On May 3, 1896 the Chicago Sunday Tribune printed this headline and sketch:
In a prison in Philadelphia Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, the “multimurderer,” had given up hope and gloomily awaited his execution by “plenty of rope.”
Fast-forward 123 years. This is the southwest corner of East 2nd and Commerce streets in Fort Worth:
What connection could there be between the man who has been called “America’s first serial killer” and a tree-shaded corner downtown?
To trace the connection, let’s climb into the Retroplex Cruiser time machine, buckle up, and set the way-back dial for the year 1894. Ready? To the past, and step on it! Here we go: 2019 . . . 1987 . . . 1969 thud! (Oops. I think we just ran over Timothy Leary.) . . . 1922 (I see flappers!) . . . 1899 . . . 1894. Whoa!
This is the southwest corner of East 2nd and Commerce streets in 1894. That building on the corner was a hotel built by Herman Webster Mudgett, alias “Dr. Henry Howard Holmes,” who had built a similar hotel in Chicago where guests checked in but never checked out. And that makes the corner of East 2nd and Commerce streets also the corner of what and if: What would Mudgett’s Fort Worth hotel have been used for if he hadn’t skipped town to avoid arrest for stealing horses and cheating creditors? What might have been his final death count if Mudgett had not later been arrested in Boston for the Fort Worth horse theft and instead had remained at large, free to continue his grisly, convoluted life of crime?
This post is an update of the post When Mr. Mudgett Came to Cowtown, which deals with the Fort Worth connection of Herman Webster Mudgett, alias “Dr. Henry Howard Holmes,” alias “Harry Gordon,” alias “Alex E. Bond,” alias “Horace H. Williams” et al. Let’s just call him “Holmes” (although he used the alias “Pratt” in Fort Worth). At the time of my first post, all the material that I had read indicated that Holmes’s Fort Worth building was located at the corner of East 2nd and Commerce (then called “Rusk”) streets. But which of the four corners? The material I had read also gave no indication of the extent to which that building had been completed when work stopped, and I had assumed that the building had not been near completion and that what there was of it had been demolished after the diabolical details of the double life of Mr. Pratt became known to people in Fort Worth. But newly found material shows not only which corner the castle was located on but also what the castle looked like. Newly found material also shows that the castle was very close to completion when Holmes skipped town. In fact, the building that Fort Worth newspapers for years afterward referred to as the “Holmes Castle” stood—and was occupied—until at least 1954.
This panel shows, from top to bottom, the Fort Worth castle exterior, the Chicago castle exterior, a floor plan of the Fort Worth castle, and a floor plan of the Chicago castle, as published in the Dallas Morning News and the Chicago Tribune in 1895. Note the lurid labels on the Chicago floor plan. The Morning News article includes a lengthy description of the “mysterious” interior of the Fort Worth castle. This article was published as Holmes was about to go on trial for murdering Benjamin Pitezel. Pitezel, using the alias “Benton T. Lyman,” had been Holmes’s accomplice in fraud and Holmes’s construction supervisor on the Fort Worth castle.
Some background: The man known as “Dr. Henry Howard Holmes” was born in 1861 in New Hampshire. The 1870 census shows the future serial killer, at age nine, attending school. Mudgett was always an overachiever. In fact, it is difficult to say which he achieved more of: fraud, bigamy, or serial murder. In medical school he defrauded insurance companies: He stole cadavers from the medical school anatomy lab and used the dead persons’ identity on life insurance policies, naming himself as the beneficiary. He then set up the cadavers to appear as if they had died in an accident and collected the money. He later sold a worthless patent medicine cure for alcoholism by mail order. He sold an invention that he claimed distilled “illuminating gas” from plain water. In reality he had merely tapped into a pipe of the city gas company and diverted the gas into a Rube Goldbergesque contraption of pulleys, pipes, wires, and other gizmos. He took women as his wife or mistress and persuaded them to sign over their assets. Sometimes these women disappeared. Holmes seldom had to bother with divorce.
Holmes also is suspected of killing Pitezel’s three children. And various women who came to work for him in Chicago. And dozens of tourists who visited the Chicago World’s Fair, checked into his hotel there, and were not seen again. And the two Williams sisters of Fort Worth, as this 1894 Fort Worth Gazette headline indicates. After Holmes was arrested in Boston for buying horses in Fort Worth using counterfeit banknotes, police began to weave this way and that through the tangle of fact and fiction that made up his life of crime. One thread led to his Chicago “castle.” The hotel had windowless, soundproof “asphyxiation rooms” that could be locked only from the outside, trap doors, false floors, peepholes, secret passages, greased chutes, a dissecting table, jars of poison, sliding walls, a crematory, a lime pit, even a reputed torture rack. In the basement of the Chicago “castle” police also found human remains. Police said bodies found in the basement were too dismembered and too decomposed to allow an accurate count.
Another thread of investigation led to Holmes’s abandoned, almost-completed “castle” at 108-114 East 2nd Street. Investigators explored the building. Like the Chicago castle, the Fort Worth castle was ostensibly built as a hotel but with some curious features. For example, the 1895 Dallas Morning News article described a “room on the third floor with twelve doors and a kind of chute leading from it to the basement” and a “room of many [sixteen] pipes.” Look again at the exteriors of the two buildings. Note that both buildings have a turreted entrance on the corner and two projecting bays of windows on each side. Remove the conical roof from the turret of the Fort Worth castle, and the two buildings are quite similar. By the time Holmes skipped town, his Fort Worth castle was almost completed: It had been framed and bricked. Painting, plastering, and wallpapering of the interior were under way. The wiring and plumbing were roughed in. But although investigators found curious interior features, they found nothing as gruesomely incriminating as Chicago police had found in that castle. No dissecting table, no crematory, no torture rack. And certainly no bodies.
The Dallas Morning News interviewed Franklin C. Pendery, who operated a grocery store near the Holmes castle. Pendery said he and two other businessmen had watched Holmes supervise a crew of “strange plumbers” as they installed a “big circular underground contrivance” behind his castle. The workmen, Pendery said, always worked in the evening, after other workers on the building had left for the day. The contrivance, Pendery said, measured about eight by six feet, was fitted with an iron cover, and had been inserted into the sewer and cemented. “It would be an easy matter to scrape away a few inches of dirt, raise the top and drop a body into the hole,” Pendery said.
What was to have been the function of that contrivance? Had Holmes skipped town before he could install more-sinister equipment in his Fort Worth castle? Again we stand at the corner of what and if: What headlines might Fort Worth residents have read if Holmes had stayed to open his hotel to weary travelers?
In the end, although at one point Holmes confessed to twenty-seven murders, he was tried and convicted of only one: After he and Pitezel fled Fort Worth, they again tried the insurance fraud: Holmes took out a life insurance policy on Pitezel and planned to fake Pitezel’s death by claiming that a disfigured cadaver was that of Pitezel. Holmes would then pocket the insurance money. But this time Holmes actually killed Pitezel.
“I was born with the devil in me,” Dr. Henry Howard Holmes would say before he was hanged on May 7, 1896. Clip is from the San Francisco Call.