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The most notorious serial killer in Chicago history, H.H. Holmes, was also a notorious con artist—so much in fact that rumors swirled at the time of his hanging that he actually conned his way out of the death penalty and escaped to South America. Now, officials in Philadelphia and descendants of Holmes are hoping to put that longstanding speculation to rest, by digging up the killer’s body from his final resting place.
Analysts in Philadelphia last week began the process of exhuming Holmes from the Holy Cross Cemetery plot where he was buried, back in 1896. The exhumation comes at the request of Holmes’ great-grandchildren John and Richard Mudgett, according to NBC Chicago. The descendants were granted their petition by a Pennsylvania court, and they hope that DNA tests will settle once and for all the identity of the body.
Holmes was the mastermind of the so-called “murder castle,” where he lured and killed victims at the same time that Hyde Park was staging the 1893 World’s Fair, as told in Erik Larson’s ubiquitous Chicago fave The Devil in the White City. While the exact number of Holmes’ victims remains a mystery—nine were confirmed at the time; Holmes claimed nearly 30; lore pushes the figure up to around 200—the case was a major tabloid sensation at the time. Some papers fed that mania with the escape angle.
“This was quite a popular story at the time,” Philadelphia author Matt Lake told NBC. “A cynical person might say this was just designed to sell more newspapers, and it did sell newspapers!”
The DNA examination will be handled by the Anthropology Department of the University of Pennsylvania, according to NBC. We assume Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio will be paying attention, too—although that long-touted, as-yet-unrealized big-screen Devil adaptation is starting to feel a bit like a yellow-journalism rumor itself.
See also: A History Of Chicago’s Murder Castle