Saturday, December 10, 2011

The master of the murder castle: A classic of Chicago crime

There are some folks who believe this fellow was Jack the Ripper.
From Harpers, December, 1943
Viewed from the outside, the murder castle was simply a big ungainly building, one of the architectural monstrosities common in the nineties. But its interior, honeycombed with trap doors and secret passageways and walled-up rooms, was the fulfillment of every small boy’s dream of a haunted house.

If ever a house was haunted, that one on Chicago’s South Side should have been. To this day, fifty years later, nobody knows precisely how many persons were murdered in it. Estimates range from twenty to a couple of hundred. Most, if not all, were women. It is believed that they were chloroformed, gassed, strangled, or perhaps beaten to death. Their bodies were destroyed in cellar pits containing quicklime and acids. Some of their skeletons were sold by their efficient murderer, who was determined to realize every penny of profit from his crimes.

He deserves to rank with the great criminals of history. Crime writers reserve the word “monster” for top-notch murderers. A monster ranks above such lesser criminals as fiends, beasts, and phantoms. He must meet certain rigid requirements. His victims, killed over a period of years and not for money alone, must be numerous and preferably female, and he must do unusual things with their bodies; he must inhabit a gloomy, forbidding dwelling, and he should be of a scientific bent. The master of the murder castle possessed all these qualifications and more. Magnificent swindler, petty cheat, mass murderer, he was a man of nimble, tortuous mind. He pyramided fraud upon fraud. Young, good-looking, glib, he mesmerized business men and captivated and seduced pretty young women, at least two of whom he married bigamously. Physician, student of hypnotism, dabbler in the occult, gentleman of fashion, devious liar, skillful manipulator of amazingly complex enterprises, he died on the gallows when he was thirty-five, his crimes exposed accidentally by the vengeful suspicions of that most despised figure in crime, the police informer.

On September 4, 1894, a caller, thinking it strange that the door to the little office at 1316 Callowhill Street in Philadelphia should be locked, enlisted the aid of Policeman George Lewis of the Eighth District; he forced the door and found the body of a man who apparently had been the victim of an explosion. Burns disfigured the face and left arm. Near by lay a pipe, several matches, and a broken bottle which apparently had contained some inflammable fluid similar to benzine. A coroner’s physician thought the man had been dead three days.

Though decomposition and fire made positive identification difficult, the dead man apparently was B. F. Perry, the tenant of the office. In his pockets were letters, presumably from his wife, though the bottom portions, including the signatures, had been torn away; they indicated that Perry had come to Philadelphia recently from St. Louis and that his wife was still there but expected to join him shortly. Neighbors knew him only as that new inventor fellow; they thought he had been conducting experiments of some sort, but nobody had heard an explosion in his office during the past few days. A coroner’s jury decided that he had died of burns. His body lay unclaimed in the morgue for ten days, then was buried in potter’s field. And that was that.

A few days later the Fidelity Mutual Life Association of Philadelphia received a letter from St. Louis claiming that B. F. Perry was Benjamin F. Pitzel, whose life was insured by the company. To Philadelphia came a pair of professional men representing the widow: Dr. H. H. Holmes, her friend, and Jephtha Howe, her attorney. They brought with them the dead man’s daughter, Alice, about fourteen, and explained that Mrs. Pitzel had been too ill to come in person to establish identification. Holmes said that Pitzel’s distinguishing marks included a mole on the back of the neck, a broken nose, peculiarly spaced teeth, and a twisted fingernail which had been crushed by a child’s rocking chair. The body was exhumed. Holmes identified it calmly, Alice fearfully. It was removed to another cemetery. The $10,000 insurance money was paid to Holmes, acting in behalf of the widow and Pitzel’s five children. Presently Fidelity received a letter from Mrs. Pitzel expressing her gratitude that the claim had been paid so promptly; it was said that the company used the letter for promotion purposes....MORE