North America's first serial killer ended 'career' in Toronto

H.H. Holmes may have killed as many as 200 people.

By Heather Mallick

Star columnist

Serial killing in North America had to start somewhere and here, six feet under a bit of grass in St. James Cemetery in downtown Toronto, is where the first serial killer’s final victims were laid to rest.

H.H. Holmes, a Chicago doctor, killed the two girls buried here —Alice and Nellie Pitezel — in 1894 in a pretty house at 16 St. Vincent St. that used to stand near Bay and Breadalbane Sts. He raped them, put them in a small sealed trunk, gassed them, cut up their bodies and buried them in a cellar hole.

They were found months later by a meticulous and determined American cop named Frank Geyer who joined an insurance case and then realized he was after a murderer. If Geyer hadn’t succeeded, we might never have known how the murderous psychopaths of European history were outdone by a man who was extreme even beside the 15th century child killer Gilles de Rais and Jack the Ripper. The Holmes case was internationally famous, the O.J. Simpson case of its time and then some.

Henry Holmes sprang from nothing, came out of nowhere. It wasn’t until he was on trial that a Chicago journalist came up with the term “multimurderer” which would stand for a century until we got serious about studying how killers like Holmes are made.

Few people in Toronto, and even Chicago, have heard of Holmes. But I hadn’t either, having read a book on Holmes a decade ago and thrown it away, unwilling to believe such a man had existed and simply vanished from memory.

Our high school history doesn’t venture back too far. Say “serial killer” and you think Ted Bundy (smooth and plausible), or Clifford Olson (preferred children), or Robert Pickton (preyed on drug addicts). Because journalists fail to put news stories in context, we think each psychopath comes freshly assembled. But they’re more alike than different, as smart researchers like Elliott Leyton and John Douglas have shown. We fail to grasp that they have no empathy, no remorse, nothing normal in them because our own normality blocks such an understanding.

In fact there is a chain of serial killers throughout history. They’re not singular, but rather a track or a timeline. They learn each other’s patterns through news reports and dream up things on their own. Holmes did such appalling things that it’s astonishing that we’ve had 115 years to shudder over him and haven’t bothered.

Holmes was born Herman Mudgett in New Hampshire. As a small boy, he was beaten by his father, saw a friend fall to his death from an abandoned barn they were exploring, and was bullied by neighbourhood boys who brought him face to face with his greatest fear, a skeleton hanging in the village doctor’s office. He dissected small animals while they were still alive, and went to the University of Michigan’s medical school where he spent a lot of time dissecting corpses.

It’s a standard checklist for the modern serial killer, but imagine how few constraints there were on psychopaths of the Holmes era: no fingerprints, DNA, refrigeration, quick photography, blood typing or central record-keeping. People were identified by their head widths and foot lengths. Autopsies were little more than a haphazard dicing. It was open season for a man with fresh ideas.

Holmes’ stroke of luck was to go to Chicago during the Gilded Age, when people streamed to the city to make their fortune, and when the invention of the phone, the lightbulb and the car were making life frantic, anonymous, and crucially, more transitory. By 1886, when Holmes arrived to construct a huge, strangely designed three-storey building known as the “Castle” in the Chicago suburb of Englewood, the city was preparing for the World’s Fair of 1893. It drew tens of millions of visitors, hundreds of whom were to stay in the cramped bedrooms of the Castle hotel for a night or two. Holmes greeted them pleasantly and impressed the ladies. More than 100 young women worked at the Castle over the years. Many guests and employees simply vanished.

The Castle was built by workers hired short-term to prevent any one person from grasping the true weirdness of the structure. Harold Schechter’s meticulous book, Depraved, and Erik Larson’s 2003 The Devil in the White City, describe a sort of claustrophobic Escher hell, an airless human anthill. There were three dozen rooms each on the second and third floors: some airtight and lined with asbestos-proofed steel plates, some soundproofed, others no bigger than closets. There were secret corridors, sliding panels and gas tubes in each room leading to a control panel in Holmes’ private bedroom.

As police discovered, aghast, after Holmes’ arrest, there was a dumbwaiter shaft where victims were hanged, arriving in the basement freshly strangled. There were greased chutes on each floor to send other bodies down to the basement room where Holmes had a huge kiln with slide-in tray, acid tanks, quicklime vats, a dissecting table and something called an “elasticity determinator.” He said it would make people taller, but in fact it was used to stretch them to death, their bones, tendons and blood vessels snapping as they died bursting and screaming, a few feet from a busy Chicago street.

Holmes was a lifelong conman to his core and he killed his targets. Every person he extracted money from would mysteriously disappear, women with 1890s names like Emeline, Minnie, Georgiana and Mabel. But in that era, people were who they said they were. There wasn’t much paperwork to trace if Holmes said the sister of his wife-to-be had gone to Germany by way of Milwaukee. She might have, she might not.

And this was the particular tragedy of the Chicago World’s Fair. It increased the mobility of a settled country, and attracted at least 50 young women visitors, naive and eager to explore, who were never seen again. Holmes’ Castle had had hundreds of paying guests. Holmes may have killed as many as 200 people. Ribcages, hanks of hair, all manner of matter was found in the Castle, but the victims would never be named. Class mattered then as much as it did in the Pickton case, and the police only looked for missing people of wealth.

Some deaths stand out even in the midst of all this, as we know from Holmes’ partial confessions. The vault was the worst. Victims would be trapped inside as the air grew increasingly stale, Holmes would sit outside and listen to them cry out, as he explained the death he had planned for them. If he grew bored, he’d send in the poison gas. Some victims starved, some tried to pick through to the exterior brick, some struck out pointlessly in the dark and slowly asphyxiated.

Alice and Nellie were the daughters of Ben Pitezel, a naive hard-drinking handyman who fell in with Holmes. He was chloroformed to death in a Holmes insurance fraud. Holmes then hustled Pitezel’s family — his wife Carrie, Alice, 15, Nellie, 11, and Howard, 8 — from city to city, rented room to rented room, in an effort to outrun the police and conceal his murder of their father.

Holmes strangled Howard. The detective found the blackened mass of the little boy’s charred torso packed in a chimney in an Indianapolis suburb. Alice and Nellie never made it past Toronto.

Toronto, where the coroner’s inquest was held, was kind to Carrie Pitezel and buried her two daughters on July 20, 1895, the day before Chicago police first entered the killer’s Castle. The burial was free of charge, one coffin atop the other. The grave is unmarked, but the place is well-tended and peaceful, the cemetery staff helpful and kind.

So what do we make of Holmes? He arrived at Union Station, he shopped at the then-Eaton store at Yonge and College Sts., he left two little bodies here and earned our hate and we never speak of him. His quickie “autobiography” was a pack of lies and his hanging on May 7, 1896, at Moyamensing Prison in Philadelphia was prolonged and painful.

Elliott Leyton says serial killers appear in times of particular social tension. Widespread financial chaos, for instance, equally disorients individuals. Serial killers didn’t make big news again until 1924 with Leopold and Loeb, also from Chicago. And then came the Black Dahlia case, Charlie Starkweather and so on, thick and fast. There are now too many serial killers for police to track and for readers to remember.

But what explains the first stunning act of Holmes and his subsequent path? You can sit quietly at Alice and Nellie’s gravesite and come up with nothing but grief, which doesn’t help at all.