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A True Franklin County Horror Story

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Posted: Monday, October 24, 2005 12:00 am

Bertha — wearing a starched white dress and carrying her "doctor's" bag — came saying she wanted to help care for the little girl.

Mrs. Kober would have no part of it. She knew of Bertha's track record — everyone she "cared" for died suddenly complaining of stomach pains.

When Bertha was turned away by Mrs. Kober, she tried to insist on coming in. Mrs. Kober eventually had to chase her down the road with a broomstick.

Laura McKeever laughs when she imagines what that scene must have looked like — her 4-foot, 10-inch tall grandmother chasing Bertha off their property back in the 1920s.

But there's nothing funny about it. Had her grandmother not run Bertha off, McKeever likely wouldn't be here today because Bertha would have poisoned her mother, just as she did to more than a dozen people living around Franklin County.

The story of how Bertha Gifford was able to carry out her crimes and get away with them for so long is bizarre, to say the least. What's equally as curious is that she is one of the most infamous criminals in the history of Franklin County, but so few people living here today have heard anything about the case.

There are, however, a few who know the name Bertha Gifford all too well.

No photos of Bertha could be found for this article — it's said she didn't like having her photo taken.

However a description of Bertha in an old newspaper story said she dyed her hair black, wore rouge on her cheeks, was on the plump side and well-dressed — attractive for a woman in her 50s.

Sometime after Henry was buried, Bertha married Eugene Gifford and the couple moved to Catawissa.

They first lived in what's often referred to as "the tin house" just across the railroad tracks. A few years later they moved to a white farmhouse on "The Bend Road" along the Meramec River.

Both are still standing, although the tin house was burned in a fire a few years ago. Today the white farmhouse is better known as "The Catawissa Mystery House," said Houseman. It's where Bertha poisoned nine of her victims.

Perhaps poisoning her first husband is what gave Bertha the thrill that sparked her killing spree. Her motives for the murders are unclear.

There is no pattern to her killings, noted Houseman. Her victims ranged in age from 15 months to 72 years or more. They were neighbors, friends, even relatives.

She is said to have killed a young niece using candy coated with arsenic, said Houseman. Others who died under Bertha's care included her mother-in-law Emilie Gifford, who died in the Gifford home in 1912, her 13-year-old brother-in-law James Gifford, who died in the Gifford home in 1913, her husband's uncle Sherman Pounds, his 3-year-old granddaughter, Beulah Pounds, and several nonrelatives like Bertha Unnerstall, hired hand James Ogle, Elmer and Lloyd Schamel and Ed Brinley.

The youngest victim was 15-month-old Bernard Stuhlfelder.

According to a newspaper article from the times, "Franklin County authorities remain in the dark as to Mrs. Gifford's motives for the murders. In several of the six deaths preceding the three which Mrs. Gifford takes blame for, the Giffords benefited financially it is understood. But no question of money or property figured in the deaths of the two Schamel boys or of Ed Brinley."

At her trial in 1928, Bertha was declared insane by a jury of her peers and sent to live in an asylum. Her death certificate from 1951 lists her mental state as "Paranoid Praecox Psychosis," or schizophrenia.

By her own account, Bertha admitted she gave people arsenic "to quiet their pains."

In Her Own Words

By the time Bertha was arrested, the Giffords had moved near Eureka. She was arrested on a Saturday morning in 1928 following her indictment on two charges of first degree murder — of Elmer Schamel and E.P. Brinley. She was taken to Clayton where she signed a statement admitting her crimes:

"I, Bertha Gifford, wife of E.B. Gifford, now living near Eureka, Mo., hereby state of my own free will without threat or promise of immunity, that my husband and I lived on the Nicholson place near Catawissa about Aug. 8, 1925, when George Shamel brought his son Lloyd, 8 or 9 years old, and his son, Elmer John, about 7, to our house where he and they made their home with us.

"Lloyd was sick at the time. Dr. Hemker waited on him and left some medicine for him. I put some arsenic in the medicine before I gave it to him, and Lloyd died on or about Aug. 11, 1925."

Just over a month later when Elmer took sick, the doctor came, left medicine and Bertha again added arsenic before giving it the boy.

Then in May 1927, Ed Brinley stopped by the Gifford home and never left.

"About May 15, 1927," Bertha's statement reads, "Edward Brinley, about 48 years old, drove up to our house in an old Ford. He was drunk. He came in, sat down for a little while, then got up and went out and fell down on the concrete walk.

"My husband went out and brought him in and I fixed the bed for him . . . I called Dr. Hemker. He left some medicine for him, and I put arsenic in the medicine.

"In all three cases, the patients were suffering from severe pains in the stomach, and I put arsenic in their medicine to quiet their pains."

Mr. Shamel — Elmer and Lloyd's father — told a local newspaper at the time of Bertha's trial, "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 stomachache. 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."

Over the years many people suspected Bertha of killing the people she cared for, but apparently no one wanted to accuse her publicly, said Houseman.

"Eugene Gifford was a successful farmer," he noted. "Everyone knew the Giffords."

Trial Lasted Three Days

Bertha's trial was held at the Franklin County Courthouse in Union with Judge Ransom A. Breuer presiding. The prosecuting attorney was Frank W. Jenny, defense attorneys were James Booth of Pacific, and W.L. Cole.

The jury included Charles J. Moje, Robert Krattli, George Fries, George Koelling, Anthony Struckhoff, William Wildhaber, F.W. Kamper, Edward Klemm, August A. Goers, J.F. Landwehr, August Berghorn and A.F. Lefmann.

According to a newspaper story from the time, "Interest in the case is nationwide and stories of the trial are being carried in all of the great newspapers of the country."

Once the trial started, it lasted only three days, said Houseman. In the end she was tried for poisoning just three of her victims — Brinley and the two Schamel brothers. Their three bodies had to be exhumed to collect evidence of arsenic poisoning, Houseman noted.

Bertha had purchased arsenic from a pharmacy in Pacific on a number of occasions claiming she needed it to kill rats that were bothering her chickens.

The verdict of not guilty but insane sent Bertha to "an asylum for the insane" in Farmington for the rest of her life.

She died in 1951 and is buried in an unmarked grave at Soul Sleepers Cemetery in her hometown of Morse Mill. Descendants say she is buried in between the graves of her two husbands, said Houseman, noting that puts her surrounded by the graves of about eight of her victims.

A Most Rare Serial Killer

In researching the story of

Bertha Gifford, Houseman has been fascinated for a number of reasons.

"Statistically Bertha Gifford is among the most rare type of serial killers," he said. "Women comprise only 10 percent of serial killers and only 6 percent are past their 30s when the killings take place.

"Also, it is extremely unusual for a serial killer to be found not guilty by reason of insanity, as was Bertha.

"Even if we want to believe that Bertha was insane when she killed all of these people, we must remember that her first victim — her first husband — was killed for purely selfish reasons.

"In a sensationalistic sort of way, Bertha Gifford's story is the most macabre and disturbing in the history of Franklin County, yet surprisingly few people have ever heard of her," said Houseman. "It's like an extremely bad soap opera, only it's true!"

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