Since his starring role in Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, H. H. Holmes, 1861 to 1896, has widely been acknowledged as America's first serial killer. Holmes' bizarre method of dispatching his victims - through the use of a nightmarish gas chamber and abattoir that seemed, at once, to be an organic outgrowth and a demented satire of the slaughter houses of his adopted Chicago home - carries with it the stamp of modernity: His death chamber was, in essence, a human processing plant, a mechanical expression of homicidal urges that seems to presage the genocidal madness of that threatened to entirely engulf the century to come.
But a new claim by author Jack El-Hai - author of the definitive biography of the inventor of the frontal lobotomy - suggests that Holmes might not have been America's first serial killer. According to El-Hai, that title belongs to the obscure Harry Hayward (note to parents, don't give your kid all-H initials).
Hayward first came to the attention of El-Hai when the author was writing an account of the Catherine "Kitty" Ging case. Ging was a dressmaker in Minneapolis. She began dating Hayward in the early 1890s. Hayward took out an insurance policy on Ging and, in December of 1894, with the help of an accomplice, killed Kitty Ging. The accomplice put a .38 slug in her head.
His capture and convict was a pretty straight forward affair. His accomplice was caught right away and, under police questioning, he gave Hayward up. Hayward was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death. He was the last person to get the death penalty in Minnesota. After him, the state abolished capital punishment.
End of story. But something about Hayward stuck with El-Hai. He couldn't get over the murderer's casual sociopathy. From El-Hai:
He never expressed remorse; he laughed over Ging’s fate and disparaged her as a stingy woman unwilling to keep his wallet fat. He joked and kidded his way to the gallows. Only the noose silenced him. . . Hayward’s brutality seems so out of place in 19th-century Minneapolis, so modern. I couldn’t shake off the memory of the killer’s calm, confident face. He seemed extraordinarily manipulative, cold-hearted, and dangerous.
Still, El-Hai could never find any evidence that Hayward was anything other than a desperate kept man who couldn't squeeze his lady for any more dough. Until a random Google Books search showed that Google's indiscriminate scanning of public domain books had digitized an extremely rare book from 1896: Harry Hayward's last recorded confession.
For the rest of the story, check out El-Hai's article at the Minnesota Monthly: The Murderer that Haunts Me.
And don't forget . . .
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