Historicist: H.H. Holmes in Toronto

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Historicist: H.H. Holmes in Toronto

The search for—and discovery of—two of H.H. Holmes's victims in Toronto.

The Toronto News, July 16, 1895.

On the evening of July 10, 1895, Detective Frank Geyer invited reporters from Toronto’s major newspapers to his hotel room at the Rossin House. Geyer explained that he had been in Toronto for three days, trying to track down what happened to two missing girls who were last known to be in the custody of a man known as H.H. Holmes, who was now being held in Philadelphia. Working with local Toronto police detective Alf Cuddy, Geyer now believed that Holmes had rented a property in Toronto the previous October. Initial enquiries had yet to reveal the location of this property, and they were now calling on the local press to appeal to the public for help.

This unusual press conference would yield quick results. A few days later the remains of the two girls were discovered in the basement of a downtown house, and it soon emerged that Holmes had been committing undetected murders for years, with his total number of victims falling anywhere between nine and 200.

H.H. Holmes is most remembered to history as a serial killer who operated in Chicago in the 1890s, particularly during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, when it is believed that he murdered numerous guests and employees who stayed in a commercial property he owned and lived in. Holmes first drew headlines, however, for a convoluted insurance fraud he orchestrated in 1894, which resulted in him travelling across the northern United States, and eventually to Toronto.

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(Right: Benjamin Pitezel. Frank P. Geyer, The Holmes-Pitezel Case. Publisher’s Union, 1896: Philadelphia.)

The fraud was to involve Holmes and one of his longtime associates, Benjamin Pitezel. Back in Chicago, Pitezel had performed various tasks for Holmes—often of an illegal nature—while Holmes cultivated a charming exterior, running a pharmacy and operating a custom-built commercial building known locally as the “Castle.” In late 1893, Holmes and Pitezel arranged for a $10,000 insurance policy on Pitezel’s life. Their scheme called for a corpse to be acquired and disfigured so that investigators would wrongly believe it to be Pitezel; Holmes would help identify the body and the two would split the ensuing insurance payout. Pitezel’s wife Carrie was made aware of the scam, as was Jeptha Howe, a lawyer suggested to Holmes by Marion Hedgepeth, a career criminal who Holmes had met a few months earlier while briefly incarcerated for another fraud. The plan went into action in Philadelphia in September of 1894, but with one important change: rather than substituting a corpse, Holmes actually killed Pitezel.

The insurance company required a positive identification of the body before agreeing to pay out. Carrie Pitezel had her hands full with her children at home in St. Louis and was unable to travel to Philadelphia; in her stead she sent her second-oldest daughter, 15-year-old Alice. Alice was met on route to Philadelphia by Holmes, and with assistance of Jeptha Howe they viewed the body and made a positive identification. Rather than taking Alice home to her family, however, Holmes embarked upon a complicated and sometimes incomprehensible series of movements.

H.H. Holmes. Frank P. Geyer, The Holmes-Pitezel Case. Publisher’s Union, 1896: Philadelphia.

Holmes persuaded Carrie Pitezel that the fraud had been successful and that her husband was still alive but travelling from city to city, so as not to attract suspicion. He also told her that Benjamin Pitezel was desperate to see his family; thus he kept Alice and also collected two more of the Pitezel children—11-year-old Nellie and 8-year-old Howard—taking all three to Cincinnati and registering in a hotel under a false name. Simultaneously, Carrie and her remaining two children, evidently at the insistence of Holmes, left their home in St. Louis for Galva, Illinois.

Following brief stays in Cincinnati and Indianapolis, Holmes took the children to Detroit, this time summoning Carrie and the other Pitezel children. To make matters more complicated, he was simultaneously travelling with Georgiana Yoke, a woman he had married earlier in the year. Now juggling three groups of people, each oblivious to the others’ whereabouts, he then moved everyone from Detroit to Toronto.

Although the insurance company had some initial suspicions, they had eventually paid out and appeared to consider the matter closed until October, when they received a letter from Holmes’s former cellmate, Marion Hedgepeth. Holmes had shared his plans with Hedgepeth, and Hedgepeth had expected a $500 fee for having referred him to Jeptha Howe. Not only had he not received this fee, but Hedgepeth now claimed to believe, following discussion with Howe, that Holmes had in fact actually killed Pitezel. Insurance investigators began trying to follow Holmes’s movements, eventually calling in the services of the Pinkerton detectives, who eventually caught up with and apprehended Holmes in Boston on November 17.

The Toronto World, July 16, 1895.

The investigators’ initial concern centred on the insurance fraud, but in examining available evidence the police grew increasingly convinced that the body in Philadelphia was indeed that of Benjamin Pitezel. Also vexing was that Holmes was alone by the time of his arrest, and investigators—along with Carrie—were anxious to find Alice, Nellie, and Howard, who seemed to have disappeared. Holmes claimed that they were safe and in the custody of a confederate, although investigators quickly grew to doubt the numerous contradictory confessions that he provided. Thus, in late June of 1895, Detective Frank Geyer set out from Philadelphia to retrace Holmes’s movements in the hopes of finding the three missing children.

In his search, Geyer was able to rely on information provided to him by Carrie Pitezel, as well as some unmailed letters home written by Alice and Nellie which had been found in Holmes’s possession. Amongst other details, these letters indicated that Howard was no longer with Holmes and the girls by the time the group had reached Toronto on October 19. Unable to determine Howard’s whereabouts, however, Geyer temporarily suspended his search for Howard in favour of conducting investigations in Toronto.

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Geyer arrived in Toronto on the morning of July 8, 1895. His first stop in Toronto was police headquarters on Court Street, where he met with an old friend, Detective Alf Cuddy. In an account of the investigation written a year later, Geyer indicates that he had worked successfully with Cuddy on previous business in Toronto. After the local police were brought up to speed, Cuddy was formally assigned to help Geyer at Geyer’s request, and together they began visiting downtown hotels to determine Holmes’s precise stops in the city.

(Left: Detective Frank Geyer. Frank P. Geyer, The Holmes-Pitezel Case. Publisher’s Union, 1896: Philadelphia.)

They first identified the Walker House, at Front and York, as the hotel where Holmes had checked in (under an assumed name) with his wife, Georgiana. Carrie Pitezel and her two children were found to have stayed at the Union House on Simcoe Street. Following enquiries at several other hotels, Alice and Nellie were eventually traced to the Albion, located on the east side of Jarvis, between King and Front. Realizing that both groups of Pitezels had stayed in Toronto for several days after Holmes checked out of the Walker House, Geyer continued asking at Toronto hotels until he was able to place Holmes and Georgiana at the Palmer House and King and York for the remaining days. As in Detroit, all the parties were in Toronto simultaneously, in relatively close proximity, with only Holmes knowing where everybody was. In fact, as David Franke notes in his book The Torture Doctor, Holmes’s wife was not only unaware that Holmes was simultaneously travelling with the Pitezel family, but “she was totally unaware even of their existence.”

The Albion Hotel on Jarvis St., where Holmes kept Alice and Nellie Pitezel, as seen circa 1873. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

Writing to his superintendent at this point in the investigation, Geyer stated, “It is my impression that Holmes rented a house in Toronto the same as he did in Cincinnati and Detroit, Michigan, and that on the 25th of October he murdered the girls and disposed of their bodies by either burying them in the cellar, or some convenient place, or burning them in the heater.” To confirm this theory, Geyer and the Toronto police consulted all of the real estate agents listed in the City Directory, but found this process cumbersome; every agent needed to be told the long, complicated story of Holmes and the Pitezel girls, which used up valuable time. Thus, Geyer called his press conference at the Rossin House, to give the reporters “my views of the case and explain to them my theories, so that the matter would be brought before the public, and the story of the disappearance of the children read in every household of the city.”

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All the major dailies ran the story the next day with considerable verve. Typical of the coverage is that of the Toronto World, which wrote that Geyer “is a good type of the genial American detective” and that “his visit here has to do with the most sensational story of substitution, murder, and fraud upon insurance companies ever brought to light.” When Geyer and Cuddy resumed visiting real estate offices the next morning, they found their work much quicker, but were still without a result.

(Right: H.H. Holmes, The Toronto World, July 13, 1895)

The search extended to suburban districts; reports indicated that they called at Parkdale, the Junction, and Mimico. Several false leads were called in. One man recalled renting a house to a man named Holmes at the corner of Bloor and Perth, then considered a relatively remote location. Geyer visited the house and, after explaining his reason for visiting, was informed of some freshly dug earth that the new occupants had noted. After digging a hole four feet square, however, nothing was found; the police followed up by showing a photo of Holmes to the real estate agent, who admitted it was not the man who had rented the house.

On the morning of July 15—his 10th day in Toronto—Geyer was met by Cuddy, who informed him of a promising lead from a private renter. A man matching Holmes’s description was recalled to have rented the house at 16 St. Vincent Street. St. Vincent was later incorporated into Bay Street, and the house sat on the west side, between Grenville and Grosvenor. Geyer described it as “a quaint little two-story cottage of an old and simple style of architecture. It stands back a few feet from the sidewalk… A veranda tastefully decorates with a clinging clematis, adds much to the home-like appearance of the place.”

16 St. Vincent Street. Frank P. Geyer, The Holmes-Pitezel Case. Publisher’s Union, 1896: Philadelphia.

Geyer and Cuddy called on the tipster, an elderly Scottish man named Thomas Ryves, who lived next door at number 18. Ryves immediately recognized a photo of Alice Pitezel, although couldn’t positively identify Nellie or Holmes himself. He recalled that they had come with very little furniture—an old bed, a mattress, and one large trunk—and that, shortly before leaving, Holmes had asked to borrow a spade, purportedly to dig in the basement to create a storage space for potatoes.

Hoping they had at last found their house, the police called on the property’s owner, a Mrs. Christiana Nudel of 54 Henry Street. After Mrs. Nudel identified Holmes as the man she had rented the house to, the police returned to St. Vincent Street and called again on Thomas Ryves. “Requesting him to loan us a shovel,” Geyer wrote, “he went into [his] house and came out with the same spade he had loaned to Holmes.” They then called at 16 St. Vincent, where Mrs. Armbrust, the current occupant, led them to the kitchen, where a trapdoor led to the small cellar. After Mrs. Armbrust provided some lamps, the detectives descended.

The location of 16 St. Vincent Street as seen on the 1899 Goad fire insurance map.

“The deeper we dug,” Geyer wrote, “the more horrible the odor became, and when we reached the depth of three feet, we discovered what appeared to be the bone of the forearm of a human being.” The detectives paused and summoned a local undertaker, B.D. Humphrey of Yonge Street, to assist with the exhumations. Humphrey worked side by side with the detectives, and sent for two coffins to be delivered to the house. By the time the bodies were removed, the news of the discovery had spread, and the house was surrounded by reporters. Toronto dailies rarely included photographs in 1895, but several newspapers sent sketch artists to supply images for the next day’s editions. Geyer recalled that “everybody seemed pleased with our success, and congratulations, mingled with expressions of horror over the discovery were heard everywhere.”

Local coverage of the discovery was sensational, with each paper dedicating several columns to the story. The Globe wrote that Toronto journalists had “never before had to chronicle so atrocious and cold-blooded a crime as was brought to light yesterday morning.” In the Telegram‘s estimation, Holmes had been proven “a fiend incarnate.” The News described the find as “the turning point in the career of one of the most remarkable and cold-blooded criminals which this or any other age had produced, and it is at the same time an admirable proof of the saying that murder will out.” Praise was also heaped on the work put in by Geyer and Cuddy.

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As the bodies had decomposed significantly, Geyer sought more information to aid in a positive identification. To this end, Mrs. Armbrust had found some partially burnt clothing she had found stuffed into the chimney that matched the clothes worn by the girls. The detectives also tracked down the family who had occupied the house after Holmes, one of whom was able to supply a wooden toy which was on the inventory of possessions that the children were known to have with them.

(Left: The shovel used to both bury and excavate Alice and Nellie Pitezel’s graves. Frank P. Geyer, The Holmes-Pitezel Case. Publisher’s Union, 1896: Philadelphia.)

On the morning of July 16, a coroner’s inquest began at the city morgue, then located at Frederick and the Esplanade. Following a viewing of the bodies and Geyer’s reiteration of the case, the jury was adjourned until Carrie Pitezel could come and identify the bodies.

When she arrived on the evening of July 18, the train station was swarming with reporters; the case was by now attracting attention across the continent, and Toronto journalists had been tipped to her arrival by their Chicago counterparts, whom Carrie had talked to before departing. “I had a difficult task to make my way through the crowd to reach her,” wrote Geyer, “but as quickly as possible I placed her in a carriage and took her to the Rossin House, where I had made arrangements to have her placed in a room opposite my own, and I requested that no one disturbed her.”

The Toronto News, July 16, 1895.

Carrie Pitezel was visibly upset, and the next day great pains were taken to try to minimize the trauma of showing her the remains of her children. Brandy and smelling salts were brought in case she needed to be revived. According to Geyer, the staff at the morgue “had removed the putrid flesh from the skull of Alice; the teeth had been nicely cleaned and the bodies covered in canvas… The hair of both children had been carefully washed and laid on the canvas sheet next to Alice… In an instant she recognized the teeth and hair as that of her daughter, Alice.” Although Geyer was prepared to wait, Carrie Pitezel agreed to provide testimony at the inquest at police headquarters later that evening. There, she recounted the entire story of her connection with Holmes and identified the bodies in the morgue as her daughters until, in the words of the News, “she was led to the matron’s room where she became hysterical. Her screams were heard all over the building and continued at intervals until the close of the session.”

After Carrie’s identification, the remains of Alice and Nellie were buried in St. James Cemetery. The next day, Geyer was sent to Detroit by the district attorney to resume the search for Howard. It would be another month before Howard’s remains were found in a suburb of Indianapolis.

The Toronto News, July 17, 1895.

Following news of the discovery of the bodies in Toronto, police in Chicago opted to take a closer look at Holmes’s “Castle.” Examination of the building began on July 19, and police were bewildered by what they found.

Holmes had paid for its construction on bad credit, frequently firing crews without paying them, or waiting for them to resign when they failed to receive compensation. As a result, only Holmes knew the building’s true design, and while the ground floor seemed normal enough, the hallways upstairs were something of a dimly-lit maze. Some bedrooms were normal; others lacked windows and had doors that were airtight. A gas jet fed directly into a walk-in vault. The basement featured a large furnace.

Very soon police began finding human remains in the “Castle,” along with personal effects belonging to a variety of disappeared persons connected with Holmes over the past few years. Newspapers across the continent began to speculate wildly as to just how many people Holmes had actually killed. While many Toronto newspapers expressed a desire for Holmes to be tried in Toronto, a grand jury in Philadelphia voted to indict Holmes first, for the murder of Benjamin Pitezel.

The Evening Telegram, July 16, 1895.

With the trial set to begin on October 28, Geyer returned to Toronto a few weeks earlier to collect witnesses. He needn’t have bothered. The judge chose to bar any witnesses not directly relevant to the initial crime, limiting testimony to that directly concerned with the Philadelphia murder. Holmes was convicted, and after an appeal was refused, he was executed by hanging on May 7, 1896.

Holmes’s “Castle” in Chicago burned to the ground under mysterious circumstances before he even went to trial. The house at 16 St. Vincent Street remained standing until April 1902, when it collapsed while undergoing repairs. Numerous Toronto newspapers reported on the building’s unexpected demise and noted its association with the Holmes case, which was still relatively fresh in the public mind. According to the Star, “the cottage crashed forward, and was torn and twisted asunder. It is remarkable that no one was injured, for Mrs. White and the children were sitting at supper when the collapse occurred.”


Additional material from: David Franke, The Torture Doctor (Hawthorn, 1975: New York); Detective Frank P. Geyer, The Holmes-Pitezel Case: A History of the Greatest Crime of the Century and the Search for the Missing Pitezel Children (Publisher’s Union, 1896: Philadelphia); The Globe (July 12, July 16, July 18, July 19, July 20, July 26, July 27, July 31, August 1, August 2, October 15, 1895; March 5, April 13, May 8, 1896; April 30, 1902; April 8, 1942) Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (Vintage, 2003: New York); The Mail and Empire (July 12, July 13, July 15, July 17, July 18, July 20, July 23, July 25, July 27, 1895); The Toronto News (July 11, July 13, July 15, July 16, July 17, July 18, July 19, July 20, July 22, July 25, July 26, 1895); Harold Schechter, Depraved: The Shocking True Story of America’s First Serial Killer (Pocket Books, 1994: New York); The Toronto Star (July 11, July 15, July 16, July 17, July 18, July 19, July 20, July 23, July 25, August 7, October 10, October 14, October 28, October 29, 1895; April 15, 1896; January 13, 1898; April 30, 1902; August 3, 1980; March 16, 2003; October 9, 2010); The Evening Telegram (July 11, July 12, July 16, July 17, July 18, July 19, July 20, July 22, July 23, 1895; April 30, 1902); The Toronto World (July 10, July 11, July 12, July 13, July 16, July 17, July 18, July 19, July 20, July 22, July 23, July 24, July 25, July 26, July 27, July 29, 1895).


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