The big news in the Victorian death world this week has been the proposed exhumation of the body of serial killer Herman Webster Mudgett, better known as H.H. Holmes of Chicago’s Murder Castle. This, say his descendants, will quell, once and for all, the rumors that he escaped execution in 1896, and that a dummy or a fellow prisoner—alive or dead—took his place in the noose and in the grave, buried, as he had specified, under tons of cement. The man who sold his victims’ articulated skeletons to medical schools had a horror of the Resurrection Men…
This sort of death-deception is popular with insurance fraudsters, with world-weary Emperors, and, of course, swindlers fleeing their creditors. Today we visit 1906 Michigan, where an accusation of a fake death and a demand for an exhumation caused a sensation.
DEAD DEFAULTER ONLY A WAX FIGURE?
Evidence Secured That Man Who Stole $1,000,000 Is Still Alive – Fake Funeral
Big Rapids, Mich., Nov. 8
It is understood that the body interred here as that of La Flora S. Baker will be exhumed this week to determine if it is really Baker’s or a wax figure.
Baker was cashier of the Northern National Bank, of this city, and after his death it was discovered that he was a defaulter. James Donovan, a prominent lumberman, declares that he will prove that Baker is not dead; that a wax figure was made in New York to resemble Baker and buried as his body to stop pursuit of the man who robbed the bank of $1,000,000, bringing death and desolation to a score of homes.
Baker went from Chicago to New York. Then came word that he had died, and shortly afterward a coffin arrived with instructions that the face should not be exposed. Even when Baker’s wife, who had left him, desired to kiss the dead face, she was not permitted to do so.
Donovan now asserts that the reason for the refusal was that the coffin contained only a figure of wax.
Convinced that Baker still lived, Donovan employed detectives, who scoured the country and watched departing steamers for the missing man. He says that as a result of his investigations he learned that Baker was living in New York, first as “W. W. Carpenter,” an attorney, and then as “L. S. Foster,” a frenzied financier, and finally in London as “Fred S. Holmes,” a capitalist.
Tucscon [AZ] Citizen 8 November 1906: p. 5
James Donovan was obsessed with finding Baker alive. He and Baker had been partners in the lumber business at Big Rapids several years before the latter’s supposed death. Shortly before that occurrence several ventures in which Senator [Thomas] Platt’s name figured had gone bust. Donovan lost heavily in the failure of the Northern National Bank, and insisted that Senator Platt was a party to the Baker’s death-fakery. Donovan contended that Baker’s friends had induced him to flee to England under an assumed name while they forwarded to his house a false corpse.
I feared that this would be one of those cases that would die in the press with no actual resolution, but Baker’s grave was actually opened and, lo and behold….
NOT A WAX FIGURE IN COFFIN.
Grave Opened at Big Rapids and a Real Body is Found.
Big Rapids, Mich., Aug. 21. The contention of a Chicago man that he was the victim of a conspiracy by which he had been defrauded of a large amount of money, and that a local cemetery held a wax figure, supposed to be the dead body of one La Flor Baker, and that by exhuming the dummy he could get evidence that would enable him to regain his lost fortune was exploded Tuesday when the grave was opened. When the last obstacle to exhuming the body of Baker had been overcome, by gaining the consent of Mrs. Lottie Baker Wycom, of Grand Rapids, a daughter of the late LaFlor Baker, city officials and relatives of Baker gathered about the open grave and the casket was opened. Instead of the placid features of a wax figure the spectators gazed at the shrunken remains of one whom the relatives declare to have been LaFlor Baker. They identified him by certain gold fillings in the teeth. The Chicago man’s claim was that Baker, whom he accuses of assisting in a fraud, is still alive.
Saginaw [MI] News 21 August 1907: p. 1
The Big Rapids City Attorney and other witnesses said the condition of the ground, the coffin, the skeleton and even the remnants of clothing proved that the grave had not been opened since it was made.
It seemed an open and shut casket. But Donovan still wasn’t ready to give up.
The startling declaration now is made that the grave had been opened before and that quick lime and other chemicals had been used to obliterate the features of the body in the casket. Further, it is asserted by Donovan and Pinkerton detectives that careful measurements of the coffin’s contents show them not to have been Baker’s remains. They charge also that the face in the coffin was treated with wax to resemble Baker’s when it was shipped to Big Rapids.
Bisbee [AZ] Daily Review 23 August 1907: p. 1
To be fair, it was a trifle suspicious that a noticed pasted on the glass of Baker’s coffin said that the glass was not to be removed by order of Senator T.C. Platt and Baker’s estranged wife was not allowed to give her dead husband a last kiss. But as late as 1909 Donovan was still maintaining that Baker was alive, this time wanting merely to call him as a witness:
LEGALLY DEAD MAN WANTED
Alive and Needed as Witness in Suit for $3,000,000
Chicago, March 23. James Donovan, president of the Baker Lumber company, declared here today that La Flora S. Baker, sought by the New York police and who was declared legally dead two years ago by Judge Cutting in probate court, was in Chicago during the Christmas holidays and at the home of his daughter. [Some articles said that Donovan actually spoke to Baker.]
Donovan said he was interested in finding Baker, whose estate has been settled since he was declared dead, as a witness in a suit for $3,000,000 against former Senator Thomas C. Platt of New York. More than 5,000,000 acres of land in Michigan are said to be concerned in the rest of the litigation in the prosecution of which Baker is needed.
Evening Nonpareil [Council Bluffs IA] 24 March 1909: p. 7
To judge by Donovan’s increasingly bizarre allegations about seeing and talking to Baker after his death, the man was utterly obsessed, perhaps driven mad by his financial losses. Yet, while there doesn’t seem to be any real evidence that Baker survived his “death,” Donovan may have been saner than he sounds when he talks of a wax corpse in the coffin. There were, according to this sensational article, specialists in providing corpses and images for just such emergencies.
BODIES FOR HIRE.
UNDERWORLD “TRADE.” SUPPLYING DOUBLES.
CROOK’S GRISLY DETAILS.
A little, sleek-headed man, with the hardest of brown eyes, walked into “The People” offices in London, and calmly announced himself as —”Lew Richards, the crook.”
“You know this story they’re telling about [Ivar] Kreuger,” he added, “that he’s not really dead, and that a wax figure was substituted for him in the coffin? Whether it’s true or not I can’t tell. But this I do know —that in the underworlds of all big cities—London, Paris, New York—the business of supplying doubles for all sorts of crime is highly organised. Anyone can hire a ‘double’ nowadays.
“In the underworld,” Lew Richards said, “when one man closely resembles another he is spoken of as being a ‘ringer’ for the other man. In more everyday slang you speak of him being ‘the dead image of somebody.’ In London to-day there is an ex-actor who deserted his profession when he discovered that the underworld would pay him more to act as a ‘ringer’ in various sorts of crime. He is a master of the art of facial disguise, able to alter his features and appearance to resemble another man almost without the aid of make-up.
“The method with, him is this. A certain crook plans to pull off some crime, burglary, what you will. It is necessary that he have a good alibi beforehand, instead of the usual faked alibi, where friends swear that he was with them at the actual moment of the crime, he employs this actor, known as ‘the ringer.’ ‘The ringer’s’ first task is to study the crook until he can double for him in looks and also in his particular mannerisms. At the time of the crime ‘the ringer’ is in another part of the town, where, in his pose as the other man, he takes good care that he is seen by people who know his employer.
“Thus perfectly innocent and respectable people will swear to the crook’s alibi later.
“In America to-day the police speak of a certain gang chief as being still active. I happen to know that he is dead. The man now masquerading as him was the ‘ringer’ put up to cover his murder. A rival gang determined that they would rid themselves of this gang leader. But there were strong reasons for the police and other parties continuing to believe that the gang chief still lived. “The conspirators first of all found a man who was a ‘dead ringer’ for their proposed victim. That accomplished, they quietly ‘bumped off’ the rival gang leader, and the double has since appeared in public to give the impression that the murdered man is still alive. When I was in Sing-Sing there was a prisoner on the floor with me, whose skill in arranging ‘doubles’ to assist in attempted escapes was uncanny. Joe Adams was his name. Joe was an expert modeller in wax. He could fake a lump of wax to look like a man’s head, so that the cleverest warder, looking through the cell spyhole at the head resting on the pillow, couldn’t tell the difference.
“Joe told me he had helped the gangs with his wax models several times. But only when it was a burying case—never for cremation.
“There’s big money in the business of supplying doubles, particularly if the double is to be a corpse. Such a case occurred recently in Paris. A body was wanted to help out a big swindle that was being worked over the will of a millionaire. The millionaire before his death had selected an heir to whom he wished to bequeath his riches. But after the will was made, the heir disappeared, and no trace of him could be found. He was a ne’er-do-well, and had quarrelled with his wealthy benefactor before he vanished.
“The next-of-kin naturally wanted to produce proof of death. This is how they did it: They got in touch with the leader of a gang that specialised in that class of work—and who was then living in London. A body was mysteriously recovered shortly after from the Seine, and even, those who had known the missing heir swore they had made no mistake in identifying it. The gang who found the ‘ringer’ made a very handsome profit on that deal. But some poor devil paid for their gains with his life.
“In insurance frauds, the game is extensively practised. Two people, say, a husband and wife, conspire to get hold of the insurance money payable on the death of one of them. “Here the professional body-men come in. The insured party ‘dies’ —and is actually seen by the agents for the insurance company lying in his or her coffin. Of course, a heavy fee is demanded by the ‘ringers’ for supplying a ‘double,’ and to compensate them for the risks they run in securing it.”
Auckland [NZ] Star, 16 July 1932: p. 3
Joe was prudent to realize that a cremated wax corpse would spoil the retort and the game.
The “dead-ringers” story comes from a later date than the Donovan-Baker saga. Does anyone know of an earlier example of criminal wax-corpse specialists? Obviously there were earlier legitimate modelers in wax making anatomical figures, mannequins, dolls, religious statues, and proper funeral effigies. Did these artists ever accept commissions for dead ringers? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
I also wonder if the makers of carnival gaffs and fake mermaids ever participated in the ringer trade? Makers of such freaks boasted that the closest scrutiny could not detect their handiwork. And a papier-mache corpse could be cremated with perfect confidence.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.