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Inside the grave of serial killer H.H. Holmes

Exhumation Ends 120 Year Mystery of H.H. Holmes’ Death

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.

The skull of serial killer H.H. Holmes
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
Remains of H.H. Holmes returned to the grave. Image via Bloodstains

Holmes was re-interred in his original grave on Wednesday morning.

Exhuming serial killer H.H. Holmes

H.H. Holmes Skeleton Found in Concrete with Brain Intact

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.

Update: DNA proves Holmes didn’t escape the gallows

I Got a Plush Megacolon for my Birthday

A fuzzy, lovable version of the giant, diseased megacolon specimen on display at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia.
Plush megacolon from the Mutter Museum gift shop
I Heart Guts: Plush Megacolon from the Mutter Museum

Last week was my birthday, which luckily happened to coincide with my sister spending a few days in Philadelphia on business. I am developing an obnoxious habit of hijacking her trips for Cult of Weird content, but in this case I didn’t have to say a word – she was already planning to visit the Mutter Museum while she was in town.

Lowly web lackeys like myself can’t afford to do things like travel, so while the Mutter has always been on my bucket list, the closest I’ll probably ever get is reading about it. But that bleak reality was softened a bit yesterday when I checked the mail and found a plush megacolon from the Mutter gift shop!

Obviously I have the best sister in the world.

But what the hell is a megacolon, you ask? The answer is equal parts fascinating and horrifying: It is an unnaturally large segment of dried and stuffed intestine on display at the Mutter Museum that belonged to a man who died of the disease in 1892.

Here’s what the museum has to say about their specimen:

This colon belonged to a 29-year-old man who had complained of constipation for most of his life. The condition he endured is known as congenital aganglionic megacolon, or Hirschsprung’s disease. It occurs when nerves to part of the colon fail to develop and making it difficult for waste to move to the rectum (aganglionic means “without nerve cells”).

This man was a normal infant up to the age of 18 months, with the exception of a rather large abdomen, coupled with some irregularity of bowels and some constipation. His condition progressed, with the severity of the constipation increasing along with the size of his abdomen. By the age of 16 he would go up to a month at a time without any bowel movements. At 20 he was exhibited at a dime museum as the “Wind Bag” or “Balloon Man.”

During this man’s lifetime, doctors knew that his ailment was not a tumor but rather a defective colon. Surgery to identify and fix the cause would have been extremely risky. He ultimately died of the condition, and was found dead in a bathroom where he was attempting to pass waste.

In Hirschsprung’s disease, only a small section of the colon is usually affected, but the body is unable to transfer normal amounts of waste to any point below the affected section. Chronic constipation ensues. This condition occurs in 1 out of every 5000 to 8000 births. However, today, it is usually identified soon after birth as the baby will have a distended bowel. It is easily corrected with minor surgery in which the affected portion of the bowel is removed and the “good ends” are sewn together.

Plush megacolon from the Mutter Museum

Megacolons are adorable.

Adopt A Skull from the Mütter Museum

Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum is offering the chance to help preserve the skulls from the 150+ year old Hyrtl collection.

The collection, on display at the Mutter Museum, consists of 139 skulls collected by Viennese anatomist Joseph Hyrtl in the 1800s. Hyrtl was working to debunk phrenology, a popular pseudoscience at the time that claimed mental processes were handled by separate organs making up the brain. He collected skulls from executions, suicides, and at least once hired grave robbers to gather specimens for his research.

Though gruesome and barbaric by today’s standards, this now provides us the unique opportunity to adopt the skulls of prostitutes, robbers, gypsies, and people who gave up the ghost in bizarre ways, such as a man who died of “self-inflicted removal of testicles” and a tight rope walker who broke his neck.

Hyrtl, whose collection may once have included the skull of Mozart, sold his skulls to the Mütter Museum in 1874.

Adopt a skull from the Mutter Museum's Hyrtl collection

The collection is being damaged by the footsteps of visitors vibrating through the original cast iron mounts.

You can adopt one of these skulls for $200, which helps pay for the initial cleaning, repair and remounting of your chosen skull. It will also get you a plaque with your name beside the skull for a year.

Get more info and browse the skulls available for adoption here: Save Our Skulls