Murderer in Mooers Forks

by Annie Stoltie | April 2006, History

Mooers Forks is a North Country no-man’s-land. It’s a teeny island of modest houses, trailers and a few businesses within an agrarian channel of open roads and spurts of silos just a handful of miles between the Canadian border and the Adirondack Park’s northernmost tip. Here, international truckers haul loads along Route 22, locals pick up basic French by listening to Quebec radio, and most residents commute to Plattsburgh or Rouses Point or cross the border for work.

It’s a desolate looking place where you’d imagine decent, hard-working folks willing to weather the sagging economy and long, cutting winters because they’re anchored here. Some are descendants of the handful of Canadian refugees who brandished bayonets for the colonists’ cause during the Revolutionary War and were rewarded with patches of land. Or maybe real estate in New York’s scalp is just more affordable than in other spots.

Long before the miles of macadam and even Prohibition, when this border town was a bootleggers’ hub and nicknamed “Little Chicago,” Mooers Forks was almost thriving. According to the Clinton County Historical Association’s Ken Wray, who, like his father and grandfather, grew up here, most people eked out a living and farmed the staples to feed their families. It was a “bustling little community where everybody knew everybody else,” he says. In the mid- to late-19th century there was a hotel, a couple of restaurants, creamery, grainery, railroad depot, even a two-story schoolhouse. But refined cultural center and urban sea of anonymity it was not, which is why it’s a head-scratcher that in 1885 Herman Webster Mudgett, aka H. H. Holmes, infamous murderer, chose this hamlet to hitch his horses and stay awhile.

Think serial killer, and Berkowitz, Bundy or Dahmer come to mind. However, in the 1890s, following Jack the Ripper’s London killing spree, Mudgett, by then sitting in a cell at Philadelphia’s Moyamensing Prison, was the notorious monster.

He had been on the run, everywhere from Fort Worth to St. Louis to Toronto, and in 1895 was collared for insurance fraud. Eventually cops raided his Englewood, Illinois, hotel, a massive structure he had designed to facilitate his homicidal habits: killing businessmen for their loot; offing people, and in one case almost an entire family, to collect on phony life-insurance policies; and murdering lovers, female employees and other women who had booked rooms there while visiting the Windy City’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. (The fair packed them in, on one day hosting almost 800,000 people: more “than had attended any single day of any peaceable event in history,” according to Erik Larson’s bestselling The Devil in the White City, about Chicago, the exposition and H. H. Holmes. While foul play was suspected in the cases of hundreds who visited the fair and vanished, “police had no answers, other than the obvious: That in Chicago in the time of the fair, it was so very easy to disappear,” writes Larson.)

Most of Mudgett’s murders were committed within his hotel’s maze of dead-end hallways, airtight chambers he equipped with holes for peeping and piping in lethal gas, and an enormous kiln he installed, capable of incinerating just about anything. There were also secret chutes to discreetly transport bodies floor to floor. Vats of acid, quicklime pits, a dissection table, charred clothing and human remains were found in the basement. Mudgett stripped the bodies to the bone—something he learned while carving cadavers as a medical student at the University of Michigan—and made serious cash selling the skeletons to colleges and other science facilities in a blackmarket body trade.

Ultimately he confessed to 27 murders—though some sources say the body count may have been closer to a hundred—and was convicted of nine, including four children, and sentenced to death following a sensational trial the equivalent of O.J. Simpson’s courtroom hoopla, minus the DNA and endless television coverage. Even after Mudgett dangled from Moyamensing’s gallows on May 7, 1896, he haunted a nation’s dreams and, no doubt, those of the North Country folks who had lived near him, dined alongside him and willingly put their children in his charge a decade earlier.

To Mudgett, Mooers Forks was probably a lot like Gilmanton, the sleepy New Hampshire hamlet where he grew up. (Writer Grace Metalious, whose scandalous Peyton Place rocked New England in the 1950s, was the other infamous Gilmanton resident.) He high-tailed it out of the eastern countryside when he went off to college—first dissing the university in nearby Burlington, Vermont, for being too bumpkin—so it’s strange he settled here, even for a year. But perhaps his lackluster performance in school, as Larson relays, had bruised his ego.

When the 25-year-old doctor galloped into the Forks he wowed locals. Larson describes him as having “dark hair, striking blue eyes,” attracting the attention of young women. He knew how to woo the head honchos too, because according to the Chicago Tribune, “The trustees of the grade school were impressed with Mudgett’s gentlemanly manners, and hired him as the school principal.”

It’s possible that he, under the influence of his good neighbors, lived an honest life—for a little while anyway. In Mudgett’s memoirs, written before his execution, he reflected on his time in Clinton County: “Here I stayed for one year doing good and conscientious work, for which I received plenty of gratitude but little or no money.” Larson reports Mudgett was forced to sell his horses and often passed the wee hours of the night pacing outside his boardinghouse. “Starvation was staring me in the face,” wrote Mudgett.

Burned out on hardscrabble living and his tenure at the Winter School, on Pepperhill Road, Mudgett dreamt of his role as dapper, well-to-do doctor and, Larson speculates, began scamming insurance companies by filing fake policies, presenting corpses he probably dug up from cemeteries—possibly in Canada, a quick trot up Hemmingford Road—and collecting fat checks. Exactly when he switched to “fresher” bodies is anybody’s guess, though Larson cites a rumor about a kid, last seen with the school principal, who disappeared: “Mudgett claimed the boy had returned to his own home in Massachusetts.” Tight-knit community or not, his word was enough: “No one could imagine the charming Dr. Mudgett could harm anyone, let alone a child,” writes Larson.

One thing’s for sure, Mooers Forks was Herman Webster Mudgett’s last stop before reemerging in the Midwest as H. H. Holmes. On a wax cylinder recording, discovered in 1997 in a New Jersey attic, Holmes’s even, tenor voice can be heard confessing: “I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing.”

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