H.H. Holmes Mugshot

H.H. Holmes – A Truly American Horror Story

Following the Great Fire of 1871, Chicago became a centre of industry and power, as well as a hotbed for crime, vice and debauchery. Racketeering, prostitution, gambling and drugs were ubiquitous, but so was legitimate business, and with that came jobs and opportunities. 

It was with little trepidation that Emeline Cigrand moved from Dwight, Illinois to the bustling metropolis in 1892. Young, blonde and striking, she was eager to explore the possibilities of a thriving new locale. The joys of springtime were everywhere and the booming economy of the Windy City offered limitless chances for the ambitious, of whom Emeline was certainly one.

After a spell working at a rehabilitation clinic for alcoholics, it was through a client that she was offered a job as a personal assistant to a young doctor based in the Chicago suburb of Englewood. Her excitement was immeasurable. In a whirlwind of anticipation she arrived to find her employer a handsome, commanding individual. She greatly enjoyed the work and his company, and it wasn’t long before she fell deeply in love; surrendering herself completely.

Soon, her employer became her world. She would travel every day to his extensive property on 63rd and Wallace; a modern, oddly Gothic structure she found both homely and peculiar. It was gargantuan in size and easy to get lost in. Corridors would taper off at unusual angles for no clear purpose. Light was sporadically fractured throughout, and occasionally she would find herself opening doors that literally led nowhere. Still, who was she to question the design elements of the place? Not when she was so happy.

She paid no mind to the bizarre warnings of a caller named Ned Conner, who had warned her to get away from the building altogether. Nor did she take note of her uncle’s suspicions about both her employer and place of work. It was all immaterial. By the fall, she was even more besotted and now, a proposal of marriage was offered; one she accepted without hesitation.

Emeline dreamed of the honeymoon in Europe she was promised, and the prospect of having children with her beloved, who told her he was the son of an English Lord. She allowed him access to her savings (a sum of around $800) and life seemed to be a dream. Soon she would be wed to a successful doctor; a member of the aristocracy at that. Her family would be ecstatic.

One night, Emeline was asked to retrieve something from one of the rooms; a dark and foreboding chamber with a heavy door. She never felt quite right when she walked past it, but if it was her duty to do so, she would have carried out any task for her man, who was now more of a master. Walking up the silent corridor she paused for a moment, thinking that she heard someone close by.

Upon entering, she felt a slight burning sensation upon her bare feet, but before she could address it, the thick steel door closed behind her with a quiet thud. Swiftly, it became warm; uncomfortably so. As she began to sweat profusely, damp patches built up on her clothes, and she noticed the air becoming scarce; her chest tightened. The acrid smell of an unknown substance burnt the back of her throat. She pounded at the door, calling for her lover; growing frailer by the minute. He, however, would not respond. It was not that he was unaware that poor Emeline was trapped; quite the contrary. He was watching from a peephole as the life drained from her.

He had experienced all the carnal pleasures that her body would allow, but nothing would match the heights of arousal that came to him from observing the slow death of a beautiful woman.

Emeline died in that room. A bank vault which had been cleverly modified to look like a standard office or bedroom. When police investigated the premises years later, they found Emeline’s footprint etched into the steel doorframe; a result of the acid on the floor. A final desperate act, frozen in eternity.

Now it is time. Step inside the Chicago Murder Castle and meet the most dangerously charming man you may ever encounter.

White Collar Wickedness

In American culture, rewards come for the industrious and the bold. Results are more important than how they may be obtained. “Success by any means necessary.” This is what makes it the land of the great and the good.

Perhaps good is the wrong word. Especially when it comes to Herman Webster Mudgett, aka Dr. H. H. Holmes, who found himself in a dank Philadelphia prison cell during the summer of 1895. Holmes had done exceptionally well over the years and, even when locked up, experienced incarceration in a comfortable and pleasant manner. His wealth and affability allowed him to make many friends, including the guards. Benefitted with exclusive luxuries, such as being allowed to wear his own clothes and read the papers, he lived comfortably as he awaited trial for an insurance anomaly. His demeanour was calm and unflustered and he was barely worried about the proceedings which awaited him, viewing them as an inconvenient formality.

Holmes’ achievements contain all the staples of an American success story. An astute businessman who made astronomical amounts of money in the late 1800s, he had an expansive portfolio of property across the country and was liked by all who met him.

Unfortunately, there were truly sinister things at work behind this charming façade. In addition to being a swindler and a bigamist, Holmes was a mass murder, the likes of whom people had neither seen, nor heard of, before. A ladies man with an opportunistic eye, he bedded and slaughtered countless women, with estimates ranging anywhere from a dozen, into the hundreds.

With his business skills, combined with the cold, calculating method of his murders, H.H. Holmes was a true man of the age; a real American Psycho.

H.H. Holmes Castle

H. H. Holmes’ “Castle” in Englewood, Chicago was a labyrinthine exercise in grisly ingenuity. Secret rooms, trapdoors and peepholes were all expertly hidden throughout.

House of Horrors

Holmes’ block-long, multi-storey building, known as his ‘castle’, was built in the run up to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. It was a lucrative and ambitious project, with shops, restaurants, office space and apartments available as part of the complex. Additionally, it was ideal real estate, especially given its close proximity to the proposed World’s Fair site at Jackson Park.

The dark reality was that the 162 feet long by 50 feet wide structure was an industrialised charnel house for unsuspecting victims who fell afoul of Holmes’ manipulative ways. The site of untold amounts of murders and wickedly unspeakable deeds, Holmes’ activities were so horrendous, they would have made Jack The Ripper recoil in fear. This was a man without scruples or morals, possessing no guilt. A true product of the age.

Like Emeline Cigrand, there was no shortage of young women coming to Chicago from all across America looking for work and a fresh start. For many, it would be their first time away from their small town homes. With dreams and aspirations of a brighter future, they were often dazzled by the dark intensity of Chicago. Many were ‘recruited’ by Madams as soon as they stepped off the trains. Filled with promises of riches and an easy life, they would only learn of the true requirements of their new trade when it was too late to back out. Due to the population explosion which Chicago was experiencing, it would be a very long time before anyone noticed if some of these girls went missing. That’s if anyone noticed at all.

For the ones who avoided being tricked into a life of indentured sexual service, they’d need suitable accommodation; something a man such as Holmes was happy to provide. He was also adept at lending a sympathetic ear and other forms of assistance, including companionship on long, lonely nights. A philandering playboy, he was the very type of smooth-talking man that mothers warn their daughters about, but his manipulative ways were not restricted to women.

Holmes hired contractors to carry out work on his building and, after completing a small portion of it, they would be fired for shoddy workmanship or some other claim of incompetence. By doing this, Holmes barely paid a penny for getting the castle built, but more importantly, he kept the workers from finding out exactly what he was plotting. One or two peculiar features wouldn’t have raised too much suspicion, but if anyone had been aware of what Holmes was truly planning, they would have run from the scene in utter terror. The building was leased under a false name and multiple aliases were used to acquire fine furnishings and decorations for the stores and apartments which he housed. The debts began to build.

Getting rid of Emeline Cigrand’s body was not much of a task for Holmes. The castle was constructed for subtlety and discretion. With an array of secret passages, asphyxiation chambers, airtight vaults and an elaborate system created for the disposal of corpses, it allowed Holmes to kill at will, fearing no consequence. Even if a terrified young woman tried to escape, the layout was designed to disorientate and contain. Holmes fit pipes into certain rooms which would allow him to gas his victims, either as they slept or as he watched from peep holes, getting satisfaction from observing their painful suffocation. Hidden, multi-storey chutes lined with grease meant that bodies, such as Emeline’s, could be transported down several floors without guests noticing.

It was the basement, however, that was the most awful of all. Fitted with acid baths for the dissolving of corpses, and an oversized kiln for cremation, it also featured several torture devices, including a medieval style rack for stretching out his victims. He clearly took great pride in his ability to plan such intricate death traps but, for Holmes, murder was often just the first part of a transaction.

Throughout the 1890s, he swindled, stole and scammed his way to a fortune, killing men, women and children in the process. To work in Chicago, young, unmarried women would need a life insurance policy; something which Holmes was only too glad to assist in paying; provided he was the sole beneficiary of course. Not one of Holmes’ victims would ever go to waste without purpose, for he knew that everyone was worth something, even in death.

Aside from the insurance scams, Holmes was aware that medical schools and their students were crying out for fresh corpses to work on, as well as complete skeletons for reference. They were often willing to turn a blind eye to where they came from, as even doctors were creeping around in the hours of darkness robbing graves. Holmes, who attended such an institution in Michigan, would take notice of this. Medical School would also serve to further his macabre sensibilities, and a stint working in an asylum resulted in the solidification of his view that people were simply items; product no different from slabs of meat on a butcher’s counter.

After being prepared and sold, Emeline Cigrand’s skeleton ended up on display at the LaSalle Medical College of Chicago. For years, students would look at her with cold indifference, completely unaware of the brutal nature of her death.

HH Holmes Hotel

Illustration of the Holmes ‘Castle’ (c) Holly Carden, Carden Illustration

Mindset of a Killer

Filmmaker and author John Borowski has dedicated a significant portion of his life to the study of Holmes and his legacy. His book The Strange Case of Dr. H.H. Holmes compiles several publications from the time the events were unfolding. Holmes’ memoirs are included, as are court transcripts, a publication by Detective Frank Geyer (The Holmes-Pitezel Case) and Holmes’ confessions. It’s a chilling collection of horror, the likes of which Stephen King would have difficulty coming up with.

Borowski first discovered Holmes when he was in college and would go on to make a documentary about him, as well as the other notorious killers Albert Fish and Carl Panzram. For him, what began as idle curiosity would send him on a journey into the mind of a maniac.

It was initially difficult for him to procure information: “There had been several books; The Torture Doctor in the ‘70s and then Depraved in the 90s, but nothing much had been done on Holmes,” explains Borowski as he reflects upon why Holmes became such a fascination; “There was no other serial killer in history that designed a building specifically for the purpose of disposing with human remains. You have to admire him for being a genius in everything he accomplished. He knew the limitations of the law, and how to stay one step ahead of it, but then on the other hand, he killed men women and children all for financial gain.”

It appears that Holmes’ allure extends even beyond the grave. Borowski would travel across America in search of records, transcripts and evidence surrounding the case which Detective Geyer put together. What he found out would haunt him forever.

A Mysterious Childhood

Holmes came from New Hampshire, and very little is known about his younger days, other than that religion was aggressively practiced within the household. Born in 1861, he writes in his memoirs about one particular incident that occurred to him as a young man. A group of boys dragged him into a doctor’s office (a place he describes as being of ‘peculiar abhorrence’) where he was confronted with a fully articulated skeleton. The bony hands were placed against his face. This either terrified or transfixed the child and it was the first time he had seen a human being stripped of all flesh and traces of humanity. It certainly wouldn’t be his last.

Like many men of the age, Holmes married young, to a woman named Clara Lovering. They had a child together, but it wasn’t long before Holmes became bored and left them. Clara would be the first of several wives, but Holmes had many lovers in his life. Shortly before moving to Chicago, Holmes married Myrta Belknap, with whom he also had a child. While he had abandoned Clara, he moved Myrta to Chicago with him, but she was kept well away from the castle, and knew nothing about his many sexual indiscretions.

For the many brutal murders which Holmes carried out, his wives were mysteriously never harmed; something which Borowski attempts to shed some light upon. “Holmes was such as forward thinker, who had everything meticulously planned out. Everyone around him was a pawn. He knew that if he were ever caught, he would need someone to say something nice about him; something that wasn’t detrimental to his character. His second wife, Myrta Belknap, was set up in a nice house with her child, and she had everything. She was paid for and comfortable. Holmes just went about his business.

One of the first people they interviewed after they went in the Castle and found out about the atrocities in the building was Myrta. Her immediate reaction was “Well, I don’t know what he does at his building in Chicago, but he’s never harmed me or our child.”

For Holmes, it was all planning. He married a third woman, Georgiana Yoke, who said that she never knew of anything strange taking place.

“There would be times when Holmes would come in flustered, or sweating, but again, as someone who’s newly married, your first reaction isn’t going to be that your husband’s just come back from murdering children. It wouldn’t cross your mind,” adds Borowski.

Murder: Industrialized

Holmes knew that he needed some assistance with his nefarious schemes and so enlisted the help of several men. One, Benjamin Pitezel, became a close assistant and confidante, taking part in multiple murders, as well as helping with body removal and disposal. It was Pitezel who brought Emeline into Holmes’ employ.

Charles Chappell was hired to clean the flesh from Holmes’ victims and to reconstruct them as articulated skeletons for medical schools; a lucrative business. Holmes would pay Chappell $36 for each corpse he would strip and prepare. This was, of course, a small fraction of what Holmes would make for himself.

The basement housed two vats, one of bleach and one of carbolic acid, both for the purposes of searing flesh from bone. Chappell recalled stepping into the basement and observing the remnants of Holmes’ work; comparing the bodies he saw to skinned rabbits. Holmes, it appeared, took great delight in toying with the innards of his victims, as if performing some macabre, experimental surgery.

“One thing we know about serial killers and sociopaths in general, is that disconnection exists,” elaborates Borowski on the ease at which Holmes dissected and disposed of his victims: “They see a body as material. Something to be played with. They learn from that. FBI Profiler Tom Cronin, who I interviewed for my film, said that Holmes’ enjoyment when working with the bodies came from the fact that he had complete control. The serial killers’ role is all about power and domination over the victim. He could do whatever he wanted to the body and he tried to maintain that throughout his entire career.”

Ned and Julia Conner, along with their daughter Pearl, came to live in the castle when, after a brief period of employment, Holmes sold Ned his drug store (along with its accumulated debts). Julia, an exceptionally tall and enchanting figure, was enamoured by Holmes. He seemed so gentlemanly, so powerful and successful; everything that she felt her husband was not. Before long they embarked on a passionate affair and Julia fell pregnant. She wanted Holmes to marry her and he agreed, but said that a child would be out of the question at this point. His solution was to perform an abortion on Julia, which would take place on Christmas Eve 1891. As she kissed sweet Pearl goodnight they spoke of the excitement which awaited them both the following morning, a stack of presents lay wrapped and prepared. It was a Christmas that neither of them would ever see. Holmes killed Julia using a rag soaked in chloroform, choking her to death. He skinned and gutted her in the basement. Pearl would be dealt with soon after, joining her mother in eternal sleep during the small hours of Christmas morning.

Guests or residents would, of course, ask questions pertaining to the whereabouts of those who went missing, but Holmes would shrug them off with disinterest and apathy. He was so aloof and casually dismissive that it rarely arose any suspicion. He firmly believed that his shtick could get him out of anything.

Minnie and Anna Williams were two Texan sisters, worth a small fortune in property (Somewhere in the region of $50-100,000.  $1.5 – $3 million by today’s standards.) It was Minnie who Holmes set his sights upon and lured her to Chicago, where he filled her with stories of the remarkable future they would have together. Annie was initially suspicious, but upon meeting Holmes and being treated to the delights of the World’s Fair, was convinced that he was a man of great breeding and honour. This lapse of judgement on both their parts would lead to their deaths.

Anna met a similar fate to Emeline, except this time, Holmes gassed her as she floundered in the airtight vault. Minnie’s fate is a mysterious one, but records show that Holmes sent two large, heavy trunks to Chappell’s house a few days after the Williams sisters disappeared. In a final act of ghoulish magnanimousness, he gave Minnie’s clothes to Mrs Pitezel, and her case to Pat Quinlan, his caretaker.

The Heat Draws In.

The Cigrand and Conner families, as well as several others, hired private detectives to investigate the disappearance of their loved ones. They would inevitably end up on Holmes’ doorstep. Being the master manipulator that he was, Holmes would send them away satisfied that they had all simply moved on, leaving no forwarding address. He realised, however, that his time in Chicago was drawing to a close. His creditors were becoming increasingly aggressive, even banding together with a team of lawyers to confront Holmes and press charges. Holmes literally ran away from the meeting during a brief recess.

He set fire to the castle and fled, hoping to file it as arson and claim on the insurance before moving to Fort Worth, Texas, where he had swindled the Williams sisters out of their property. Plans began to construct a new version of the castle there. He was still up to his old tricks, in more ways than one. An attempted fraud scam soon landed Holmes in prison. He simply picked the wrong mark.

While incarcerated, Holmes decided he would initiate a $10,000 insurance scam that would involve him faking his own death. This would get him off the hook for any previous crimes and allow him to start afresh. Currently arrested and detained with a petty criminal named Marion Hedgepeth, Homes promised to send him $500 upon his release, provided he assisted him in finding a trustworthy lawyer to help complete the scam. Hedgepeth steered him in the direction of someone, but the scheme failed. Holmes failed to live up to his side of the bargain and never sent the $500; something that would have grave repercussions.

Undeterred, Holmes decided that he would carry out a similar scheme with Pitezel. To make it all easier (from Holmes’ point of view), instead of hiding him, he simply murdered Pitezel in a brutal and horrifying manner, using benzene and flame to hideously burn and scar the body beyond all recognition.


Holmes then began the most audacious and remarkable period of his murder spree, taking his need for control to new extremes. He wrote to Carrie Pitezel, telling her that Benjamin was still alive, but must remain in hiding, lest the authorities discover their collaboration. She sent her children Alice, Nellie and Howard along with Holmes, who, in an act of incredulous arrogance, also summoned Carrie to follow them. At one point, the children were writing lonely letters to their mother, who unbeknownst to them was only a few blocks away. One of Holmes’ greatest mistakes was to never send those letters.

Holmes was finally arrested in Boston in 1894. Hedgepeth, still bitter about never receiving his $500, had tipped off the authorities. Now in custody, it was simply a case of attributing the suspected crimes to him, although that in itself would also prove to be very difficult indeed. The Pitezel children by now had vanished.

By Any Means

During the blistering summer months of 1895, Detective Frank P. Geyer left Philadelphia on a new case. His heart was broken, for a house fire had just robbed him of his wife and twelve-year-old daughter. Something about this new assignment troubled him greatly, because there were missing children involved. The suspect, a man named Herman Webster Mudgett, languished in a Moyamensing Prison cell after being apprehended for insurance fraud, but Geyer knew there was more to it. One thing was certain; he wasn’t going to let this mystery go unsolved, whatever the cost.

Traveling in stifling train cars and dusty coaches, he journeyed across America and Canada, embarking on a painstaking, frantic search for the Pitezel children. The suspect had allegedly faked the death of their father to collect an insurance premium of $10,000. Not only did Geyer believe that Benjamin had actually been murdered, but was convinced that the children had met a similar fate.

Literally going from door to door in several rapidly expanding cities where transience was the norm; it seemed like a pointless endeavour to try and discover what had happened to the children, but Geyer was a Pinkerton.

The Pinkerton National Detective Agency were feared by criminals throughout the land. If the Pinkertons were after you for something, your cards were marked. Their motto was “We Never Sleep” and it seemed true, for their success rate for cases was phenomenal.

HH Holmes a

The Devil In The White City.

Geyer didn’t stop searching. Using the children’s letters, which had been recovered from Holmes, his journey brought him to Toronto in July. Through hotel records, he discovered that the girls had stayed with Holmes, but there was no mention of Howard. They received a tip that someone remembered Holmes by description and he had rented a house in Vincent Street.

When Geyer interviewed the neighbour of Holmes’ Toronto rental, Thomas Ryves, he was told how someone had arrived at the property with very little furniture. Just a large trunk and a mattress. The new tenant called over and requested the loan of a shovel. Geyer knew exactly what to expect as he asked Ryves if he could borrow it as well.

Calling over to the neighbouring house and investigating the basement, Geyer found a loose patch of earth. Frantically digging into it, using the same shovel Holmes had held a few months previously, he released a plume of toxic gas from the decomposing bodies, as he found what he had been searching for all this time. The nude corpses of the Pitezel girls lay rotting in the basement, to the complete ignorance of the current tenant. One, Nellie, had her feet removed. Born with a club foot, Holmes was trying to disguise her identity. There was, however, no third body. The case continued.

Geyer had investigated thousands of leads and was still getting nowhere in his search for Howard. It was now August and he had travelled as far as Indianapolis. Holmes was in prison, but unless Geyer could tie him to the murders, he could get off lightly. In the meantime, Holmes penned his memoirs, in which he professed his innocence, claiming to have loved the children like a father. Geyer was now a national celebrity, and the case became a popular murder mystery.

Then, with a stroke of immense luck, Geyer met a man who had rented a house to Holmes, in which he had installed a large woodstove. Holmes had also been to a local repair shop, where he had some surgical tools sharpened. When Geyer searched the house, he found the gory remains of Howard Pitezel stuffed into the chimney of the stove. A charred bulk of festering organs was discovered, along with some teeth and a portion of jaw. Howard’s favourite tin toy, a gift from his father, was also found at the scene.

Now Holmes could be indicted on murder charges, everything changed. The police began questioning known affiliates, such as Pat Quinlan and Charles Chappell. Gruesome truths were revealed.

The remains of multiple victims were discovered in the castle. Bones and teeth of men, women and children were found in the basement. It was the most horrifying thing to happen in Chicago’s history, and the case shook the entire world.

Holmes, however, remained nonplussed by the whole affair. Even when he stood trial, in an act of defiant hubris, he chose to represent himself. As Carrie Pitezel stood in the dock weeping as she recalled the barbaric slaughter of her children, Holmes simply sat with a gaze of complete disinterest, barely able to comprehend why even the judge was weeping.

William Randolph Hearst made Holmes a generous offer to write his confessions, in which he admitted to 27 murders; some of which have since been discredited. Holmes was proven to be human after all, when he was hung on May 7th, 1896, the true total of his victims going with him to the grave. In a final act of bizarre control, Holmes requested that his coffin be filled with cement, and that his grave also be sealed, so that no one would interfere with his body in death. For some reason, this request was honoured.

In his confession, with characteristic pomposity he wrote of how he felt he was physically changing as he was incarcerated, becoming more like Satan himself.

I am convinced that since my imprisonment, I have changed woefully and gruesomely,” Holmes wrote. “My features are assuming a pronounced Satanical cast. My head and face are gradually assuming an elongated shape. I believe fully that I am growing to resemble the Devil.”


So, was Holmes the devil, or simply the ultimate American serial killer?

“Oh completely the latter.” agrees Borowski, “From the beginning of the Industrial Age in America we’ve been taught that, you can become famous and rich. If you’re industrious enough and if you’re a hard worker, you can do it too. As we know, it’s definitely not that easy, but it’s a very American thing.

Holmes was one of the first in the country to have a trial and be called a ‘Multiple Murder’ by the Chicago Tribune. Additionally, he literally laid the groundwork, through the construction of his building, for all the other future serial killers to come. With serial killers, they are always trying to increase the body count and their numbers. We still don’t know how many Holmes murdered, but the fact that he went to the trouble of designing and constructing that building and how he went about it was something that many serial killers have cited, including Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer.

In the case of Albert Fish’s psychologist Fredrick Wertham, his files were opened. In it, he quoted Fish as saying he’d read about HH Holmes as well. So again, some of these serial killers do have knowledge of prior killers and maybe they want to top them.

Holmes was a quintessential American. Not only in the sense of trying to achieve financial gain and power by utilizing any means necessary. We see that now in corporate America. So many of the corporations are run by sociopaths. They’re just a different type.”

This story originally appeared in HUSTLER Magazine. 

Prison Murders Mistrials and Mistakes

Murders, Mistrials and Mistakes – Life and Death in the U.S. Prison System

There are over 2 million men and women currently incarcerated in America’s state, federal and private prison systems. That’s over a quarter of world’s prisoners. Compared with the rest of the country, California has almost a quarter of a million inmates; the largest amount of incarcerated men and women per capita. The problem is that many of them shouldn’t be there at all.

If even 1% of U.S. prisoners are wrongfully convicted, it means tens of thousands of individuals are languishing behind bars unjustly. Academics still struggle to get the final numbers, but they are convinced that the real totals are, undoubtedly, much greater. Figures are one thing, but behind each statistic there is a human being whose life has been irrevocably altered due to error, corruption, incompetence, or a mixture of all three.

For a lucky few, however, there is hope. Across America there are teams of small professional groups who put a superhuman amount of time and effort into freeing the innocent.

To gain further insight, I spoke with the founders of the California Innocence Project, an organization who specialize in tirelessly fighting to exonerate the wrongfully convicted. I also interviewed Timothy Atkins, a man whose youth was taken away by a flawed justice system, and who the Innocence Project successfully freed after he spent over two decades behind bars.

Incarceration Nation

The truth is that the U.S. prison system is a hugely profitable business. The private prison industry in the USA is now listed on the stock market, with an estimated worth of over $70 billion. Coincidentally, a 1600% rise of inmates sent to private prisons (which exist in 33 states, including California) occurred during 1990-2009. They operate like factories, with prisoners receive anything from 17-50 cents an hour for manual labour; the latter being for ‘highly skilled positions’.

The two biggest American private prison companies are CCA and GEO Group, who constantly lobby congress for higher bail charges and longer sentences, ensuring that their prisoners stay where they want them. Private prisons now account for approximately 7% of the total state prison population and 19% of the federal prison population.

Simply put, there is no impetus for a system like this to keep people out of jail. It’s also incredibly easy to be wrongfully convicted of a crime in the US, but almost impossible to have a sentence turned around.

It’s a terrifying prospect. A Kafkaesque nightmare in which someone’s entire life can be taken from them and they face spending the rest of their life behind bars. For many Americans that is the struggle they wake up to every day in their cells.

Timothy Atkins was one such individual.

New Year’s Evil

In the early hours of New Year’s Day 1985, flower shop owners Vincente and Maria Gonzalez were on their way to pick up their kids following a party. As they drove through Venice, California, two armed men appeared out of nowhere and Vicente found himself staring down the barrel of a gun. The jackers wanted money and the vehicle. The Gonzalez couple didn’t respond quickly enough to the demands.

In a moment of frustration, impatient rage or panic, Vincente was fired upon at close range with a shotgun, dying immediately from the blast. A necklace was torn from Maria and the men absconded. A flurry of sirens emerged from surrounding streets. A crowd gathered as news spread.

One of the onlookers was a 17-year-old boy named Timothy Atkins, who had been with friends in a nearby apartment when the murder took place. He would be the one who would be charged for the crime, despite a lack of any evidence. In a few days Atkins would be in a prison cell.

He would be 40 years old before he saw freedom again.

Eye For An Eye

American justice is brutal, reactionary and seeped in both emotion and politics. As one of the few countries in the world to still insist on capital punishment, there are currently around 3,000 inmates waiting to die on any given day in the US, with California leading the way. There have also been at least 150 prisoners exonerated and walked off death row in the last 40 years. 150 people condemned to have their lives ended for crimes they never committed.

It was one of these cases which changed the course of Justin Brooks’ career. Recognised as one of the top lawyers in California, Brooks has devoted his life to fighting for justice, and it’s not been an easy road.

During the 1990s, while working as a law Professor, he became aware of the case of Marilyn Mulero, a young woman placed on death row as the result of a plea bargain (and so without trial). According to National Geographic’s Virginia Hughes; In the US “95% of felony convictions are the result of plea bargains, with no formal evidence ever presented, and most never bother with an appeal.” But to have someone sentenced to death as a result of one is a rare and startling occurrence. Brooks began investigating the case further.

Mulero was arrested in 1992 after two members of the Latino Kings were killed in Humboldt Park, Chicago. She was interrogated at length in a language that was not her own, without counsel (which she was denied) or sleep.  A pre-prepared statement was thrust in front of her. She was confused, exhausted and frightened, completely unaware she was signing her life away.

To the police, it didn’t matter if they had the right person or not. They could draw a line under the investigation. To Brooks, it mattered more than anything in the world. “It made no sense to me how anyone could be sentenced to death without a trial,” he explains, “I went to visit her in prison and discovered what happened. She told me she was innocent.” Brooks began a campaign which would eventually get her taken off death row.

Fight The Power

Brooks continued to operate a Death Row Clinic in Michigan for some time, representing condemned inmates. “That kind of work is very unique,” he explains, “as you’re trying to save a person’s life. I’ve always been opposed to the death penalty. I find it fundamentally immoral, very expensive and it simply doesn’t work

It’s a thing that’s uniquely American;” elaborates Brooks on America’s obsession with the death penalty, “we’re not afraid to be completely out of whack with the rest of the world. It’s the same with our Second Amendment rights; there’s no country that allows guns the way we do. Criminal justice is not only unique in the U.S. but by state. That means that each state is allowed to run their criminal justice system the way they want. The disparity is incredible.”

Such disparity allows for certain states to maintain a higher rate of executions than others, with the top ranking being California, Florida, Texas and Alabama. Unsurprisingly to some, the South remains the greatest advocate of the capital punishment. Brooks believes that this will alter in time.

You’ll see individual states defeating the death penalty and, ultimately, the Supreme Court will step in,” says Brooks of the imminent change, “It matters a lot who’s on the Court and that’s why it’s a huge deal that Justice Scalia died recently. He was a staunch supporter of it.”

California Innocence Project

Working alongside the students who helped him on the Mulero case inspired Brooks. He loved the idea of being able to utilize them in the assistance of wrongfully convicted prisoners and, as a result, moved west and founded the California Innocence Project.

The idea was to put lawyers and law students together,” says Brooks, “as students can put in hundreds of thousands of hours as part of their education. If we put together a good enough case, we can get people out of prison.”

Founded in 1999, the Project has grown from being just Brooks and an assistant to approximately 10 full-time lawyers and around 30 students. With up to 2,000 applications from prisoners and their families coming in every year, this relatively small team are constantly busy. Michael Semanchik, Staff Attorney at the organization, explained how the process operates;

We have clinic students and interns. The interns do the initial screenings, contact the inmates and collect their legal documents. They tell us if it’s a good case or not. Clinic students are typically second year law students at California Western who are assigned 8-10 cases each. They go out in the field and investigate the claims, go to the prison and talk to the client, interview witnesses and track down evidence for DNA testing.”

With such a constant influx of applications, and thousands of prisoners protesting their innocence, it can be a challenge to select the cases they think can be followed through. As part of the screening criteria, applicants are sent a questionnaire.

“When they meet our basic criteria, we request their legal documents, which provides us with the statement of facts about the case,” continues Semanchik, “A lot of the inmates in California prisons don’t have the best level of education, especially in the legal or criminal justice system. Many don’t realise how they got convicted or what evidence was used. If you can get the appellant’s opening brief it tells us what happened at trial and whether or not there’s something we can do to overturn their conviction.”

Murders Mistrials and Mistakes

Timothy Atkins upon his release from prison after serving over two decades for a crime he did not commit. (c) California Innocence Project

The Ongoing Trials of Timothy Atkins

Timothy Atkins, the man who was charged with the murder of Vincente Gonzalez, was convicted on a false testimony, one of the most common causes of wrongful conviction. Denise Powell, a heavy drug user who knew Atkins through friends, fabricated a story about hearing him confess to the crime. Word got back to the police and Powell was brought in for questioning. Knowing her story was fake, but threatened with prison time as she was intensely interrogated, she caved and gave them two names; Timothy Atkins and Ricky Evans. Both were subsequently arrested.

For Atkins, the most shocking part of the process was how, as a young black man, no-one would listen to his side of the story.

For a kid to be picked up off the streets at 17 years old and be charged with a first degree murder rap like that was like a nightmare,” recalls Atkins. “In court, people talk about how you killed somebody, but you can’t open your mouth. You’re in complete disbelief, because you know in your heart that you’re innocent.”

In the years running up to the incident, Atkins had been in minor trouble for common teenage activity such as playing hooky from school and stealing the occasional car stereo. Nothing he did throughout his entire life ever showed any predilection towards violence. “I was a juvenile delinquent,” recalls Atkins, “but I wasn’t a bad kid. I mean, I ran the streets doing petty stuff; being a knucklehead.”

The probation department were already looking for Atkins when he was arrested, due to a violation because he didn’t go to school for two weeks. “For them to say that I went from that to murder; I didn’t get it,” he adds, the disbelief still remnant, “I didn’t even know what I was being arrested for. It wasn’t until they handcuffed me to the bench, I saw an officer who used to be chasing me all the time and he saidThey got you in here for murder, but I know you didn’t do that, I know what you do.’” Atkins immediately protested. He’d never been involved in any kind of violent activity. “Any crime that I had committed, I never committed against a person.” he adds.

The first sign that things were going bad for Atkins was when they offered him a deal which would see him serve 15 years to life. He refused, for it would be an admission of guilt. The second major development was when they moved his case from the juvenile court, meaning he would be tried as an adult.

During questioning Maria Gonzalez told police that the people that robbed her and shot her husband were 5 foot 4 and 5 foot 6 and weighed about 125-130 pounds. At the time of Atkins’ arrest, he was 6 feet tall and 175-180 pounds. “I just didn’t fit the description,” explains Atkins, “When I first went to court, they brought out Ms Gonzalez and put her on the stand. They asked her a simple question; “Do you see the individual who robbed you and shot your husband in this room?” Mrs. Gonzalez looked around the courtroom, but she couldn’t give an answer. ”They immediately took a recess,” continues Atkins, “They took her out in the hallway, brought her back and asked her the question again. She said ‘Yeah, he’s sitting right there’ and pointed to me. I never understood how they could get away with that.”

Timothy Atkins was sentenced to 32 years to life. Ricky Evans never made it that far. While the two men were incarcerated in the county jail, gang members attacked them in their cells, afraid that they would provide police with information on the real killers. After making the pair fight each other, they were jumped; Atkins was brutally injured, Evans was beaten to death.

It was all a hellish nightmare,” confirms Atkins. “You feel helpless; there’s nothing you can do. All this chaos is going on around you, because being in prison is like being in a human zoo. You don’t know from day to day if you’re gonna make it up in there. You walk out of that cell everyday around a bunch of killers or whatever. That’s how I had to live 23 years of my life. Every day I had to be on high alert…..to live like that (he sighs heavily) it’s unreal.”

Weeks became months which became years, which became decades. Hope diminished. “The first ten years was rough,” admits Atkins, “I felt that, if they weren’t going to let me out, then I was gonna make them do something to me, because I wasn’t going to spend the rest of my life in jail for something I didn’t do.”

Thankfully, Atkins met a childhood friend who suggested that he start writing letters to different organizations and try and find some help. One of those letters landed on the desk of the California Innocence Project in 2001.

Wendy Koen, a second year law student at the time, took on the case. She spent years tracking her down, but eventually managed to get a written witness retraction from Denise Powell, only shortly before she died. This set Atkins on the road to freedom. “Sitting down with Wendy gave me hope,” recalls Atkins, “but I knew after they filed the writ, the ultimate decision would be up to the judge. The same judge that sent me to prison was the same judge let me out. After all those years he was still on the bench.” He was sent home with an apology and not much else.

When a standard prisoner is discharged, they are released with a few hundred dollars so they can get a bus, get a room for the night and so on. When an exonerated prisoner is released, they are sent out the door with nothing.

Incidentally, Timothy Atkins imprisonment cost the taxpayer $1,035,000. US law states that for every day a prisoner is wrongfully incarcerated, they should receive a certain amount of money (between $100-200 for each day of imprisonment). In Atkins’ case he is owed somewhere in the region of $800,000.

He hopes to use the funds to start a centre for gang awareness programmes, to show young people in the locality that there are other options. “I like to get the word out,” he explains of his community work, “Young people especially need to know, because it’s easy for them to follow suit in the wrong direction and there’s not enough information to help them put their life on the right track. Everything is so negative and young people need to hear positive stuff. They also need to be taken out of these environments and shown that the world is bigger than just the community they live in.”

After years of working in similar schemes, it would be an admirable and worthy step, had the State actually paid him. “California is not in the business of compensating anybody,” says Atkins “Out of 150 something people, only 11 or so actually got their compensation.” In a lengthy and ongoing case and no money in sight after years of fighting, the struggle still isn’t over for Timothy Atkins.

Prison Murders Mistrials and Mistakes a

It Couldn’t Happen To Me, Right?

So, how does someone get wrongfully convicted? To be from a socially disadvantaged area seems to be a common factor, as does being from a minority, but the truth is that it can happen to anyone if the circumstances allow. Most of this is due to failures in the current legal system.

Inadequate representation, prosecutorial and police misconduct, perjured testimonies, false informant testimonies, erroneous jury instructions and ineffective assistance of counsel have all been cited as prominent reasons why wrongful incarceration occurs. The California Innocence Project sees several recurring factors, with false confessions being a major factor.

The first fallacy that people have about confessions is that the police are trained to get the truth,” confirms Brooks, “They’re trained by a method that teaches someone to agree with them. That whole process doesn’t work. If the suspect is a kid, has a low IQ or just wants to please the police, they might go along with it. These people think they’ll never be convicted because they didn’t do it, but then the police drum up a snitch, or do a bad ID and that person goes to prison for the rest of their lives.”

Innocence Project Staff Attorney Semanchik adds that witness identification remains one of the leading factors of wrongful conviction in the U.S.. “Our brains don’t operate like a video recorder,” he explains, “We think that we’re really good at making identifications of others, and what we’ve found is that we’re just not.”

This would have been particularly prevalent to the Timothy Atkins case. “Research has shown,” continues Semanchik, “that this is especially bad where it’s a situation where there’s a weapon involved or a heightened, intense moment. If someone pulls a gun on you, it’s less likely that you’re going to be able to memorise that person’s face. It only gets worse if you’re trying to identify someone who’s not your race.

One of the other major developments within recent years has been the debunking of junk science, which may have been used in a conviction. Certain areas, which would have been considered gospel only a few decades ago, are now being considered more carefully before being utilized within the courtroom. In February 2016, the Texas Forensic Science Commission put a ban on the use of bite mark evidence in criminal trials when making identification.

We have relied on this bite mark evidence for years in the US,” Semanchik adds, “We have a case; William Richards from San Bernardino, which went to trial three times and he didn’t get convicted. They had hung juries and at the fourth trial he got convicted. The only difference was that bite mark evidence put forward in that one.”

Years later the expert who testified in the Richards case recanted his testimony, saying that not only was it not William Richards’ bite mark, but that it didn’t look like a bite mark at all. Despite this, Richards remains in prison to this day, where he is currently suffering from cancer. He may not live to see his exoneration.

Changes and discoveries within the fields of forensic science, hair analysis, shaken baby syndrome and fire investigation are just some examples of the areas in which many innocent people may have been incarcerated. “The lead bullet analysis has changed,” continues Semanchik, “but even things like fingerprint evidence and hair or fibre comparison is not nearly as good as we once thought.”

Brooks agrees with Semanchik’s main examples; “We’ve also had big problems with snitch testimonies, when guys are willing to say anything to get out from under their own charges, or get a lesser charge. I see bad investigation done by the defence, the prosecution and the police all the time, where people just didn’t look at the facts.” Brooks also cites cynical District Attorney’s as problematic; “The client says they’re innocent and they don’t really believe them. So they don’t follow up on their alibi out to see if it checks out.”

Life Beyond Bars

Aside from the PTSD, financial and integration issues which exonerees face, there can still be problems once they make it out, simply because of the time they have spent in prison. “Some people will think ‘Maybe they did it.’ or ‘He’s probably a bad guy from all the time he spent in there.’ – There’s still stigma.” confirms Brooks.

But what of Marilyn Mulero, who woman who started all of this for Brooks? “The sad part of that story is, while I was able to get her off death row, I’m actually still representing her, trying to get that guilty plea withdrawn,” he says forlornly, “I’ve been to the Supreme Court with it and lost. The latest thing is that I filed a petition with the United Nations saying it was a Human Rights violation to sentence someone to death on a plea bargain. I’ve never been able to get that plea withdrawn so I can get her a trial. It’s sad because she’s seen me walk a lot of people out of prison since I began her case and that was the one which got me started in this work.”

It begs the question of what can be done to change things, if anything?

Brooks and his team have made many proposals throughout the years including a best practices for IDs that the procedures can be improved. “Studies have shown that six pack photo arrays for example don’t work,” he explains, “You need to have people look at photos one at a time. The biggest reform is that you can’t have anyone in the room who knows who the suspect is when an ID is going on, as you’ll always have tells that indicate.”

Brooks also suggests mandatory video recording of all procedures to ensure that they are properly done. “We need to record all confessions and all statements so later on we can review them for threats, context and content, and to reform snitch testimonies to make sure that everything is disclosed to the other side. We need to fund experts and investigators for the defence. There’s a remedy for every single cause of wrongful conviction. Nothing will make the system perfect, but we can greatly reduce the number of mistakes. We all should have the same goal which is get the right person.”

When the subject of Timothy Atkins arises, it’s clear that it still plays heavy on his soul. “Tim Atkins has been so screwed over so many times. He just keeps struggling on and doing the best that he can. It breaks my heart every time I see him, but we are still fighting for his compensation.”

One of Brooks’ final comments hits hard; “These guys aren’t heroes. These guys aren’t villains. These are just regular people who got caught up in these extraordinary circumstances. There was a white police officer in Connecticut who was wrongfully convicted and when I saw that it happened to him, I knew it could happen to anyone.

This story originally appeared in HUSTLER Magazine. 

Straw Dogs Through Generations – The Territorial Imperative


Straw Dogs’ legacy is one which will live on as long as cinema itself, as uncomfortable and difficult as that may be. 

“Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs; the sage is ruthless, and treats the people as straw dogs.

Lao Tzu’s Tao Teh Ching. Book One, Poem V (Penguin Ed. Trans. D.C. Lau)

The desolate remoteness of the Cornish countryside, in the Southern English locale known as ‘The West Country’, formed the backdrop for veteran US director Sam Peckinpah’s sixth feature; a rural western which would cause enough furore and controversy to ignite passionate debate over four decades after its initial release in 1971. Straw Dogs is a provocative and challenging film which poses many difficult questions pertaining to the nature of violence and sexuality. A source of conflict and debate amongst critics and academics alike, there is a wealth of philosophy and introspective analysis taking place amidst the societal and personal breakdowns which occur during the two hours of relentless tension.

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Leonard Cohen – In Memoriam

Leonard Cohen left this world on Monday November 7th, 2016 at the age of 82. He was subsequently laid to rest in a quiet and private ceremony in Montreal before the public were made aware of his passing.

We all knew that this day would come, but I doubt any of us were truly prepared for it.

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A Boy and His Dog

L.Q. Jones’ 1975 adaptation of Harlan Ellison’s award winning novella, A Boy and His Dog, is an oft-overlooked cinematic peculiarity which exists within a multi-layered world of conflict. Set in the fallout of World War IV, which we are told lasted only five days, it takes an acerbic and cynical look at the constructs of society, and the parallels that exist between civility and base desire. The film has been both lauded and maligned, both for its witty and astute vision, as well as its perceived misogynistic and, ultimately, misanthropic stance. The issue of misogyny formed a long-running disagreement between Jones and Ellison; creating yet another conflict that arose from the ashes of this post-apocalyptic nightmare.

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The Devil Didn’t Do It. The Devil Is Us.

You’re getting rid of ALL of this crap,” screamed Betty Ann Sullivan as she tore a Slayer poster off her son’s bedroom wall. She’d had enough. The clothes, the music, the bullshit attitude. Having just turned fourteen, Tommy was too young for all of this. Why couldn’t he just be……why couldn’t he just be normal?

Long hair. Make-up. Demons. Dragons. Pentagrams and an oblique array of things that a suburban mother couldn’t understand were the cause of yet another fight. Embarrassment. Exasperation. Miscommunication. Fear. All catalysts.

The insults got stronger. The sense of hopelessness growing with each challenging day.

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Shadow’s Wing: Legacy of The Crow

People once believed that when someone dies, a crow carries their soul to the land of the dead.  But sometimes, something so bad happens that a terrible sadness is carried with it and the soul can’t rest. Then sometimes, just sometimes, the crow can bring that soul back to put the wrong things right.”


Horrific and destructive events take place on October 30th; Devil’s Night. Fires burn across a decaying city as a crow surveys the landscape from atop a spire. This is the modern Hell. A world of decay and corruption; one bereft of love and compassion, where blood is spilled without heed on a regular basis.

On Friday May 13th 1994, The Crow, Alex Proyas’ feature debut, based on the comic books of Detroit native James O’Barr, was released in cinemas across the United States. The first R-Rated adaptation of its kind, it created a template for the Gothic antihero which fit perfectly into the nihilistic pop culture of the era. Brandon Lee, for many, became the epitome of tragic beauty with his portrayal of Eric Draven, a budding musician who is slain the night before his wedding. Shelly Webster, his bride to be is brutally assaulted, raped and left for dead, only to pass shortly afterwards. The solace that a young companion, Sarah, found in the couple has been destroyed forever, casting her back into the uncaring world her mother inhabits; one of drugs, miscreants and squalor.

Before long, Draven rises from the grave and, guided by a crow, seeks out the perpetrators of his demise; systematically exacting revenge in a methodical and bloody manner. A range of unforgettable villains stand in the way of his redemption, as Lee transforms himself into The Crow; an angel, a ghost, a warrior.

This is the story of one of the most resonant and influential comic book movies of all time, told by those who were there, in an exclusive celebration of the twenty-first anniversary of the film that spawned a legacy.

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The Gentleman of the Golden Age – The Escapades of R Bolla aka Robert Kerman

Walking the dirty streets of Times Square in the mid-1970s was a world away from the glitzy Disneyland it has become today. Hookers, pimps, peep shows and dirty bookstores were the predominant form of business in the area. 42nd St was an endless gauntlet of theatres, each with marquees displaying a mixture of sensationalist and lascivious titles; this was the era of Grindhouse.

In the wake of Deep Throat (1972), the porn industry became fashionable, as upmarket couples slummed it in the filthy fleapits, dressed to the nines as they occupied the same seats that the raincoat brigade had shuffled in for years previously. The money began to roll in, and soon enough everyone wanted a cut. The number of films in production skyrocketed and the scene in New York became an entity unto itself. This is a story of one man who was there for the whole thing.

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Ed Wood: Passion and Prophecy

How two Hollywood screenwriters and a maverick director recreated the biopic.

Basking in the monochrome glory that is Ed Wood twenty one years after its initial release is somewhat of an otherworldly activity. To reflect upon the feature after all this time allows us to really see how influential, vital and groundbreaking a film it has become. Not only was it a turning point for director Tim Burton, along with writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (who conceived and developed the project), but it set a benchmark for ‘90s cinema, ushering in a new kind of character study; one which the writers have termed the ‘Anti-Great Man Film’.

To celebrate the anniversary of Ed Wood, I spoke with Alexander and Karaszewski to discover how it all came to be, how it affected their subsequent work, and why in the world they chose to focus on a relatively unknown B-Movie director who had been termed ‘The Worst Filmmaker Of All Time’.

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