Backstory: The Oak Cliff victims of famed serial killer H.H. Holmes

Serial killer H.H. Holmes conned Minnie Williams out of her Fort Worth real estate holdings before killing her.

The Oak Cliff College for Young Ladies, which only lasted 15 years and closed 110 years ago, made the news in 2017.

It appeared in a story about the body of 1890s serial killer H.H. Holmes. Tests recently confirmed that the body in a gravesite in suburban Philadelphia was indeed Holmes’, dispelling rumors that the killer conman had escaped execution.

Two of Holmes’ victims once lived in Oak Cliff.

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From an 1894 Dallas Morning News article:

The Williams girls, Minnie and Nannie, supposed to have been murdered by H.H. Holmes, lived in Oak Cliff. Minnie came here in September 1889, and left in February 1890. She returned with her sister Nannie. Nannie entered the female college at Oak Cliff and remained till the end of the term in 1892. Then she went to Midlothian to teach a district school. She remained in Midlothian until June 1893, when she left to join her sister, Minnie, who was going to get married in Chicago.

Minnie Williams lived in Oak Cliff before being murdered.
Minnie Williams lived in Oak Cliff before being murdered.

Minnie Williams’ father, a physician, died and left his oldest daughter money and real estate holdings in Fort Worth. She and her brother and sister were raised by family members in Tarrant County. At one time she had been an actress and had started a theater company in Dallas. She met Holmes in New York when he was going by the alias Edward Hatch.

Williams met Holmes again in Chicago, and he offered her a job as his personal stenographer. The two lived together “as husband and wife,” according to newspaper accounts from the time. Williams wrote to friends in Texas asking them to visit if they should be in town for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

Holmes, a conman and bigamist who, among other atrocities, killed children and murdered his best friend for the life-insurance claim, sucked all the money Williams had and convinced her to sign over her real estate holdings to one of his aliases.

An 1890s newspaper clipping pictures some of Holmes’ victims, including Minnie Williams, center, and her sister, Nannie, mistakenly labeled “Annie” here.
An 1890s newspaper clipping pictures some of Holmes’ victims, including Minnie Williams, center, and her sister, Nannie, mistakenly labeled “Annie” here.

In his paid confession to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Holmes initially blamed Williams for the murder of her younger sister, Nannie. He spun a tale that Minnie had been jealous of Nannie, so she hit her over the head with a chair. Holmes said he merely covered up that crime by throwing Nannie’s body into a lake.

He later admitted to the horrifying murder of Nannie. She arrived by train from Texas, telling friends that she was to attend her sister’s wedding, and Holmes met her at the station. He brought her to his home, later dubbed “the murder castle,” in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago.

The sisters never saw each other. Holmes took all of Nannie’s money and pushed her into an airtight vault, designed and built specifically for murder, where he left her to suffocate.

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Holmes also admitted to killing Minnie. In a second handwritten confession, published widely around the United States, he stated that he chloroformed her while she was sleeping and threw her lifeless body into a cellar.

Holmes, who was the subject of Erik Larson’s 2003 best-selling book “Devil in the White City,” also confessed to killing the Williams sisters’ brother, Baldwin. Holmes took out a life-insurance policy on the young man with Minnie Williams as the beneficiary. He then tracked Baldwin Williams down in what was then Indian Territory Oklahoma and poisoned him.

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Thomas L. Marsalis built the Park Hotel in the Victorian stick style of architecture and later turned it into the Oak Cliff College for Young Ladies.

About the Oak Cliff College for Young Ladies

Thomas L. Marsalis converted the four-story Park Hotel, originally built to promote Oak Cliff, into a school. The ground floor contained classrooms, and the upper stories were dormitories.

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Marsalis hired M. Thomas Edgerton, former vice president of Waco Female College, to be headmaster. Edgerton’s wife, Virginia Belle, oversaw the dormitories.

The college focused on the arts, social culture, reading, writing, music and “grace and beauty of carriage,” according to the Texas State Historical Association.

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A newspaper article published just after it opened breathlessly described the college as “the Vassar of the South.”

Marsalis dreamed of having a ladies’ college in Oak Cliff as a way to make the suburb seem refined and upper class.

While Marsalis’ vision for Oak Cliff may be evident today, his investment in Oak Cliff led to his personal financial ruin. And the college didn’t last long either. It closed in 1907.

The building was converted back to a hotel, the Forest Inn, and it was demolished in 1945.

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  • Pat Palmer

    What was the address of the Park Hotel? It was on Marsalis Street, more likely, but I don’t recall ever hearing about it.