May 4 (UPI) -- Forensic examiners are hoping to put to rest a semi-mystery that's been lingering for more than a century -- did notorious serial killer H.H. Holmes die by hanging, or did he orchestrate a Houdini-like escape?
Holmes was accused in the murders of several people in Chicago between 1891 and 1894, including a number of victims who stayed at the hotel he operated did during the World's Columbian Exposition.
Officially, he was hanged May 7, 1896 -- but as the execution's 121st anniversary approaches, authorities are now trying to put to rest conspiracy theories that say he dodged the noose and fled to South America.
Pennsylvania authorities began exhuming Holmes' remains last week in the town of Yeadon, just outside Philadelphia. Their goal is to forensically examine the remains to determine if they do indeed belong to Holmes.
The effort is mainly being led by Holmes' descendants, who want to debunk the claim that the killer could have faked his own death.
"We found out that we were actually the ones who own the plot so we were curious and we wanted to go ahead and put these conspiracy theories to rest," Jennifer Saber, Holmes' great-great granddaughter told CBS Chicago. "Not that he deserves to rest in peace, maybe, either -- according to some people -- because he was a horrible person. He killed a lot of people."
The most common theory of Holmes' escape says he bribed a prison guard to place a cadaver in the noose while he escaped.
"It's very tempting [to believe it,]" Holmes researcher Matt Lake told NBC Philadelphia recently. "Because this guy was a consummate trickster!"
Holmes, 34, is considered by many to be the first American serial killer. Some have said he was responsible for at least nine murders. He confessed to at least 27, including that of his own son. Holmes is the subject of a 2003 book titled The Devil in the White City, which might soon be made into a motion picture.
A judge granted family members' request for exhumation in March. The University of Pennsylvania's Anthropology Department is conducting the analysis.
A similar scenario unfolded more than three decades ago regarding questions about the death of another notorious killer.
For years after the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, conspiracy theories claimed that reputed sniper Lee Harvey Oswald also faked his own death and arranged for a Soviet agent to be buried in his place.