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Analysing the Devil in the White City

H.H. Holmes was a serial killer made famous by Erik Larson’s gripping The Devil in the White City. In Chicago’s gilded age Holmes preyed on gullible young women and their families, running insurance scams to become rich. Some say he was London’s infamous Ripper to boot. Finally captured in 1895, Holmes (born Herman Webster Mudgett) admitted to 27 murders (but he may have committed as many as 200) and was executed in 1896 and buried in a cement coffin (to deter grave robbers) in an unmarked grave in Holy Cross cemetery, Yeardon, outside Philadelphia.

I had read the book, which meant that when Penn anthropology professor, Janet Monge, and her colleague Dr. Sam Cox told me about Holmes over breakfast my ears pricked up. Janet has a wonderful record of forensic anthropology (her Skype address describes herself as ‘crazy as a loon’), spanning decades pursuing cutting-edge research stories from early hominids to the present day. But her story about Holmes is something else.

Sam Cox and Janet Monge at breakfast at Ant’s Pants diner

A television production company started the story, now being screened as American Ripper. They approached Holmes’s descendent who, knowing of Janet’s work on an Irish community that perished at Pennsylvania’s Duffy’s Cut, thought she might help. A judge gave the go-ahead to exhume the body, then Sam organized and directed remote sensing to locate the concrete tomb. Radar failed but resistivity worked and this led to ten days of stratigraphic digging, all filmed.

Holmes who was executed by hanging was found in an intact suit jacket and waistcoat but no pants. Sam and Janet cleaned him up and C-scanned and X-rayed him. On the cards too is a 3-D reconstruction to see how this 36-year old with muscles resembles the misty Wikipedia photographs of the killer. Scientific publications are set to follow.

Why do this, many ask? Is it just showmanship? The answer as the History Channel film shows is to put together all the facts about this venal but fascinating chapter of American history. In the end, as Janet says with characteristic passion, people are people and their bodies are as intriguing scientifically as their deeds.

The judge ordered the re-burial of the exhumed body and, following the physical examination, this was completed this week. The story, though, is certain to run and run… (see

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