The Killer Who Haunts Me
In 1895, the nation was riveted by the trial of Harry Hayward, accused of murdering a Minneapolis dressmaker. Now, more than a century later, writer Jack El-Hai asks: Was Kitty Ging’s killer a repeat offender—and America’s first serial killer?
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Among the many villains, schemers, and scoundrels I have researched over the past few decades while writing about crime and mayhem in Minnesota, one murderer stands out. In old photographs, he wears a tuxedo jacket, starched shirt, and bowtie; a healthy growth of moustache covers his upper lip and his eyes stare untroubled into the distance. He was a handsome man, about 30 years old at the time of his hanging. What makes him stand out in my mind, however, is the utter lack of remorse he showed for the tragedy he caused. He seems a true sociopath, devoid of feeling for anyone other than himself. Thinking of him has always chilled me. His name was Harry Hayward.
You probably haven’t heard of Harry Hayward—few reference books about American crime mention his name. But if you are familiar with Hayward, it’s inevitably because of his association with the 1894 murder of Catherine “Kitty” Ging, the one crime for which he was convicted. Ging, a seamstress, owned a successful dressmaking business on Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis and had met Hayward, a man of leisure, after moving into Ozark Flats, an apartment building his father owned. (The building, now called the Bellevue, still stands at 1227 Hennepin Avenue.) Charming and seemingly sophisticated, Hayward caught Ging’s eye. They soon began dating, although Hayward was more interested in Ging’s income than her companionship. He took large loans from her, which he lost gambling, and told his brother that she was “a fool, an easy mark.”
Eventually, Hayward took out an insurance policy on Ging’s life and tricked her into signing papers that named him the beneficiary. He threatened and coerced the Ozark Flats building engineer into agreeing to kill Ging on an evening when Hayward had a solid alibi: a date with another woman. On December 3, 1894, in the guise of transporting her to a spot where Hayward had promised to meet her, the engineer took Ging on a buggy ride, put a bullet through her head with a .38-caliber revolver, and dumped her body along Excelsior Boulevard, not far from the north edge of Lake Calhoun. A railroad employee walking home from work discovered the corpse, still streaming blood.
Police quickly extracted a confession from the building engineer, who implicated Hayward. Newspapers around the country reported on the lengthy trial—for weeks, Hayward tried to implicate his brother Adry in the murder. But the jury convicted Hayward and sentenced him to death. (The engineer, also convicted, was given a life term in prison.) Hayward was the last person hanged in Hennepin County before the state abolished capital punishment in 1911. He never expressed remorse; he laughed over Ging’s fate and disparaged her as a stingy woman unwilling to keep his wallet fat. He joked and kidded his way to the gallows. Only the noose silenced him.
Hayward’s case never closed in my mind, though. I wrote an article about Ging’s murder and Hayward’s execution in 1995, but I felt no resolution. Even as the years passed, I found myself thinking about the case. Hayward’s brutality seems so out of place in 19th-century Minneapolis, so modern. I couldn’t shake off the memory of the killer’s calm, confident face. He seemed extraordinarily manipulative, cold-hearted, and dangerous.
So I kept track of Harry Hayward, reviewing my notes on him every few years and looking for new sources of information. I read old articles about him, dug into newspaper archives, searched for his grave in Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery, and even listened to an audio recording at the Minnesota Historical Society that purportedly featured Hayward reading a confession to Ging’s murder. (It’s probably a fake.) I set up Google alerts to let me know whenever the names Kitty Ging and Harry Hayward appeared online. (The alerts mostly informed me of blog posts about cats, as well as the activities of two men in Seattle and Ann Arbor who have the misfortune of sharing the killer’s name.) My wife’s eyes grew dull when I brought up Hayward’s crime, and even my children lost interest. All this obsessive sleuthing made me feel uncomfortable, like an ex-smoker sneaking a cigarette. More than a century after his death, Hayward was manipulating me.
One book I especially wanted to find was Harry Hayward: Life, Crimes, Dying Confession and Execution of the Celebrated Minneapolis Criminal, assembled by Hayward’s cousin, Edward H. Goodsell, and privately published in the Twin Cities the year after Hayward’s hanging. I hoped it would offer insight into Hayward’s state of mind. No library collection in Minnesota seemed to have it, however, and copies offered for sale were beyond my budget.
One morning last year, much to my surprise, I discovered the Hayward book online—among the millions of volumes scanned for the Google Books project. I had checked before, unsuccessfully, but now here it was. Finding it was akin to running into one’s long-lost brother in a local convenience store. Suddenly, the contents of the book I had been seeking were displayed right on my computer screen. I sniffed around it for starters. A bookplate on the digitized inside cover confirmed that the volume came from the Columbia University library. It was the bequest of a man named Frederic Bancroft. I spent hours trying to learn more about Bancroft, a historian with no personal or professional ties to Hayward that I could ever unearth, then, almost reluctantly, like a gourmand finishing his preliminaries and sitting down to eat, I began reading. I devoured the text in an afternoon.
The picture it painted of Hayward was worse than my nightmares had suggested. Observing that Hayward’s appointment with the hangman was fast approaching, Goodsell had pleaded with his cousin to give an account of his life before it was too late. Hayward was reluctant, but Goodsell persisted. “It was suggested that even if the prisoner did not believe in a future state, or if he did not think that to tell about his criminal acts would make the coming execution easier for himself, it was due to his brother Adry and others that the real facts in the case be given to the world,” Goodsell wrote. This argument persuaded Hayward.
On December 9, 1895, less than 26 hours before his scheduled execution, Hayward agreed to start talking. His words spilled out, filling more than 100 pages. In language drained of emotion, he not only admitted his plan to murder Ging but also laid claim to killing three people in California, New York, and New Jersey (and eluding capture for those crimes). He confessed to plotting two other killings in Minneapolis as well. His motives: money and the thrill of extinguishing life.
If the book can be believed, and if Hayward’s confession can be accepted as true, the killer of Kitty Ging ranks as a psychopath of unusual distinction. His crimes and the emotionless way in which he recounted them brought to my mind Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, Ed Gein, and Jeffrey Dahmer. The Minneapolis police do not appear to have taken Hayward’s claims seriously or to have followed up on them.
Hayward’s admission to serial-killing shocked me, although I knew of many other such murderers in Minnesota, including Harvey Carignan, Mark Profit, and Paul Stephani (the “Weepy-Voiced Killer” of the 1980s); in addition, the spree killer Andrew Cunanan found two of his victims in Minnesota during his four homicidal months on the run in 1997. But even more intriguing to me was the timing of the murders that Hayward laid out in his confession. He claimed to have begun his killing during the mid-to late-1880s—“For 10 years, I led a kind of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde existence,” he declared. This puts him a few years ahead of H. H. Holmes (also known as Herman Mudgett), the Philadelphia and Chicago murderer at the center of Erik Larson’s bestselling book The Devil in the White City). Holmes is generally acknowledged as America’s first identifiable serial killer. But if Hayward’s confession is true, he has wrested away that dubious honor and carried it here to Minnesota.
Of course, I wondered about the truthfulness of Hayward’s confession. He frequently lied, including statements he made under oath during his trial. That’s probably why the police paid no heed to his stories: They probably considered the source hopelessly short on credibility. Certainly some murderers—most notoriously Henry Lee Lucas, who confessed to about 600 murders during the 1970s and ’80s after his arrest in Texas, most of which he did not commit—have exaggerated their crimes and even confessed to fictional crimes to heighten their status and importance.
The possibility of Hayward lying in his confession so confounded me that one afternoon I called some experts on the history of criminology. Frederic Reamer, a professor of social work at Rhode Island College and the author of Heinous Crime: Cases, Causes, and Consequences, a book about criminals who commit unusually shocking offenses, told me: “When offenders confess, they’re usually telling the truth—they don’t often invent crimes that didn’t occur. When a false confession happens, there’s often a psychological reason, with evidence that the person is struggling with delusional thinking.” A longtime member of Rhode Island’s parole board, Reamer believes such cases—as well as attempts by criminals to lay claim to crimes they didn’t commit—to be very rare. “My guess is that most pre-execution confessions are reliable, if there’s no self-deception or mental illness in the picture,” Reamer says.
I began to suspect that the very concept of serial-killing must have seemed, to the Minneapolis police of the 1890s, incredible. Although some Victorian era law enforcers knew of links between different crimes, like the Jack the Ripper murders in London from 1888 to 1891, it wasn’t until the 20th century that the varieties of multiple murder were observed, defined, and studied. “Police undoubtedly had a hard time believing Hayward’s confession because that type of behavior was so foreign to them,” Scott Thornsley, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Criminal Justice Administration at Mansfield University of Pennsylvania, told me. Homicides weren’t always reported in 19th century newspapers, and communication between police departments was uneven. The odds that law enforcement would connect crimes committed at different times and places were, at best, poor.