A Competent Witness

Georgiana Yoke and the Trial of H. H. Holmes

Judith Nickels

Named a 2017 Best Book for Indie Historical Fiction by Kirkus Reviews.

All the young men at the Siegel Cooper department store admire Georgiana Yoke, the charming new clerk just arrived in Chicago ahead of the 1893 World's Fair. They wager it won't take long for some lucky fellow to lure her away from her job, and they're right. After a brief and heady courtship, she marries a charismatic, wealthy entrepreneur.

A happy ending, but for one catch. Georgiana's affectionate new husband, Dr. Henry H. Holmes, is also a swindler, a kidnapper, and will one day be known as America's first serial killer.

Carefully researched and closely based on real events, A Competent Witness recasts the infamous story of H. H. Holmes as it unfolded to the woman he cruelly deceived.

Not the first and probably not the last probing into the true case of Dr. Henry Howard Holmes (born Herman Webster Mudgett in 1861), America's first serial killer, but a masterful study of his innocent wife, Georgiana, and of a time long past.

Debut novelist Nickels has wisely chosen to focus not on Holmes himself but on his third wife, Georgiana Yoke. Georgiana (1869-1945) is a mixture of the adventurous and enlightened and the naïve; she leaves her teaching job in Indiana to stay with her uncle in Chicago, the plan being to see this wonderful coming world’s fair and to see what the next stage in her life will be. It’s not long before she is wooed and won by Dr. Holmes. Holmes, whom Erik Larson wrote about in Devil in the White City (2003), is the classic psychopath, utterly charming and able to explain away…well, anything which might strike one as shady. Georgiana is hopelessly smitten and fiercely loyal. Holmes, a con man and bigamist, very likely had a genius IQ. He was always on the go, needed very little sleep, and always had his hand in one scheme or another. He protested his love for Georgiana and treated her royally. And he always had plausible explanations for his dodgy doings, his frequent absences. Finally, things began to catch up with him. He was arrested in Boston, and the more the police dug, the more appalling things they unearthed. Holmes was convicted of four murders and went to the gallows—with unnerving aplomb—at the age of 34. Nickels writes very well and researches thoroughly. We get a feel for the life of a shopgirl in a big Chicago department store and of a girl in small-town Indiana—and the different but equally stifling mores of each place. The portrait of Georgiana is wonderfully fleshed out. She is naïve but does not realize how much so. Her loyalty to Holmes is both touching and painful for the reader. She is shunned by the townsfolk and badgered by the press. This comes to a head when she finally has to face the truth and confront the monster in court.

A portrait sensitively and well-limned; hopefully we will have more from Nickels.

Cover image by Lynne Grenier

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