Sunday, June 8, 2008

THE MURDER CASTLE OF H.H. HOLMES #5


A diagram that appeared in the Chicago Tribune offered readers a look inside of the "Murder Castle" and lurid illustrations of the crematory, the secret rooms, the quicklime pits and even a map that illustrated the lay-out of the menacing building.


Detectives devoted several weeks to searching and making a floor plan of the Castle. The bottom floor had been used by Holmes himself as a drug store, a candy store, a restaurant and a jewelry store. The third floor of the building had been divided into small apartments and guest rooms and apparently, had never been used.


The second floor however proved to be a labyrinth of narrow, winding passages with doors that opened to brick walls, hidden stairways, cleverly concealed doors, blind hallways, secret panels, hidden passages and a clandestine vault that was only a big enough for a person to stand in. The room was alleged to be a homemade "gas chamber", equipped with a chute that would carry a body directly into the basement. The investigators suddenly realized the implications of the iron-plated chamber when they found the single, scuffed mark of a footprint on the inside of the door. It was a small print that had been made by a woman who had attempted to escape the grim fate of the tiny room.


In addition to all of the bizarre additions to the floor, the second level also held 35 guest rooms. Half of them were fitted as ordinary sleeping chambers, and there were indications that they had been occupied by the various women who worked for Holmes, by tenants during the Fair or by the luckless females Holmes had seduced while waiting for an opportunity to kill them. Several of the other rooms were without windows or could be made air tight by closing the doors. Others were lined with sheet iron and asbestos with scorch marks on the walls, fitted with trap doors that led to smaller rooms beneath, or were equipped with lethal gas jets that could be used to suffocate or burn the unsuspecting occupants.


This floor also contained Holmes’ private apartment, consisting of a bedroom, a bath and two small chambers that were used as offices. The apartment was located at the front of the building, looking out over 63rd Street. In the floor of the bathroom, concealed under a heavy rug, the police found a trap door and a stairway that descended to a room about eight feet square. Two doors led off this chamber, one to a stairway that exited out onto the street and the other giving access to the chute that led down to the basement.


The "chamber of horrors" in the basement stunned the men even further. This subterranean chamber was located seven feet below the rest of the building and extended out under the sidewalk in front. Here, they found Holmes’ blood-spattered dissecting table, his gleaming surgical instruments, his macabre "laboratory" of torture devices, various jars of poison and even a wooden box that contained a number of female skeletons. Built into one of the walls was a crematorium, with a heavy iron grate to hold the fire and another grate, fitted with rollers, by which a body could be slid into the flames. The crematoriums still contained ash and portions of bone that had not burned in the intense heat. A search of the ashes also revealed a watch that had belonged to Minnie Williams, some buttons from a dress and several charred tintype photographs. Under the staircase, Geyer also found a ball made from women’s hair that had been carefully wrapped in cloth.


Buried in the floor, the police found a huge vat of corrosive acid and two quicklime pits, which were capable of devouring an entire body in a matter of hours. A loose pile of quicklime was also discovered in a small room that had been built into the corner. The naked footprint of woman was found embedded in the pile.


Dozens of human bones and several pieces of jewelry were found and could be traced to Holmes’ mistresses. A wood burning stove in the center of the basement contained scraps of cloth and Ned Connor was summoned to the castle to identify a bloody dress that had belonged to Julia. In a hole in the middle of the floor, more bones were found. After being examined by a physician, they were believed to be the bones of a small child between the ages of six and eight. The fate of Pearl Connor was also no longer in question.


On July 20, some city workers began excavating the cellar and started a tunnel underneath 63rd Street. The hazy smell of gas hung in the air and as the men tore away one wall, they discovered a large tank or metal-lined chamber. As soon as they broke through, the basement was filled with the stench of death, driving the crew back. Noting the metal lining of the tank, they sent for a plumber and he struck a match to peer inside of it. Suddenly, the tank exploded, shaking the building and sending flames out into the basement. The men were buried in piles of debris but no one was seriously injured. The tank was lined with wood and metal and was 14 feet long, although thanks to the explosion, no one will ever know that it was used for. The only clue in the room was a small box that was found in its center. When it was opened by Fire Marshal James Kenyon, an "evil smelling" vapor rushed out. The gathered men ran, except for Kenyon, who was overpowered by the stench. According to the New York World, "he was dragged out and carried upstairs, and for two hours acted like one demented."


Following the excavation, and the discovery and cataloging of Holmes’ potential victims, the "Murder Castle" (as it came to be called) sat empty for several months. Not surprisingly, it drew onlookers and curiosity-seekers from all over the city. The newspapers were not yet filled with stories and illustrations about Holmes’ devious crimes but rumors had quickly spread about what had been discovered there. The people of Chicago were stunned that such things could take place -- and in their glorious city! The people of the Englewood neighborhood watched the sightseers with a combination of fear and loathing, sickened over the terrible things that brought the crowds to their streets.


Then, on August 19, the Castle burned to the ground. Three explosions thundered through the neighborhood just after midnight and minutes later, a blaze erupted from the abandoned structure. In less than an hour, the roof had caved in and the walls began to collapse in onto themselves. A gas can was discovered among the smoldering ruins and rumors argued back and forth between an accomplice of Holmes’ burning down the house to hide his role in the horror and the arson being committed by an outraged neighbor. The mystery was never solved, but regardless, the Castle was gone for good.


As time passed though, many would claim that the horrific memories here would linger.


The lot where the Castle was located remained empty for many years until finally, a U.S. Post Office was built on the site in 1938. There would be many in the area who had not forgotten the stories of Holmes’ castle -- or the tales from people who claimed to hear moaning and crying sounds coming from the grounds. This had been a common tale in the community for years and there were those who stated that the ghosts of Holmes’ victims did not rest in peace. The ground here was believed to be tainted by the death and bloodshed that had occurred on the spot and the overgrown lot was largely shunned and avoided. Most longtime residents would go out of their way to walk on the other side of the street from the area.


Even after the post office was constructed on the site where so much torture and murder took place, strange things were still reported. Passersby who walked their dogs past the new building claimed the animals would often pull away from it, barking and whining at something they could see or sense. It was something that remained invisible to their human masters, but which was terrifyingly real to the animals.


In addition, postal workers in the building had their own encounters in the place, often telling of strange sounds and feelings they could not easily explain. The location was certainly ripe for a haunting and if the stories can be believed, it was, and is, taking place!


THE CURSE OF H.H. HOLMES

The trial of Herman Mudgett, a.k.a. H.H. Holmes, began in Philadelphia just before Halloween 1895. It only lasted for six days but was one of the most sensational of the century. The newspapers reported it in a lurid and sensational manner and besides the mysteries of the Castle to report on, which were reported at length by several witnesses, Holmes created many exciting scenes in the courtroom. He broke down and wept when Georgianna took the stand as a witness for the state and eventually discharged his attorneys and attempted to conduct his own defense. It was said that Holmes’ was actually outstanding, clever and shrewd as an attorney but it was to no avail. The jury deliberated for just two and half hours before returning a guilty verdict. Afterward, they reported that they had agreed on the verdict in just one minute but had remained out longer "for the sake of appearances".

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