Did serial killer H. H. Holmes fake his own death?

Biological anthropologists solve a century-old mystery.

H.H. Holmes Penn Museum
The grave of late 19th century serial killer H. H. Holmes was recently exhumed to determine if he faked his own death. Holmes was buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, Delaware County. Photo by Penn Museum

Rumors have swirled around H. H. Holmes, the serial killer who operated in the shadow of Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair. Targeting women who had come to the city to work, Holmes, whose story was a major plotline of Eric Larson’s New York Times best-selling book “Devil in the White City” and whose given name was Herman Webster Mudgett, is believed to have killed somewhere between nine and 200 people.

H.H. Holmes
Serial killer H. H. Holmes is believed to have murdered between nine and 200 people in Chicago in 1893. For his crimes, he was hanged in 1896 in Philadelphia.

Recently, biological anthropologists from the Penn Museum have helped resolve a lingering question about Holmes that has persisted since 1896: his final resting place.

Refuting lore that he had faked his own death and escaped to South America—or even to England, where some have speculated that he became the infamous killer Jack the Ripper—the results of scientific analysis leave little to doubt.

“We are very, very confident that the person in that grave is Herman W. Mudgett,” says Samantha Cox, a consulting scholar at the Penn Museum who worked firsthand on recovering and identifying the remains from Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, Delaware County.

Cox and Janet Monge, curator-in-charge of the Physical Anthropology Collection at the Penn Museum, were called in to assist with the identification of the remains after Jeff Mudgett, the great-great-grandson of Holmes, won a judge’s permission to have the grave exhumed. A television production company working for the HISTORY program “American Ripper,” which is about Holmes, hired the Penn Museum scholars to contribute their expertise for the excavation.

The process of exhuming the century-old grave was not simple. According to newspaper reports from the time of his burial, Holmes’ grave was extra large, 10 feet deep, and encased in concrete, to deter looters.

Eight feet down, the team found a well-preserved wooden box. But all it contained were a few pieces of scrap wood.

H.H. Holmes Penn Museum
A television production company working for the HISTORY program “American Ripper,” which is about Holmes, hired Penn Museum scholars to contribute their expertise for the excavation. Photo by Penn Museum

“We were tearing our hair out at that point,” Cox says. “It was the last day we had budgeted for digging. But of course it’s a running joke among archaeologists that our best finds are on the last day.”

With a few more hours of daylight left, the team decided to proceed with the exploration of the gravesite and began probing beneath the bottom of the false coffin. Before long, they found the lid of a second box.

Samantha Cox
Samantha Cox, a consulting scholar at the Penn Museum, worked firsthand on recovering and identifying the remains. Photo by Penn Museum

“I was the only one in the muddy hole at that point, and was staring at the top of the box,” says Cox. “I looked and realized I could make out the words ‘H. H. Holmes’ and ‘Herman W. Mudgett.’”

This was the true coffin, and it was indeed encased in concrete. Workers used hand tools to painstakingly chip away at the layers, finally exposing mostly decomposed human remains, still clad in a waistcoat, leather boots, and a bowler hat.

“He still had his mustache,” Cox says.

The task of confirming Holmes’ identity was multi-faceted. A tissue sample was sent to Kings College in England, where a laboratory specializing in testing ancient DNA confirmed that the remains belonged to a relative of Jeff Mudgett. Cox and Monge’s analysis of the skeleton found its features to be consistent with a male in his 30s of European descent, a description that matched Holmes.

But the smoking gun came thanks to a Journal of American Medical Association report with detailed information from Holmes’ prison medical exam, including photos of dental casts.

With assistance from the School of Dental Medicine’s Martin Levin, the chair of Dean’s Council, Cox and Monge learned that the gold-foil dental fillings in the remains were very refined and would have belonged to a wealthy individual—again, a description that matched Holmes. What’s more, the skull in the grave possessed just one molar tooth, mirroring the medical exam report.

Before Holmes' remains were reinterred, Cox and Monge ensured that they collected as much data from them as possible, including taking a CT scan of his skull in collaboration with the Perelman School of Medicine’s Department of Radiology.

“We’re going to have a 3-D print made of the cranium,” Monge says.

Cox says that despite the muddy, roller-coaster exhumation process, the dig was a satisfying one, personally and scientifically.

“Our main purpose in doing this was to provide answers to the family about their ancestor,” she says.

H.H. Holmes Penn Museum
Holmes was buried with a silver cross on top of his body, engraved with his alias and the date of his death, May 7, 1896. Photo by Penn Museum

Originally published on .