Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

H. H. Holmes: Master of Illusion

The Girls

Going on to Toronto, Geyer looked up real estate agents to find out if a man had rented a house for only a few days. "It took considerable time to impress each agent with the importance of making a careful search for us." He found a house that Holmes had rented, which was surrounded by a six-foot fence. The family residing there knew about some loose dirt under the house. They dug it up, firmly believing they would find one or more of the children. To raise the suspense, they kept working as it grew dark, but had to give up without finding anything. Geyer struck out there, as the renter turned out to have been a different man. Still, the intrepid detective felt certain the children had been killed somewhere in that town, so he persisted and found another rental that seemed suspicious. He went to check it out.

Geyer learned that a man with children at this place had asked for the loan of a spade to plant potatoes in the cellar and had brought only a bed, mattress and large trunk to the house. A woman identified Holmes from a photograph as the man who had rented the house. Geyer went there, discovered that the house had a dark cellar accessible via a trap door, and found an area of soft dirt on the floor. When he pushed a shovel into it, a stench arose and he knew he'd come to the right spot. His long, dark journey had produced what he'd both hoped for and had feared: human remains. After digging three feet, he found a small arm bone, so he employed an undertaker to take charge. In short order, they exhumed the corpses of two unclothed girls, which they believed were Nellie and Alice Pitezel.

Nellie Pitezel
Nellie Pitezel

"Alice was found lying on her side with her hand to the west," Geyer wrote. "Nellie was found lying on her face, with her head to the south, her plaited hair hanging neatly down her back." A crew of men lifted them from the grave and transferred them to coffins. Gruesomely, as Nellie was lifted, her heavy braid pulled the scalp away from her skull. Geyer was widely congratulated on his persistence and success. He sent a telegram to Philadelphia about the day's events and concluded in his book, "Thus it was proved that little children cannot be murdered in this day and generation, beyond the possibility of discovery."

Searchers found a toy in the house that was listed in Carrie Pitezel's inventory of things that her children had owned, which assisted Geyer with a firm identification of the remains, as did pieces of partially burnt clothing. Then, they brought Mrs. Pitezel to Toronto to confirm. She was allowed to see the children's hair and teeth, as the remains were too putrefied for her to view. She recognized them instantly and swooned in grief. She now knew that Holmes had lied to her and had killed her children.

But Geyer still knew there was one more child to find: little Howard. His trek was not yet done, although it now appeared to be fully pessimistic. He used logic and items from the letters to determine that Howard had been separated from the girls before their arrival in Detroit, so it was time to return to Indianapolis.

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