Guess What Researchers Found When They Dug Up H. H. Holmes’ Grave?

So, hey, remember back in May when we learned that the body of serial killer H. H. Holmes was going to be exhumed? Well, we know what the researchers found now… sort of. There’s still work to be done, but here’s the update — and for the curious, the short version is this: Yes, there was actually a coffin in H. H. Holmes’ grave.

(EDIT 9/1: Here’s the update!)

More than one, in fact. According to NBC News Chicago, archaeologists at the University of Pennsylvania found two things when they dug up his plot at Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, Penn: A fake pine box — and then, further below, a cement sarcophagus.

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The contents of the grave are consistent with rumors that Holmes requested his coffin be encased in cement and buried 10 feet deep after his execution, which occurred on May 7, 1896; word on the street is that he was terrified of his remains being stolen after his death and sold to an anatomy school for dissection (which, honestly, is a bit rich coming from someone who built and ran a literal murder castle — but, y’know, whatever). I find the fake coffin particularly interesting; the working theory is that it was a decoy — which, again, would be consistent with the rumors about how Holmes wanted his remains dealt with. If you were going to have your body buried 10 feet under in order to thwart grave robbers, it’s a logical — if paranoid — next step to include a decoy at the standard six-foot mark, too.

The cement coffin has been cracked open, and there was a male skeleton inside; however, we don’t know conclusively whether it’s Holmes or not yet. Anthropologists at UPenn are reportedly still testing the remains, with results pending. Said Jeff Mudgett, Holmes’ great-great-grandson (Holmes’ real name was Herman Webster Mudgett), about the discovery to NBC, “Chills went up and down my spine. To see that skeleton and that skull with the brain still inside, which is a phenomenon that scientists still have not explained… scared the heck out of me.”

I’m… honestly not sure what to make of that comment about the skull with the brain still inside. I didn’t think that was even possible — that a brain belonging to a dead body could somehow still be preserved inside the skull 120 years after the fact — but, well… maybe it has something to do with being encased in cement? I can’t wait until the UPenn researchers put together an explanation for that one.

The exhumation occurred at the behest of Holmes’ descendants; indeed, Jeff Mudgett has actually been involved in the whole thing in service of a theory he’s got: That Holmes was also Jack the Ripper. Mudgett is currently hosting a series on The History Channel, American Ripper, aimed at exploring the theory. I’ll admit that I’m not at all convinced by it; I don’t really think there’s any strong evidence to support that Holmes and the Ripper are one in the same, and whatever evidence there is — mostly the fact that they were operational at about the same time — is purely circumstantial. I’m also not super fond of the fact that from what I gather, American Ripper seems to be about making the evidence fit the theory, rather than about looking at the evidence as it stands and seeing what it tells you — that is, the creators kind of went into the whole thing aiming to prove that Holmes was the Ripper. Going into an investigation with preconceived notions about what you’re going to find is a surefire way to end up with an awful lot of confirmation bias affecting your results.

Either way, though, it’s still weirdly fascinating. Even though there’s only so much centuries-old remains can tell us, I’ll be interested to see what the tests reveal. Stay tuned for more!

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[Photo via Wikimedia Commons]

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2 thoughts on “Guess What Researchers Found When They Dug Up H. H. Holmes’ Grave?

  1. Yo, just found your blog today, and I’m really enjoying it.

    On the preservation of remains-a well embalmed modern body can last about a hundred years with minimal rot, and if Holmes was preserved using the extra strong (and toxic) preservatives common to the 19th century, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to hear that his brain tissue survived intact.

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