Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

H. H. Holmes: Master of Illusion


Herman W. Mudgett, aka H.H. Holmes
Herman W. Mudgett, aka
H.H. Holmes

The discovery of a murder in Philadelphia in October 1894 opened the door to a case that few could believe. Marion Hedgepeth, a one-time cellmate of a man who went by the name H.M. Howard, informed police about a recent scam. It involved insuring a man named Benjamin Pitezel for $10,000 with the Fidelity Mutual Life Association in 1893 in Chicago, and then faking his death in a laboratory explosion by substituting a cadaver. All participants were then to split the insurance payment, but Howard had reneged and run off with the money. Hedgepeth was informing on him as payback, and his detailed letter about the scheme was passed along to the company. In short order, they realized that H.M. Howard was actually H. H. Holmes, clearly a swindler.

Marion Hedgepeth
Marion Hedgepeth

A company representative who had already expressed suspicions about the death scene re-examined the circumstances surrounding the discovery of a body at 1316 Callowhill Street in Philadelphia. It had been found in a state of rigor mortis and so badly burned in the face from chemicals and sun exposure that identity of the person could not be judged. Nevertheless, Holmes, accompanied by one of Benjamin Pitezel's children, had indeed identified this body from certain characteristics as the remains of Pitezel. After he'd collected the money, he'd disappeared with that child and two more of Pitezel's children.

Given these details, company officers tried unsuccessfully to track him, so they hired agents from the Pinkerton National Detective Agency to go after the scoundrel. As these more experienced men followed his trail around the country, they gathered information about his numerous frauds, thefts, and schemes, including other insurance scams years earlier in Chicago that had provided him with funds to build a three-story hotel. He was among the top swindlers they had ever come across, possibly the most accomplished. If he hadn't gotten greedy, he'd still be in business. But this time, they had him.

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