The Black Sheep of Michigan Med—circa 1882
I had read quite a bit of history about my alma mater, the University of Michigan Medical School, before encountering two of it’s most ‘famous’ students, both from the class of 1882. Eventually I learned of them not from institutional histories but in the pages of two engaging books by Erik Larson: The Devil in the White City and Thunderstruck. Each doctor in turn was found out and hung as one of the most notorious murderers of a generation.
In homage to Mr. Larson, let’s weave together two tales—of the doctors–turned–killer and of the medical school that would have them heal the sick. In The Devil in the White City H. H. Holmes’ deadly trap is hidden in the bustle of a young Chicago proudly hosting the Columbian Exposition. In Thunderstruck, H. H. Crippen’s fate is sealed by the development of wireless telegraphy.
“Hail! Hail! to Michigan”
The Medical School at the University Michigan, in Ann Arbor, is one of the oldest in the country. Founded in 1850, it was the source of many of the faculty recruited by Johns Hopkins when it started up 40 years later. Michigan pioneered the university–owned hospital, allowing students the bedside experience not otherwise available. It created the first department of pharmacology in the US and eventually trained or hired a half-dozen winners of the Nobel Prize in Medicine.
Our protagonists were at the medical school during a time of high confidence. The curriculum was doubled to four years and plans were underway to construct two new hospitals, one homeopathic and the other allopathic. Medical developments in Europe were stimulating: Virchow had established the cellular basis of disease, Koch had just discovered the tubercle bacillus and Pasteur the vaccines for anthrax and rabies. Anesthetic surgery was in practice and medical X-rays only a few years away.
While Holmes and Crippen were there, traversing the campus in suit and tie, with Morgan Dollars and Mercury Dimes in their pockets, the world news was about electric lighting in New York City, and the great comet of 1882, news they may have shared with their classmate William James Mayo, the older of the Mayo brothers. Chester Arthur was President, having succeeded James Garfield, who was assassinated the previous year.
But 1882 also brought the start of the country’s third–worse depression, and the death of Charles J. Guiteau. Guiteau had assassinated President Garfield, and so was hanged—a fate that awaited both Holmes and Crippen.
Holmes. Dispassionate killer.
Dr. Henry Howard Holmes was the first of the two to swing at the end of a rope. Herman Webster Mudgett, aka Henry Howard Holmes, was the middle child of Methodist farmers from New Hampshire. Born in 1861, there is no evidence of childhood experiences that might have engendered a serial killer, let alone the con artist and bigamist that he became. When he finished medical school in 1884 his wife, a victim of his abuse, took their child and disappeared back to New Hampshire. Now unencumbered he pursued a life of fraud and two additional bigamist marriages before settling in Chicago.
In Chicago Holmes took up work at an apothecary owned by another Michigan Med alum, Dr. Holton. He bought the store and moved across the street at So. Wallace Ave. and W. 63rd St. in Englewood, IL. There he built a three story mixed use structure with secret passages and rooms, later to be known as the “Murder Castle”. The story arc of a serial killer was being drawn on a tableau of a city excited to host a world’s fair, the one that introduced the Ferris Wheel and the White City, named after to exhibition of electric lighting that culminated to great AC vs DC distribution war between Edison and Westinghouse-Tesla. It was a magnet for young women looking for employment, and excitement. Some of them met a gruesome death, being confined in a large metal cylinder and dispatched at the will and sadistic whim ofDr. Holmes, beginning perhaps with his mistress and her daughter. Another victim was a co-conspirator in insurance fraud, Mr Pitzel. Holmes drugged him with chloroform and used benzene to torch his body and claimed a payout, tricked Mrs. Pitzel into letting some of her children travel with him. He murdered them too.
Eventually he was tracked to Boston by The Pinkertons and arrested for stealing horses in Texas. By then, there was enough evidence to convict him of murder. His paid-for confession to the Hearst newspaper was filled with lies about murder he didn’t commit. The tabloids of the time had him at 200 murders in all. Regardless, his self-assessment in the end was “…I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing — I was born with the 'Evil One' standing as my sponsor beside the bed where I was ushered into the world, and he has been with me since."
Crippen. Crime of passion.
Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen was a homeopath. A Michigan native, he attended the homeopathy school at the University of Michigan but finished his training in Cleveland in 1884. His first wife, Charlotte, died of a stroke eight years later. He then moved to New York and two years after that married his second wife, Cora—the one who later turned up missing.
His medical career went amiss. When he moved to London, he was not allowed to practice medicine, so he continued selling homeopathic drugs. The rest of the story is worthy of a soap opera. Cora was a loose woman and aspiring actress. Crippens’ response to one of her affairs, with one of their lodgers, was to take a mistress, Ethel, whom he met while managing an institution for the deaf, at which he worked because he got fired from his drug promotor job for spending too much time managing Cora’s stage career.
His wife, Cora, was last seen at a party at their home. Crippen said she had moved to California, upped and died there, and was cremated. Ethel moved in with him and much enjoyed Cora’s wardrobe as her own.
Following interrogation by the police, Hawley and Ethel were no longer under suspicion, but thought they were. So they took flight on an ocean liner headed for Canada. This telltale sign of mens rea, guilty mind, caused Scotland Yard to do four more house searches, finally uncovering a body buried in the basement, one with an abdominal scar consistent with Cora’s surgical history.
Here’s where the speed of light and a faster boat come in. The eagle-eyed Captain of their ship recognized them, despite Crippen’s new beard and Ethel’s disguise as a boy. From sea, the Captain telegraphed the Detective, who immediately booked passage on a faster, White Star, vessel. Detective Dew intercepted their ship in the St. Lawrence River. Posing as a pilot, he brought himself into handcuffing distance and arrested the couple before they could arrive in Quebec and make a getaway.
The trial relied on the scar evidence and the fact that the body had been poisoned with hyoscine, a drug which Crippen had purchased. The presence in the burial site of blond hair (Cora’s) and a pajama top (Crippen’s), sealed the verdict. In his coffin is a picture of Ethel.
The lesson for those in medical school is this: you never know who that person sitting next to you will turn out to be. In my case, I had no idea that my classmate, Ben Carson, would become an expert on urban housing—true story.