It was a spectacle few people had the opportunity to witness on May 7, 1896, but that didn't stop them of gathering outside the Moyamensing Prison at 13th Street and Passyunk Avenue.
"Thousands of people were at the intersection," according to author and Holmes expert Matt Lake.
The hanging death of H.H. Holmes was supposed to bring closure to decades of alleged atrocities and crimes that spanned a good part of the United States and into Canada. He’s known as America’s first serial killer.
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Licensed professional counselor Jennifer Murphy has studied serial killers. She says, “He was one the worst that I’ve ever seen.”
Some estimates have his death toll around 200 but Holmes was only charged and convicted of one murder. At one point, he confessed to 27 killings, only to recant, saying he only accidentally killed two people.
A life-long liar, Holmes is best known for his “Murder Castle” in Chicago. He built the hotel equipped with secret rooms, chambers and a spot dissections in the basement. With visitors from around the globe visiting the city’s World’s Fair in 1893, Holmes’ unwitting guests checked in but some never left.
“He’d wind up putting them into an airtight room and turning the gas on in there until they suffocated,” Lake said.
It’s believed Holmes sold his victims’ bodies, organs and bones. According to Rider University Professor Joe Wojie the going rate was about $8 to $10 a body.
"At a time when a Union soldier is pulling in about $13 a month. Porters loading and unloading ships are making about 5 cents an hour. Enterprising young men, not afraid to get their hands dirty could pull in, God, $8 a fresh body,” he said.
After the World’s Fair, Holmes was on the move. He is known to have traveled to the Dallas area and St. Louis but he and his swindles wound up in Philadelphia. The visit didn’t go as planned.
Lake calls it “a tactical error.”
Holmes convinced his business partner Benjamin Pitezel to fake his own death in order to get a $10,000 life insurance payout. But instead of faking Pitezel’s death, Holmes killed him at their 1316 Callowhill Street office.
He then went on the run. Police eventually caught up with him in Boston and he was sent back to face the murder charge in Philadelphia. Holmes’ was convicted and sentenced to death. The case was front page news in Philadelphia and across the country.
While in prison, Holmes cashed in on his fame. The publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer paid Holmes for a confession. In it, the murderer claimed he killed 27 people, but in his memoir Holmes changed his story.
“So admitted to committing 27 murder, and right before his execution, says 'I killed two people. I deserve to die, I guess,'” Lake said.
Holmes was hanged on May 7, 1896. He was granted one last wish. It is believed that Holmes was buried in concrete. Lake believes, “There’s two reasons. He knows what people can do to cadavers and he doesn’t want to done to him. And two, is to conceal his identity.”
Number two plays into a Holmes mystery more than 100 years old. “There was a theory almost immediately, one of these conspiracy theories that arises, that maybe he faked his death.”
While most experts we spoke with don’t believe it, Holmes ancestors want to be sure. The infamous murderer’s family in late 2016 petitioned a Delaware County Court to exhume H.H. Holmes’ remains.
According to court documents, family lore indicates that Holmes “…managed to escape through some subterfuge and that someone else was hanged and buried at the grave site...”
A newspaper account from 1896 makes the same claim. In it, Holmes conned another prisoner to take his place while the killer escaped to South America. Oddly enough, the person quoted in the article is someone Holmes confessed to killing years earlier.
Lake says, “It’s very tempting! Because this guy was a consummate trickster!”
Forensic scientist Arthur Young is not involved in the exhumation but says as long as the remains have been protected over the years, those digging should find usable DNA samples, possibly a tooth.
“DNA is actually quite stable. It can survive for decades, even millennia,” according to Young.
Regardless of what is or is not found, Philadelphia continues to play a major role in the case of America’s first serial killer.
“We caught him. And we got the body. He’d have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for those darn Philly kids!” Lake says.