Penn Museum anthropologist explains excavation of H.H. Holmes' grave

This summer, mystery swirled as to whether the 19th-century serial killer known as H.H. Holmes was really buried in a Philadelphia-area grave.

Last week, in the eighth and final episode of American Ripper  on the History Channel, viewers finally learned the answer. An anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, however, knew the truth well beforehand.

Samantha Cox, consulting scholar of physical anthropology, was present in May when the remains were exhumed from an unmarked grave site in Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, Delaware County.

She then tested the remains and confirmed they were Holmes’, squashing rumors that he escaped from the former Moyamensing Prison and manipulated his way out of execution.

Jeff Mudgett, a former lawyer, contended in the eight-part series that his great-great-grandfather Herman Webster Mudgett, better known by his alias H.H. Holmes, escaped execution in Philadelphia after having confessed to 27 murders. (Considering his penchant for inconsistent confessions and talent for misdirection, some biographers count more than 200 victims.) Erik Larson’s 2003 best-selling book, The Devil in the White City, was based in part on Holmes’ crimes.

But there was more: Mudgett said that during Holmes’ U.S. murder spree, he fled to London, where he continued on his path en route to earning another nickname: Jack the Ripper.

Mudgett asked for Holmes’ remains to be exhumed, and a Delaware County judge approved the request. After the testing, the remains were reinterred.

Cox answered questions via email while on a dig in North Africa about her role in the testing and show. (Full disclosure: This reporter also appeared in an episode of the show.)

Can you walk me through how the show runners approached you about participating in the series, and what you initially thought of their endeavor?

We were actually originally approached by Jeff Mudgett. He wanted to know about the exhumation process and what was involved. That was more than a year ago. Then a few months later, last August, the production company contacted us that they wanted to film the exhumation and it all went from there. Our reasoning was basically that we wanted to do this for the family and we wanted it to be done right, so we took it on.

Can you explain your testing process. And did the remains make for easy DNA extraction?

We did not test the DNA, we sent it to King’s College in London. Ancient DNA [more than 10 years old] is a very specific method and only a few labs [in the world] will do it.

Did the sample’s condition surprise you when you came upon it?​

The grave was full of water and the remains were only part-decomposed. We had known that was a possibility but we were hoping for just a skeleton or maybe a mummy. The remains were in good shape but it was very wet and smelly, so not ideal conditions to work under.

Did you think at the outset that Holmes’ body would be there?

We were most surprised when we dug out an empty box. We knew he had to be there. The second coffin was a shock. But we felt pretty sure. There just would have been way too many people involved in the escape conspiracy to make it very likely. But you never know. That’s why we had to look.