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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Poison Doc
Herman Webster Mudgett,
America’s first serial killer

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
In 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.

After her 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 Europe.

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.

Meanwhile, 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 the property.

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.

The 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.”

The 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 from Dallas.

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 companies.

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.

Answering 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.

When “Holmes” 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.
© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" Columns September 23, 2004

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