Ozarks History

Information and comments about historical people and events of the Ozarks region and surrounding area.

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I'm a freelance writer specializing in the history of the Ozarks and surrounding region. I've written fifteen nonfiction books, two historical novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are Bushwhacker Belles, Wicked Women of Missouri, and Yanked Into Eternity: Lynchings and Hangings in Missouri.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Mass Murderer Bertha Gifford

I wrote briefly about Bertha Gifford on this blog a few years ago, but since I've included her in my latest book, Wicked Women of Missouri, I'm going to write about her again, this time a little more extensively. What follows is condensed from a chapter in the book.
Twenty-two-year-old Bertha Williams was said to be one of the prettiest girls in Jefferson County, Missouri, when Henry Graham married her in 1894. Ten years later, though, their marriage hit the rocks. According to later rumors, Henry started carrying on with another woman, but Bertha, still a beautiful woman, wasted little time pining over her husband’s infidelity. Instead, she started spending time with Eugene Gifford, a young man ten years her junior, and he fell under her spell and broke off his engagement to another young woman.
The Graham marital drama came to an abrupt halt when Henry suddenly took sick and died of pneumonia. Then, in 1907, after a respectable mourning period, Bertha married Gene Gifford, and the couple moved to Catawissa in neighboring Franklin County, just far enough away to escape the gossip of Morse Mill.
Gifford became a successful farmer in the Big Bend area north of Catawissa, and Bertha, who fed the hired hands, became noted for her cooking. She also cared for her neighbors whenever they took sick and soon gained a reputation as a respected country nurse.
From 1912 through the early 1920s, a number of her patients, including several children, died from unknown causes, but few people, if any, thought the deaths suspicious. That changed though, when seven-year-old Lloyd Schamel and his six-year-old brother, Elmer, died within six weeks of each other in 1925 while under Bertha’s care. The deaths aroused the suspicions of Dr. W.H. Hemker, who was summoned in both cases when the boys were already beyond help. He recommended an autopsy after Elmer died, but the boy’s father did not agree to the procedure. Deciding not to press the issue, Dr. Hemker wrote “acute unknown disease” and “acute gastritis” on Elmer’s death certificate, wording similar to what he had written on the death certificates of several of Bertha’s previous patients.
After the Schamel boys’ deaths, Bertha’s neighbors started whispering about possible foul play, and some even wrote anonymous letters to Franklin County prosecuting attorney Frank Jenny urging an investigation, but no official action was taken. Then in May of 1927, yet another of Bertha’s patients, forty-nine-year-old Ed Brinley, died at her home under mysterious circumstances. The death renewed Dr. Hemker’s suspicions, but he and a second doctor, whom Hemker had called in on the case, could not agree on a cause of death. Hemker again ended up writing “acute unknown disease” and “acute gastritis” on the death certificate.
After Brinley’s death, though, the tongues of Catawissa started wagging again, and the prosecutor received more letters urging an investigation. A St. Louis newspaperman arrived on the scene and, after talking to people around Catawissa, wrote a story naming at least five people who had died mysteriously while under Bertha Gifford’s care. In November of 1927, the prosecutor finally ordered a grand jury to look into Brinley’s death. Bertha reportedly “scared off the investigation” by threatening libel suits against anyone who testified against her, and the jury failed to indict her.
Not long afterward, Bertha and Gene moved to neighboring St. Louis County, but her former neighbors kept up the pressure on Prosecutor Jenny, who summoned another grand jury in August of 1928. After hearing testimony that Bertha Gifford had often purchased arsenic at a Pacific drugstore, several times just prior to the death of one of her patients, the jury indicted her for first degree murder in the poisoning deaths of Elmer Schamel and Ed Brinley. A charge of murdering Lloyd Schamel was later added to the indictment, and during the subsequent investigation, Bertha was implicated in at least seventeen deaths going all the way back to her first husband. She was charged only for the last three deaths, though, and she was tried only in the case of Ed Brinley. In November 1928, a Franklin County Circuit Court jury found her not guilty by reason of insanity, and she was committed to the State Hospital at Farmington the following month. She died there in 1951.

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