Urban Legends

Urban Legends – From the Campfire to the Keyboard

Fear elicits a primal emotion – a need to survive. Our earliest scares are among the strongest and most resonant memories we have, often shaping or influencing the people we grow up to become. Some of us even maintain a fascination with terror into adulthood, be it through horror movies, books, comics, conventions or culture.

To be frightened is to be stimulated, that’s why it’s such a compelling sensation; it makes us feel alive. Perhaps why it’s why we revel in the unexplainable and the macabre. While the world is drowning in information, there are still some things which remain permanently ambiguous; one of them is the urban legend, but there’s often more going on than just haunted fake news.

Many urban legends have a catalyst, sometimes a real-life crime or tragedy which gets modified with each telling until the truth is lost forever. In the course of this article, we will examine some of the most memorable urban legends and what lies behind them.

Part One: Campfire Classics

Haunted Hollywood

Every location holds a story. The concept of residual hauntings is the idea that a place can contain memories of its own; some darker than others. When something traumatic, violent or tragic occurs, the echoes of it become etched into the very ground upon where it happened.

Such reputations can be attributed to an area in almost every locale; there will always be a collection of ghost stories and cautionary tales associated with a legendary building, landscape or even an entire city. Los Angeles, for example, has its fair share of reported hauntings, many of which are associated with tragedy, horror and restless spirits.

Comedy Store

The Comedy Store in West Hollywood was once a notable, Rat-Pack era nightclub named Ciro’s, and now maintains a reputation of lingering terror, and not just as a result of open mic night. As well as being the origin of some of the most famous comedians of all time (Williams, Leno, Pryor et al), it’s also the source of grim local legend. Mob victims who were allegedly murdered in the cellar of the Comedy Store, as well as illegal abortions carried out in the notorious ‘Belly Room’, have left the place marred with a shadowy lore. Numerous comedians who have performed there swear that they’ve experienced inexplicable phenomena or direct paranormal incidents. Phantom staff members watch over activities in the early hours, the screams of women in torment have also been heard. Rearranged furniture, disembodied voices and inexplicably slamming doors make up just some of the other reports from this historic spot.

Even the iconic Hollywood sign, the symbol of so many dreams, is the spot where Peg Entwistle’s ghost is said to wander, following her tragic suicide in 1932. The 24-year-old actress jumped to her death from the letter ‘H’. After several massive disappointments, she felt her career was over and climbed the sign after drinking heavily. Her body was found by a hiker, along with a note which read “I am afraid, I am a coward. I am sorry for everything. If I had done this a long time ago, it would have saved a lot of pain. P.E.” – Many hikers now claim to have felt an eerie presence upon that spot, with several actual sightings of an apparition. Megan Santos is one such witness, who told Vanity Fair: “This woman with blond hair and she seemed to be. . . walking on air. I immediately ran the other way.”

Permanently moored in Long Beach, the cruise liner Queen Mary, known as the Grey Ghost during wartime, and one of TIME magazine’s Top 10 most haunted places on Earth, is said to house a horde of malevolent spirits. “It is believed that many spirits attach themselves to antique furniture or personal items remaining on the ship. Screams and violent noises were reported in the boiler room where an 18-year-old sailor was severed in half by a heavy door where he was trapped,” reported Forbes, adding “A young girl also haunts the ship as she plays a nightly game of hide and seek with the guests in the empty swimming pool.” The ship now capitalizes on its reputation, offering séances and ghost tours, even renting out a particularly haunted cabin as a tourist attraction.

In short, LaLa Land has no shortage of ghoulish history, some of these legends, however, have very modern sources.

 Cecil Hotel

Never Drink the Tap Water

The Cecil Hotel L.A., a classically beautiful stopover now known as the Stay on Main, has held a sinister reputation for the best part of a century. From the ‘40s onwards it became a notorious hangout for drunks and druggies, and the spot of countless suicides, murders and overdoses. It was even said to be the home of serial killer Richard Ramierez, The Night Stalker, and the tragic Black Dahlia drank merrily in the decorative bar a short time before her disappearance and subsequent dissection. Ghosts and ill-fates purportedly stalk the once-glamorous corridors. The building became the primary inspiration behind American Horror Story: Hotel, and the Cecil’s guests have continued to experience weird phenomena to this day.

Several years ago, residents began to complain of foul tasting, discoloured water. People were getting sick, which prompted an investigation. Hotel staff eventually searched the water tanks on the roof and discovered the decomposing, naked corpse of a Canadian woman who had been missing for some time. When the last known footage of the woman, Elisa Lam, was released, it immediately went viral, due to several inexplicable elements. Also known as the ‘elevator girl’, CCTV imagery showed Lam acting erratically, panicking inside the elevator and peering out of the open doors, as if being followed or perused.

There was no-one else present in the corridors or the elevator. What exactly she saw, was running from, or what happened to her in the direct aftermath of the video remains a complete mystery.

The Body under the Bed

Much like ghost stories, urban legends (or myths) are horrific and tantalising tales which are passed from person to person. They are often simple fabrication yet, sometimes, a truthful origin story can be unearthed.

One of the most commonly told urban legends, along with alligators in the sewers and doppelgangers being a premonition of impending death, concerns a couple who check into a room, only to discover a pungent stench emanating from somewhere they can’t identify. Even after searching extensively, they find it impossible to locate the source of the nauseating odour, and so make a complaint to reception. It takes some time, and persistence, to get the hotel to assist them but, when they do, a further inspection uncovers a body in the advanced stages of decomposition, which has been stashed under the couple’s bed.

This commonly regaled story doesn’t just have one source, but several. Apparently, storing bodies inside a box spring mattress, or under a divan bed isn’t as uncommon as one might imagine. In the Capri Motel, Kansas City in 2003, a guest complained about a foul smell in his bed for days before he couldn’t take it anymore and checked out. Only then did the cleaners find a rotting body underneath the mattress. The same thing happened in the Burgundy Motor Inn, Atlantic City in 1999, when a German couple spent the night sleeping on the festering corpse of a 64-year-old man named Saul Hernandez. With almost a dozen further cases, going as far back as the early ‘80s, it’s easy to see why this story became one of the most common urban legends of the pre-internet era.

Ghost Train

Are Those…Halloween Decorations?

Haunted houses and ghost trains are interactive attractions in which visitors are met with all manner of ways in which to terrify them. The more ghoulish and gory the props, the better, but many stories about such places using genuine human remains as part of their setup have been told throughout the years. This dates back to the carnival days, where genuine, mummified bodies would be laid out for all to see (criminals and outlaws were among the biggest draws). Nu-Pike Amusement Park in Long Beach, CA once hosted the mummified corpse of outlaw James McCurdy, a gunslinger who had been killed in a gunfight in 1911, as part of its display. Not everyone knew he was a cadaver though. His body was only identified properly during a shoot prep for an episode of the Six Million Dollar Man. One producer didn’t like the vibe of the ‘decoration’ and went to move it, only for a dusty arm to break off, exposing a yellowed, chalky bone.

Another infamous premise is that of the hanging victim who is mistaken for a decoration or a prop, their bodies swinging without anyone realising the terrible truth. Caleb Rebh and Brian Jewell were two teenagers who both suffered a similar end as a result of practical jokes gone wrong.

Caleb Rebh was a 14-year-old working at a Haunted Hayride event at Alpine Ridge Farms in Sparta, Michigan in 2001. The thin teenager wanted to prank his friends and the visitors by putting on a noose and pretending to have been strung up. Before he could prepare himself properly, and with the noose already wrapped around his neck, the tree (to which he was attached) whipped his skinny frame off the ground and he was unable to get free. Kicking, flailing and yelling before a crowd of jovial onlookers, Caleb slowly and painfully expired. They all thought he was acting…until it was too late. All attempts to resuscitate him were futile. Caleb was dead.

Brian Jewell was 17 years old in 1990, when he suffered the same demise at a pre-Halloween hayride, this time as part of an arranged stunt which went awry. It had been practiced and prepared, and so it was assumed that everything would run as planned as the procession began.

Workers got concerned when Jewell didn’t appear for his planned speech at the end of the ride. That’s when they made the grisly discovery. The noose he hung from wasn’t supposed to tighten, but that night something went horribly wrong. Guests had been passing by his dangling body for some time, unaware of the gruesome reality which confronted them.

Further stories of bodies lying in driveways, hanging from fences and slumped in gardens, only to be left for days under the mistaken assumption that they were elaborate Halloween decorations, have only served to create many variants of this famous urban legend. So, maybe take extra care the next time you walk past a house where the spooky seasonal décor looks a little too real.

Elevator Decapitation

If you’ve ever been trapped in an elevator, you’ll know that it’s a claustrophobic, tense affair. It’s also not an appropriate moment to think about all of the things which could go wrong. You may even recall a story about a guy who tried to climb out of a stuck elevator, only to have it start moving and slice off his head. And if that story has ever entered your mind, we’re sorry to confirm that it’s true.

An elevator in a Houston Texas hospital in 2003 had been out of order for several days before someone unwittingly removed the sign informing staff that it wasn’t working. When surgery resident Hitoshi Christopher Nikaidoh asked a colleague if it was up and running again, she said she thought so.

When Nikaidoh went to step inside, the doors unexpectedly closed on him, leaving him trapped by the shoulders. As he struggled to try and free himself, the platform unexpectedly started to lift. The Houston Press reported that Nikaidoh struggled, “trying to shrug out of the elevator, or possibly pull himself inside, but the elevator kept moving upward”

What happened next is one of the most horrifying and gruesome deaths imaginable:

“The ceiling sliced off most of his head. His left ear, lower lip, teeth and jaw were still attached to his body, which fell to the bottom of the elevator shaft, as the elevator continued moving upward. “I just keep seeing the look in his eyes,” said a witness.”

This incident is not isolated either. Every year there are hundreds of elevator deaths in the US. Another good reason to take the stairs.

Bunnyman Bridge

Part Two: The Monsters Who Live In the Woods

  • The Bunnyman

Consider, if you will, a proto-Donnie Darko, and you can picture the Bunnyman. The legend of this crazed maniac has a varied and clouded backstory, one which several have adapted for their own nefarious means over the last century.  The most common version begins in 1904 when several local mental asylums and prisons in the Clifton area of Fairfax Country, Virginia were closed down. During transportation, two prisoners, known as Marcus Wallster and Douglas J. Grifon escaped. A search party went out after them only to discover a trail of brutally mutilated rabbits, many of whom were left hanging from trees. Soon afterwards, Marcus was found hanging from a small railway bridge. A note was pinned to his body which simply said ‘You’ll never catch the Bunnyman.’

While the original version has been long disputed, since then, the site of the railway bridge where the supposed murder took place has become a macabre tourist attraction but, even more strangely, several Bunnyman incidents have since taken place nearby, including numerous sightings, assaults and attempted murders. Whether it’s a result of opportunistic criminals taking advantage of local lore to disguise their crimes, or something more sinister and unexplained, no one has found the answer yet, but that doesn’t stop the story from growing.


  • Cropsey

Staten Island, New York, was home to the Willowbrook Institution, a neglectful, barbaric asylum, which was the source of many horrific stories, most of which came with a stern warning to stay as far away from the place as possible. After the asylum was closed, stragglers and drifters would congregate on the derelict grounds. One name began to circulate amongst the locals; Cropsey. Legend had it that he was a deformed child killer who lurked amongst the ruins of the asylum and would come for any unattended children, leading them to a grisly demise. Some said he was an escaped mental patient himself, others claimed he was a sinister ghoul sent to torture and maim. Whatever the truth, when a 12-year-old girl with Down syndrome, Jennifer Schweiger, disappeared in the summer of 1987, a very real manhunt ensured.

The discovery of Schweiger’s body, as well as that of several special needs children in the wooded area that surrounds Staten Island, only increased the intensity of the stories, and the manhunt. Eventually a local drifter and former asylum custodian named Andre Rand was convicted of kidnapping and killing two children in the locale, but he is suspected of murdering many, many more.

Charlie No Face

  • Charlie No Face

Local forests and dense woodland are a prime inspiration for horror stories. Escaped prisoners or mental patients, sometimes with superhuman abilities, or endless desires to kill, have all been reported to roam local woods. These warnings keep little kids from straying too far into the unknown, and It’s stories like this which have inspired countless movies, such as Friday 13th, The Burning and A Nightmare on Elm St.

Sometimes, real monsters lie behind the legends like the Bunnyman or Cropsey, other times it’s simply the victims of misunderstanding, such as Charlie No Face aka Green Man.

In Western Pennsylvania, along State Route 351, legends grew of a faceless figure with green skin, who could be seen moving through the woods at night, or strolling along the side of the road. Far from being some kind of alien, or supernatural monster, it was a merely case of a man who had suffered so much that he chose only to venture out after dark.

Raymond Robinson was a person who became an urban legend in his own lifetime, a rare occurrence. His story is heart-breaking. Born in 1910, Robinson was playing with friends as a child when they urged him to climb a pole so that he could see a bird’s nest. There was an accident and Robinson became entangled in the wires which burned him so badly, when he fell to the ground his eyes, nose and arm had all but vanished. The green hue which now adorned his skin was a result of the burns. His appearance was so malformed that people used to recoil in horror, scream or faint whenever they would meet him. That’s when Robinson retreated to the woods, where he would take nightly walks in the cool air, the soothing nature of the breeze and the darkness became his only solace. Later in life, as the stories of Charlie No Face grew, people would actively seek him out to observe or cruelly taunt him. Sometimes he would bum cigarettes from them and pose for pictures, other times he would flee into the woods. Despite his injuries, he lived to the age of 74, when he passed away in a nursing home.

Part Three:

Ghosts stories and urban legends gain traction in the same way as fake news and disinformation, and they can be every bit as effective and destructive. They’re appealing. That’s what gives them power. They were the earliest form of viral reportage, and the internet age has since absorbed them with great delight. In 2018 there have been two high-profile cases brought about by the circulation of macabre myths and sinister stories. One destroyed a career, the other destroyed a life…

Suicide Forest

The Woods Where No Winds Blow

There is a Japanese woodland which is, reportedly, so haunted and unusual that it acts as a beacon to those who wish to end their lives. As the story goes, however, it also serves as one of the primary suicide spots in the country. Formed from a volcanic eruption, covering just over 13 square miles close to Japan’s iconic Mt Fuji, lies Aokigahara, also known as the Sea of Trees. In Western culture it has acquired the simpler name of The Suicide Forest. This dense, bizarre landscape has become the source of macabre legends, and up to 100 people take their lives within the woods every single year, with the phenomenon gaining international attention.

There is an unnatural feel to the forest. The local geology, a result of the volcanic origins, has ensured that tree roots jut from the ground, intertwined in devilish patterns. Trees grow incredibly close together there, meaning that no wind whistles through; just an eerie silence. It is said that, once inside the woods, it is incredibly easy to become lost, even a few steps away from the parking lot, which is littered with abandoned vehicles, their owners slowly decomposing into the forest floor. Despite this, many explorers embark on ghoulish expeditions, however, if they knew of the dark secrets held by the forest, they may think twice.

During famine times, it was common to take elderly relatives and abandon them within the woods, due to lack of ability to feed or care for them. This brutal form of localized euthanasia created an army of restless spirits. Then the suicides began. Some claim that the mournful ghosts of those who have passed will entice unwary visitors to their demise. Cellphones don’t work in this forest (due to magnetic iron deposits in the soil), and the woods are so thick that some leave trails of ribbons, so that they don’t become lost. Many colourful remnants of these trails hang, decaying and lifeless, echoing the fates of those who left them there.

Pop culture soon began to address the forests, with books and movies focusing on the sinister reputation and mysterious allure of the ‘Suicide Forest’. In January 2018, internet ‘celebrity’ Logan Paul made a video diary of his trip to Japan. The multi-millionaire recorded himself playing numerous pranks on unsuspecting citizens, before venturing to the suicide forest. His channel, which is popular with a predominantly young audience, soon became host for a video in which Paul and his cohorts walked into the woods and, within minutes, found their first body. Laughing and joking, Paul played it up for the camera in the way that YouTubers tend to do, as he and his cohorts filmed the corpse dangling from a branch.

The fallout wasn’t pretty. Paul was placed under severe scrutiny and lost several lucrative sponsorships, simultaneously raising the debate on both cultural sensitivity and whether or not the curse of the forest had reached out to someone who tried to mock it. Either way, Paul’s career suffered greatly (albeit temporarily) as a result. Paul was drawn in by the attraction which comes from urban legends. He paid a price, emotionally and financially. Another group of American kids were not so lucky, when their fascination with an online urban legend led them to try and kill.

Slender Man

The Slenderman Stabbings

In February 2014, two young Wisconsin girls Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser, a pair of 12-year-olds with a flair for creativity and active imaginations, invited their friend to play a game of hide-and-seek in the woods. Their intent from the offset was to violently murder her.

After a morning of games and donuts, they led her deep into the forest. Taking out a kitchen knife they had stolen from home, the girls plunged it into their friend 19 times, before ordering her to lie on the ground and wait for them to get help. They left her there to die but, somehow, she miraculously survived, crawling out of the woods, when she was then found by a passing cyclist.

Weier was sentenced in January 2018 to the maximum punishment of 25 years in a mental institution, but what was her motivation to kill? The Slenderman had told them to. In a statement given to police, the girls said that The Slenderman has given them instructions online, and the murder was a sacrifice which would lead them to be embraced in his mansion; reportedly located deep within the woods.

But who is the Slenderman?

There are parallels with this case and the Ricky Kasso murders of the 1980s, which were embroiled in the ‘Satanic Panic’ of the time, but this was not the devil that was responsible, simply an internet boogeyman. Created by Eric Knudsen, The Slenderman was a Photoshopped competition entry for a forum called SomethingAwful.

The Slenderman is a hybrid of The Tall Man from the Phantasm movies and a HP Lovecraft creation. A faceless, towering figure with shadowy tentacles protruding from his back. He is a harvester of souls, a taker of children. He’s also one of the most nefarious modern ghost stories. There’s even a Slenderman movie in the works, which has drawn the ire of the victim’s family who have lambasted it for being crass, tasteless and exploitative.

Regardless, he represents a turnaround within the evolution of the modern urban legend. Previously, it was a real life incident which usually sparked an associated, possibly exaggerated legend. Now we are seeing the reverse, in which an internet fantasy almost led to murder.

Sleep Tight?

Scary stories are born from our desire to share cautionary information; to shock or amaze one another with gruesome or cautionary tales. Facts become half-truths and, in the process, the chain of original events can become malformed and skewed as the story gets passed around.

The power of a good ghost story or urban legend lies in its simplicity. They scare us because they could happen to us. They add a sense of tension and fear to the everyday things we do; be it a hotel stay or a walk in the woods. They sound fantastical, horrific and impossible but, sometimes the things that go bump in the night are worth being scared of.

This story originally appeared in HUSTLER Magazine. 

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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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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