The father lay in the ditch, hands bound in front of him, face savagely bludgeoned. A gruesome sight, but even veteran cops were not prepared for what they saw when they lifted him up: the body of an infant, dressed in a red-and-white pinafore. The baby had been tossed into the ditch alive. She had suffocated when her father's body was pushed on top of her.
The man's wife and another daughter were missing for two years. After they were found nearly a hundred miles away, it was clear that the killer's motive was sexual. The father and the baby were quickly discarded. The real prize had been the wife. Her body bore a silk stocking knotted around the neck in an odd-looking harness and her knees were bruised. Police believed she had been ordered to perform a sexual act and had refused, so her killer used a collar to make her do what he wanted. She appeared to have been bludgeoned and hanged, and her little daughter had been beaten to death.
This area had been linked to an earlier murder with one suspect, but he had passed a polygraph exam. He was intelligent, educated, mild-mannered, and self-assured.
As this case grew more complicated, with more murders linked to a single predator, the emerging motive baffled even the most experienced detectives.
(A 69-page True Crime Short with photographs) H. H. Holmes was a central character in Erik Larson’s hugely successful The Devil in the White City, which is planned as a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Holmes is commonly viewed as a real-life Hannibal Lecter, a devious and cunning serial killer. Holmes used the persona of a successful doctor and entrepreneur to draw untold numbers of young women to his three-story Chicago hotel to experiment on before killing them. He would often deflesh the corpses to sell the skeletons to medical schools.
Holmes enjoyed trying out methods of murder and watching his victims die. Scientists from his era believed Holmes’ brain would unlock the secret of his perversity, but he denied them the chance to find out. Today, neuroscience allows us to unlock the brains of sadistic psychopaths, so we can better understand what his brain – if dissected – would have revealed. We can research killers to decode Holmes’s vile behavior.
"After the girls died, he’d enjoy viewing ‘their blackened and distorted faces’ before he dug a shallow grave, removed their clothing, and dumped them into it with ‘fiendish delight.’ Holmes considered that ‘for eight years before their deaths I had been almost as much a father to them as though they had been my own children.’
"It is precisely this behavior that most puzzles the ordinary person and draws the researcher’s attention: how can a man torture and asphyxiate children, or burn them and view it as entertainment? How can he ‘befriend’ them for years, knowing the whole time that he will end their lives? How can he describe it as pleasurable? This is the reason the psychopath holds our fascination. It’s why researchers even during Holmes’s era tried extracting criminal brains post-mortem for study. They hoped to locate the seat of disturbed moral consciousness."
He was a handsome and charismatic local minister; she was the church choir’s beautiful soprano soloist. In 1922 they were found together, brutally murdered, along a secluded lane in New Brunswick, New Jersey—a popular spot for lovers’ trysts. Each of the victims was married—to someone else. And although the police believed this would be an easy case to crack, it became one of the most high-profile unsolved crimes of the decade.
At first, the primary suspects seemed obvious—the betrayed wife and husband of the slain lovers. The minister’s wife was one of the town’s wealthiest and most socially prominent citizens; the soprano’s husband was a man of modest means, working as the church sexton. But as the investigation progressed, new suspects were uncovered and key eyewitness testimony was found to be false—deepening the mystery surrounding the murders.
Combining elements of adultery, wealth and social prominence, revenge, a long and colorful list of suspects, and conflicting political agendas, this case dominated New York newspaper coverage in its time. It was said to have played a part in inspiring F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel The Great Gatsby. And today, it remains an intriguing mystery—inspiring continued debate.
Dr. Katherine Ramsland outlines the major and more obscure theories regarding the killer’s identity in fascinating detail—and uncovers compelling new evidence that has yet to be considered in investigations.
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