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American Ripper ends over a century of rumors that H.H. Holmes escaped his death sentence.
The last episode of American Ripper aired Tuesday on the History channel, finally bringing closure to a mystery that has endured since H.H. Holmes was hanged in 1896. The series, co-hosted by Holmes’ great-great-grandson Jeff Mudgett, focused on the search for clues to support Mudgett’s theory that his ancestor was Jack the Ripper. While it’s an interesting idea (and who doesn’t want to discover conclusive proof of the Ripper’s identity?) I was just tuning in to see the remains of H.H. Holmes exhumed from his concrete grave.
According to records, Holmes was hanged at Philadelphia’s Moyamensing Prison, transported to Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, and buried beneath a layer of concrete. Holmes purchased two burial plots with the money he made by selling his confession to Hearst newspapers. Per his request, he was buried in an unmarked grave at the center of those two plots, at a greater depth than normal.
But soon after, rumors began to circulate that Holmes, the consummate con artist, had managed to swindle his way out of the noose. This was seemingly supported by the mysterious deaths of several people who had been involved in his trial.
A mugshot of Holmes beside his skull
Mudgett and Holmes’ other living descendants were granted permission by the court to exhume Holmes back in April with the assistance of archaeologists from the University of Pennsylvania. During the dig, they first uncovered an empty pine box. Digging further, however, they came to a slab of concrete with bones beneath.
In the conclusion of American Ripper, it was revealed that forensic analysis of the remains showed a “conclusive link” to Jeff Mudgett. This discovery ends over one hundred years of speculation, proving even Holmes couldn’t cheat death.
Mudgett plans to continue investigating the connections between Holmes and Jack the Ripper, and is hoping History will green-light a second season of American Ripper.
Remains of H.H. Holmes returned to the grave. Image via Bloodstains
Holmes was re-interred in his original grave on Wednesday morning.
We met true crime filmmaker John Borowski and talked about H.H. Holmes and the Jack the Ripper connection.
Christina and I embarked on an expedition to the Flashback Weekend horror convention in Chicago on Saturday, where we had the pleasure of meeting filmmaker John Borowski. Borowski is the producer and director of a handful of great documentaries on Albert Fish, Carl Panzram, and H.H. Holmes, as well as the fascination with serial killers and murderbilia. He participated in the Milwaukee Twisted Dreams Film Festival earlier this year for a screening of his film Serial Killer Culture, which I was unable to attend. Finding him at the horror con by chance was way more exciting for me than being in the presence of Robert Englund, Lance Henricksen, one of the Jasons, Booger from Revenge of the Nerds, or those guys from Boondock Saints.
As a Holmes expert, John had just appeared on last week’s episode of American Ripper, the History channel series investigating the theory that Holmes was Jack the Ripper. Of course, the enduring mystery of the Ripper’s identity, coupled with the legend of America’s first serial killer and his notorious Murder Castle, makes for a compelling story.
I was eager for John’s insight.
Thankfully, he seemed just as passionate about the subject as we were, and extremely knowledgeable. We had a great conversation about Holmes’ methods and motives, the plausibility of black market organs in the late 19th century, holes in the muck of the Chicago River, and other aspects of the Holmes and Ripper cases that the American Ripper series has been using to illustrate possible connections between the two murderers.
We also talked about serial killer artifacts, the Ed Gein legacy in Plainfield, and John’s latest film Bloodlines (making its debut in January) which explores the human blood art of Vincent Castiglia. I grabbed a copy of his book The Ed Gein File, because, you know, how could I not buy something Gein-related from my favorite true crime filmmaker?
What was found inside the grave of H.H. Holmes? Researcher Jeff Mudgett reveals the details of the exhumation.
Back in May news broke that the body of H.H. Holmes would be exhumed for a DNA test. Jeff Mudgett, the great-great-grandson of America’s first serial killer, is hoping to determine whether the rumors that Holmes escaped the gallows in 1896 are true or not. He believes Holmes may have been Jack the Ripper, which is the basis of the History channel series American Ripper, and is hoping to find supporting evidence.
So what exactly did they find when they dug Holmes out of his unmarked grave in Philadelphia’s Holy Cross Cemetery?
The dig, lead by archaeologists from the University of Pennsylvania, first uncovered an empty pine box, Mudgett told NBC. Then, a few feet deeper, they hit concrete.
Holmes feared that grave robbers would steal his body after burial, so he requested to be entombed in cement. The teamed cracked open the concrete sarcophagus and found a man’s skeleton inside.
“Chills went up and down my spine,” Mudgett said. “To see that skeleton and that skull with the brain still inside, which is a phenomenon that scientists still have not explained…scared the heck out of me.”
Anthropologists are still testing the remains at UPenn. If there is any substantial clues to be gleaned from the bones, it will likely be featured in a future episode of American Ripper.
The grave of H.H. Holmes is being exhumed for DNA analysis to settle an old rumor that the Chicago serial killer escaped execution in 1896.
Herman Webster Mudgett, also known as H.H. Holmes, the notorious Devil in the White City, was hanged in the Philadelphia County Prison on May 7, 1896. Holmes was said to have killed as many as 200 people in his Chicago “Murder Castle” while stalking the city during the 1893 World’s Fair. He confessed to killing 27, some of whom were later found to be alive. Authorities believed he killed 9, but he was convicted and sentenced to death for only one murder.
A journalist for the New York Times was present for the execution, who recorded Holmes’ calm and “unconcerned” final moments. “Gentlemen,” Holmes said to those gathered to watch him die, “I have a very few words to say. In fact, I would make no statement at this time except that by not speaking I would appear to acquiesce in life in my execution. I want only to say that the extent of my wrongdoings in taking human life consisted in the deaths of two women, they having died at my hands as the result of criminal operations. I wish to also state, however, so that there will be no misunderstanding hereafter, I am not guilty of taking the life of any of the Pietzel family, the three children or father, Benjamin F. Pietzal, of whose death I am now convicted and for which I am today to be hanged. That is all.”
Afterwards, as the nervous hangman hastily prepared the execution, Holmes told him, “Take your time, don’t bungle it.” When asked if he was ready, Holmes responded, “Yes, goodbye.” The trap was sprung and he dropped. But his neck didn’t break. As reported by the New York Times, he twitched and convulsed for ten minutes before finally being pronounced dead.
The body was taken down about 30 minutes later and transported to the Holy Cross Cemetery. There, in the receiving vault, Holmes’s final wishes were carried out. “The lid of the coffin was taken off and the body was lifted out and laid on the ground,” the New York Times wrote. “Then the bottom of the coffin was filled with cement; the body was then replaced in the coffin and completely covered with the cement. It was Holmes’s idea that this cement would harden around his body and prevent any attempt at a grave robbery.”
Two watchmen guarded the coffin that night, and Holmes was buried the following day in an unmarked grave filled with another four barrels of cement.
Or was he?
STORY CONTINUED BELOW
According to some, Holmes didn’t die on the gallows, but instead perpetrated one last scam and made his escape. With the body encased in concrete, how could anyone ever know? A pamphlet published later in 1896 called Hanged by Proxy: How H.H. Holmes Cheated the Gallows was written by L. W. Warner, a man Holmes claimed to have murdered but was very much alive. Warner told a reporter in 1897 that a poor physician was hanged in place of Holmes.
A couple months later in Chicago Robert Latimer, another of Holmes’s alleged murder victims, told the Chicago Daily Inter-Ocean Holmes was alive and well, growing coffee in South America. Latimer didn’t believe Holmes had ever killed anyone. He claimed to have seen letters written by Holmes describing how he convinced the priests and guards caring for him in the days leading up to his execution that he was innocent. Latimer said the letters described how a substitute body had been hidden behind a partition below the scaffold. When Holmes was brought out, the guards formed a semi-circle around him, momentarily blocking the view of reporters while he and the hooded cadaver switched places.
Then, when the undertaker’s wagon carried the casket out of the prison, it was secretly carrying Holmes to freedom. By the time concrete was being poured over the corpse, Holmes was reading newspaper articles about his death in a New York hotel room, awaiting the boat that would take him to his new life.
Some believed Latimer’s story. “I knew the man,” G. A. Bogart, a jeweler down the street from Holmes’s castle, told reporters. “He was capable of carrying through anything in the way of a scheme or a swindle.” Critics of Latimer’s claims pointed out that in drawings made by newspaper artists present at the hanging, there was no partition beneath the scaffold where another body could be hiding. Also, witnesses described having seen the body convulse, which, of course, a cadaver would not do. And when the hood was removed afterward, it was unmistakably Holmes.
After 121 years of controversy, it seems Holmes’s descendants decided it was time to find out the truth. NBC Chicago reports that two of his great-grandchildren, John and Richard Mudgett, successfully petitioned the court to have Holmes exhumed to finally determine just who is buried in his grave. Digging started last week at the Philadelphia cemetery. After the remains are chipped out of the concrete, the Anthropology Department of the University of Pennsylvania will perform the DNA analysis.
The court order states that regardless of who is found to be buried in the grave, the body is to be re-interred in the same place within 120 days regardless of its identity, and “no commercial spectacle or carnival atmosphere shall be created either by this event or any other incident pertaining to the remains.”
The “Murder Castle” of H.H. Holmes in Chicago