The story of Bertha Gifford, the Franklin County woman who was charged with poisoning people with arsenic and tried in 1928 at the courthouse in Union, will be part of the new series, “Deadly Women,” on the Investigation Discovery Channel.
Marc Houseman, director of the Washington Historical Society Museum, who has given many talks about Gifford over the years, was interviewed for the series about eight months ago.
Houseman was notified this week the episode on Gifford was scheduled to run this Friday, July 19, at 10 p.m.
People can consult the Discovery website if there is a change in schedule at http://investigation.discovery.com/tv-shows/deadly-women.
Houseman said Gifford’s story has become rather famous in recent years, and she was the subject of a story on the “Ghost Hunters” program.
Investigation Discovery Channel interviewed Houseman at the museum here.
“They also filmed others, including Bertha Gifford’s great-granddaughter, S. Kay Murphy, who has written a book about her discovery of the story of her ancestor,” he said.
Houseman said Gifford was born in Morse Mill in Jefferson County in the 1870s.
“Her claim to fame is that she was known as the ‘angel of mercy’ or basically, a good Samaritan, who was known for helping to care for sick relatives and neighbors,” he said.
For reasons forever unknown, Houseman said she began poisoning her “patients” with arsenic.
“By the time anyone was bold enough to formally accuse her — to the authorities — she had killed perhaps as many as 20 people over a 22-year period, roughly 1906-1928,” he said.
Gifford was charged with first-degree murder involving the deaths of only three people — Ed Brinley, her husband’s best friend and farmhand, and Elmer and Lloyd Schamel, two young brothers who were distantly related to her.
Houseman said Gifford was arrested in 1928, after living about 16 years in Catawissa, and her trial, held in Union, drew an estimated 1,000 onlookers.
“The story spread literally nationwide and has been repeated in newspapers, true-crime magazines and books ever since,” he said. “Mrs. Gifford was found not guilty, by reason of insanity, and ordered committed to the state’s insane asylum in Farmington where she lived the remaining 23 years of her life.”
She died in 1951 from complications of a stroke, he noted.
“Her mental disease was diagnosed, in modern terms, as paranoid schizophrenia,” said Houseman, who first started “digging for information” on the then-obscure Gifford about seven years ago.
“At the museum here, we have presented her story to packed houses on many occasions and most recently, about three weeks ago at the Scenic Regional Library in Pacific,” he said. “In October, I’ll be presenting her story at Scenic Regional in Union and again here at the museum for our Evening at the Museum.
“Bertha’s descendant, Kay and I have become very close friends and Kay comes to Missouri from California annually for us to catch up on our findings and travel to the sites pertinent to the story,” he added.
Houseman said today, thanks mostly to the Internet, her story has been rediscovered by many who are interested in the details.
“Or whether or not her ghost haunts her former home,” he said.
In its promotions of the “Deadly Women” series, the Investigation Discovery Channel states that “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, especially when she’s on a mission to murder.”
Through dramatized reconstructions, the series investigates the driving force behind female thrill killers, and has experts sift forensic fact from fanciful fiction. Former FBI agent and profiler Candice DeLong offers insights into the psychology of female killers, while Dr. Janis Amatuzio, a Midwest forensic pathologist known as “The Compassionate Coroner,” provides expert commentary on the tell-tale evidence that deadly women leave behind.