Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

H. H. Holmes: Master of Illusion

His End

On May 7, 1896, H.H. Holmes went to the hangman's noose. His last meal was boiled eggs, dry toast, and coffee. Even at the noose, he changed his story. He claimed to have killed only two people, and tried to say more but at 10:13 the trapdoor opened and he was hanged. Blundell says that it took him fully 15 minutes to strangle to death on the gallows.

Afraid of body-snatchers who might capitalize on his corpse, Holmes had made a request: He wanted no autopsy and he instructed his attorneys to see that he was buried in a coffin filled with cement. This was taken to Holy Cross Cemetery south of Philadelphia and two Pinkerton guards stood over the grave during the night before the body was finally interred in a double grave also filled with cement. No stone was erected to mark it, Larson states, although its presence is recorded on a cemetery registry.

Holmes' attorneys had turned down an offer of $5,000 for his body, and even refused his brain to Philadelphia's Wistar Institute, which hoped to have its experts analyze the organ for better understanding of the criminal mind. Larson recounts a series of strange events afterward that gave credence to the rumors that Holmes was satanic, including several weird deaths and a fire at the D.A.'s office that destroyed everything there save a photograph of Holmes.

During this case, another American phenomenon arose from society's fascination with sensational crime. Thousands of people lined up to see the Chicago murder site, so a former police officer remodeled the infamous building as "Holmes's Horror Castle," an attraction that offered guided tours to the suffocation chambers and torture rooms. But before it opened it mysteriously burned to the ground.

So many people who'd rented rooms from Holmes during the fair had actually gone missing that sensational estimates of his victims reached around 200, and some people perpetuated this unsubstantiated toll even today. It's likely that Holmes' own figure from his recanted confession is low, but there is no way to know just how many he actually killed. A record of his many other frauds can be found in the authors noted in the bibliography.

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