20 March 2018

Can a doctor be a mass murderer? Dr H.H.Holmes

In 1861 Herman Webster Mudgett was born to a respected New Hamp­sh­ire family. In childhood he was fascinated with skeletons and soon became obsessed with death. Mudgett changed his name to H.H Holmes and studied medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School.

While a student, Holmes stole cadavers from the labor­at­ory, disfig­ured them and then planted the bodies as if they were killed in accidents. His passion for death had started early in life but his criminal skills began in med­ical school; it was only then he collected on fake insurance policies.

Holmes was a very good medical student. In 1884 he passed his exams easily and in 1885 he moved to Chicago where he worked at a pharmacy as Dr Henry Holmes. When the owner of the business passed away, Holmes convinced the wid­ow to sell him the shop in 1887. Holmes hired the Conner family from Iowa to work in the shop and keep the books, and the widow was never seen again!

Holmes married a few times, often to more than one woman at the same time. Emeline Cigrand became Holmes' personal secretary but after acc­ept­ing Holmes' marriage proposal, Cigrand disappeared. Soon after, Holmes sold an articulated female skeleton to a nearby medical school. Holmes later confessed to locking Cigard in the vault, before raping and murdering her.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Knowing the World Fair was coming to Chicago, Holmes bought the un­d­eveloped land across the street, and began building his hotel at 63rd and South Wallace Sts Englewood. Construct­ion took two long years because Holmes was constant­ly changing labourers. By keeping turnover high, Holmes easily hid its layout from the world.

On the ground floor of Holmes’ three-storey Murder Castle, thousands of people enter the shops, some operated by Holmes and some leased to local mer­chants. They knew nothing of what was happening above.

The angled, nar­row corr­id­ors had poor light­ing. Most of the rooms were rigged with gas pipes connected to a con­trol panel in Holmes' closet. Stairways that led nowhere were interspersed with locked doors to which only Holmes had the key. And Holmes' personal off­ice contained a walk-in bank vault, leaving the victims to suff­ocate. There were trap doors, secret passage ways, hidden closets with sliding panels, peepholes, door­ways opening to brick walls, sound­proofed bedrooms that were either airtight and lined with asbestos-coated steel plates, false bat­tle­ments and wooden bay windows were covered in sheet iron.

Holmes' medical training paid off. The basement was designed for a good surgeon; it had a dissecting tab­le, surgeon's cabinet, stretching rack and crematory. Sometimes he would send the bodies down the greased chute, dissect them, strip them of the flesh and sell them as skeleton models to medical schools. Or he placed the bodies into pits of quicklime vats or burnt them in the furnaces. Charles Chappell was an artic­ul­ator i.e he could strip flesh from human bodies and reassemble the bones to form complete skeletons. Holmes paid Chappell to art­iculate a cadaver, then to sell the skeleton to a medical school.

When completed in 1891, Holm­es placed ads in news­papers offering hotel jobs for young women and ad­vert­ised the Castle for guests. He also placed ads presenting himself as a wealthy man look­ing for a wife. In May-October 1893 the Chicago World Fair was opened, to cele­brate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America. The event attracted millions of people from all over the world.

All of Holmes’ employees, hotel guests, fiancés and wives were req­uired to have life insurance policies. Holmes paid the premiums, as long as he was the beneficiary. Most of his fiancés, employees and guests suddenly disappeared, leaving Holmes to collect the insurance.

Holmes' Murder Castle in Chicago
Photo credit: Chicago Historical Society

Post-Wor­ld Fair Chicago’s economy slumped; so Holmes abandoned the Castle and focused on insurance scams, meanwhile comm­it­ting random murders. During this time, Holmes stole horses from Texas, shipped them to St Louis and sold them – making a fortune with accomplice Benjamin Pitezel. He was arrested and imprisoned.

While in gaol, he devised an insurance scam with cellmate Marion Hedgepeth. Holmes would take out a valuable insurance policy, fake his own death and provide Hedgepeth with $500 in exch­an­ge for a helpful lawyer. Holmes did try his plan but the in­surance company was suspicious and refused payment. Holmes then attempted a similar plan in Philadelphia, asking Pitezel to fake his own death. But Holmes killed Pitezel and collected the insurance anyhow!

In 1894 Hedgepath told police about Holmes’ scam. The police track­ed Holmes, arresting him in Boston for insur­ance fraud. Almost acc­id­entally, Chicago police investigated Hol­m­es’ Castle where they discovered his tortures and murders. The bodies they found were so badly dismembered and decomposed, the number was unclear.

How did the crisis get so far? Because of the World's Fair and lim­ited police procedure, missing persons had barely been invest­igat­ed. And more difficult still, Holmes' innate charm could smooth over any major worries that neighbours and families were pursuing.

While conducting their investigation in Toronto, police discovered the dead Pitezel children who had gone missing sometime during Holmes’ insurance fraud spree. Linking Holmes to their murd­ers, police arrested him and he then confessed to 28 other murders. Holmes' 6-day trial began in Philadelphia in late 1895. Throughout, he was charismatic to the day of his exec­ut­ion: May 1896. He was 36.

A man named AM Clark purchased the Murder Castle soon after the police investigation. Clark intended to capitalise on the Castle's notoriety and reopen it as a tourist attraction. However in August a watchman saw flames and explosions from the bedroom windows and the roof had collapsed. Only the first floor was salvaged and served as a bookshop until the Castle was sold in 1937. It was then pulled down.

After Holmes’ death, men who'd had dealings with Holmes came to violent ends. The last was Pat Quinlan, suspected acc­om­plice and former Murder Castle caretaker. In March 1914, Quinlan committed suicide via strychnine.

In the next post I will examine a similar mass murderer (in Britain), and draw some conclusions. 

17 March 2018

Princes St Synagogue Auckland, built in 1885 by architect Edward Bartley

The first Jewish settler in New Zealand was Joel Samuel Polack in 1831. Born in London to Dutch parents, he established a successful retail business and later branched out into shipping, mainly to Cal­ifornia. When New Zealand became a British colony in 1840, it was the perfect time for the Auckland Jewish community’s found­at­ion; they soon acquired land for their first cemetery.

The first Hebrew congregation began worship in Auckland in 1843. Their first formal place of worship was in Nathan & Joseph's Ware­house in Shortland Street. By 1853 the congregation had grown to 100 and worship was held in a small building in Emily Place. By the 1860s this building had become too small for the rapidly increasing population and moneys were collected to build a new synagogue.

In 1884, the Jewish Community purchased a section on the corner of Princes and Bowen Sts. At that time the site was occupied by the former Albert Barracks Guard House, which overlooked a vegetable garden used by soldiers.

The community asked architects to submit synagogue designs and they chose Edward Bartley to take on the project. Bartley was an Irish carpenter and joiner arrived in New Zealand in 1854 and trained as an architect and builder. In 1872, he went into partnership with another builder, forming Matthews & Bartley Builders. He moved to the North Shore in 1872, later building his own home in Devonport. Other significant Bartley buildings included the Foundation for the Blind Jubilee Building and the original Wellesley St Opera House. And was a founding member of the New Zealand Institute of Architects.

Princes St Synagogue in Auckland
built by Edward Bartley by 1885

The Princes St Synagogue structure was designed in a mixed Roman­esque and Gothic style, the project influenced by an important Glasgow Syn­agogue. It was built to seat a congregation of 375. As one of NZ’s oldest massed concrete buildings, the basement was set aside for childcare, wedding and barmitzvahs, and a school annexe was later added.

The interior ornamentation was by the decorator JL Holland. The int­erior of the building featured a barrel vaulted timber ceiling and an ornate circular ark, covered by a stained glass dome im­port­ed from Australia. The blend of Arabic and Classical styles feat­uring ornate stained-glass windows; an ell­iptical stair­case; a decorated barrel-vaulted, wood-panelled ceil­ing supp­orted by graceful Arabic arches and columns; and ornate plaster work.

During his long career Bartley served as architect to the Anglican Church, the Auckland Savings Bank and the Auckland Hospital & Charitable Aid Board. The Mount Eden Public Library designed by the firm Bartley and Wade was prob­ably his last building. For the 1913 Auckland Exhibition he was a member of the Building Committee which selected the designs and oversaw the construction of the exhibition buildings in the Auckland Domain.

Along with his 3 sons who became archit­ects, Bartley also trained Malcolm Keith Draffin (1890-1964). Draffin later became an Auckland War Memorial Museum architect.

The barrel-vaulted, wood-panelled ceil­ing with graceful Arabic arches and columns are still intact. The women's pews upstairs were removed and the bank office spaces remain.

The synagogue had been Auck­land’s main synag­ogue until 1967. Only then, due to substantial growth in the Jewish Community, did the congregation move to a lar­g­er, newly synagogue opposite Myers Park.

After the original building was de-cons­ec­rated in 1969, ownership reverted to Auckland City Council. The building was left vacant and slowly deteriorated over 20+ years, until it was renovated to oper­ate a branch of the National Bank in 1989. The interior of the form­­er syn­agogue was meticulously restored to its original condit­ion in the late 1980s, with extensive structural and streng­thening work of the interior office spaces.

The University of Auckland has leased the old synagogue since 2003, using the building as home to the University’s Alumni Relations and Develop­ment office. It is located at the campus entrance.

The former synagogue is registered by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust and has Historic Place Category 1 Status. The conservation project won the inaugural Auckland City Heritage Aw­ard. And they won a New Zealand Institute of Arch­itects National Award citation in 1990 for successfully reconciling the tenant’s commercial requirements with the need to conserve one of Auckland’s significant buildings.

Decoration and lamps on the arches and columns

This important part of Auckland’s cultural history is for sale. The synagogue is the only landmark historic building of its type in the city and one of only two extant C19th synagogues in all the country. It had acted as Auckland’s main synagogue and focal point for the Jewish community from 1885 until 1968! The ad­joining building, the Trish Clark Gallery for contemporary art that was built in 1986, is one of Auckland’s leading art spaces. Along with the old synagogue, the whole complex is for sale in Apr 2018.

You might like to read The History of the Jews in New Zealand (1958) by Lazarus Mor­ris Goldman for an excellent and detailed analysis of Jewish settlers in C19th New Zealand.

13 March 2018

Modigliani revival at the Tate Modern

What a creative life and a tragic death Amadeo Modigliani (1884–1920) had. He left home in Livorno Italy in 1906, at 21, with money from his mother, and moved to the centre of the art world: Paris. He was en­grossed by the works he saw, from artists ranging from the late Paul Cézanne to his cont­emporary Kees van Dongen.

Modigliani lived at various addresses in the boh­emian district of Montmartre, not far from Pablo Picasso’s home. In the early days in Paris, Amadeo’s sub­jects included figures from the demimonde eg circus performers. But during the 13 years that followed, he struggled with the dark side which, in turn, strengthened his art.

Modigliani’s years of poverty were clear from the beginning – he was tubercular, hungry and poor. The consequences of his short and disordered life have resulted in debates amongst scholars, museums, dealers, auction houses and private collectors. His official cat­al­ogue raisonné is no longer 100% trusted because of disputed forg­eries and subsequent court cases. But at least the authenticity of Dr Paul Alexandre’s wonderful collection of Modiglianis was never chall­enged.

The very handsome Amadeus Modigliani

Now the Tate Modern in London has brought together drawings, paintings and sculptures by Modigliani which might help with understanding his art. All the early work done in Italy was destroyed at Modigliani’s own request. So the Tate Exhibition consists of paintings and carved stone sculpture done during his chaotic, artistic life in Paris.

The paintings were sensitively hung in the Tate Mod­ern galleries, with their colours creating a radiance. And the display ref­lected Amadeus’ progress over time. In 1909, he painted a very handsome portrait of his friend Paul Alexandre with layers of al­most Turner-like brushwork. That same year he depicted the youth he referred to as a Young Gypsy with a stylised geometric angularity, posing him with legs spread apart and hands loosely resting in his lap. In 1918, Modigliani painted the Little Peasant with a simp­lif­ied classicism but left him with the same rounded hands and arms a la Paul Alexandre but in a lighter palette.

What about the 12 nudes in the same section of the Tate, perfectly timed to mark the 100-year annivers­ary of Modigliani’s only solo show. That exhibit, at Gallerie Ber­the Weill, was closed by police on its first day because of indecency. The heroic Mrs Weill’s im­pressive list of artists included Raoul Dufy, André Derain, Georges Braque, Kees van Dongen, Maurice Utrillo and Suzanne Valadon.

Paul Alexandre by Modigliani

Tate is showing the 1919 Self-Portrait owned by Brasil’s Museu de Arte. This paintings crys­tallised everything Modigliani saw in his idol Cezanne, but made it person­al. Plus paintings of the saucy Maud Abrantès stand out. She may have been the mistress of both Modigliani and his patron Alexandre, but was married to an art dealer. Maud was probably the model for The Jewess, a painting that was inspired by the Fauves. Modig­liani must have loved The Jewess; he exhibited it in the 1908 Salon des Indép­endants.

Was being Jewish in post-Dreyfus Paris a problem? Modigliani was not interested in the issue! While there were several memoirs that des­c­ribed Modigliani’s passionate response to anti-Semitism, there was no evidence that he felt himself an “outsider”. This cosmop­olitan family had come from France, Tunisia, Italy, Algeria and Sardinia; national boundaries melted away. In Paris, his friends included many Jewish artists eg Lipchitz, Soutine, Chagall, Zad­kine, Nadelman and Kisling, artists of mixed origin eg Diego Rivera, and non-Jews like Picasso, Laurens, Gris and Cocteau. If he was consid­ered Italian, it was because of his dashing, aris­tocratic style.

The end was tragic. Amadeus’s young lover Jeanne Hébuterne was 36 weeks pregnant with their second baby. Suffering from acute kidney pain and spitting blood, Modigliani lay in bed and a frightened Hébuterne huddled by his side in their Rue de la Grande Chaumière flat. They were cold that winter, hungry and messy. When he finally fell into a coma, Modigliani was carried to hospital and tended by nuns while friends surrounded him.

Amadeus died and the artist’s brother paid expenses for a lavish funeral, where thousands of people gathered behind a horse-drawn carriage bearing his flower-covered casket. As the funeral cortege passed by, Hébuterne leapt out the 5th storey open window and died on the footpath below. At Cimetière du Père Lachaise, the Jew­ish funeral was packed out. Hébuterne’s Catholic parents arranged their daughter’s tiny funeral early the next day.

Decades after her parents’ deaths, Amadeus’ daughter Jeanne wrote a book called Modigliani: Man and Myth. Jeanne described her father as the pampered and indulged youngest son in an eccentric Italian family, his own bankrupted father, and Amadeus’ near-death exper­ien­­ces in childhood from pleurisy and typhoid. Perhaps by choosing the life of a Bohemian artist, he was toughening himself up physically while saving his poetic soul.

Sleeping nude by Modigliani

Modigliani was my favourite C20th Bohemian; he was an emotionally intense portrait painter, poet, philosopher, a consumptive and an uncontrolled son and lover. But until I see the exhibition myself, I am relying on Frances Brent in TabletThe Tate,  his daughter Jeanne’s book, Modigliani: Man and Myth and previous posts in this blog.

The Modigliani Exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York just ended in Feb 2018. It was largely a pre-WW1 drawing show, focused on the coll­ection of Paul Alexandre, Modigliani’s first patron, the doctor who created a meeting place for artists in Mont­parnasse. The New York exhib­it­ion was accompanied by a catalogue published by Yale UP.