MINNIE WILLIAMS Q&A:
A. It wasn't planned. I was asked in 2006 by the Lake Bluff History Museum to research the slight connection between Lake Bluff and Georgiana Yoke, and in that process, became hooked on the story of Georgiana, her family, and her terrible predicament. After several years I amassed a large file of information, and in the back of my mind occasionally thought, hmm, this could be an interesting book.
But the project took off when I encountered some erroneous narratives about Georgiana, and I decided to make it my mission to challenge them. If you Google her name, you will find excerpts from many books about H. H. Holmes, and in quite a few, Georgiana is characterized as a prostitute, a person from a mysterious, shady background, or as complicit in the swindles and/or the murders.
Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. She grew up surrounded by a well-known, extended family of deeply religious, hard-working, upwardly mobile and highly respectable people. I believe she was a very moral person, who made the difficult decision to testify, at great personal sacrifice, even though she didn't have to.
I also wanted to share with the residents of the Garfield Park neighborhood in Indianapolis some perhaps forgotten history of their area. This is where the Yoke farm once stood, and the streets there (Yoke Ave., Manker St., Nelson St.) are named after these remarkable pioneers.
A. It was a lucky accident that when the Museum asked me to look into the life of Georgiana, I had just taken a class in genealogy research for my job at Lake Forest Library, so had just learned how to use Ancestry.com and other online resources. Also, we had subscriptions to full-text newspapers going back to the 19th century, which were essential. I interlibrary loaned tons of books, whenever I would get obsessed with one particular subject. For example, when I read the medical records of John Yoke (Georgiana's father) from the Franklin museum, I borrowed a textbook on the treatment of eczema from 1880.
I made several trips to Indiana, looking in archives that are not accessible online, and meeting people who were very helpful, especially through the Johnson County Museum of History. Also, just walking around, for example in the Garfield Park area, to get a feel for the distance from Shelby Street, the main road in 1880, to the farmhouse (which still stands), or the railroad tracks, or Bean Creek, really helped to understand what it was like when it was still a farm.
A. Every major incident in the book is based on a primary source. So after I took all my research and arranged it chronologically, I started constructing scenes from the material I had. I would think through how that might have happened, plan the dialogue when I was going to sleep at night, then get up first thing in the morning and write it while it was fresh in my mind.
Writing an initial text can be pretty mentally grueling, but I found revision to be very pleasurable, like doing a puzzle. I used a dictionary and thesaurus that are about eighty years old, to try to ensure that I didn't use words that were too modern, and finding the right word was really the most fun. I also used a lot of specialty dictionaries, for example, The Dictionary of American Regional English, which will tell you if people in the 1890's Midwest were more likely to say "fireflies" or "lightning bugs."
Because I decided early on to do this without an agent or publisher, I never felt any pressure to finish by a certain time, (other than within my lifetime), or make it a certain length. But I did hire an editor to review it after about five drafts, and he was very helpful in making it better and giving me confidence in my writing.
A. Many people who have an interest in H. H. Holmes also have an interest in the paranormal.
Some works about Holmes describe a "Holmes Curse," because many of the people who participated in the trial or were associated with Holmes met untimely, horrible deaths. On the other hand, District Attorney George Graham went on to have a long, successful career as a United States congressman, where he was known for his eloquent arguments against the prohibition of alcohol. And of course, Georgiana found a way to live long and well.
*Ghost Tours in Chicago often include the site of the murder castle in Englewood, and rumors of cold spots in the basement and dogs that bark when they get near it or refuse to walk past it have certainly been around for a while.
*The people who owned the house in Irvington, Indiana, where Howard Pitezel's remains were found, claim they have seen the face of a small boy in the window. A reader told me her neighbor went on a Ghost Tour of that home, and another reader sent me a great article on H. H. Holmes and the Irvington Ghost Tour. (Nuvo, Indy's Alternative Voice, Oct. 29-Nov. 5, 2014).
*The Toner-Maley house in Edinburgh, the Italianate mansion built by Mary Toner's cousin, has been featured on a ghost hunt television show.
On a personal note: I stayed in the Toner-Maley house in 2009, and it just happened to be the night before Halloween. I had been in Indiana a few days and this was my last night. One piece of information I had not been able to find was the location of Georgiana's college, and I was very frustrated that this important piece of her background was missing. I went to the local history room at the library in Edinburgh and started slogging through the reels of microfilm of the newspaper. In those days, small-town papers had a "Personal" column, telling who went out of town for a visit, or who came in to town, or who had a big tea party, and things like that.
The microfilm machine was different from the model I was used to, and I had trouble making the film stop on the dates I wanted; it would keep scrolling after I hit the stop button. So it was slow going, and I was getting tired, when all of a sudden the film stopped itself on a frame that contained a mention of Georgiana. "Oh cool," I said to myself, and made a copy and kept going. Then it happened again, and I thought, "Wow, that's kind of weird." The third time it happened, the microfilm stopped on June 13, 1889, and the fifth item down in the Personal column read: "Miss Georgiana Yoke has gone to Danville, Ind., to attend school."
I remember just staring at the screen, and getting a tingle in my scalp, and perspiring very hard. I made my copy, put away the film, and walked back to the house. It was a warm night with a light mist, and the wind was blowing piles of leaves into the street. Lots of the houses had little sheet-ghosts dangling from the trees, and the wind made them dance.
That is my one true ghost story.
A. Just a couple things:
Schloss Neuschwanstein, the Bavarian castle where Henry promises to take Georgiana, was the model for the Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland. I thought it was appropriate to use this image, not just as a foil for Holmes' murder castle, but also because Georgiana tends to frame things in the imagery of fairy tales.
Georgiana's birthday, October 17, plays a significant role in the plot, since Henry can't get control of her share of the farm until she is twenty-five. This birthday makes her a Libra, and the symbol for Librans is the scale of justice. See cover image.
A. I have never yet been able to locate a photograph of Georgiana, though I live in hope one will turn up some day!
So what we have are the court artist renderings, the news accounts of her from the trial, and the personal descriptions gathered by Mr. Alan Jones, whose research on Georgiana is described in the book.
The newspaper drawings are terrible (SEE GALLERY), and differ widely from one another, but they all show a woman with a long, narrow, straight nose, high cheekbones, and large, downcast eyes. She is drawn with a very small waist; her tight, high-necked, gigot-sleeve dress makes it impossible to tell if she was equally slender in the throat and shoulders.
Her hair is variously called yellow, golden, and "decidedly blond."
She is described in typically flowery terms. From The Philadelphia Inquirer:
" . . . a most delicate build, a mere girl in size an appearance. Her beautiful oval face, with its delicately-tinted cheeks, bore a look of terror, which the downcast eyes intensified. She was dressed in a neat-fitting and becoming gown of black, her stylishly-trimmed hat was of the same color, and her gloves harmonized with the rest of her somber attire."
The newspapers invariably called her a "girl" and one even called her a "child-bride," which is perfectly ridiculous; at the time of the trial she was twenty-six years old. However, this may have been late-Victorian code for "not guilty," as by this time public opinion was generally sympathetic to her plight.
One of the most remarkable descriptions of Georgiana appeared in the Galveston Daily News in July of 1895:
". . . Mrs. Pratt was a remarkably beautiful woman. All critics agree on that. It was one of those winning, attractive faces that you cannot get away from any more than you can believe the possessor capable of evil. It was a fresh and beautiful face, with the fine hopes and aspirations of youth in it and one that once seen remained an indelible memory. She wound her way unconsciously into the heart of every person who met her. She had that way about her which takes hold of the roots of things in an instant. She was as gentle and refined in manner and personal conduct as it was possible to be."
The article goes on to quote Judge Hunter, their landlord:
"Pratt's wife was one of the most beautiful women I ever met. She was just one of those women who can make you like them. She was a most winning person and everybody who came in contact with her acknowledged the spell of her presence. She would make friends rapidly. She was not a woman of expensive tastes or distinguished manner. It was because she was simple and elegant that people felt drawn to her. She appeared to idolize her husband . . ."
Much has been made of Georgiana's unusually big blue eyes, which one newspaper called "dreamy" and a neighbor called "so large as to be considered a defect." I make the case in A Competent Witness that she suffered from ophthalmic goiter, which today would be diagnosed as Graves' disease. This condition, which causes the muscles of the eye to swell and push on the eyeball, can fluctuate, so it is possible that at times she looked quite normal, and at other times her eyes had a staring or startled quality. One of the most famous people to suffer from Graves' disease is former first lady Barbara Bush, and if you see photos of her from the 1980's you can sometimes notice this effect on her eyes.
In 1962, Alan Jones paid a visit to a Mrs. Pedlow in Indianapolis, who had been a neighbor of Georgiana for many years. His impressions are as follows:
So this is all we have to go on. If there are any descendants of the Yoke, Toner, or Moore families (her grandmother's maiden name was Moore) looking through old family photo albums, and you find a picture of Georgiana you would care to share, please contact me: EMAIL
A. How is it possible to live side by side with another person for so long and not realize he has a double life, or a terrible secret, or a completely hidden personality? I don't know. Maybe the wives of Mr. Sandusky, Mr. Rader, Mr. Madoff, or Mr. Gacy could say, or the pilots who flew beside Andreas Lubitz. It's a terrifying thought.
Georgiana's detractors have used her prolonged denial to suggest she was either complicit or stupid. Harold Schechter's assessment is more generous: "She was not an especially gullible woman, and her readiness to accept Holmes's most brazen fabrications says a great deal not only about his smooth plausibility but about the self-deluding nature of love." (Depraved, p. 78)
In her defense, I would say although she might have had reasons to suspect her husband was unfaithful, or engaging in dubious business practices, was she really supposed to imagine he was dismembering people in the basement? He seemed perfectly normal to most people. He managed to swindle many astute businessmen. Although acts of violence were common at that time (a lynching didn't necessarily make the front page), the notion of anyone simply killing children for no obvious reason was unheard of.
Wasn't it more plausible to her that a ruthless business enemy was stalking them for revenge, bribing the police who would gladly scapegoat her husband? A political cartoon depicted Holmes being blamed for every crime of the previous decade, including an Indian massacre. (Franke, The Torture Doctor, p. 128).
I think something else was going on, which is worth considering in light of how we understand the news today. Many people are familiar with confirmation bias, the notion that people only pay attention to whatever affirms what they already believe, and that may well have been part of her blindness. But there is also something the psychologist Steven Pinker, in his book The Sense of Style, defines as hindsight bias, which is "the tendency of people to think that an outcome they happen to know, such as the confirmation of a disease diagnosis or the outcome of a war, should have been obvious to someone who had to make a prediction about it before the fact." (p. 60).
Once we know something, it is impossible to not know it. And once we know it, it is difficult to imagine others not knowing it. So on September 12th, everyone in the world could say, yes, of course terrorists fly airplanes into buildings. It became impossible to go back and re-imagine the innocence of September 10th.
Likewise, once everyone knew Holmes was a mass murderer, it became impossible to imagine how Georgiana couldn't know. People assume they are the astute ones who can pick out the sociopath in the room. I think one message from Georgiana's predicament is, not so fast.
A. Harold Schechter, in his authoritative book Depraved, states that on meeting Georgiana, "H. H. Holmes was in love." He doesn't go into great detail about exactly what he thinks love would mean to someone like Holmes. But it is clear that Holmes never traveled so long or exclusively with any other woman like he did with Georgiana. There is no evidence that he took up with any new women once he entered the bigamous marriage with her, though he probably did visit Myrta in 1894, and definitely reunited with Clara once before his final arrest.
Holmes' performance in the courtroom when Georgiana made her dramatic entrance stunned observers. From the New York Times: "The prospect of her appearance in the witness box completely unnerved him . . . it would seem as if Holmes really loved this woman. As she came forward, his pallid face flushed to the brows, and then the blood retreated, leaving him ghastly white . . . Holmes bowed his head and struggled with a sob that shook his frame, while he wiped the tears from his face."
From the Philadelphia Inquirer: "Holmes, the brilliant, the fearless—this being so apparently devoid of emotion, was actually crying. His cheeks were red and his handkerchief was at his face. What memories the young woman's appearance called up to him none could tell. Was it love, was it fear, that moved this man? His emotion could scarcely be assumed. The heaving chest, the panting lips were too real for that."
Well, he was also a pretty great actor. Holmes perfectly fits the modern definition of a sociopath, displaying such characteristics as superficial charm, recklessness, lack of remorse, and shallow emotions. Experts generally agree that such people are incapable of love.
But M. E. Thomas, in her riveting book "Confessions of a Sociopath," describes what it actually feels like to be one, and disputes the idea that they have no emotional life. She writes, "The closest analogue to a sociopath's love is probably the love of a child: intense, accepting, selfish." She also describes how, once interested, the sociopath will pursue those they consider possessions or exploits:
Holmes seems to have been fascinated with Georgiana. He may have been obsessed with her, and with the need to possess and control her. He certainly followed the sociopathic pattern of cutting her off from her family and friends, of becoming the sole focus of her life.
But no matter how much he enjoyed being with her, he still might eventually have killed her.
MINNIE WILLIAMS Q&A:
A. Some writers have argued this is the case. I don't believe it. It's painful for me to think that after more than a century, the lies perpetrated by the sociopath Holmes have become enshrined and taint the reputation his victims.
The lives of Minnie Williams and Georgiana Yoke intersect due a persistent rumor that Minnie accompanied Holmes and Georgiana to Denver in January of 1894, and that Minnie was a witness at their wedding. The primary source for this assertion is Georgiana's mother, Mary Yoke.
On the afternoon of November 22, 1894, a few days after the arrest of Holmes in Boston, reporters converged on Mrs. Yoke's home in Franklin, Indiana and among other tidbits got this quote: "Howard (as she knew Holmes at the time) came here to see her often. They were married in Denver, Colorado. Howard's cousin, Minnie Williams of Englewood, Ill., had relatives there and she went with them. After that they traveled."
This item was repeated in a major story that night in the late edition of the Chicago Tribune: "It was in her character of "cousin" that she witnessed Holmes' marriage to Miss Yoke in Denver."
But all evidence points to Minnie Williams and her sister Nannie being killed the year before in Chicago. Neither sister was ever reliably sighted after the summer of 1893; David Franke in The Torture Doctor asserts they were killed around the 4th of July; Harold Schechter in Depraved and Erik Larson in Devil in the White City say the same.
Holmes himself eventually confessed to killing Nannie in the summer of 1893 at the Englewood Castle, and killing Minnie later that fall.
So why did Mary Yoke tell the reporters Minnie was with Georgiana and Holmes in Denver?
Because that is what Holmes wanted her to think. He was already covering his tracks in case anyone came asking about the whereabouts of Minnie. I have no doubt he also signed Minnie's name in a bunch of hotel registers once he got to Denver, because that's the way he rolled.
He told another story to the police, which again, many newspapers picked up on and unquestioningly reported as fact. He claimed that Minnie, in a fit of sexual jealousy, murdered her sister, and that he helped dispose of her body by dumping it in Lake Michigan.
Really. What are the odds that this really happened, that a well-known, well-liked, conventional, respectable woman would suddenly kill her own sister? And then remorselessly dispose of her body? Murder by women is relatively rare; the murder of a sister is so unusual that the proper word for it, sororicide, does not even register in spell check.
My feeling is, when presented with a totally preposterous story like this and there's a murdering pathological liar in the room, dig a little deeper before repeating it as fact.
For further evidence that Minnie was not in attendance at the sham wedding of Holmes and Georgiana, we can look to the statement of the Rev. Wilcox who performed the ceremony. He named the people who were in attendance as witnesses, and they were both employees of his household: no Minnie Williams. By the time Rev. Wilcox was asked about this, a nationwide search was going on for Minnie and her sister. If she had been there, why wouldn't Rev. Wilcox have mentioned it?
Later in his confession, Holmes writes: " . . . because of her spotless life before she knew me, because of the large amount of money I defrauded her of, because I killed her sister . . . I endeavored after my arrest to blacken her good name by charging her with the death of her sister, and later with the instigation of the murder of the three Pitezel children . . . for all these reasons this is without exception the saddest and most heinous of any of my crimes."
In this one case, I believe him.