Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

H. H. Holmes: Master of Illusion

Putting on the Con

Depraved by Harold Schechter
Depraved by Harold Schechter

As Holmes was being processed in Boston, an agent from the insurance company arrived whom he recognized, so he readily offered a confession of the fraud. In the glib manner of a polished liar, he said that the damaged corpse that he'd identified as Pitezel really had been a cadaver that he had acquired and substituted to collect the money. The agent was amazed by Holmes' near-convincing performance. When asked to account for the Pitezel children, who were not now in his care, the suspect offered yet another convoluted tale: The children had been left with their father, who had gone to either South America or Florida.

Carrie Pitezel, Ben's wife, could not corroborate any of Holmes's story, except that she was aware of the insurance scheme and that he had been moving her around from one place to another, with promises of soon seeing her family. She was utterly confused about the entire experience, and her flustered manner convinced the interrogators that Pitezel was probably dead. They charged her with conspiracy and put her under arrest, although they also felt sorry for her. She seemed to have been caught in something that she barely understood.

Moyamensing Prison, PA
Moyamensing Prison, PA

Because the scheme had occurred in Philadelphia, Detective Thomas Crawford arrived in Boston to escort Holmes back to the City of Brotherly Love. In Depraved, Schechter recounts how Holmes bragged to the detective along the way about his criminal career, admitting that he'd done enough in his life to be hanged "twelve times over." He provided colorful tales about his various cons and claimed to have the ability to hypnotize people to do whatever he wanted. He even offered the detective $500 to let him perform this feat on him and escape. Crawford was unimpressed, declining the deal with grim humor, but when reporters later heard about it they attributed supernatural powers to the scam artist. It was the age of Svengali, a character made popular in a contemporary novel by George Du Maurier, Trilby, and Holmes was thought to have such abilities. (Holmes even enjoyed this novel later in his cell.)

Holmes was eventually incarcerated in Moyamensing Prison and remained there for several months. Larson indicates that his humid, white-washed cell was nine feet by 14 feet, with a barred window and an electric lamp for light. He was well-behaved and despite the daily journalistic discoveries of yet more of his horrendous crimes, his guards apparently liked him. Some of them did favors for him, delivering the newspaper daily so he could keep up with the details of the investigation. As he did so, he realized that he'd have to come up with a better confession. He was always scheming.

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