Scientists were in for a few gory surprises when they exhumed the corpse of Dr. HH Holmes, a serial killer that confessed to killing 27 people.
Holmes was a sinister, shadowy figure in the late 19th century.
There have long been rumors that Holmes, whose real name was Herman Webster Mudgett, was able to somehow escape his execution. For about a hundred years, there has been a persistent rumor that Holmes bribed his way out of Moyamensing prison in Philadelphia on the day he was to be executed. The day was May 7, 1896, and since then, people haven't been quite sure that Holmes was indeed the man on the gallows.
Holmes requested that his grave be deep enough to be below the water table, as well as filled with cement. This didn't make for a prime condition in which to test DNA, which will be explained later, but scientists were able to find a way to identify the remains without having to rely on DNA evidence.
A portrait of Holmes taken in 1895, and the skull of the corpse exhumed from [Photo by Wikimedia Commons and Penn Museum]
According to the rumors, Holmes was able to escape to South America after bribing his way out of his own execution. Allegedly, two hours after the hanging, an undertaker's wagon rolled out of Moyansing prison bearing a casket that was supposed to bear Holmes's corpse. Instead, the rumors say, it bore the living Holmes, set to escape to South America. Fortunately for the general public, however, Holmes was indeed executed on May 7, 1896.
Holmes was born Herman Webster Mudgett in New Hampshire on May 16, 1861. During his stint as a horrific serial killer, he killed an unknown amount of people in a Chicago hotel during the 1893 World's Fair. This hotel was a maze of corridors, with trap doors, hidden gas vents, and a basement kiln that can fit an entire person. Holmes toyed with his victims before killing, dissecting, and skinning them. He was arrested in Boston on November 17, 1894, and was sentenced to death by hanging two years later. Since he was known as a con man, people were skeptical that he was indeed hanged.
Scientists, however, have now confirmed that the individual buried as HH Holmes was indeed him. His teeth were able to confirm his identity.
A view into the cemetery where Holmes was interred. [Photo by AP]
Holmes had living descendants, and they were the ones who greenlit the exhumation and testing of Holmes's remains. So if the serial killer had living relatives, why wasn't DNA testing possible?
As mentioned above, Holmes was buried in a deep grave under cement at his own request. His grave, as a result, was airless. Because of this, the 120-year-old corpse didn't decompose in the usual way that corpses that age do. However, it still did decay. According to the researchers, the mustache was still attached to the skull, and much of the clothes Holmes was buried in were still intact.
Forensic scientist Samantha Cox, one of the researchers at the exhumation, says that considering the state the corpse was in, it was impossible to extract DNA. Thus, they had to resort to using teeth to positively identify the remains. However, this confirms that HH Holmes did indeed die on the day of his execution, which means that he was no longer able to claim any more victims than he already had.
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