Mooers is one of those Northern New York towns that doesn’t look like a town at all. It’s just a collection of houses and a few rundown old buildings you drive by on your way down U.S. Route 11.
If you’re passing through Mooers and its hamlet, Mooers Forks, you’re probably on your way to or from Canada or Plattsburgh. The only people who linger long are the people who live there.
Most rural towns are like that.
There’s a border crossing there and that’s how I know Mooers Forks. Just over the border is the Quebecois town of Hemmingford. You pass through it to get to Parc Safari, a very unique zoo every child in the Northern New York has visited at least once.
But Mooers Forks is hiding something in its history. That’s the other problem with rural towns. Our most interesting days are behind us.
The secret story in this sleepy little hamlet is about a serial killer. A man who said, years later, of his quiet time in Mooers Forks: “Here I stayed for one year doing good and conscientious work.”
And then H.H. Holmes moved to Chicago and brutally murdered hundreds of people.
I imagine small towns haven’t changed much since 1885, when H.H. Holmes decided to move to Mooers Forks. He was 25 and a doctor, with dark hair and blue eyes. He reportedly awed the local women, who were likely bored of the same dozen male faces they’d seen all their lives. I’m familiar with the feeling.
According to a 2006 article in Adirondack Life on the serial killer’s stay in the North Country, Mooers Forks was a bustling town in 1885. It had a “hotel, a couple of restaurants, creamery, grainery, railroad depot” and a school house.
Herman Webster Mudgett was fairly familiar with the area. He went to school in Burlington, Vermont, just a quick hop from Mooers Forks across Lake Champlain. He grew up in New Hampshire. He was familiar with small towns but according to Annie Stoltie’s article, he found Burlington–a cultured metropolis compared with its surroundings–to be “too bumpkin.”
Mooers Forks was more bumpkin than Burlington, but he found a group of people there willing to believe he was a good man. They trusted him.
And he may have rewarded their trust by killing one of their own.
Principal H.H. Holmes
Holmes once said of himself that he was “born with the devil in me.”
But the people in Mooers Forks didn’t see a devil. They saw a nice man with “gentlemanly manners.” And they trusted those manners enough to appoint H.H. Holmes principal at their two-story school house, the Winter School on Pepperhill Road.
Holmes said later that he was paid in gratitude, not money, and money is what he desperately needed. He recalled facing starvation and had to sell his horses.
Life in the cold North Country wasn’t for everybody–and still isn’t.
Erik Larson, who wrote “The Devil in the White City” about H.H. Holmes, speculated that the dapper doctor dug up corpses in local cemeteries to get by. It was a scam he performed well and often: filing fake policies and presenting the corpses ostensibly attached to those policies, then collecting the insurance clam money.
The most disturbing and haunting chapter in this strange story is the mystery of a missing boy–a student at the Winter School who was last seen with the gentlemanly principal. H.H. Holmes told the neighbors that the boy went home to Massachusetts.
I wonder if people bought the story. Larson claimed that the locals would never have believed the “charming Mr. Mudgett could harm anyone, let a child.”
But the thought must have crossed someone’s mind.
Devil in the North Country
Of course, 1885 was the time before “serial killer” was a common term. H.H. Holmes has since been granted the lofty title of America’s first serial killer, though I think that title should be revised to the first known serial killer.
The people who lived in Mooers Forks in 1885 weren’t accustomed to seeing devils like H.H. Holmes. One-hundred-thirty-three years later, people here still aren’t. We’ve seen evil and murder and cruelty, but Holmes was a different creature.
I first learned about his stay in the North Country in a Facebook post made in a group called “History and Legends of the Adirondacks.” I tracked down the Adirondack Life article, went to my local library, and had the article copied. Someday, I’ll investigate further, because the tale haunts me.
Since reading this article, I’ve often imagined a scene. Of H.H. Holmes, young and twisted, but not yet a serial killer, sitting next to a young boy in a carriage. For some reason it’s winter and the carriage glides across a sheet of unbroken snow. Flakes drift slowly to earth, dusting the shoulders of the child and his killer.
Holmes guides the horses further and further away from town, into the quiet North Country woods. All is silent. The boy, thinking he is in the safe company of his school principal, suddenly and violently learns he is mistaken.
And I remember this quote, from H.H. Holmes himself.
I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing.
“Murderer in Mooers Forks: When the Devil Came to Town,” by Annie Stoltie. Adirondack Life, March/April 2006.
Photo Courtesy Wikimedia Commons