Saturday, October 24, 2009

Holmes on the Gallows

One of the more underwhelming features of Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City was his rather abrupt conclusion wherein he wrapped up several storylines in the space of one short chapter--and not much more room was devoted to Holmes' trial and death. This was disappointing for me.

I was very interested in the trial and hanging that Holmes was sentenced to during 1895-96 so I hit up the 19th Century U.S. Newspapers search in the online research database at the Daley Library. I narrowed my search to May 7, 1896--the day after Holmes was hanged at Moyamensing Prison in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (which was destroyed in 1968 I found) and was pleased with what I found including some very Capote-esque descriptions of Holmes' last hours. One article that ran in the Milwaukee Journal, for instance, provides the minute details that Mr. Larson didn't have space for.
Holmes spent the greater part of last night writing letters. At midnight he went to bed and slept soundly until 6 o'clock this morning. It took two calls to awaken him. Promptly arising, he received a visit, Fathers Daly and Macpeak of the Church of the Annunciation. They administered the last sacrament and did not leave him until nearly 9 o'clock. During their absence he ate a hearty breakfast. At 10:02 o'clock the sheriff called together the official jury and the march to the gallows was begun.
What's more important that I found is that Holmes, even at the very end, held fast to his innocence in the death of the Pitezel family and addressed those that came to witness his hanging. Erik Larson mentions none of this. Here is Holmes' speech just before he was hanged as recorded by the Milwaukee Journal:

Gentlemen--I have very few words to say. In fact, I would make no remarks at this time, except that by not speaking I would appear to acquiesce in my execution. I only wish to say that the extent of my wrong-doing in taking human life consisted in the death of two women, they having died at my hands as a result of criminal operations. I wish to state here, so there can be no chance of misunderstanding, that I am not guilty of taking the lives of any of the Pietzel family--the three children and Benjamin, the father, of whose death I was convicted, and for which I am today to be hanged. This is all I have to say.
True H.H. Holmes fashion. Also interesting to note is the discrepancies in the spelling of Larson's "Pitezel" and all the newspapers of the day which printed it as "Pietzel." Click on the uploaded image for the full article from the May 7, 1896 Milwaukee Journal.

1 comment:

  1. I really liked this blog post. It read like a smart review, not just a blurt of feeling. Well-stated. Though, you know, when I read something smart and argued, I start to hunger for more. Damn it! I am opposed to papers! But this made me see the value of a good, critical, paper. I think your stylistic comment about the abruptness of Larson's book was dead-on. Oddly, abrupt and elongated--the nattering at the end was filler. Or is felt like it to me. There was preciouslittle Holmes material available, and it showed in so many ways. Thge good part is Burnham is more intreresting; the bad part is that the title, after all, makes a great investment in "The Devil." Holmes sold the tickets. Holmes was "Saw 1893."

    Perhaps we should see Larson's struggles as heroic. As a fellow "non-fictionist," I can see how he manfully lifted the weight and tried to march with it.