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Descending from Evil: The Story of Herman Webster Mudgett

On the surface Herman Webster Mudgett seemed to be a productive member of society. Born and raised in the small state of New Hampshire, Herman turned his fascination with the human body into a career when he graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School in 1884. Wealthy, well-educated and refined, the young doctor moved to Chicago where he became the owner of a drugstore, and eventually opened a hotel. Women were drawn to the handsome, finely-dressed and charismatic businessman.

He was a total lady-killer.

The 60-room hotel loomed over the Englewood suburb of Chicago, opening its doors shortly before the 1893 World’s Fair. Beneath the cover of a successful entrepreneur, Herman Webster Mudgett - better known as H.H. Holmes - designed the hotel with one thing in mind: murder. During construction, Holmes used several different contractors so that none of them would catch on to his monstrous plans. The hotel, or “Murder Castle,” came complete with stairways to nowhere, windowless rooms fitted with gas lines and body chutes used to drop his sedated victims down to the basement level.

Once in the underbelly of the castle, victims were subjected to real-life horrors that would make Dexter’s “Dark Passenger” sit up and take notice. The basement came complete with vats of acid, lime pits, an oven and a surgical table. It was here that Dr. H.H. Holmes, the living-breathing monster - worse than anything Hollywood could ever imagine - dissected his victims, selling their organs and skeletons to medical schools across the country.

Located just two miles away from the World’s Fair, H.H. Holmes had a steady flow of female victims to choose from and many times he profited off of more than just their bodies. It was while studying at the University of Michigan Medical School that he also became proficient in the art of insurance fraud. Holmes would regularly steal cadavers from the school, taking insurance policies out on the deceased. He would then disfigure the bodies to claim they had been killed in an accident so he could collect on the insurance. Later, with his living victims, Holmes would befriend and manipulate them into signing over power of attorney. Shortly after, the trusting victims would wake to find themselves in the basement of Holmes’ castle.

Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, America’s first serial killer, was eventually caught and hanged for his crimes on May 7, 1896, at Moyamensing prison in Philadelphia. Convicted of murder, he admitted to killing 27 people, but was believed to be guilty of up to 200 murders. Holmes was laid to rest in an unmarked grave, encased in 10 feet of cement at nearby Holy Cross Cemetery. After months of dominating newspaper headlines and redefining the nightmares of their readers, Herman Webster Mudgett was left to be forgotten.

Although H.H. Holmes has been dead and buried for over a century, his genes live on. At the end of his life, he was married to three different women and had an unknown number of mistresses and children.

When we set out looking to uncover the history of our families, most are excited and motivated by the thought of finding connections to war heroes, presidents, the Mayflower or even royalty. However, what we don’t consider is the fact we may unearth skeletons our family has been trying to keep hidden for generations.

This was the reality for Jeff Mudgett, author of “Bloodstains” and second great grandson of Herman Webster Mudgett. At the age of 40, Jeff learned of the monster he descends from, and it left him questioning everything he thought he knew about himself and his family. The new information forever changed him, propelling him down a new path in search of the truth.

However, diving into Holmes’ life only led him down a darker path; a path that could potentially solve the mystery of Jack the Ripper. In 2006, using 13 eyewitness accounts from 1888, Scotland Yard and the BBC had a computer composite made of the Ripper, and the similarities to Holmes are shocking. Along with the composite, Jeff had H.H. Holmes’ handwriting compared to the infamous Jack the Ripper letter. One expert, recommended by the British Library, concluded both were written by the “same hand,” while a computer program used by the Postal Service and Department of Justice stated it was a 97.95% match.

Jeff is currently investigating whether Holmes was in London during the Ripper, but in the mean time, the composite and handwriting samples can be viewed on his site at www.bloodstainsthebook.com. Could these two men be the same monster? Judge for yourself.

If you were faced with the reality of descending from a man like Holmes, how would you handle the information? Would you share it with your family or throw the skeleton back into the closet you found it in? History holds just as many villains as it does heroes, so would you have the guts to claim yours as publicly as Jeff has in his book?

If you want to learn more about H.H. Holmes, and hear how his descendants have coped with this, check out my new video blog “Claiming Your Villain” where Jeff Mudgett helps me tackle a question I often receive: “Are some family secrets better off forgotten?” He will also share how he’s grown from this experience, and gives others advice on how to handle their own dark discoveries.

Watch the interview with Jeff here:

By Kris Williams Twitter: KrisWilliams81

Ask Ancestry Anne: Is Wilson really George’s Father?

Question:  I have found a possible connection to my great-grandfather, George W. Coulter (1857-1926) who died in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  I have a lot of information that seems to link him to a man named Wilson George Coulter (1827-1881), who I believe, is his father.

I don’t have specific linking documentation, just a LOT of situations where they are found in the same locations at the same time. The suspected father of my ancestor traveled due to his being a preacher, and my great-grandfather is found in many of the same areas. For example, according to his death certificate, George was born in an obscure town, which is where the preacher was stationed at that time. My George had a child born in Lancaster, which is where the preacher died. Plus, a George Coulter with same occupation as mine is in the city directory for Lancaster on same street as preacher’s son, Peter Henry Coulter.  It seems extremely unlikely that this is a mere coincidence. Should I add this to my tree even though I don’t have them living together. I am 99.9% sure they are family.

— Cynthia Coulter Marcinik

Answer: Short answer: No. 

Let me first commend you for digging deep to find everything you can and then recognizing that you still don’t have anything that states outright that George W. is the son of Wilson George Coulter.

But what you are doing is using an excellent tactic for making that connection when you can’t find document proof — you’re looking for friends, neighbors and other relatives, all of whom could help you make a strong case that you’ve found the right person.

Let’s look at what we know.

In 1880, George Coulter is living in Allegheny, Blair County, Pennsylvania.

Wilson George Coulter is living in Newport, Perry County, Pennsylvania in that same census.

In 1870, the same Wilson Coulter is living in Medford, Burlington County, New Jersey, and you’ll notice in 1870, there is a George living in the household. But unfortunately, in the 1850, 1860, and 1870 census the relationship is not stated.

In 1860, the same Wilson Coulter is living North Newton, Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, and again there is a George of the right age living with him. (This one is hard to read)

So where do you go next?

In the 1900 census, we are told that George Coulter and Minnie were married ca. 1878; it also tells us that he was born in April 1855.

Possible documents that might state the parent/child relationship:

  1. George’s marriage certificate, but you will need a location
  2. George’s birth certificate, again a location
  3. You state that Wilson dies in 1881.  It is likely there was a will or an estate settlement which would possibly include his children.
  4. When does Wilson’s wife, Mary die?  If it was after Wilson, she is likely to have a will or estate settlement.
  5. What churches did Wilson work for?  They may have directories that include George or state something about him.
  6. Do you have an obituary for George?  Maybe it names his mother or father or both.
  7. Another route would be research the other children of Wilson and Mary and see if a direct connection can be made.  Then you can possibly draw a connection between George and the sibling.

 I agree with that it is highly likely that Wilson is George’s father.  But likely is not proof, is it?  Keep searching, the answer is out there.

 — Ancestry Anne

Ask Ancestry Anne: Search Tip #7: Ancestry.com Wiki

When you are researching your ancestors it is important to understand where they came from and what records were collected.  One of the best places to start is the Ancestry.com wiki:

The wiki has the entire contents of both the The SourceandRed Book

Let’s say you find you have ancestors from Kentucky.  You can start on the Kentucky page, by going to state research and then scrolling down to the state in question.

Kentucky Family Research gives you an overview of the state and on the right hand side specific discussions of types of records:

Looking at Kentucky Vital Records will give you specific information about when birth, marriage and death records were recorded.

Clicking on the Kentucky County Records will give you the overview of the when the counties began, when they collected vitals and the address of the courthouse.

Understanding your state and county will help you understand what to look for.

Look for Search #8 : Message  Boards, or review: Search Tip #6: City Directories

Happy Searching!

Ancestry Anne

Ask Ancestry Anne: Search Tip #3 - Card Catalog

It’s easy enough to lose yourself in the Census and Vital records, but with 30,000+ data collections out there, you are most likely missing some great bits of information.

The Ancestry.com Card Catalog is a great place to start discovering those hidden treasures.

If you mouse over the Search tab in the header, you’ll see a list of options with Card Catalog at the bottom:

On the top left, you’ll find the Title and Keyword(s) search boxes.  Typing a word into the Title box searches just the title, which is what you will see in our listings. If you enter a word into the Keyword(s) box, we will search both the Title and the Description.  Note: You can use wildcards in your searches.  You might try using Passenger* to match both Passenger and Passengers.

Below the search boxes, you’ll see the filters.

You can filter by collection type, location, dates and language and you can use them in any combination.

If you choose North Carolina as a location, we will show you any data collection that includes records for North Carolina.  This is different than the listing on the North Carolina Place Page which lists data collections which have data ONLY about North Carolina.  A different way to slice and dice.

You can also sort data collections:

The sorts are:

  • Popularity: How often this collection is used by the Ancestry.com membership
  • Database Title: Alphabetical listing
  • Date Updated: the last day we added or changed the data collection
  • Date Added: the day we added this data collection to the list, most recent first
  • Record Count: the number of records in the data collection

So if I wanted to know what was most recently added for North Carolina, I would set my location filter to North Carolina and I would set the sort order to Date Added:

And to see the actual dates that data collections were added and updated I need to mouse over the title:

Look for Search Tip #4: Finding Local Histories, or review Search Tip #2 : Place Pages

Happy Searching!

Ancestry Anne