Man examines link between serial killer and Jack the Ripper

More than 100 Ripper suspects have been suggested since the infamous 1888 murders

By Kristin E. Holmes
The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Mark Potts has been a history buff since his grandfather entertained him decades ago with tales of the Titanic.

But in recent years, the Berks County resident’s fascination has expanded from simply absorbing the history to researching it — and maybe even changing it. At least when it comes to one of the nation’s most infamous serial killers.

Two years ago, Potts reached out to Jeff Mudgett, a Las Vegas lawyer and great-great-grandson of the man known as H.H. Holmes, who killed at least 27 people — possibly many more — before he was hanged in a Philadelphia prison in 1896.

Potts had been fascinated by the Holmes case, and Mudgett had written a book on his ancestor. Now the two hope to prove a new theory — that Holmes may also have been London’s most infamous killer, Jack the Ripper.

“The opportunity to rewrite history is exciting,” Mudgett said.

Others challenge the theory. But the interest in Holmes — and a Philadelphia case that riveted the country more than a century ago — is not unique.

Earlier this month, actor Leonardo DiCaprio and director Martin Scorsese signed a new deal in a years-long effort to produce a film about Holmes — born Herman Webster Mudgett — and his stunning end in Philadelphia. The coming season of American Horror Story on FX is rumored to be inspired by the so-called murder hotel Holmes built in Chicago.

Both projects are Hollywood’s interpretations of the case of the medical-school graduate who may have killed as many as 200 people.

“Holmes is the prototype of the modern-day urban serial killer who uses the anonymity of the city to further his pursuit of victims and cover up his crimes,” said Erik
Larson, author of “The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America,” an award-winning 2003 book and the basis for the DiCaprio/Scorsese project.

The case has long fascinated Potts, a Pennsylvania Turnpike worker, and Mudgett, who discovered the familial connection 20 years ago after his grandmother hired a genealogist. (”She thought we were related to Gen. Robert E. Lee,” Mudgett said.)

Holmes’ murderous past has been well-chronicled.

He was working at a Chicago pharmacy in the early 1890s when he purchased the business along with a vacant lot across the street. There he built the hotel now known as “The Murder Castle.” Just blocks from the site of the 1893 World’s Fair, it was like something out of a Vincent Price movie.

Holmes equipped it with secret tunnels and staircases, gas chambers, a lynching parlor, a stretching rack, and rooms with blowtorches on the walls.

“A psychopath with no remorse or guilt,” Mudgett said of his ancestor.

Holmes killed mostly young women who came to work for him or to stay at the hotel. He took out insurance policies on them before they died.

But in the years before Holmes opened his hotel, Potts and Mudgett say, there was a period for which Holmes’ whereabouts were unaccounted: the fall of 1888, when five prostitutes were found murdered on the streets of London’s East End.

Potts said he began linking the two after seeing similarities between the police sketch of the Ripper and photos of Holmes, especially the bumpy nose, heavily lidded eyes, and handlebar mustache.

“I’m just a guy who sees the situation, matches things up, and gets into the people, places, and legends,” said Potts, 54, a former councilman in Mohnton Borough, Pa.
He enlisted a British handwriting expert to compare Mudgett’s script with letters said to have been written by the Ripper to London media. The test came back a match, according to a letter from the analyst. A New York firm analyzed the samples via a computer and also confirmed a match.

And, they say, Holmes once told a lawyer that he had visited London.

“There are 13 eyewitness testimonies of what (Jack the Ripper) looked like. Scotland Yard and the BBC released a composite in 2006,” said Mudgett, who has espoused the theory in talks around the country. “It certainly looks like H.H. Holmes.”

Potts and Mudgett, whose book about his ancestor is called “Bloodstains,” may well have to get in line. More than 100 Ripper suspects have been suggested in the 127 years since those murders - at least two in new books this year.

The men argue that Holmes deserves as much consideration as the others.

Larson says he looked into the possibility, but the “chronologies don’t check out.”

Filmmaker John Borowski, who produced the documentary H.H. Holmes: America’s First Serial Killer and later compiled a book about the killer, says there is no proof Holmes traveled overseas.

“People cite the proof that he told his attorney he was in London, but there are Londons everywhere, and he never said England,” said Borowski, citing a London, Canada, near the site of one of Holmes’ murders.

By 1894, Holmes had left Chicago and landed in Philadelphia. He opened a phony patent office on Callowhill Street near 13th with accomplice Benjamin Pitezel. (Holmes had lived in the area briefly in 1886 when he worked at what is now Norristown State Hospital and later in a drugstore on Cecil B. Moore Avenue.)

Holmes and Pitezel planned that Pitezel would pose as an inventor. He would fake his death and the two men would split the insurance money. Instead, Holmes killed Pitezel at the Callowhill office and later murdered three of Pitezel’s children.

Holmes was captured in Boston in 1894 and returned to Philadelphia for trial. Police subsequently searched his hotel in Chicago and found human remains.

In 1895, Holmes was convicted of murdering Pitezel. He confessed to killing 26 others. “I have every attribute of a degenerate — a moral idiot,” Holmes wrote in a confession published in The Inquirer.

At age 34, he was hanged at the former Moyamensing Prison. He asked to be buried in cement to foil potential grave robbers; he lies in an unmarked grave in Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon.

Mudgett, 58, visited the grave last year and will be traveling to the area Oct. 30 to argue his case during a mock grand jury presentation at a retirement community in Glen Mills.

“For the people who disagree,” he said, “I say provide the evidence and I’ll look at it - and I’d ask them to do the same for me.”