The name Herman Webster Mudgett is largely forgotten, but he was an infamous figure in late 19th century America, when he was better known as H. H. Holmes.
Holmes was a successful swindler and serial killer who built a "Murder Castle" in Chicago, a three-story human abattoir complete with shops, apartments, and its own crematorium.
Holmes was believed to have killed Julia L. Connor and her daughter Pearl. Connor was Holmes' bookkeeper; also Emeline G. Cigrande his stenographer, Minnie R. Williams his secretary and Nana Williams her sister.
He was captured in 1895, and wrote a death-row memoir in which he claimed a total of 27 murder victims, including men, women and children. Mudgett was hanged on May 7, 1896, and at his request the coffin was filled with concrete to discourage grave robbers.
In 2017, Mudgett's body was exhumed. Since his coffin was filled with cement his clothes were almost perfectly preserved and his mustache was intact. Using his teeth it was confirmed the remains belonged to the serial killer known as H. H. Holmes. He was reburied.
True crime buffs remember the Castle, but there is another aspect of the story that suggests the man's malignant influence was not cemented into the ground with him.
The first was Linford L. Biles, the foreman of the jury that convicted Mudgett, stepped on a live wire on the roof of his house and was electrocuted in front of a crowd of neighbors. This was two months after Holmes' was executed.
Dr. William K. Mattern, an important witness against Mudgett, died of blood poisoning. In 1895, Dr. Mattern was the coroner for Philadelphia and testified in Mudgett's court case when a body was exhumed to verify he was a certain Benjamin F. Pietzel. The man's burned body had been found in a house at 1316 Callow Hill Street, and was buried in Potter's Field. H.H. Holmes would go on to be convicted and executed in the death of Benjamin Pietzel, however he did kill Benjamin's children Howard, Alice and Nellie.
Dr. Mattern was only 48 years old when died in 1896, of what was described as apoplexy.
Coroner Samuel Ashbridge, whose examination of one of Mudgett's victims ultimately led to his capture, suffered a near fatal illness after catching an infection from a dead body he was dissecting. He had worked closely with Dr. Mattern on several cases. He went on to become mayor of Philadelphia, and died in 1906 at the age of 57.
Judge Michael Arnold, who tried and sentenced Mudgett, also became dangerously sick, but recovered. He died in 1903 at the age of 68 from cancer.
Superintendent Howard Perkins, in charge of Moyamensing Prison where Mudgett was confined, committed suicide six months after Mudgett's execution. He arrived early one morning in his office, and used a gun once purchased because of threats against his life and those of his family. Perkins complained of insomnia, and that medicine did not work. He had been superintendent for 19 years after succeeding his father in the post. He had outlived his parents, four siblings and his wife. He was 62 years old.
During Holmes' trial there was an accusation against William A. Shoemaker a young attorney who represented him, claiming that he knew his client beforehand in Indiana. There was a threat of disbarment when he presented a "bogus affidavit" when arguing for a new trial for Holmes.
By December 1895, disbarment proceedings were begun against him. He had been arrested and was out on bail or the charge of subornation of perjury. He was disbarred for one year. Four years later he was acquitted of the criminal charges.
His co-counsel Samuel P. Rotan, went on to become district attorney. He died in 1930 at the age of 61.
In May 1896, Peter Cigrand, father of Emeline Cigrand who had been murdered by Holmes was badly burned due to a gas explosion after he lit a match. He was unable to witness Holmes' hanging as he planned. Cigrand did recover and died in 1917 at the age of 81. Holmes had sold his daughter's skeleton to the LaSalle Medical College of Chicago.
The Rev. Henry J. McPake, 30, the assistant priest of the Church of the Annunciation had been ordained on December 24, 1895. He was a newly minted priest when he attended Mudgett's hanging, and counseled him spiritually.
Eighteen months after Holmes' execution the priest's body was found at the bottom of four steps under an arch leading to the rear of St. Paul's Academy on Dickinson and Tenth Streets by the janitress of the building. The academy housed nuns and was a school for children of the parish.
The right side of his skull was fractured and he'd been dead for some time. His nose was broken and there were bruises on his forehead which looked like they were made by sand bags. Blood was splattered on the steps and on the flagging below. His pockets appeared to be hastily rifled through. A watch, a pair of eye glasses, his stoll and his wallet were taken, however in his other pocket $9.60 was left behind.
Despite the evidence that Father McPake had been murdered, Dr. Cattell the coroner stated he died of uremia.
He was last seen two days before and the priests at the parochial residence believed he had been lured to a house in the neighborhood. After robbing him they dragged him to the rear of the school, and then hurled him down the stairs to make it appear he had fallen. Signs of gore were found on the inside of the rear gate.
The police questioned if Father McPake drank liquor and fell down the stairs, but his fellow priests said he never drank "intoxicants". The gate to the area where he was found was fastened on the inside. He was in ill health and could not have scaled an 8-foot fence that surrounded it.
The priests pointed out that three months before Father Donovan of St. Paul's Church was decoyed to visit a home about 11 p.m. by a bogus sick call. When he arrived at the address the house was vacant. This is when Father Donovan noticed a man was following him. He headed home, and notified a policeman he came across. The man ran off when he saw the police.
Another motive advanced for the murder was that he was killed out of revenge as well as robbery. Four years before Father Hannigan, then curate of St. Paul's Church excoriated some Italians who swore vengeance.
The murder was never solved.
By January 1898 Father McPake's death was being attributed to "Holmes' Curse". It was pointed out that he had been on the scaffold with Holmes when he met his end.
George S. Graham the district attorney in the case whose star was rising in politics met reverses on all sides, and his political career ended. George Barlow, his assistant, shortly after the end of the trial became seriously ill with brain fever and had little hope of recovery.
In 1911, Robert C. Motherwell who became warden of Moyamensing prison committed suicide at front door of his home. He rang the doorbell first, and when his wife and daughter answered the door they found him there. He'd lost his position with the prison 5 years before, and had been absent from home for the last year. He'd been superintendent of the county jail where Holmes was housed. He was 49 years old when he died.
In 1912, Holmes' Curse was recalled when Richard Johnson, 48, committed suicide by inhaling gas due to despondency. He had been a member of the jury which found Holmes guilty.
These effects were attributed to Holmes' "evil influence" or his "evil eye". Supposedly Holmes had made a prediction that anybody having anything to do with his arrest, conviction or execution would meet an untimely death, either by their own hand or otherwise.
More than half the members of the jury had "sustained heavy losses, both financial and domestic, while of this number more than one had met practical ruin. One after another they met reverses which were insurmountable, under which they succumbed."
O. LeForrest Perry, of the Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance, played an important part in the arrest. Perry's office was almost completely destroyed by fire, but two photographs of Mudgett, and the warrant for his arrest, survived though the frame containing them was burnt.
Source - Periodicals: St Louis Post Dispatch, Pittston Gazette, Philadelphia Enquirer, The Times, The Salt Lake Herald, The Daily News Era
Stranger Than Fiction Stories by M.P. Pellicer