of which I fell for in that previous OTIS article. For instance, Holmes confessed to 27 murders, meaning his final kill number was probably smaller than that and certainly not in the hundreds. The hotel wasn’t exactly what we’d call a hotel today, with only one of the three floors dedicated to renters, if he even had any. He also wasn’t a serial killer mastermind. Those only exist in the movies (hopefully). Mostly Holmes was a serial swindler who also killed people when that helped his cause. But the basic bones of the story are accurate.

What might not be accurate, are the basic bones of H. H. Holmes himself.

Holmes was hanged at Moyamensing Prison in Philadelphia in 1896, just shy of age 35. His body was encased in cement per his request, and then buried in an unmarked grave in Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, Pennsylvania, just outside of Philly.

That’s one story.

The other story goes that after Holmes was caught and sentenced to hang, he paid off some coppers to exchange his body for that of a cadaver. While Holmes headed to South America, the cadaver was Han Solo’d and chucked into an unmarked grave.

Either way, The End…ish.

For unknown reasons that might-possibly-I’m-just-guessing-here be the result of prodding by a TV production company, some of the descendants of H. H. Holmes suddenly wanted to know if that’s really the bad parts of the family DNA in that anonymous patch of concrete and dirt.

So they dug him up, chipped him out of the concrete, and are submitting said DNA for testing.

I followed the scant reports of the exhumation avidly, and, like I said, a friend of the site named Mark Schroeder who’s local to the area dropped by the cemetery to take a photo of the spot and kindly sent it to me. You guys know me too well.

After I visited Holmes’s birth home way back when, I wanted at some point to complete the cycle and see his unmarked grave, but that point just hasn’t come yet. However, I have since come across other relevant H. H. Holmes sites, one on purpose and one on accident.

The on-purpose one was the site of the Murder Castle itself, at 611 W. 63rd Street, in Chicago. Holmes tried to burn this place down once for the insurance money (he loved, loved, loved insurance scams), but what he couldn’t get done, a vigilante did after he was caught. The building wasn’t completely destroyed, mostly just the cheaper upper floor that Holmes built, and it was renovated anew and survived well into the 20th century. It was eventually torn down and, these days, its footprint is taken up by the Englewood Post Office. I could find no plaque or historical sign acknowledging the site’s sinister past anywhere near the building, but, I guess, why would I?

Well, because I’ve run into an H. H. Holmes sign before. Accidentally.

This was in Philadelphia. I was trekking to sites related to Edgar Allan Poe for my book Poe-Land. I found myself at an Acme grocery store that was the former site of Moyamensing Prison, looking for a low section of wall that was all that remained of the once-imposing edifice. Poe, according to his own story told secondhand, was once jailed in Moyamensing for either drunkenness or temporary insanity. While incarcerated, he hallucinated strange visions of a black bird named Cholera and saw his mother-in-law being dismembered...slash aunt being dismembered. I found the wall behind the grocery store.

But, also, in front of the grocery store, at the edge of the parking lot, I found a blue and yellow historical sign memorializing the lined asphalt and grocery aisles as the former site of Moyamensing.

And, out of 130 years of history and thousands of inmatesand despite a constrained word spaceH. H. Holmes was the only one that got name-checked on it.

Basically, somewhere on that parcel of land, whether in a corner of the parking lot or the middle of the frozen pizza aisle, at some space rolled over by squeaky cart wheels, dropped the hanged body of H. H. Holmes more than one hundred years ago. Or didn’t, depending on what those DNA findings tell us.

For those of you keeping score, that’s his birth home, the site of his Murder Castle, and his place of incarceration and execution. As far as major sites go for H. H. Holmes, that really just leaves the grave site. One day I’ll get there.

Again, much thanks to Mark for the photo of the freshly dug dirt of the anonymous grave of one of the most notorious serial killers in history. Frame it for the dining room, man, is what I say.