Written By: Naomi
Trigger Warning: Child Death
In Morse Mill, Missouri between October 1871 to October 1872 (Depending on the reference) a girl named Bertha Alice Williams was born to William Poindecter Williams and his wife Matilda Lee. Bertha was one of 10 children William and Matilda produced. In her early years she was considered the most beautiful girl of Meremec Valley and highly sought after.
She moved to Catawissa, Missouri in her early 20’s and married Henry Graham, taking his last name, and had a daughter named Lila. They operated a hotel and farmed but over time the business became old and suddenly she became interested in a man seven years younger than her. It stirred up whispers of a scandal until Henry was also seen spending a lot of time with a “friend”. The marriage became bitter and dissolved into loud arguments. Not long after though her husband came down with pneumonia and she would stay by his side until he suddenly experienced pain in abdomen, had nausea and vomiting and passed away at the age of 34. After Grahams death Bertha waited a respectful amount of time, collected the insurance and marries the man she had been seeing while she had been with her husband, Eugene Gifford. He was a farmer and carpenter, he and Bertha have a child named James and she took Eugene's last name making her Bertha Alice Williams Graham Gifford, or Bertha Gifford for short and what she would be called by the papers and police later. Eugene had been considered popular and was very well liked but after marrying Bertha many people noted that he changed, before they had gotten married Eugene had been engaged and broke it off to be with Bertha.
She was really well known in her community for her cooking and willingness to help sick neighbors or relatives. She was known to be ready at any hour and leave her farmhouse known as the “Catawissa House of Mystery” by locals and attend to anyone within a 20 mile radius. Eagerly she would even leave her bed at night, put on the nurse uniform she had ready on the back of a chair at all times and take her horse and buggy, or when they became more available, she would take her car through any weather to the homes of those who needed her. She is said to have even arrived at the homes of patients before even the doctor.
Bertha was never a trained nurse, only having a 3rd grade education, but was a volunteer nurse that doctors noted could perform the job well, able to keep charts of temperature and nourishment as well as had an understanding of symptoms and drugs which allowed her to administer medicine at her discretion. She would make her own concoctions or potions for treating muscle sprains and aches carrying them with her when she made her sick bed visits.
If her patients were on their deathbed she was known to be kind and comforting to the very end, shedding tears and saying prayers for them. She would never ask the families for any sort of payment for her services. Bertha was dedicated to her patients and their families even after death, she only ever missing one funeral. When she could attend she would take control of the entire funeral to ensure everything was done right and had even paid for one to be embalmed when the family could not afford it.
Women in the community found the correlation strange first before the men in the community did, saying it was odd whenever the nurse, “plunks herself down in a sick-room, the patient never gets well.” Accounts vary but based off information from families and historians there was a total of 17 people who died under her care over 21 years, most being children.
Suspicion was not high enough for anyone to act until Ed Brinley who had been brought to Bertha's home after passing out against her mail post from drinking died, the 9th in the home and the 17th death overall in Bertha’s care. This was a concerning death since people were noticing a pattern in symptoms before death so an investigation was requested for the death. When Bertha was questioned she claimed that the deaths were the result of gastritis caused by a rural habit of having the biggest meal of the day in the middle of the day rather than in the evening and then working causing stress on the stomach and digestive tract. This convinced physicians and they issues death certificates with that as the cause.
Thankfully, one doctor was not fooled. Dr. James Stewart, the State Health Commissioner, had records or the areas drugstores reviewed and found that Bertha was a regular and often bought arsenic rat poison which showed similar symptoms to gastritis when ingested. Arsenic has no smell or taste so exposure often goes unnoticed until symptoms occur that include red or swollen skin, lesions, abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, abnormal heart rhythm, muscle cramps, and tingling of the fingers and toes. Some purchases being made right before the deaths being investigated since five deaths total were now being considered suspicious raising questions about the additional 12 deaths that had taken place under her care. In 1928 Bertha was arrested in Eureka, Missouri at the age of 53 and held in jail for three months before her trial where she was being charged of three murders. When she was brought before the jury she continued to claim innocence and was outraged that they would claim she had killed anyone intentionally, even claiming she would file a lawsuit against investigators for slandering her name. Trials where a huge deal for this town, tickets would be sold and schools closed so everyone could participate in festivities. There was a trial 20 years earlier that was also considered big and when the man was sentenced to death his hanging was put off until everyone that had bought tickets to see the execution had arrived and taken their seats, complete with a brass band.
It was not until this trial that the full extent of what she had done was exposed dating back to 1909 when her first husband Henry Graham died in the night from cramps before the doctor could arrive.
In 1913 Bertha claimed her next victim who was her new husband’s mother, Emilie Grifford, while she stayed with them in their home, in fact the very night she arrived is when she fell ill, the cause of death written off as a heart attack. Though she mourned at this death it was substantially less than she would at her later killings and was considered normal for the death of a mother-in-law. A year later her brother-in-law, 13 year old James Grifford, would pass out in her arms with the same symptoms of cramps and vomiting before dying, his cause of death was marked as whooping cough.
A father of three testified in court that Bertha had tended to his 15 month old Bernard, two year old Margaret, and seven year old Irene when they had pneumonia that suddenly turned into gastritis, killing them all. At the time had had felt gratitude for her attempts to heal them.
George Shamel, a man who worked in the Gifford home for 18 years also testified to the deaths of his two sons, citing that he had gone to the home with his nine year old son, Lloyd, and the f
ollowing day his son became ill of the stomach, dying two days later. No autopsy was done. Five weeks later the seven year old brother, Elmer, became sick also only living two days before dying, no autopsy done for him either. Barely a month after Elmer’s funeral Bertha found out George’s sister who had tuberculosis was falling ill, she of course rushed to tend her and it was no sooner that the woman was showing signs of improving and Bertha was being dismissed that she suddenly came down with stomach pains and died. The police at this time said that for being a nurse, Bertha resented those who tried to cheat death and get better, when they showed signs of recovery she would rather feed them rat poison. She was noted to be fascinated with death and would read newspapers looking for stories of fatal accidents or tragedies.
To those in the community though she was just considered unlucky but took a chance when 74 year old Mary Sluhlfelder fell ill, not surprisingly also dying from gastritis. Bertha would also go on to kill another old woman by the name of “Grandma” Birdie Unnerstall while her family was away.
James Ogle was owed money by The Giffords but they told him they could not pay, James became ill with Malaria and Bertha promised she would care for him, he suddenly had painful cramps that were believed to have been a side effect of the Malaria but he died after three days of suffering at the age of 52. The money the Giffords' claimed not to have arrived to his family just in time to pay for his funeral.
February 20th, 1917, 53 year old Sherman Pounds passed out in the Giffords pasture from drinking too much so Bertha had him carried into her home where she gave him something to “sober up”. When he passed Bertha told the doctor it was gastritis caused by alcoholism. There was no autopsy and a small funeral.
Bertha had taken care of 9 year old Mary Brown, when her mother testified about this death in court she noted that Bertha seemed annoyed that she was there tending to her ill daughter and sent her away to rest so she could be alone with the child. Bertha’s favorite patients and ones she would take on most often if she could were children and it is believed that this was because children would blindly trust her and take any medicine she would give them and not correct her if she did something different than what the doctor had instructed. When Bertha was with a patient she would take control of the household and demand things would be brought in and out of the room, people trusting that she knew what was best. But if the patient was a child she would notably approach the mother first and tell her to go rest, since she was there the child would be in good hands until morning and the mother would need to be well rested to take over for her in the morning. The mother would be relieved to hear this and would leave her helpless, sick child with the nurse all night without witnesses. She would wake the family in early morning hours saying the child had taken a turn for the worst and call the doctor but usually the child was too far gone, the family now in mourning and Bertha crying harder than any other.
Then came Ed Brinley who allowed this whole case to take place, having died merely two hours after he had been taken into Bertha’s home.
Throughout the case she continued to claim she was innocent but the police cheif noticed that she was exceptionally agitated when it was mentioned she might have killed a three year old named Beulah Pounds, she was the granddaughter of Sherman Pounds who had died 5 years earlier under Bertha’s care and the cousin of her husband Eugene. He questioned her relentlessly until she snapped saying, “Well, anyway, I did not give any arsenic to that Pounds child.”
She then quietly would admit to killing Ed Brinley and the Schamel brothers, perhaps a few others, but that she had done so out of mercy wanting to put the children out of their misery.
The bodies of Ed Brinley, Elmer and Lloyd Schamel were exhumed and tests showed large quantities of arsenic in their systems, enough to kill several adults. For the rest of her trial her main goal was to avoid having her picture taken by the press. Psychologists were brought in to evaluate her, at this time the term for them were “Alienists”, and they stated that Bertha was completely and incurably mad. For the three counts of murder she was charged with she was found not guilty by reason of insanity. She was committed to the Missouri State Hospital #4 where she would cower in her cell and use a blanket to hide herself. If she heard children playing in the halls she would burst into tears, even expressing she had no will to live. She remained in the hospital for 23 years until she died in 1951. Her husband never spoke during or after her trial or took sides. Years later he would visit a woman in town and many joked that if Bertha knew she would likely have killed her too.
The high mortality rates for this time and the use of arsenic as medicine leaves many people uncertain if she had purposefully killed these people or if it was a product of the times. She is considered one of America’s first female serial killers
Bertha’s Granddaughter is a woman named S. Kay Murphy who is a journalist and has written a memoir titled The Tainted Legacy of Bertha Gifford where she explores the history of her grandmother and if she was actually a killer.