Throughout history, murderers have always seemed to rivet the attention of the public. Hapless victims, their calculated killers, and all the gruesome details of the crime seem to fascinate most people, and the trials are oftentimes sensational events that attract the masses. Killers committing their heinous crimes during the 19th century were no different than the ones of today, but a few of these criminals stand out in history.
Champ Ferguson - The story of Champ Ferguson is set in the mountains of Tennessee during the height of the American Civil War. For reasons not completely clear, Ferguson became a staunch supporter of the Rebel cause; some say Union soldiers raped his wife and daughter, while others say that the Confederacy promised him clemency on an existing murder charge if he promised his support. Whatever his reasons were, Ferguson became one of the most notorious and feared guerrillas in Tennessee, and also one of the most prolific killers of Union soldiers and supporters in the area. Noted for his sadistic tendencies when he found a new victim, Ferguson is estimated to have killed over 100 people, though he was only tried for the murders of 53. Ferguson was arrested and tried for murder in May of 1865, creating something of a spectacle for a public eager to see him sentenced to death. Though Ferguson freely admitted to committing the many murders, he maintained that his acts were part of military activities and he only killed those who would have killed him. Ferguson was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to hang on October 20, 1865. His death closed the chapter of one of the South's most notorious guerrilla fighters, feared by some and revered by others.
H. H. Holmes - Known by many as America's first documented serial killer, H. H. Holmes is responsible for the deaths of as many as 100 people, though he confessed to only 27 of those murders. Born in New Hampshire in 1860 under the name Herman Webster Mudgett, Holmes is best known for the time he spent in Chicago during the World's Fair in 1893. After graduating from medical school in Michigan, Holmes moved to Chicago to practice pharmacy. Dispensing medicine, however, was not high on his priority list, and instead he became involved in a number of shady business deals swindling people out of their money. In 1893, construction began on The Castle, which would serve as his home/office, a hotel for visitors to the fair, and ultimately, his killing grounds. The building was three stories high, covered an entire city block, and had a floorplan that would confound even the most experienced architect. The third floor was a sort of labyrinth, with windowless rooms, doors opening to nowhere, stairs leading to nowhere, and many more oddities. This was where Holmes committed his murders, torturing his victims and sending their bodies down secret passageways to the basement where they were either burned or dissected and sold to medical schools. When the World's Fair concluded, Holmes left Chicago looking for more opportunities to increase his wealth and his victim count. When he was caught in an insurance fraud scheme with his associate Benjamin Pitezel, who he had killed along with three of Pitezel's children, Holmes was tracked and finally arrested in Boston. After his arrest, The Castle was searched and authorities began uncovering evidence of some of the most gruesome crimes ever committed. After a trial lasting only five days, Holmes was convicted of murder and sentenced to the gallows on May 7, 1896. The story of H. H. Holmes is perhaps one of the most disturbing, yet fascinating, ventures into the mind of a killer.
Octavius Barron - While Octavius Barron didn't earn quite as much notoriety as the two killers above, he is notable because at the young age of 18, he was responsible for the first murder in the city of Rochester, New York. William Lyman was a respected man in the city, with a successful job and growing family. On the night of October 20, 1837, he left his office to return home to his wife and four children. He never made it. As Lyman walked toward his house, he was shot in the back of the head at point blank range, robbed of several hundred dollars, and left dead in an alley. Hearing the shot, a young boy living in a house nearby alerted his father, who then called police. While authorities were busy collecting evidence at the crime scene, Barron was at the local tavern waving Lyman's money around and boasting of the murder to his friends. It didn't take long for this cavalier attitude to come to an end, however, as Barron was arrested just hours after pulling the trigger. The case against him was strong, and as he was already known around town as being a habitual gambler and drinker, the young man was easily convicted of the murder. Octavius Barron hung for his crime on June 7, 1838, and with his death justice was served. But the tale doesn't stop here; though William Lyman's life had ended, his story continued.
You can learn more about Octavius Barron, William Lyman, and the surprising details of these men's fates in the documentary "Visions: True Stories of the Supernatural" by Ad-Hoc Productions. Go to http://www.ad-hoc-productions.com/index.html for more information.
Michael Keene is the award-winning producer of several independent historical films including Visions: True Stories of the Supernatural.