Jim Castagnera: America's First Bona Fide Mass Murderer





Holy Cross Cemetery is a mere half dozen miles from my Havertown home… a quick drive down Lansdowne Avenue. An early burial ground of the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Holy Cross plays host to hundreds, if not thousands, of Irish and Italian immigrants; a common inscription on many a weathered tombstone reads something like, “Born County Cork 1846.”

Had I not taken a book called “The Devil in the White City” with me to the Shore this summer, I might never have known that Holy Cross is also the final resting place of America’s first bona fide mass murderer. According to author Erik Larson’s 2003 bestseller about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Herman Webster Mudgett, alias Dr. H.H. Holmes accomplished most of his killing in a suburban-Chicago building he called his “Castle.” The Castle combined businesses, such as a pharmacy, a restaurant and a small hotel with a Boris Karloff-like basement containing a crematorium and a sound-proof gas chamber. Holmes eventually confessed to killing 27; some say the real figure may be as high as 200.

Holmes penned his horrid confession in Philadelphia’s Moyamensing Prison, where in 1896 he waited to be hanged for the murder of a partner-in-crime, one Ben Pitezel, with whom he had launched a fake patent dealership along Philly’s Callowhill Street. Holmes had insured his partner’s life for $10,000. When he found Pitezel passed out from hard liquor at the Callowhill shop, he decided it was time to collect on the policy. Tying the helpless drunk’s hands and feet, “I proceeded to burn him alive by saturating his clothing and his face with benzene and lighting it with a match.” Homles coyly adds to the confession, “So horrible was this torture that in writing of it I have been tempted to attribute his death to some humane means --- not with a wish to spare myself, but because I fear that it will not be believed that one could be so heartless and depraved.”

The Chicago police who investigated the Castle following Holmes’s Philadelphia conviction had no trouble believing every word of his grizzly confession. They found claw marks on the walls of the “Vault,” the airtight chamber equipped with gas jets that Holmes controlled from upstairs. They also found skulls, ribs, a shoulder blade and a hip socket that the crematorium had failed to reduce to ash. The stovepipe from this gas oven was lined with human hair. Holmes even had a medieval torture rack.

The mad medico was as bold as he was crazy. After murdering Pitezel on September 2, 1894, he hastily left town. While he was away, Pitezel’s burned body was found by a customer, who stopped by the Callowhill shop to sell a patent. Pitezal was buried as a pauper in a Potter’s Field. But just a few days after the funeral, Holmes reappeared, advising the life insurance company that the supposed-pauper was their policy-holder, Pitezal. The body was exhumed and identified by Holmes and the deceased’s daughter Alice, whom Holmes subsequently killed along with a younger brother and sister. The insurance carrier paid up to an attorney for his widow, Carrie. Paying $2500 to the lawyer, Holmes then talked Carrie out of the lion’s share of the proceeds, told her that her husband was still alive, and took her on a whirlwind tour of Detroit, Toronto, and Ogdensburg, New York… always promising that her husband and children would be joining them at their next destination.

A Philadelphia detective named Frank Geyer finally caught up with Holmes in Boston. The insurance company had come to the conclusion that the body exhumed from the Potter’s Field was not Pitezel. Indicted in Philly for conspiracy to defraud the carrier, Holmes wisely pleaded guilty. However, the Philadelphia D.A. wasn’t satisfied with this conviction. The investigation was continued and on September 12, 1895, a grand jury indicted Holmes for murder. He and his attorney then changed their story, agreeing that Pitezal was dead, but contending that he had killed himself. Holmes claimed he had found his dead partner, and fearing that the insurance policy wouldn’t pay off on a suicide, had burned the body to disguise the self-inflicted wounds. The jury didn’t buy this yarn. Holmes was convicted and sentenced to hang.

When his motion for a new trial was denied on November 30, 1895, by a tribunal with the charming name of “the Court of Oyer and Terminer and General Jail Delivery of Pennsylvania,” his luck had finally run out. Awaiting the inevitable, he penned the confession published first by the Philadelphia Inquirer. Then, on May 7, 1896, behind the high walls of the prison at 10 th and Reed Streets (where an Acme now stands), Holmes was hanged. The Inquirer reported the presence of a huge throng of would-be spectators. “There was a good deal of fin de siecle brutality about the crowds,” commented the paper. “There was nothing that they could possibly see, but the high forbidding walls. There was nothing they could hear. Yet they all seemed drawn to the spot by some morbid fascination. Coarse jests were bandied from lip to lip as the crowd surged to and fro.”

Having sold the cleaned and polished skeletons of many a victim to Chicago medical schools, hospitals and private physicians, Holmes feared he himself might become a victim of grave robbers. ( Philadelphia’s Wistar Institute had made an offer to buy his pathological brain.) Consequently, on his instructions, his coffin was half filled with concrete. Then his body was placed inside and covered with more concrete. His grave, too, was filled half way with wet concrete, before the coffin was lowered and buried in more of the same.

Holmes’ Holy Cross grave has no marker. Author Erik Larson places it at “section 15, range 10, lot 41.” He adds, “At the gravesite there is only an open lawn in the midst of other old graves. There are children….” To be precise, there are four children, all of whom died in 1896. Ten or twelve feet in front of their tiny tombstones, adorned with marble lambs, is a rectangular depression in the grass.

Beneath the grass, half burned away by this summer’s sun, and the topsoil, and a few feet of ancient concrete, lies America’s first self-proclaimed mass murderer. He outdid Jack the Ripper by at least 20, and perhaps 200, slayings. Yet, prior to Larson’s “Devil in the White City,” he was practically forgotten… the nearly-anonymous monster in my own back yard.



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