Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

H. H. Holmes: Master of Illusion

Arrest

Benjamin Pitezel
Benjamin Pitezel

They finally caught up to Holmes in November in one of his childhood haunts in Vermont, put him under surveillance, and gave the information to police. On the afternoon of November 16, 1894, H.H. Holmes was arrested in Boston as he was preparing to leave the country by steamship. He surrendered easily, probably believing that he could resort to his highly successful weapon, a glib tongue and a load of lies, to get himself out of a tight spot. It's likely that he was further convinced of this when they told him that he was being charged with the rather petty theft of a horse in Texas. Secretly, he knew a lot more about what he'd done, but so did police. Even so, neither side realized at that moment what they were dealing with.

The Holmes Pitezel Case
The Holmes Pitezel Case

The best sources for the Holmes story are the documents from the case itself: Detective Frank P. Geyer's book on his experiences (which included evidence not used in court and which Geyer describes as "one of the most marvellous [sic] stories of modern times") and the autobiographical pieces that Holmes penned. At first Holmes told one story, which included mundane details about his life and a load of lies posed to cover up his crimes, and then he offered a sensational confession, which was printed at the time in the Philadelphia Inquirer (and all three documents are now available on a CD-ROM from Waterfront Productions). As well, since the Holmes story was an immediate sensation, editions of the major Philadelphia newspapers carried the story from the moment he was arrested, and in 1975, David Franke published The Torture Doctor (later found to have been read by healthcare serial killer Dr. Michael Swango). In addition, authors Harold Schechter and Erik Larson both have written exemplary renditions of the Holmes tale. Schechter tells the tale imaginatively as narrative nonfiction, while Larson places Homes in the context of the development of the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. Larson's discussion about how he researched the book offers even more insight.

The Torture Doctor
The Torture Doctor

He admittedly encountered some difficulty with the character of H.H. Holmes, since the Philadelphia trial transcripts were limited to a single crime (he had performed the greater part of his monstrousness elsewhere). Larson found that many of the sources about this scoundrel were inconsistent, as well as interlaced with Holmes' own fantastic embellishments. In many instances, only Holmes ever knew what he actually had done. Larson describes how he agonized over recreating incidents to which there were no witnesses, and he admits that even with all of his research he still did not know by the end what had motivated Holmes to kill (and had only a slight understanding of psychopathy). Yet, he does point out one real advantage to this work: "One of the most striking, and rather charming, aspects of criminal investigation in the 1890s is the extent to which the police gave reporters direct access to crime scenes, even while the investigations were in progress." Thus, they acquired fantastic details, which they passed on to anyone who cared to take a look. As Geyer said, the story is among the most "marvelous."

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