A PAINFUL DIGRESSIONPoisoners and victims have always known the truth: Arsenic is a horrid way to die.
Remember Arsenic and Old Lace and the two maiden aunts who added arsenic to the mulberry (or was it elderberry) wine they offered unfortunate wayfarers who came to their home looking for a room? And remember how quickly, how painlessly the victims passed on with merely the time to comment on how delicious the wine was? Nice way to go, right? Wrong. Ever since Victorian novelists and rag-sheet reporters tabbed arsenic as an insidious, feminine, but rather mild form of murder, only pathologists, attending physicians, poisoners, and victims have known the truth: arsenic is a horrid way to die.
Arsenic is one of the heavy metals. For centuries (as far back as the Greeks and Romans) its medicinal properties were explored. In more recent times, it was used as treatment for venereal disease and various forms of parasite infestation. It was also a popular component of over-the-counter health tonics because of its cosmetic effect. In very low doses, ingested over a long period of time, arsenic can produce a “peaches and cream” or “milk and roses” complexion, because it causes the blood vessels of the skin to dilate.
When used as poison—that is, when administered in large doses—the effect is hardly cosmetic. Severe gastrointestinal pain is experienced within an hour or so after the poison is taken. This is generally followed by a burning sensation around the lips, a tightening of the throat, and increasing difficulty in swallowing. The next symptoms include severe headache, vertigo, stupor, blurring of vision, muscle cramping, atrophy, and coma. Death may come within 60 minutes, but usually takes longer.
Arsenic kills by inhibiting sulfhydral enzymes—a major and vital protein group. (A mechanical analogy is helpful. Imagine a machine with some 10,000 parts. Now imagine that 2,000 of those parts are all broken at the same moment. That will give you some idea of the relative importance of the sulfhydral groups.) The victim’s liver, stomach, intestines, kidneys, skin, and peripheral nerves are all affected, along with respiratory function. Death may actually occur from any number of causes, because what is taking place is a massive, ongoing, and spreading breakdown of the body’s ability to Bertha Gifford function. Arsenic is not a merciful poison.
A DARKNESS 'ROUND THE BEND
Fragments of Murder in Another Time
by Joe Popper, used with permission
IT WAS UNSEASONABLY COOL during the early morning hours of August 25, 1928, but Andrew McDonnell, the police chief of Webster Groves, was sweating as he drove. Not profusely, mind you, he was a pro; just enough to uncomfortably remind him of his own anxiety. He was heading north that morning toward a small farm outside the town of Eureka where he intended to make an arrest, an unusual arrest, perhaps the most important of his career. He didn’t know what to expect.
But there were no problems. The arrest came off without a hitch. He took into custody a leaden-eyed, 53-year-old woman who offered no resistance and seemed more confused than afraid or angry. Her passive reaction, while a relief, struck McDonnell as unusual since he had informed her that she was charged with murder, first degree, two counts. She merely brushed it aside and wondered aloud why anyone would say such a thing about her. The victims listed in the warrant McDonnell carried were a middle-aged farm hand and a seven-year-old boy. This, too, struck him as odd for they had so little in common. Almost nothing, really, except that they had both known the woman. That was the only real link. That and the way they died.
The killings had occurred in a small town in neighboring Franklin County, but the chief (an officer of St. Louis County) had been asked to handle the arrest because of his reputation as a tough, clever cop. The Franklin County officials in Union figured they might need such qualities: The woman they sought was no run-of-the-mill killer—not if the secret findings of the grand jury were correct. Years later, McDonnell would recall that from the things he’d been told, he feared he was on his way to confront a monster. After all, the jurymen had listened to witness after witness give sworn testimony tying the woman to at least nine deaths trailed across two counties. McDonnell could remember nothing like it, nothing to compare with what was emerging about the case. It was, he thought, the most bizarre series of murders in the history of Missouri.
IT WAS A VERY DIFFERENT time then, and that is important to remember. Otherwise, the things I’m going to tell you won’t make much sense. It was an age of patent medicines and gravel-top roads, of Hupmobiles and Marmons, Hudsons and Chandlers and a president named Coolidge. Phonographs were advertised as “talking machines,” boarding house owners sought “clean Protestant men,” and the bones of an animal thought to be 792 feet long—the size of the Woolworth Building—had just been discovered in the Gobi Desert.
The week before Chief McDonnell drove to Eureka, Jackie Coogan, “the Kid himself, loved by every mother, adored by every kiddie,” had made a personal appearance at the Skouras Brothers’ Ambassador Theatre in St. Louis. That same week, a young comic named Jack Benny was getting second billing at the St. Louis Theatre at Grand and Delmar. In baseball, the Cardinals held a slim lead over John McGraw’s Giants and would head that fall into a World Series against the Yankees led by Babe Ruth. At the Muny, George M. Cohan’s “Mary” was a smash. “Talkies” were exactly one year old and the president of the Radio Manufacturers Association announced that an experimental device known as television might be the next great step in the development of radio art.
Al Smith and Herbert Hoover were squaring off, the country was still officially “dry,” the Depression was more than a year away, and a Sunday drive to St. Louis from the outlying town of Pacific was a major event—all the more so if you made it without at least one flat tire. Towns now considered St. Louis suburbs were far from the city then, and the countryside was farther still.
The murders were sensational news when they were discovered; now, viewed through a distorting lens ground by more than 50 passed years, they seem unimaginable—almost comic, really, if you fail to understand the horror. They happened between 1906 and 1927 in an isolated farming area less than 50 miles from the heart of St. Louis, and they all took place at the hands of a woman who was renowned for her wonderful meals, lived a generally quiet and respectable life, and took such genuine pleasure in caring for her friends and neighbors when they became ill that she was known as a “Good Samaritan.” She also enjoyed their funerals.
I came upon the case quite by accident while reading through some old clipping files. Intrigued, I followed the track from clippings to court records to medical documents and then, finally, out to the places where the murders had occurred. Rural history is a fragile thing unsupported by the countless pieces of paper that preserve city moments. And so, I discovered the real story of the woman and her friends and victims is all but forgotten now except in a few scattered houses near where it began in the tiny village of Morse Mill on the banks of the Big River in Jefferson County; and where it reached its strange climax in the “Bend”—a community of farm folk who lived on the long and lonely Bend Road that still winds its way north from Catawissa toward Pacific.
HER NAME WAS BERTHA Gifford, and once she had been very beautiful. It was said that in her youth she had been one of the loveliest girls in Jefferson County, that she had been courted by many and had loved to dance. Such things—and many others—were whispered in the hallways of the Franklin County Courthouse in the town of Union during the fall of 1928. People were talking about Bertha because in late November, when the Circuit Court convened, she was scheduled to stand trial for murder.
If some of the murmurings were tinged with disbelief it was because Bertha Gifford was now anything but beautiful. She was thick and heavyset (some newspaper stories referred to her as “plump,” but plump is a soft word, and she was not soft). Her face was weather-beaten and furrowed by years of work in the sun; now, too, it was showing the effects of three months in jail. But what most struck those who saw her was her expression, or rather the lack of it. Her eyes were dead.
A great deal was said about Bertha Gifford that fall. A murder trial was a major event in a town like Union, something to look forward to, something worth hours of gossip and speculation. A really good trial could become part of the very fabric of the town’s life and history; but really good trials didn’t come along often. The last one had been in 1904, and people still talked about it.
Back in December of 1903 the local bank had been robbed of more than $150,000 by a pair of old-style thieves named William Rudolph and George Collins who scared the hell out of half the town in the process. A few days later they had shot and killed a private detective hired to track them down.
When the two were finally captured and brought back to Union in the spring of 1904, the town’s schools closed for a holiday, most of the stores followed suit, and people flocked to the courthouse square from miles around to be part of the festivities, just to say they had been there on such an important day.
The trial that followed was a real wingding. The courtroom was packed and the prosecution’s witnesses sat on the lawn outside waiting to be called by the sheriff, who periodically leaned out the third-story window and hollered at the top of his lungs through a megaphone: “John Jones at bat; Willie Smith on deck!” It was better than a baseball game.
On the day of the hanging—an event planned for sunrise—the sheriff delayed the proceedings to allow extra time for all the ticket holders to arrive and find their places. The final touch was provided by the town’s brass band as it played the would-be desperadoes into eternity.
No doubt about it, a good murder trial was the best show in town. And the Gifford case had all the necessary ingredients. Some of the county’s best lawyers were involved, there was an air of mystery about the killings, and there were all those stories about Bertha.
Didn’t she spend the daylight hours hiding beneath a blanket in her cell, refusing to eat anything but ice cream? And didn’t she wear some sort of blood red kimono each night as she paced back and forth, howling like a wolf and making other ungodly noises? Hadn’t the sheriff reported that she refused to speak to anyone except her husband and that when he came to visit she always met him in a neatly pressed and starched white nurse’s uniform? And what about the times she stood holding the bars of her cell window shouting horrid curses at the darkened street below? All of these things and more were talked about in the weeks before the trial. Some of them were true.
In August, just after she had been arrested, Bertha had allegedly confessed to three killings. Now the prosecutor was saying that many more deaths were under investigation. So many strange tales and yet so few people in Union thought to ask just how on earth this woman had walked free among her neighbors bringing death into their homes; how had she managed to do the things she’d done for so long? And why? Of course, the killings hadn’t taken place in town. No, these were country murders and that was a different story...
CATAWISSA IS JUST A FLY-speck on the official state map now; a crossroads with a sign, a bar, a small store, an old railroad station, a post office. For some of the 125 people who live there, it is a kind of suburban suburb, located as it is about 10 miles southwest of the much larger and more developed town of Pacific where they work. A few old-timers call it Catawissy and say that’s how the name used to be pronounced back when the town had a real life of its own. The name, no matter how one pronounces it, was borrowed from a town in Pennsylvania that was home for many of the men laying track for the San Francisco Railroad back in 1860.
The town and its railroad station were established just in time to be raided by a small band of Confederate cavalrymen who launched their assault north from Grubville, tearing up track as they moved on to the far more famous and more significant attack at Pacific. With that dramatic exception, Catawissa was born and grew and drifted along in rural obscurity. It never grew quite large enough to support a newspaper of its own, but it did eventually merit a regular pair of newsy columns in the weekly Pacific Transcript. One of the columns was headed “Catawissa,” the other, simply, “Big Bend News.”
The people whose lives were reported in the Bend News were farmers who worked land of the Meramec Bottoms, an area bounded by a broad U-shaped curve in the Meramec River to the north and Catawissa proper to the south. Their homes dotted the dirt and gravel Big Bend Road at long intervals as it rose again, winding through the hills overlooking the bottomland. And because the people of the Bend had more in common with one another than with their town neighbors, they slowly developed an informal community of their own. There was nothing odd about this; the Bend folks didn’t cut themselves off from Catawissa or Pacific. It was just easier to turn to a near neighbor in time of need than to send for help farther away. And it was pleasant to share the good times at dinner parties and picnics and barn dances with the men and women who shared the hardscrabble lot of farm life on the same land. In Catawissa today, certain families are still referred to as “from the Bend,” and people can list the names of those who once made their homes there.
No, there was nothing odd to report about the Bend back in the teens and early twenties—not unless you happened to be a statistician with the Bureau of Vital Statistics and happened to notice that along a single road in a small Missouri town an awful lot of people were dying. Most of them were dying from “gastritis.” But there was no such statistician and no one noticed. No one outside Catawissa, that is. The town doctor must have taken some note of the situation. He was signing the death certificates.
In Pacific, where people from Catawissa did most of their shopping, a druggist named James Powers—“Uncle Jimmy” to everyone who knew him—was reminded from time to time of a minor problem on the Bend, one that hardly rated a mention in the paper. One of his many regular customers often complained to him that rats were “bothering” her chickens. She was proud of her Rhode Island Reds, she said, and was going to do something about it. In the poison record ledger kept by Powers’ Pharmacy—a small red notebook with lined pages—there appear a number of entries for the sale of large quantities of arsenic to Bertha Gifford. The first entry was made in 1917. At another Pacific pharmacy, Bertha purchased arsenic as early as 1911. “For rats,” she wrote next to her signature. That was only a short time after she moved to Catawissa with her new husband. It was not her first marriage. Her first husband had died.
WHEN THE GIFFORDS first came to Catawissa, the people there knew little about them. And they didn’t ask much. It wasn’t for lack of interest, either, but in a small, tight-knit community where everyone knows everyone and people have to rely on one another, it’s often best to go about things slowly, quietly. It’s always best not to push. Everything unfolds in its own time.
She was born in 1876 near the town of Morse Mill, about six miles from Hillsboro in a beautiful section of Jefferson County. She was one of four children in a family considered one of the area’s “finest and most respectable.”
Her family worshipped in the Church of God (Faith of Abraham), a fundamentalist church which holds that the “Kingdom of God will be established on earth when Christ returns personally and visibly to reign as King in Jerusalem.” It is not a pulpit-thumping, revival-sweating church; it’s a dignified sect, and its members study the Bible with quiet intensity. They are sometimes mockingly called “soul sleepers” because of their literal interpretation of the prophesied resurrection, their belief that all the earth’s dead lie waiting in their graves for a single day of judgment.
In her early twenties, Bertha married a man named Graham, and it is said that they operated a small hotel outside Hillsboro for a time and that they also farmed. Nothing unusual. And then, seemingly out of the blue, she took up with a single man who was seven years younger than she. The whole business is now clouded over by time and lost memory and pain, but there was a dandy of a scandal. Her husband, too, was said to be keeping company with a “friend,” and the marriage became bitter and mean and marked by loud quarrels.
The “other” man in Bertha’s life was Gene Gifford, a good-looking and affable carpenter and farmer. One of the larger houses he built in Morse Mill still stands, and he helped design and construct the first permanent building for the Church of God—of which he, too, was a member. It was a graceful white country church with a delicate, needle-like steeple.
Gene was a popular man around the region: a good worker, fine storyteller, good friend. But people said that he changed some after taking up with Bertha. His life certainly did. At the time, he was engaged to be married but quickly broke that off. Folks around Morse Mill muttered that Bertha, now in her early thirties and still one of the most beautiful women in town, was exerting a strange influence over Gene. They didn’t come right out and say what they thought it was.
Not long after Gene and Bertha began spending time together, Bertha’s husband came down with what was diagnosed as pneumonia. He held on for awhile, even rallied with Bertha in constant attendance at his bedside. But the disease weakened him and he developed complications—violent, agonizing stomach cramps. He was 34 years old when he died.
Following a respectable interval, and after collecting the insurance, Bertha Graham married Gene Gifford and they left Jefferson County, moving to Catawissa where they took up farming. Strangely, although Gene was successful at raising cattle and hogs and corn, the Giffords never bought a place of their own. Bertha didn’t want to settle permanently; she liked moving from farm to farm.
Part of an interview with K.F., a woman in her eighties who has lived in and around Catawissa all her life, May 15, 1979:
Let me tell you about Sherman Pounds. Well, Sherman was related to Gene Gifford; his uncle, I think. Sherman was a widower with five children. One of them was still a tiny baby and someone else was taking care of her, but Sherman was raising the other four all by himself. He was both a father and a mother to those kids.
He was a very strong man. Some people said he was about the strongest man in Catawissa. But he had a weakness: he liked to go into town and get on a drunk just about every weekend. One of his sons used to follow him into town and dog every step until he got his father on the way back home. That last time, though, he didn’t go after his father. I don’t know why. Sherman started back late at night, but he only made it as far as the Gifford place. They took him in. He died there, you know. That was back in 1917. He was 53 years old when he died. The doctor said the cause of death was drinking. Sherman was in a lot of pain when he died.
Five years later, Sherman’s little grand-daughter—he never knew her—she died in that same house. The doctor wrote that she died of acute gastritis. She was three years old when she died. It was a terrible thing. I remember the oldest of Sherman’s daughters saying to me: “Well, now we have the same thing to think about as when Papa died.” But that’s all they did. Think about it.
I still can’t understand it. Don’t you think the doctor must have known something? Or the druggist? Maybe they were just afraid.
THE DEATH OF SHERMAN Pounds on February 20, 1917, created no great stir in town. Everyone knew he was a heavy drinker and the doctor signed the death certificate routinely. The stomach cramps that had come on during the night were the result of “acute alcoholism,” he determined. There was no inquest, no autopsy. Just a small notice in the paper and a modest funeral.
The fact that he died in the Gifford home was not thought to be the least bit strange. Bertha was a good neighbor. Since coming to town, she’d established a reputation as a fine country nurse—always willing to help out, always there when someone was ill or injured. She’d sometimes walk or ride miles to be at a sick bed or at the scene of an accident. It was natural that she’d take Sherman in and care for him when he showed up at her door.
Back then a town like Catawissa was almost completely cut off from emergency medical help. Pacific was at least 45 minutes away across the river, and the one doctor in Catawissa had a lot of territory to cover. It often took a long time just to contact him, and after he’d seen his patients, he certainly couldn’t stay around to nurse them. And since people couldn’t afford real nurses women like Bertha Gifford, who had the inclination and the ability to care for the sick, were the best possible substitutes.
Bertha Gifford made potions of her own. “Potions,” that’s what she called them, for treating muscle sprains and aches. She carried them with her when she made her sickbed visits. She carried all kinds of things.
Sherman’s death didn’t scare Bertha, didn’t keep her from offering help. She’d seen dying before. There was her first husband of course; and then in 1912, her mother-in-law died while staying with Bertha and Gene. “Organic heart trouble,” the doctor said. Sixteen months later Gene’s kid brother, Jimmy, died tragically from a sudden attack of “whooping cough” while Bertha looked on helplessly. There was the case of the little Stuhlfelder boy, too. Little Bernard. Perhaps that was the saddest of all. He was only fifteen months old in February of 1915 when he came down with bronchial pneumonia. Bertha sat with him through four long days and nights, mixing his medicine, making sure he took every dose, doing everything she could. She stayed even after the complications set in. Even after the vomiting and screaming began.
Anyone got sick, she was right there. She’d run right over with her satchel. She always wore a white apron when she came to call. Later on, I think she started to wear a regular nurse’s outfit. She was always meticulously clean. She could be so friendly, so warm…
Most country people back then accepted help. It wasn’t like it is now. Times have changed. You have to understand that in a rural area like this people took death as a way of life.
You know, Gene was a real nice fellow as honest as the day is long. He was a good man. He always had wonderful teams and wonderful harnesses. He wanted everything he had to be good. He was jolly and everyone liked him. No one ever wanted to get it in for him.
Even after everything happened—the trial and all—Gene never mentioned it. He never said a word against her or against anybody.
Why didn’t anybody do anything? For a long time nobody knew anything was wrong, no matter what they said later on. And then, well, you have to put yourself back in those days. Suppose you went to the authorities and suppose they didn’t do anything, didn’t believe you? Who’d be next? People probably kept their mouths shut about a lot of things back then. They were just afraid.
JIM OGLE WASN’T FRIGHT-ened. He was angry. The Giffords owed him money and he was damned if he was going to let them get off without paying him his due. He’d been working as a hired hand for Gene and the way he figured it, his pay was short about $200 all told. He talked a lot about that money, about how he was slowly being shortchanged, about how he’d sue them if he had to, damned if he wouldn’t. He’d earned every penny.
That was in the fall of 1917. Eight months after the death of Sherman Pounds.
The Giffords didn’t seem much disturbed by the fuss Ogle was kicking up. If they were, they didn’t show it. And whatever hard feelings may have been caused soon evaporated when Ogle became sick in early November. The doctor—“Ol’ Doc” Hemker—was called in and diagnosed the illness as malaria. Bertha took over all the nursing duties. Malaria was serious business.
On November 17, Bertha went to Pacific for a few things and stopped by to see “Uncle Jimmy” Powers. The rats were after her chickens again. On November 18, Ogle took a turn for the worse and the doctor was called back. He assumed that the stomach cramps were caused by the ravages of the disease. The cramps became increasingly severe. James Louis Ogle was 52 years old when he died on November 20. He had been in agony for three days. On the death certificate, Dr. Hemker wrote “gastritis” as the cause of death. There was no autopsy, no inquest. And nothing was said.
THAT WAS ALL. IN THE weeks preceding the death notice, there had been chatty little comments about Beulah’s mother and Bertha Gifford shopping together in St. Louis, about the Giffords holding a dinner party and inviting Beulah’s mother, about the coming holidays. But there was nothing printed about the afternoon of December 26, 1922, when Beulah’s mother dropped her daughter off with Bertha for a few hours while she went to run errands.
When she returned, she found that Beulah was complaining of a bad stomach ache. Bertha began offering advice on what to give the child, how to make her comfortable, what to prepare for her. It was decided that the best thing to do would be to leave the child with Bertha for the night. She’d be well taken care of; everything would be all right. The next morning she was much worse. The pain was terrible and the doctor hurriedly summoned. Beulah Pounds was three years old when she died a few moments after the doctor arrived. Hemker listened to a description of the child’s symptoms and wrote “gastritis” on the death certificate.
But this time somebody said something. Beulah’s aunt asked about a post-mortem. A few years later, Beulah’s mother told a newspaper reporter the scene that followed. “My sister thought things looked pretty funny because my father also died in Mrs. Gifford’s house after he was taken with acute stomach pains there. Mrs. Gifford was usually a quiet woman but she certainly got mad. She said terrible things. I asked about holding a post-mortem, but people said it would cost me a lot of money. I didn’t know the state held post-mortems. We just buried the child after the doctor treated her.”
Dr. W.H. Hemker said nothing. Bertha was certainly angry. So angry, in fact, that she didn’t attend Beulah’s funeral. It was the only funeral she missed in all the years she lived in Catawissa.
The next week, according to the Pacific Transcript, Gene Gifford sent a carload of hogs to market in St. Louis. The Giffords were doing well that year. A few months earlier they had purchased a brand-new Essex automobile. A tidbit in the Bend News in early November reads: “E.B. Gifford and George Schamel and families ran over to Morse Mill for a few hours on Sunday.” The Schamels and the Giffords were very friendly. Just like the Pounds and the Giffords.
Item from the Big Bend News, March 9, 1923:
THE DEATH OF BEULAH Pounds may have reminded people of what had happened to Margaret Stuhlfelder. But if it did, they didn’t say. The Stuhlfelders, neighbors to the Giffords, had lost their baby son, Bernard, during the winter of 1915. Six years later—almost to the day—their two-year-old daughter, Margaret, came down with pneumonia. The country winter could be cruel to its children.
Mrs. George Stuhlfelder later told the grand jury and a reporter what happened. “We called Dr. Hemker, and he prescribed for her. Mrs. Gifford, as usual, came over to nurse the sick baby. She told me: ‘The baby looks to me as if she’s awfully sick; I don’t think she’ll get well.’ At the end of the second day Margaret began to vomit and after another three days she died.”
Bend News, March 16, 1923:
MRS. STUHLFELDER: “Irene had always been troubled with worms, and when she got sick in 1923, we called Dr. Hemker. He prescribed some stomach powder, and she seemed to be getting along very well when Mrs. Gifford came by. Mrs. Gifford nursed her, and she started to vomit. She was sick nine days when she died.”
That made it three. Dr. Hemker signed the death certificate without conducting a post-mortem. Said Mrs. Stuhlfelder: “We did not think there was anything strange about the death of our children. Everybody in this part of the country knows that Mrs. Gifford has a wide reputation as a nurse.”
Everybody knew lots of things.
Continuation of interview with S.B. of Catawissa:
Over where the MFA hut is now, there used to be a general store—Ben Scheve’s store. He was also the undertaker. Half the store was groceries and half was given over to clothes and books and other goods. Bertha Gifford used to go in there and take a whole bolt of goods out and put them on her wagon. Just steal them.
Gene knew about it. He told Ben Scheve to look around after Bertha came in and see what was stolen and he’d pay for it. Gene let her think she was getting away with it. He never did say much about it. I guess he was afraid to say anything.
And then there was that thing that happened with Gus Unnerstall. Gus had a still in his basement—he made pretty good whiskey—and when he went to town to deliver the stuff, he’d put his whiskey in a basket, cover it with a cloth, and put eggs on top. We’d see him with his basket and laugh: “There goes ol’ Gus again with his eggs—and his glass.”
Gene ran a still too. A big one. He got in some trouble over that once. The revenuers blew it up and he was fined. When they came by, Bertha went after one of ‘em with a shotgun.
Anyway, Gene left some equipment or something in one of Gus’ sheds and they had a little disagreement over it. I’m not saying it was over whiskey-making stuff. I don’t know that for sure. But Gus went over to the Gifford place one day to talk about it and Bertha ran him off with a butcher knife. She screamed and cursed him something awful. She told people she was going to cut him up with that butcher knife. A few days later it happened again and Gus had her arrested and put under some kind of bond to keep the peace. Of course, that was later. 1926, I think. That was the year Gus’ mother died while Bertha was taking care of her. It happened very fast. One day she seemed fine, the next day she was dead.
MOST OF THE MEN IN Catawissa had little real contact with Bertha except when she served them at the dinner table. She struck them as being quiet and reserved most of the time, even shy, hardly talking at all except when they asked her something. They did notice that she had a powerful influence over Gene and that he often changed his plans to suit her. But they paid little attention. She was a great cook.
The women knew her better. Those who helped in the kitchen during dinner parties, or went shopping with her, were aware that Bertha Gifford was fascinated with death. They knew that she loved to read about murders in the newspapers. Murders and accidents. And she loved to talk about them.
But no one made the connection.
Interview with M.S., a woman in her sixties who grew up in Catawissa. May 16, 1979:
THE PACIFIC TRANSCRIPT has a new name. It’s now called the Meramec Valley Transcript because of its wider distribution. The offices are housed in a small commercial building on Columbus Street about half a block north of the Missouri Pacific tracks. When a train approaches town, the whistle is heard clearly at the paper, followed by the bells of the automatic crossing barriers. Now and then there is a squeal of tires as someone cuts quickly around a barrier to beat the oncoming train. It can take a long time for a 50-car freight to roll slowly through town.
The back issues of the Transcript are held in frayed bindings. The old newsprint is yellowed and crumbling and some of the papers have suffered serious water damage. The volumes sit in no apparent order on tables and shelves and even on the concrete floor of the storage room in the rear of the newspaper’s office. There is an old press in the room and dozens of boxes and years of dust. It is a good place for rummaging through the past.
I sat at a long, scarred table in that room searching for information about Bertha Gifford, for anything that would provide an answer. I found something else, something I should have expected but didn’t—perhaps because I didn’t want to. I found the people who were her victims.
Through issue after issue, year after year, life in the Bend unfolded. I already knew many of the names from numerous conversations, interviews and documents. But they were just names, just witnesses, just victims. Now, in the forgotten columns of a small-town paper, they were once again lives filled with routine and joy and pain and fun and struggle of living.
I read about the Stuhlfelders, the Pounds and the Unnerstalls, about their farms, their friends, their parties and their trips. And I read about the Schamels.
The Schamel family, the Schamel boys: their names had come up again and again. (“Did they tell you about those little Schamel boys?” “Nobody was suspicious until the Schamel boys died.”) It was almost as if everyone I spoke with knew they were the key to a puzzle, but didn’t quite know how to use it. Or didn’t want to.
The next year the Schamels were slaughtered. Mrs. George Schamel—her name was Ethel, but the newspaper was always very proper—died at the age of 33 in June of 1925. Bertha was at her bedside. Two months later, her nine-year-old son, Lloyd, died in the Gifford home. “Gastritis.” A month after Lloyd’s death, his seven-year-old brother, Elmer, followed him. “Gastritis.” Three weeks after Elmer, his Aunt Leona began vomiting. She died on October 12. She was 37 years old.
I knew these “facts” before visiting the Transcript office. The paper added nothing to them. The deaths were reported almost routinely. There were no suspicions printed, no questions, not even a veiled hint that someone, anyone, in Pacific or Catawissa or on the Bend thought something was wrong.
Not even George. His wife had been ill; it was natural for Bertha to nurse her. And he had known the Giffords for more than 16 years, had often worked as a hired hand for Gene. In 1928 he told a reporter from St. Louis how he felt when his sons died.
“Mr. Gifford sent for me and I got to the house on a Saturday night with my two boys. The next night—it was a Sunday—Lloyd was sick with a stomach ache. Tuesday night he was dead. A little more than a month went by and the same thing happened to my other boy. I didn’t suspect anything. I liked the Giffords fine. I thought it was just my bad luck at the time.”
Dr. Hemker signed all the death certificates. Later he would say that the deaths of the two boys had made him suspicious and that he had suggested an autopsy to their father. But George responded that the doctor had never suggested any such thing, had never even hinted that anything was wrong. Why didn’t Hemker order an autopsy on his own? “Suppose I was wrong,” he answered. “I didn’t want to lay myself open.”
Open to what? And then I remembered what an old man in Catawissa had told me: “Suppose they didn’t do anything, didn’t believe you? Who’d be next?”
Was that it? Was it possible?
THE SCHAMEL DEATHS finally started folks talking. They had all come so close together and the boys had both been in perfect health. But the talk died down and nothing happened. It would be another three years and another three murders before Bertha Gifford was finally stopped.
The last victim was a man named Ed Brinley, a one-time butcher in Pacific, who lost his shop because of his drinking. He had become a farmhand and worked for Gene Gifford.
On the evening of May 15, 1927, he staggered stone drunk to the Giffords’ front door. After sitting for a few moments, he got up and walked outside where he collapsed on the road. Gene helped him back in and put him to bed. The next morning, after drinking some lemonade prepared by Bertha, he developed acute stomach pain. He died that afternoon in agony.
Bertha told a neighbor she thought it would be a good thing if Brinley died, “for then his mother won’t have to worry about him anymore.” The remark would be remembered. So would her early-morning trip to Powers’ Pharmacy. It was one trip too many.
Dr. W.H. Hemker was unsure about Brinley’s death; all the talk had made him uncertain. He called another doctor, a man from Pacific, for consultation. But the two physicians couldn’t reach agreement and there may have been an argument. The death certificate was signed by both and reads: “acute unknown disease and acute gastritis, cause unknown.” A peculiar compromise.
Bertha reminded me of what I used to think an old witch would look like. She was wearing this awful black dress and had something strange and black on her head. And she was acting in the most peculiar way, kind of sneaking around the room like she was trying to hear what people were saying. She knew there was talk.
Q: What about Gene?
THE DEATH CREATED SO much suspicion, that news of the situation finally reached the county seat in Union. A young prosecuting attorney named Frank Jenny decided to take an official look at what had happened. Six months after Brinley’s death, the Franklin County grand jury began an investigation.
Bertha was enraged. She threatened libel suits against anyone who said a word about her. Even the normally quiet Gene verbally assaulted neighbors he thought were gossiping about a “Catawissa poisoner.” It worked. Witnesses scheduled to appear before the jury suddenly had nothing to say. The case dried up and the jury refused to return an indictment.
But in Catawissa and Pacific the whispering continued. Folks said the investigation had been blocked by powerful interests, that Bertha had high-placed relatives, that it was all whitewash. The talk was nonsense, but it kept the case alive.
EIGHT MONTHS LATER Frank Jenny tried again. This time he had done his homework. He went before the jury armed with the poison ledgers from the Pacific pharmacies, and his witnesses showed up with their tongues wagging. On August 23, 1928, the jury returned an indictment charging Bertha Gifford with two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Edward P. Brinley and Elmer Schamel.
The story was soon splashed across the front pages in St. Louis and many other cities. And as the story spread, the prosecutor’s office began receiving letters and calls from people whose relatives had died while under Bertha’s care. The official count of suspicious deaths rose from nine to seventeen.
During the course of the second investigation, the Giffords left Franklin County and moved to Eureka. And that’s where Chief Andrew McDonnell of Webster Groves found them on August 25. After placing Bertha under arrest, he drove her to his office and gave her a bite to eat. He talked to her quietly and shrewdly and she chatted with him about many things. But she kept coming back to one topic. People were talking about her, she said, talking about terrible things. They were saying she killed little Beulah Pounds with arsenic. But she didn’t do it, Bertha insisted. The girl died from eating too much food and nuts. She wasn’t given arsenic.
McDonnell just listened and nodded. Then he followed his cop instinct. “O.K.,” he said, “but who did you give it to?”
The next day, after learning that her confession had been made public, Bertha became hysterical and denied it all. Her bizarre jailhouse behavior—the moaning and pacing and seclusion—had begun. Gene stuck by her. “She was just nervous when she said those things. They excited her and she made those statements. She didn’t know what she was saying.” He hired a lawyer who entered a plea of “not guilty” on Bertha’s behalf at the arraignment held the next week.
On September 1, the state health commissioner issued a scathing statement about the actions of the doctors in Catawissa. “It is a physician’s duty to determine the cause of death before filing a death certificate,” the statement concluded. “It is his duty to the community in which he practices and to himself.” The commissioner ordered the Bureau of Vital Statistics to refuse to accept any certificate lacking a “concise and clear statement of the cause of death.”
During the third week in September, the bodies of Brinley and the Schamel brothers were exhumed. Large quantities of arsenic were found in their vital organs.
THE TRIAL BEGAN ON November 19. It lasted four days. Once again the case made big-city headlines and reporters flocked to Union and combed the backroads for stories. As expected, the courtroom was jammed. There were seats for 180 and all of them were filled. Men and women stood in the back and lined the corridors outside. Country farmers in overalls mingled with suited clerks from town and talked about the strange deaths.
The prosecutor chose to try the Brinley murder first and announced that he would seek the death penalty—the gallows—for Bertha. Attendance rose even higher by afternoon.
The defense was handled for the most part by a colorful man named James Booth—a tall, heavyset, rumpled, tobacco-chewing, country-style lawyer who was known as one of the best defense attorneys in the state. He pecked and badgered the prosecution’s witnesses for two days—putting on quite a show—but he kept his cards hidden.
The prosecution’s case was well-knit, tight. The telltale arsenic was methodically traced from pharmacy to farmhouse, and lemonade to liver—Brinley’s liver—and try as he might, and score as he did, Jim Booth couldn’t break the tightening noose of circumstantial evidence around his client’s neck. But he never really thought he would.
Early on the third day—after the prosecution had rested—Booth called Gene Gifford.
Bertha had been paying little attention during the first few days. She appeared listless and withdrawn, rarely looking at the witnesses, hardly saying a word to her own lawyers. She stared down at her hands or up at the wall and seemed lost and alone. But when Gene took the stand her attitude changed abruptly. Her body tensed; her hands clenched; and she looked unblinkingly at the witness box.
Booth played his ace. He led Gene through a line of questions that pointed one way. Gene testified that 10 years before, his wife had gone through a “crisis in life” and that ever since she had suffered frequent attacks of melancholy. She sometimes walked the floor for two or three nights in a row, he added, and would often sit for hours and not say a word.
Gene was quickly followed by four other witnesses—neighbors mostly—who testified that for a long time Bertha had been nervous and excitable. There was no attempt to refute the prosecution. This was a different game.
Five doctors paraded to the stand and all of them said that they had examined Bertha in her cell and were convinced beyond any doubt that she was insane.
The prosecutor then pulled off the biggest surprise of the trial. He called two psychiatrists (the defense witnesses had all been general practitioners). The courtroom hushed; here was the rebuttal. But both psychiatrists—back then they were often called “alienists”—stated that Bertha was undoubtedly and incurably mad. Prosecutor Jenny followed his witnesses with a summation urging the jury to find the defendant insane but not set her free. He was either an overnight convert or the whole trial had been carefully scripted. Take your pick. The result is the same.
The jury was out three hours. (It would have been three minutes but one old farmer kept demanding an eye for an eye no matter what the damned doctors said. He was finally beaten down.) The jurymen found that Bertha had killed Ed Brinley but had been insane at the time and was still insane. She was committed to State Hospital Number Four in Farmington.
THE TRIAL REVEALED nothing. But it was good theatre and it served its purpose. The growth had been removed. And what had been feared as malignant and violent was now perceived as almost benign. (One of the doctors stated that Bertha probably killed because she wanted to do good, end suffering, send souls to heaven.) A neat, surgical ending. No reputations were seriously damaged and no one was left alone to hold the bag. Not even a little black bag.
The local paper didn’t give much space to the trial. It just ran selected excerpts from the St. Louis papers and let it go at that. Too dangerous to print its own stories. Too many big toes could be stepped on. The doctors and druggists and undertakers and editors all had to live together. All in the same town.
During the years that followed, the people in Catawissa heard about Bertha from time to time. There was one family with a relative in Farmington and during visits they sometimes saw Bertha. She was working in the hospital’s beauty shop, she told them. But why was she there at all, she asked. What had she done? A few years later she told them she’d been transferred to the kitchen, made a cook.
Once in a while Gene dropped by to see old friends and they heard he was keeping company with a woman in Eureka. “Boy,” they said, “bet Bertha would love to cook up a mess of food for her.” And everyone would laugh. Almost everyone.
Bertha Gifford spent nearly 23 years in Farmington. She died there on August 20, 1951. Gene arranged to have her body brought to Pacific for a very private funeral. She is buried in Morse Mill cemetery. Her grave is unmarked. The undertaker’s records show that the service and burial cost $266.69 and that Gene put down $166.69. The balance is marked “unpaid.”
It will stay that way. Gene died in 1957 and took all the answers with him. He never said a mumblin’ word.