What do you do on a Saturday that’s free when you have an interest in the dark side of humanity? You explore sites related to the closest city’s serial killers, of course. I spent a day in the Philadelphia area looking for sites that involved America’s first known serial killer, H.H. Holmes, “Corpse Collector” Harrison “Marty” Graham, and Gary Heidnik, who inspired part of the Buffalo Bill character in Silence of the Lambs.
Herman Webster Mudgett, better known as H.H. Holmes, is considered America’s first known serial killer. He is infamous for constructing the hotel of horrors nicknamed Murder Castle. While his quarters were inhabitable, that couldn’t be said for the rest of the building. The rooms were designed to torture and kill unsuspecting guests. To ensure no one knew his home’s secrets, Holmes frequently fired contractors at various stages of the construction process.
During the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, Holmes opened his hotel to visitors to the fair. Women and men alike were lured to the property, never suspecting the fate they would suffer.
So what is the Philadelphia connection? When Holmes wasn’t murdering people, he was scamming them. He traveled the country to carry out his schemes. While in Philadelphia, he and Chicago associate Benjamin Pitezel became involved in a life insurance scam. Not wanting to share the proceeds with Pitezel, Holmes killed him. Not satisfied with dispatching his associate, Holmes also murdered three of Pitezel’s children.
Although he had committed heinous crimes in Chicago, it was for Pitezel’s death in Philadelphia that he was arrested. Holmes was found guilty of murder in October 1895.
The killer appealed the verdict, but his conviction was upheld. Holmes was put to death by hanging on May 7, 1896 at Moyamensing Prison. Like his victims, Holmes suffered a lingering death. His neck didn’t snap immediately, delaying his demise approximately 15 to 20 minutes after his execution.
Holmes was buried on May 8, 1896 in Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, Pennsylvania.
An Acme supermarket now stands on the site of the former Moyamensing Prison, also known as the Philadelphia County Prison. It was built in 1835 and was razed in 1968. Part of the original wall can still be seen along the supermarket’s perimeter. As I touched the wall, I thought of all the lives that were lost at this location.
Following the prison site, we made our way to Holy Cross Cemetery in an attempt to find Holmes’s grave. The irony of his final resting place is that it is unmarked, buried 10 feet below the surface, and encased in concrete. The good doctor didn’t want the same fate he gave to his victims, some of whom were exhumed for medical purposes. With the coordinates provided by findagrave.com, the GPS device led us to the alleged location. You can read more about Holmes here, and also in the book The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson.
Next on our trip was the former home of Harrison “Marty” Graham, Philadelphia’s own corpse collector. The row home is a private residence today. Graham was a drug addict who lived in a third floor Philadelphia apartment. He killed seven women from the streets after luring them back to his home for drugs and sex. Considered a special needs individual by today’s standards, Graham stored the bodies in his apartment. His secret was kept until he was evicted due to the stench from his home. He nailed his bedroom door closed before he left. When he failed to return to retrieve property he said was behind the door, police intervened to make the gruesome discovery. Graham came forward, admitted his crimes, and received an unusual sentence of life behind bars, followed by six electrocutions, assuring that Graham will never be paroled. Since his incarceration he has become a minister. More on Marty Graham can be found here.
The last visit on our self-guided tour was a stop at the former site of Gary Heidnik’s house of horrors. Although I knew it’s now a vacant lot, I wanted to see the place where the crimes occurred. Not only does a gate stretch across the former site, but a large section of metal is behind that to block the view of curious onlookers. Beneath the gate on the right, a dog can be seen, his job to protect the site in all likelihood. Heidnik may be the most well known of Philadelphia’s notorious characters. He desired a large family, and went on to have 3 or 4 children with different mothers. A brief marriage to a mail order bride resulted in a son, but Heidnik only learned about the child after his wife left their unhealthy relationship. To fulfill his desire for more children, Heidnik intended to kidnap 10 women, each of whom would give him a child. His plan did not work out the way he intended. Instead of 10, he imprisoned 6 women in his basement. He killed two of them, which is not enough to be considered a serial killer. (The FBI classification is at least three murders). Nonetheless, his crimes were barbaric. Heidnik was sentenced to die and the Commonwealth carried out his execution by lethal injection on July 6, 1999. You can read more about Heidnik here, and also in the book Cellar of Horror: The Story of Gary Heidnik by Ken Englade.
My excursion touched on three killers in Philadelphia’s history. There were more, one still alive and out of prison, but sites related to their crimes are long torn down. Their depraved acts remind us that human monsters can be as frightening as anything created by Hollywood.