The news is filled with headlines about the exhumation of the notorious “devil in the white city,” H. H. Holmes. Did the wicked swindler and serial killer persuade someone to take his place on the gallows so he could escape? Did he purposely mislead his breathless audience about his changing appearance to ensure the scam? Supposedly his body, sealed in concrete in 1896, will yield the truth.
Holmes, whose real name was Herman Mudgett, is the subject of numerous books, several documentaries, and (reportedly) a forthcoming film. He inspired a season of American Horror Story. His great-great grandchildren, descended from an abandoned child with his first wife, want to know if he’s actually in his designated grave.
Let's set one record straight: Despite claims, Holmes is not America’s first serial killer, and not even the first to grab media attention. But he did receive sensational media scrutiny for his fiendish methods, especially his shocking “murder castle” in Chicago, and his execution of a former “business” partner and that man’s three kids. Unsubstantiated estimates of Holmes’ murders range from 12 to over 100.
Holmes shares this dig-‘em-up fascination in common with other infamous killers. In 2007, descendants of Belle Gunness’ sisters gave permission to an anthropology team to exhume the corpse that was removed from her burning house in 1908 and buried as Belle Sorenson Gunness. There were rumors that she had anticipated the imminent exposure of her fraud-and-murder schemes, so she'd replaced herself with another woman, torched her house, and boarded a train. The other woman's body was found in the ashes. Hence, the mystery. That exhumation was inconclusive, but efforts continue.
Then there was Jesse James, also rumored to have faked his death and escaped, living to an old age. The body buried on the James family farm had been exhumed in 1902 to move to Mount Olivet Cemetery in Kearny. In 1995, to set the record straight, a team of forensic scientists led by law professor James E. Starrs dug up the remains once more.
Some years back, I coauthored a book with Starrs, A Voice for the Dead, about his unusual hobby of exhumation as a fact-checking mission. I assisted on several exhumation teams. The first chapter opens with the exhumation of the five alleged victims of Alferd/Alfred Packer, the so-called Colorado Cannibal.
“I was drawn to exhumations by my concern that historians were making cases that couldn't be proved scientifically,” Starrs said. “If we can gain solid information with forensic tools that we didn’t know before, and even correct errors and remediate injustices, why not go for it?”
Why not, indeed!
Surprisingly, there can be plenty of resistance to revising history. In addition, some mysteries are hard to give up. Part of the fun of these tales is wondering if these tricksters really did con others so magnificently. It adds to their notoriety, whereas dying an ordinary death is a letdown. We like our heroes and antiheroes to show us skills that supremely clever human beings can achieve. If they’re con artists, then surely they’re capable of the ultimate scam. That’s exciting stuff. In a perverse way, it offers hope. If one of us can defy the inevitable, maybe more of us can.
Back to Jesse James. On April 3, 1882, a member of his gang, Robert Ford, reportedly shot him in the back of the head to collect the reward. James’ body was placed on display in St. Joseph, Missouri. His wife saw it. Still, stories quickly spread that James had faked his death. Some people even posed, post-assassination, as the “real” Jesse James.
So, what's the truth? Once everything is legally in place for an exhumation and family members are on board, the team leader selects participants from the necessary scientific specializations. In some cases, it's anthropology and archaeology. In this case, Starrs added geology, ballistics, biology, and odontology.
The exhumation at Mount Olivet Cemetery produced mostly degraded skeletal remains, but there were several intact teeth. The enamel of two molars had protected these teeth well enough for a comparison with the mitochondrial DNA from descendants of James’ mother. The results show with a high degree of probability that the remains in the grave of Jesse James are the remaining bits of the one and only Jesse James.
Good for history, bad for mystery.
So, as we await the results from the Holmes exhumation, we want to know… and some of us don’t want to know. With those people who command attention even a century after their deaths, we prefer their mystique. It keeps them alive as intriguing individuals. The mystery and quality of the ultimate con adds an alluring layer to their character. Even now, some people say that mtDNA is not absolute; Jesse James might have escaped.
Science might go only so far against emotional investments in a contrary outcome.
Starrs, J. E. (2005). A voice for the dead: A forensic investigator's pursuit of the truth in the grave. New York, NY: Berkley.