The Devil in the Queen City

“America’s First Serial Killer,” H.H. Holmes, had a two-day stay in Cincinnati.
The Devil in the Queen City
"America's First Serial Killer," H.H. Holmes, had a two-day stay in Cincinnati in the blocks that are now the Dalton Ave. Post Office.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese will be collaborating on their sixth movie together, an adaptation of Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City. The 2003 non-fiction book details the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and “America’s First Serial Killer” H.H. Holmes. Holmes ran the World’s Fair Hotel, a “castle” he designed specifically for murder that contained secret torture rooms and booby traps. He killed an estimated 20 to 200 people, with reports varying, but after the Fair ended he left Chicago with several schemes in mind. Insurance fraud ultimately got him caught, but while rambling across the country he made several stops—including a two-day stay in Cincinnati, Ohio.

In a Philadelphia jail he was interrogated by Frank Geyer, a Pinkerton detective. Holmes was suspected of killing three children, a boy and two girls, but claimed innocence. According to Larson in The Devil in the White City, Geyer “set out on his search on the evening of June 26, 1895” to retrace Holmes’s steps and arrived in Cincinnati the next day.

Geyer stayed at the Palace Hotel, “one of the city’s finest hotels” says Chris Smith, a reference librarian of genealogy and local history at the Cincinnati and Hamilton County Library, at the northwest corner of Sixth and Vine Street. The next day at police headquarters he was assigned a partner, Detective John Schnooks. Schnooks, an old friend of Geyer’s, “was a well-known police detective, with dozens of newspaper stories touting his crime-fighting prowess from 1882 to 1910,” explains former University of Cincinnati librarian and local historian Greg Hand.

Larson lays out their investigation over four tantalizing pages, detailing how they made a list of all the hotels in Cincinnati located near railroad stations and then set out, the summer day getting “hotter and hotter” as they traversed the city on foot. They stopped at two hotels Holmes and the children checked into on Friday, September 28, 1894 and Saturday, September 29, 1894: the Atlantic House on Central Avenue, where Hand says “beds went for 15 cents” (roughly $4 today) and the Bristol at Sixth and Vine that, when it was built 60 years before, was “then the center for all stage coach lines running into Cincinnati.”

Geyer turned up little from the hotel records but did know that Holmes liked to rent houses. Their next stop was the realty office of J.C. Thomas on East Third Street, a firm that, according to Hand, “did a fair amount of business involving large properties in Kentucky and in the northern suburbs of Cincinnati.” They discovered Holmes rented a house for two days at 305 Poplar Street in an older neighborhood described by Smith as “row houses, commercial activity and industrial grit mixed with established churches, schools, breweries, slaughter houses, stables and a plentiful supply of saloons.”

Thomas referred them to Henrietta Hill who lived next store at 303 Poplar. Hill, “an acute observer and a willing gossip,” says Larson, informed Geyer that she saw Holmes bringing a large iron stove into the house. This aroused suspicion and provoked Holmes to vacate the premises.

Geyer left Cincinnati for Indianapolis the next day. There he discovered the boy’s charred remains in a cottage chimney, and later found the two sisters’ bodies buried in a Toronto cellar. Holmes’s reign of terror had come to an end, and he was hanged on May 7, 1896 at the Philadelphia County Prison. But as Larson quotes Geyer in The Devil in the White City, his investigation in Cincinnati was when he had “taken firm hold of the end of the string” that finally closed the case.

Editor’s note: This post has been edited to correct location references (to reflect the street renumbering of 1896).

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