Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

H. H. Holmes: Master of Illusion

His Own Defense

Holmes' request to defend himself, Schechter says, was unprecedented. No accused murderer had done it before in the United States, so several lawyers and law students attended. A reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer described Holmes' performance in court as vigorous and "remarkable." He was deferential to the judge but nasty to the prosecutor. He asked for an analysis of the liquid that he was accused of using as a poison for the children (which the D.A. did not have in his possession), and he wanted the most recent work done on toxicology, claiming that as a doctor, he himself could analyze it (though his credentials were false). This left the impression of a man who was prepared to use science to exonerate himself.

Herman Mudgett, aka H.H. Holmes, sketch
Herman Mudgett, aka H.H.
Holmes, sketch

Yet, Holmes often deflected the questioning with forays into minutia, and he frequently squabbled with the prosecutor, who was likely disturbed at having to spar in court as an equal with the defendant. Holmes made an error when, after Pitezel's corpse was described in gruesome detail, he requested a lunch break, as he was hungry. He appeared to have no sense of sorrow over the supposed suicide of a partner and friend. For the rest of that day, while he handled his questioning in a professional manner, he failed to elicit any points to support his innocence. The professional witnesses all concluded that Pitezel could not, as Holmes claimed, have committed suicide.

The judge ordered an evening session over Holmes's protest. Holmes claimed that he was feeling ill, but it was clear that he was failing to establish his case. The evening session opened with a surprise: Holmes asked that the court allow his two defense attorneys to re-enter the case, and with that he relinquished his role as a criminal lawyer. While he now had competent counsel, he had probably hurt his case. Between his antics and his obvious fatigue by the end of the first day, the jury had a good look at the defendant's loss of confidence and inability to shake the strongest witnesses. He may not have admitted his guilt, but his actions indicated that he had admitted defeat. He got up only once to examine another witness - his latest paramour and third wife, who testified against him. Using a heavy dose of emotion, as if stricken by her betrayal, he nevertheless failed to move her to change her testimony about his behavior on the day that Pitezel was allegedly murdered.

The prosecution made its case quite elaborately, prepared to show his activities with 35 witnesses from the various places Holmes had gone after the Pitezel murder. But the judge had ruled that the trial must be limited to the Pitezel murder, so Graham showed how they made Pitezel's identification, and adding in whatever they were allowed about Holmes' reprehensible behavior. They proved with doctors that the chloroform that had supposedly killed Pitezel by self-administration actually had been forced into him after he was already dead. So Pitezel was dead and had not died from natural causes or his own hand. Given Holmes' admissions about being with him, there was really no other choice for jurors. In addition, Carrie Pitezel had won the courtroom with her mournful rendition of learning that her children were dead. In his closing argument, which lasted more than two hours, Graham called Holmes the "most dangerous man in the world," and asked jurors not to be afraid to do their duty and operate like "honest men."

In the end, the jury convicted Holmes of Benjamin Pitezel's murder and the judge sentenced him to death by hanging.

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