America’s first serial killer
by Mike Cox
a later time, Minnie R. Williams would have been called a “Dallas girl.” She grew
up in Big D, received a quality education at Boston’s Conservatory of Elocution
and she had money. |
The money came following the death of the kindly
rich uncle who had taken her in as an orphan. Minnie inherited his estate, including
some real estate in Fort Worth appraised at nearly $50,000.
out-of-state schooling, Minnie lived in Dallas with her sister Nannie (who had
been raised by another uncle) before deciding to return to Boston for additional
studies. While there, she met a good looking fellow named Harry Gordon. In addition
to being handsome, he was smart. And, like Minnie, he had money – or at least
said he did.
Smitten from the start, Minnie soon signed letters to her
sister as Mrs. Harry Gordon. The newlyweds moved to Chicago in March 1893.
Later that spring, Minnie wrote Nannie and asked her to come to Chicago to
see the world’s fair then under way. The sister arrived in June. In early July,
Nannie wrote her aunt that she, Minnie and her new brother-in-law planned to visit
That letter, written July 4, 1893, was the last time anyone ever
heard from either of the two sisters. Later that summer, their relatives engaged
the famous Pinkerton Detective Agency to find the two young women.
an affable Midwesterner got off the train in Fort Worth to handle a little financial
business. At the Tarrant County Clerk’s office he filed a deed signed over to
him by his wife, Minnie Williams Gordon, preparatory to making improvements to
Gordon soon hired a contractor to build an expensive three-story
stone and frame building on the lot. With construction still under way, Gordon
borrowed $20,000, using his real estate and the planned improvements as collateral.
But Gordon seemed to have trouble making the loan payments. Before long, he borrowed
something else – someone’s horse – and “consolidated” his debt by riding that
horse out of state with most of the bank’s $20,000 in his pocket.
Pinkerton men on the case succeeded in unraveling it, tracing Gordon to Boston.
When Bean Town police arrested him on Nov. 17, 1894, he confessed to scamming
folks in Texas. But he did not confess all at first. When he lived in Chicago,
he said, “I fell in with a typewriter girl [Minnie] and furnished a house on the
outskirts of the city, where we lived together. A younger sister came to visit
us and the woman [Minnie] grew so jealous … that in a quarrel one day she struck
her over the head with a stool and killed her. To save the woman with whom I was
living [Minnie], I put the body in a trunk, loaded it with stones, and sunk it
in the lake.”
Gordon went on to claim that he sent Minnie abroad, but
not before she had conveyed to him her Texas real estate. To save the property
from creditors, he continued, he and a fellow named Benjamin F. Pitezel “formed
[a] scheme to swindle the Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance Company.”
details of that scheme have no direct Texas connection, but its resolution brought
at least some measure of satisfaction for the family and friends of the two sisters
Harry Gordon, it turned out, was one of several aliases
employed by one Herman Webster Mudgett. Born and raised in Gilmanton, NH, Mudgett
came from a prominent family. Smart, good-looking and charismatic, he enrolled
in medical school with a bright future ahead of him. But his formal education
ended when he got caught stealing dead bodies in an effort to scam life insurance
America being the land of opportunity, in 1889 Mudgett moved
to Chicago for a fresh start. He changed his name to Henry Howard Holmes and began
looking for a situation suitable for a man of his talents.
a newspaper ad placed by a drugstore owner seeking to hire a pharmacist, Mudgett
found the proprietor to be terminally ill. The pharmacist’s wife had been trying
to keep the business going, but she needed help. Mudgett got the job, the owner
died, and Mudgett bought the business from the widow.
got behind on his payments in 1890, the late pharmacist’s wife threatened to sue.
Shortly thereafter, she disappeared. With no one around to pressure him about
debt, Mudgett in 1892 built an ornate three-story house, with his pharmacy on
the first floor.
The pharmacist’s widow probably was the first of at
least 27 people, possibly hundreds, killed by Mudgett. Most of his victims, including
the Williams sisters, died in his house, a residence the Chicago press later started
calling the Murder Castle.
Mudgett traded on his looks and charm to
lure young women to his house, which he advertised as a “hotel” for single women.
Then he used his medical training to poison or gas his victims, dismembering their
bodies and disposing of them chemically or by burning them. Whatever his motives,
sexual gratification or larceny or both, he earned the distinction of becoming
America’s first serial killer.
And he never managed to break his habit
of scamming insurance companies. His partner in that was the man he had mentioned
in his confession, Pitezel. Mudgett had killed him in Pittsburg, the crime that
finally sent him to the gallows at Pennsylvania’s Moyamensing Prison on May 7,
1896 – nine days after his 36th birthday.