Wednesday, June 23, 2021

On trail of serial killer, a Civil War explosion and grub in Philly

Dr. H.H. Holmes, a serial killer whose real name was Herman Webster Mudgett, was executed
 in 1896 at Moyamensing Prison in Philadelphia, across the street from the site of a deadly
 explosion in a munitions factory in 1862.

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Sometimes the pursuit of history takes you to strange places, such as the South Philly neighborhood where a corner pub stands on the site of one of the Civil War's deadliest munitions factory explosions, a serial killer was executed in a prison, chickens get the ax, and a famous fast-food joint provides around-the-clock service. 


There's a lot to unpack there, so let's start with those birds and forget most of the rest of that opening sentence, which probably horrifies my high school English teacher anyway. Mrs. B and Philadelphia Daughter B, who accompanied me on this history excursion, were aghast when they heard the last clucks of chickens at a live poultry market on 9th Street. Perhaps they'll be comforted that they are not alone in their disgust: Online reviews of Shun Da Market range from horrible ("I can't stand to walk by that place") to the really, really horrible ("smells like shit.") 

While my wife and daughter absorbed City of Brotherly Love ambience, I explored the 'hood, a working-class area of Italians, recent immigrants from Central America, hardcore liberals and Republicans, row houses, and narrow side streets with lots of potholes. "Rugged elegance," a resident who provided a scouting report told me. 

This ballfield, dedicated in memory of a prominent South Philadelphia physician, was built
on the grounds of a former cemetery. Are bodies still there?

On 10th Street, a ballfield dedicated in memory of a local physician occupies ground that once was a section of a massive cemetery where thousands were buried. Most of the bodies -- including those of Civil War vets -- were disinterred and re-buried elsewhere in the 1940s. But the contractor who did the grisly work wasn't exactly diligent, so there's no telling what might be under third base or the pitcher's mound.

But what really caught my eye was a historical marker at the corner of Passyunk and Reed streets denoting the site of Moyamensing Prison"H.H. Holmes, considered America's first serial killer, was executed here," a line reads on the tablet. The castle-like prison, opened in 1835, was razed in 1968, eventually replaced with an Acme and a large parking lot. 

A 1901 image of Moyamensing Prison, razed in 1968.
 (Philadelphia Prison Society)
Now I didn't have the heart to tell shoppers in the supermarket's cereal aisle that a serial killer was executed near stacks of Frosty Flakes, Cheerios, and Lucky Charms. But I was determined to find out more about Mr. Holmes, better known as Dr. Henry Howard Holmes and sometimes by his real name, Herman Webster Mudgett.

Let's just say you wouldn't want this resume on LinkedIn:

In the 1890s, Holmes left a trail of dead, mainly young women, from Chicago and Toronto to Philadelphia and who-knows-where-else. Besides being a murderer, he was a con artist, liar, horse thief, employee of the State Lunatic Asylum at Norristown (Pa.), graduate of the University of Michigan's Department of Medicine and Surgery (Go Blue!), subject of dozens of lawsuits, and a trigamist, which I had to look up in the dictionary. (Holmes was fond of marriage, often to many women at the same time, which is illegal unless you are the star of Sister Wives.)

Dr. H.H. Holmes' "Murder Castle" in Chicago.
(The Holmes-Pitezel Case:  A History of the Greatest Crime
 of the Century and of the Search for
 the Missing Pitezel Children,
In Chicago, where he apparently commited most of his murders, Holmes owned an apartment building, later dubbed the "Murder Castle." The place reportedly had soundproofed rooms, mazes of hallways, and chutes in which Holmes dropped victims into a basement, where he had acid vats, quicklime, and a crematorium. Fake news? Perhaps. There's no doubt, though, that the bad doctor's murder spree ended in Boston in November 1894, when he was captured by Pinkertons.

After a trial and conviction for the murder of his business partner in Philly, Holmes was hanged at Moyamensing Prison on May 7, 1896, nine days before his 35th birthday. "Take your time,"  he told the hangman, "you know I'm in no hurry." The hangman was not expert at his craft -- it took 15 minutes to strangle Holmes, who calmly met his fate. "Cool to the End," the New York Times proclaimed. (Obligatory last meal note: Probably because the cheese steak had yet to be created, Holmes dined on boiled eggs, dry toast, and coffee. Bleh. What a way to go, especially if the cup of Joe wasn't the hazelnut from Panera.) 

"That Holmes was a criminal, such as the world has ever seen, cannot be questioned," the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote the day after the Michigan grad's demise. "It is known of him that he was many times a murderer, a villain, that he lived by plunder and was the most accomplished liar that ever walked the face of the earth."

Naturally, this story gets even weirder. Apparently fearful his body might be stolen and dissected, Holmes requested -- and somehow was granted -- burial 10 feet in the ground in a pine coffin encased in concrete. In 2017, amid allegations Holmes had escaped execution, his body was exhumed for testing -- which reminds me of those weird Lee Harvey Oswald conspiracy theories. Holmes, whose mustache was discovered well preserved but body was goo, was positively identified by his teeth. (Imagine being the dentist of a serial killer.)

An artist's impression in Frank Leslie's Illustrated of ruins of a Philadelphia munitions factory after explosions on March 29, 1862. (House Divided: The Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College)

A cropped enlargement of an 1862 lithograph shows the grim aftermath of the munitions factory explosion in Philadelphia. (Artist John L. Magee | Library Company of Philadelphia)

An approximate view of the scene in the lithograph above.

Dazed by the serial killer historical marker -- and a mesmerizing Flyers mascot painted on the wall of the Triangle Tavern -- I wandered through the narrow side streets. Holmes' execution was far from the only macabre event in this neighborhood. 

I was mesmerized by the Flyers' mascot.
On March 29, 1862, gunpowder and cartridges ignited in Professor Samuel Jackson's fireworks-turned-munitions factory on 10th Street. Many of the 78 factory workers, mostly women and girls, never had a chance to escape the explosion and conflagration. Eighteen employees died -- including Jackson's 23-year-old son. Dozens of survivors suffered from burns or other injuries in the war's first munitions factory accident that involved a major loss of life. 

"Heads, legs and arms were hurled through the air, and in some instances were picked up hundreds of feet from the scene." the Inquirer reported. "Portions of flesh, brains, limbs, entrails, etc. were found in the yards of houses, on roofs and in the adjacent streets." A "whole human head, afterwards recognized as that of John Mehaffey, was found in an open lot" against the wall of Moyamensing Prison, a New York Herald reporter observed.

A policeman filled a barrel with human remains, and a man told an Inquirer reporter that he saw a boy going home with a human head in his basket. The lad said it was his father's. Blown across the street into a prison wall by the blast, Mary Jane Curtin -- the superintendent of children at the factory -- somehow escaped physical injury.

The Philadelphia Inquirer provided
extensive coverage of the deadly
munitions factory explosion.
While Mrs. B and Daughter B dined on wings in the Triangle Tavern -- built on the site of Jackson's doomed factory -- I asked a waitress there if she knew anything about the catastrophe. No, she told me, but the place had a "weird, vacant bar" vibe before it became Triangle Tavern. No historical tablet marks the site of this deadly tragedy, an omission someone must rectify.

Someone also must rectify the long lines at Pat's King of Steaks, a fixture in the South Philly neighborhood since 1930. The joint at 9th and Wharton, near where those chickens are decapitated, sure has the tourist schtick down pat (sorry), with T-shirts ($25), hats ($30), and sweatshirts ($35) available for the masses. I stuck with food, ordering a cheese steak with sweet peppers ($14) that was out of my comfort zone. 

Yes, sometimes chasing history can be bizarre. Sometimes it can give you heartburn, too.

Pat's King of Steaks, where I got a great cheese steak sandwich with sweet peppers.

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? Email me here.

  • New York Herald, March 31, April 1, 1862.
  • New York Times, May 7, 1896.
  • Philadelphia Inquirer, March 31, April 1, April 5, April 7, April 12, May 2, 1862, May 8, 1896.
  • Philadelphia Times, May 8, 1896.

1 comment:

  1. Good one John,

    As usual, an excellent way to start my day.

    Now, about that "cheese steak"... :)